Ensnared Page 2

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Morpheus always says that everyone has a weakness. If he were here, he would tell me to find hers, so when I face her again I can crush her.

I intend to do just that.

The carpet beetle’s vacuum whines, muffling the arguing, sneezing, and shushing going on around me. I lean back and look up at the chandeliers made of fireflies—each half the size of my arm—bound together by brass harnesses and chains. The glowing insects dip and dive, painting brushstrokes of yellow light across the red velvet walls. I tilt my head and stare out the window. More firefly fixtures illuminate the darkness, rolling across the tunnel’s ceiling like glittery Ferris wheels.

I suppress a yawn. I’m exhausted, but too keyed up to close my eyes. I can’t seem to settle in time and place. Just yesterday, I was at a table in the asylum’s sun-filled courtyard, tricking my dad into eating a mushroom that would shrink him. That seems like an eternity ago, but not nearly as long as it’s been since I’ve hugged Mom . . . argued with Morpheus . . . kissed Jeb. I miss Mom’s scent, how she smells after working in the garden—like overturned soil and flowers. I miss the way Morpheus’s jeweled eye markings flit through a rainbow of emotions when he challenges me, and I miss the arrested expression Jeb always used to wear when he painted.

The littlest things I once took for granted have become priceless treasures.

My stomach growls. Dad and I didn’t have breakfast, and my body tells me it’s lunchtime. I tuck my hand into the apron tied over my stiff, mud-caked hospital gown and roll the remaining mushrooms between my fingers. I’m hungry enough to consider eating one but won’t. The magic within that made us small enough to ride butterflies will make us big once we’re done here. I need to preserve them.

My outline reflects back from the windowpane: blue gown, white apron, frazzled blond hair with a streak of crimson down one side.

The first pixie was right. I’m the epitome of Alice.

A nightmare Alice.

An Alice gone mad, who thirsts for blood.

When I find Queen Red, she’ll beg me to stop at her head.

I snort at the silly rhyme, then sober as the beetle turns off his vacuum attachment. He straightens his black conductor hat and hobbles over on two of his six twiggy legs. The other two sets serve as arms, cradling a clipboard.

“Well?” I ask, looking up at him.

“I found three memories. From long ago, when she was young and unmarried. Before she was”—he looks around and lowers his voice to a whisper—“queen.”

“Perfect,” I answer. I start to stand but settle in my seat again as he pushes my shoulder with a spiny arm.

“First you ruin the one way back to Wonderland, making me a babysitter of dust bunnies and smelly pixies. Now you want I should endanger my life by showing you . . .”—he studies the passengers behind me, his crisscrossed mandibles trembling—“her private memories.” There’s a clicking sound surrounding his whisper, like snapping fingers.

I grind my teeth. “Since when do netherlings respect anyone’s privacy? That’s not in your code of ethics. In fact, most of you don’t know what ethics are.”

“I know all I need to know. I know that she’s not forgiving, that one.” He’s avoiding her name, keeping her anonymous.

I follow his lead. “She’ll never know you showed me.”

The conductor flips pages on his clipboard and scribbles something with his pen, stalling. “There’s another issue of concern,” he says louder this time. “The memories are repudiates.”

“What does that mean?”

“She wasn’t forced to forget. She chose to. Took a forgetting potion.”

“Even better,” I say. “She’s afraid of them for some reason. That’s to my advantage.”

The clicking sound grows as his mandibles quiver. “Ideally, you could use them as a weapon. Repudiated memories are tainted with volatile emotional magic. They want revenge against the one who made and discarded them. But you would have to carry them to her, keeping them dormant in your mind. Being a half-blood, you aren’t strong enough.”

I bristle at his condescension. “Mortals have their own way of making memories dormant. They write them down so the past doesn’t preoccupy their thoughts. All I need is a journal.”

He holds his pen an inch from my nose. “That won’t work with enchanted memories, lessen your book is filled with enchanted paper to bind them. Sadly, I’ve ne’er heard of such a magic journal. You?”

I glare in silence.

“I thought not.” The beetle taps my nose with the pen’s tip.

Snarling, I snatch it away and shove it in my pocket, daring him to get it back.

“Fool girl. When repudiated memories nest inside a mind, they become like earworms, playing over and over to a painful degree. Best-case scenario, they cause you to sympathize with your prey so you’re worthless against them. Worst case, you’re driven to madness. Are you willing to risk losing so much?”

I rub my hands along my bent knees, then tuck the excess material of my hospital gown under my hips. No matter how terrifying it is to imagine someone else’s hostile memories eating away my mind, finding Red’s weakness is the only way to defeat her.

“I’ve already lost everything and I’ve already gone mad.” I meet his bulbous gaze. “Need a demonstration?”

Multiple eyelids flick across his compound eyes. Bugs aren’t supposed to have eyelids or lashes, but this isn’t a typical bug. He’s a looking-glass insect, or reject, depending on if you choose Carroll’s terminology or the carpet beetle’s.

The beetle was swallowed by tulgey wood and turned away at AnyElsewhere’s gate. He was then coughed back up as a mutant. Which is exactly what almost happened to Jeb and Morpheus. Thankfully, they were accepted into the looking-glass world, although the thought of them alone there opens a whole new level of horror. Morpheus won’t be able to use his magic because of the iron dome, and Jeb is only human. How does either of them stand a chance in a land of murderous, exiled netherlings?

A silent scream of frustration burns inside my lungs.

I lower my voice so only the conductor can hear. “I used to collect insects. I’d pin them to corkboards. Had them plastered all over my walls. I’ve been thinking of taking it up again. Maybe you’d like to be my first piece.”

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