The Wicked Will Rise Page 29

The real person I was doing this for was me.

In my old life, I had been picked on by Madison Pendleton, taken advantage of by my mother, and ignored by pretty much everyone else. Because I had never been special. I had never been powerful.

When I’d dreamed of getting away from Kansas, what I’d really wanted was to find a place I could matter. Where I could be someone, and have a purpose.

Now I had found the place where I belonged. Yeah, it might have been nice if it had been a fairyland with fewer problems—someplace a little harder to mistake for a nightmare—but on the other hand, the more I settled into this nightmare, the more I began to realize that the insanity of the place was what gave me this feeling of purpose that I’d never had before.

Before Oz, I’d never been needed by anyone other than my mother, and apparently I wasn’t even much of a help to her. Oz, though, I could try to fix, and I was going to.

Some people spend their whole lives searching for the one thing that they can do to say, I changed the world. I had found that thing. I might not be able to accomplish it, but I was going to die trying. So call me selfish.

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t scared. I tried not to think about what else was out there in the woods, in the dark, beyond the glow cast by my fire. The jungle might not have been the Lion’s domain anymore, but there were still monsters who lived here, and they didn’t need the King of Beasts to tell them I would make a delicious snack.

Lions, tigers, bears. None of those really bothered me. It was the thought of things I wouldn’t even be able to put a name to.

It wasn’t just an abstract fear of creepy-crawlies. Ever since we’d left the monkeys’ treetop village, I’d had the sensation that we weren’t alone. I couldn’t quite place the feeling, or give any evidence to prove my suspicion was right. But I could feel a lurking, heavy presence somewhere just over my shoulder, creeping behind me through the trees, almost close enough to reach out and grab me.

At first, I told myself it was just my imagination, but after an hour of walking, I heard a telltale crunch of branches and a faint, wheezing grunt.

I spun around and shone my flame up and down in the dark, but the only movement I saw was a giant spider half skittering up the trunk of a tree to take cover from the light.

There was a time when just that would have been enough to have me running for my life. Now it was nothing.

I knew in my gut that there was something else, though. Call it magical insight or just good old Kansas intuition. There was something bigger, badder, something dangerous. It had been stalking us this whole time.

I tried to shift my focus, the way I’d done earlier in the day, trying to see if whatever was out there was using magic to hide. But nothing revealed itself except for the vague shimmer of energy that coated everything in Oz. And considering how jumpy I was feeling right now, I couldn’t be sure that even that was anything other than my overactive imagination.

Ozma had noticed that I was hanging back, and had looped around to join me. She looked at me curiously and gazed out at the forest.

“Mommy,” she said. A slow smile spread across her face. And then, more urgently, she repeated it: “Mommy!”

Between her demented smile and the flickering light on her face, she looked like a horrible, beautiful jack-o’-lantern.

Mommy. Was she talking to me? Was she trying to say Mombi? Or was it something else? None of the options really reassured me. I put a finger to my lips, and Ozma narrowed her eyes and nodded as if she understood.

Without any further warning, I let the flame in my hand extinguish. Everything went black, and I was already a shadow, effortlessly sinking into the in-between place I’d somehow learned to unlock over the past few days, then I was back, myself again, ten paces behind the place where I’d started.

I couldn’t waste any time; I had to move before our pursuer figured out what I was doing. In one swift motion, I stabbed my knife into the air and brought it down in a crackling arc that lit the whole forest for a split second, as if I’d just set off a flashbulb.

But that split second was enough: I saw it. The thing that had been following us was crouched menacingly behind a tree, its shoulders heavy and muscular. It spun its head toward me, and I saw its yellow eyes staring back at me in two thin, yellow slits.

A chill went up my spine as I thought of the cloaked figures I’d seen in my dream last night.

But those had been witches, and when this thing rose up onto its hind legs, I knew that it was not a witch. It was a monster.

An enormous ball of orange fire was already bursting forth from my outstretched palm, and before I could see my flame hit the target, I was teleporting straight for where I’d seen it hiding.

When I reappeared, I expected to hear whatever it was screaming as it burned. But I’d gotten cocky. When I materialized, there were no screams, my fire had already extinguished itself, and I couldn’t see anything in the blackness.

Hopefully that meant it couldn’t see me either. Instead of trying to light things up, I decided I would try to use the dark to my advantage, and I mumbled a few words to cast a simple amplification spell. This way, even if I couldn’t see my attacker, I’d be able to hear it.

I listened, turning in a careful, clockwise circle, until I had picked out the creature’s thumping heartbeat and labored breathing.

I came up with nothing and stumbled forward.

Suddenly, before I’d recovered my balance, a flying ball of muscle hit me out of nowhere like a bag of bricks. I grunted loudly and, instead of falling, let my body roll into a sideways somersault, and then flipped easily back to my feet.

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