Ensnared Page 22

“I said return to your bed of ash.” He prods the rock with his walking stick. “You’ve no call to chase me down unless I’ve beckoned you.”

I cock my head. Holding out an arm, I stare through it. I’m still invisible. Morpheus doesn’t know I’m here. He’s been talking to the rock all along. I stand as quietly as I can and stretch my aching muscles.

“We just w-w-wondered”—the rock responds to Morpheus from a mouth that appears beneath the white, dusty surface—“has our most g-gracious king considered our r-request to help us get our eggs back?”

“That’s our only question,” about thirty smaller rocks pipe in, powdery lips flapping. “If you’ll save our eggs.”

“Let us put this in perspective.” Morpheus lifts his wings over his craggy audience. “You were the ones who carelessly lost your eggs, leaving them unattended so you could take a swim in a temporary ocean. Now, I said I would consider helping you. Consideration, by definition, is evaluating facts and meditating on the outcome. That takes time. Even hardheaded scuttlers such as yourselves can understand that. I came here today for solitude, a rare commodity when one’s own shadow is always at his back. At last I’ve found a sunless spot, the perfect place for meditation. So, off with you.”

The rocks stand their ground. Using the clawed tip of the cane, Morpheus nudges one that has rolled too close.

“Perhaps your brains have fossilized,” he grumbles. “Do you truly wish to cross the only one with magic enough to grind your eggs to dust?”

Purple light trembles at the ends of Morpheus’s fingers where they meet the cane. The static descends along the shaft and then leaps from the lions’ paws to the ground like violet lightning.

I slap a hand over my mouth, too late to muffle my gasp.

Morpheus’s muscles tense and he looks over his shoulder, but the rocks catch his attention again.

“Oh, no. We never w-w-want our eggs to be crushed,” the largest stony creature answers. “P-p-please.” Six lobsterlike legs and two beady eyes burst with a pop from its body. The other rocks follow suit, freeing their limbs and eyes, reminding me of the rock lobster in Carroll’s tale.

Whimpering, the rocks scuttle backward in a wave to avoid the magical, crackling glow creeping toward them from Morpheus’s hands and cane. Their front pincers snip at the ashes, throwing a white haze across the streaks of violet magic.

I squint. So Morpheus is the one flaunting his powers under the iron dome? That’s better than it being Red, but how is he using his magic without being warped by it? Is it the iron that’s made his magic purple instead of blue?

“Please!” the rock lobsters plead in unison.

“Well enough,” Morpheus says, reeling in the enchanted strands along the walking stick’s shaft until they disappear into his fingertips. “Leave your king to his consideration. Once a decision has been made, I will call for you. Are we clear?”

“Yes, c-c-crystal.” The largest rock’s color drains away until he’s almost transparent, as if he’s made of crystal himself. His shell is like a pearl shimmering under the orange sky. The smaller pearlescent rocks follow him, scuttling up the hill and burying themselves in the ash piles until they’re as covert as me.

“Cursed realm,” Morpheus says. He stands the cane on its four paws and drags some gloves from his pocket to slide them on. “Everyone and everything wants a piece of the royal pie. Even the landscape has an agenda.”

I bite back a smile. He’s exactly the same as when he was taken—narcissistic, disarmingly snarky, and clever. I’m glad he’s found a way to rule the creatures here. Even if his powers have caused unrest among the prisoners and trouble for Dad’s relatives, at least they’ve kept him alive.

He turns to leave, stroking the feathers on his cane as he walks.

I fumble to peel the simulacrum from my face and hands, but it clings to my sweaty skin. I drop my palms to my sides, concentrating on my clothes. Maybe if I envision what I’m wearing underneath, it will reverse the magic that made me invisible.

“Morpheus, wait.” My voice is weak and comes out as a whisper. Still, it stops him in his tracks.

Silence . . . all but his sharp intake of breath. Ash sifts under his feet as he swivels on his heel. I hold out my palm to him, transparent with a vaguely discernible outline.

“Someone there?” Morpheus narrows his eyes.

A hand clenches my shoulder from behind. Felt, but not seen. “Allie.” Dad’s whisper grazes my ear. “Don’t show yourself.”

I grip his hand back, relieved he’s safe. Before I can respond, the ground shakes, coming apart like puzzle pieces. Dad’s arm tightens around me and we both teeter in place. In an instant, the terrain has shifted and cracked. Water burbles through the broken seams, filling the rivulets between us. Tiny geysers spurt up—the size of a drinking fountain’s stream.

The trees, the hill, Morpheus, me and Dad, we’re all afloat on our own miniature islands.

Hot, balmy air blows in gusts, the humidity rising.

“Blast it,” Morpheus mumbles, wings splayed low to stabilize the fragment of land under his feet. He lifts his face to the sky as it darkens to gray. “Really?” He yells to no one in particular. “Geysers? Is this your idea of a joke?”

I scoot my foot next to Dad’s, balancing on our own floating island, trying to make sense of Morpheus’s tirade. A mechanical whir stirs overhead as a flock of giant birds comes into view. Instead of using their wings, they hold on to lacy parasols in bright floral prints that spin to give the birds lift. Each one looks like a monstrous Mary Poppins soaring across the sky. On their descent, the parasols invert, and the bird creatures crash into the water. The spray sinks through the simulacrum and my clothes, hot on my skin.

Most of the birds abandon their umbrella contraptions, using their beaks for leverage to drag their steaming, feathery bodies ashore. A few carry their parasols with them.

Though some resemble ducks, others eaglets and ospreys, they’re all hideously deformed: the size of gorillas, with four furry arms and hands connected to two sets of wings. Their backs are gnarled and twisted, causing them to gimp when they walk.

Dad draws me closer. Our floating island seesaws as three birds hobble by on ostrichlike legs. The stench of scalded, wet feathers makes me gag. Something tells me they wouldn’t notice us even if we were visible, because their sights are set on Morpheus.

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