The Wicked Will Rise Page 2

Not that I really did trust the Order entirely. But trust was almost beside the point. I was one of them, whether I liked it or not. And while I trusted some of them more than others, I had left all of them back there.

Mombi. Glamora.

The people who had saved me, who had taught me to fight; to be strong.

Nox. The person who had forced me to become who I was now.

They were still back there in the flames, and I was flying away. It was impossible not to feel like I had failed them. I’d had one job to do, and I’d messed it up completely.

“We can’t leave,” I said to Ollie for the fifth time since we’d left the ground, my voice hoarse and tired, my legs sore from where he was clutching me tight. I was gripping his fur even tighter. (I’m not afraid of a lot, but I’ve never liked heights. At least it was better going up than down.) “We have to go back to the city.”

I had to say it, even knowing it was no use—that there was no turning around.

“I told you,” Ollie said in the same weary tone of resigned finality he’d had the first four times.

“I can’t just let them die,” I pleaded. “They’re my friends.”

Once upon a time—how long ago had it even been?—Ollie had owed me his life. But there were lots of once upon a times in this place, and he and I were even now. I think.

“You can’t die,” Ollie said firmly. “And that’s what will happen if we go back there. You’ll die. They’ll die. Oz will die. This is the only way.”

“Your friends know how to protect themselves,” Maude said. “They’ll find us in the North where it’s safer.”

“North, south, east, and west,” Ozma burbled uselessly in a tuneless warble. “No such thing as backward.”

I sighed, ignoring her. I knew that Ollie and Maude were right. But my last glimpse of Nox back in the city kept flashing through my mind: his dark, always-messy hair, his broad shoulders and skinny, sinewy arms. The determined tilt of his jaw, and that look of almost arrogant pride. The anger that was always coiled deep in his chest finally ready to burst out and strike down everything that stood in his way, all of it to save Oz, the home that he loved.

No, not just that. To save me, too.

I had learned so much from him. He’d taught me who I was. Now I might not ever see him again, and there was nothing I could do about it.

“Where are we going?” I asked flatly. Now the burning city was just a tiny orange dot in the vast blackness below us, and then it was gone as if it had never existed.

“To the North,” Ollie grunted. “To the Queendom of the Wingless Ones. Now don’t you think you should try to get some rest?”

I didn’t really blame him for not wanting to talk. It had been a long and confusing night. But I had so many questions that I barely knew where to start.

Among the biggest of all of those questions was Ozma. She looked perfectly comfortable, cradled in Maude’s arms where she was singing a little song to herself, the only one who didn’t seem bothered by anything that had happened tonight. As a gust of cool air hit us and carried us sailing higher into the sky, her hair whipped around her face and she gave a squeal of delight, like this was just a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair. Her green eyes were so bright that it almost seemed like they were lighting our way.

Ozma whooped, wriggling happily as Maude struggled to keep hold of her.

“Hold still, Your Highness,” Maude grumbled. “I can’t go dropping the daughter of Lurline, can I? Queen Lulu would never let me hear the end of it.”

Ozma frowned at the name. “I’m the queen,” she said with an edge of annoyance.

My eyes widened a little in surprise when she said it. Technically it was true—she was the queen. Technically. But Ozma had never quite been all there, and this was one of the first times I’d heard her say anything that actually sounded half-lucid. I studied her face, looking for signs of intelligent life, searching for any trace that remained of the kind, majestic ruler that I’d heard she’d been before Dorothy Gale of Kansas had worked her magic and wiped her brain.

As she blinked back at me, I only saw more puzzles. Who was she?

Was she the dim-witted queen who I’d seen back in the palace, wandering the halls like someone’s senile great-aunt? Was she the powerful descendant of fairies who had supposedly once been the best ruler Oz had ever had?

Or was she really Pete, the emerald-eyed stranger who had been the first person to greet me when I’d crash-landed in Oz; the kind-faced gardener who had risked himself to keep me company when I’d been a captive in Dorothy’s dungeon; the mystery boy who, at the wave of the Wizard’s hand, had transformed before my eyes into the dizzy, birdbrained princess babbling at my side?

Pete had been all of those people, somehow, and I’d just discovered that he and Ozma were one and the same. What did it all mean?

“Pete?” I asked. I had to believe that he was still in there somewhere. But Ozma simply looked at me sadly.

“Come on,” I said. “If you can hear me, Pete, talk to me.”

Ozma furrowed her brow at the name, and for a second I thought I saw a glimmer of recognition flickering behind her eyes. Was that him in there trying to get out? “Pete,” I said again. “It’s me. Amy Gumm. Remember?”

“I once knew a girl named Amy,” Ozma said, her eyes glazing over again. With that, her jaw slackened back into an expression of placid boredom. She blinked twice and covered her perfect red mouth with a delicate hand, laughing at a private joke.

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