The Wicked Will Rise Page 3

“There’s magic all around!” she said. “Oh my. The fairies know! I’m a fairy, too!”

I rolled my eyes and gave up, holding on for dear life as we flew higher and higher into the sky. When we passed through a thick cover of damp cotton-ball clouds, the black sky opened up like it was a stage and the curtain had just been raised.

The stars revealed themselves.

I already knew that the stars were different in Oz from the stars I’d known on earth, but from this vantage they were really different. They took my breath away.

For one thing, they weren’t a million miles away in space. They were right here and they were everywhere around us, close enough to reach out and touch. They were flat and five-pointed, none of them bigger than a dime; they reminded me of the glow-in-the-dark stickers I’d taped to the ceiling of my bedroom when I was just a little kid, before my dad had left and before my mom and I had moved to the trailer park. Almost, but not quite: these stars were brighter and sparklier and cold to the touch. Rather than being fixed in the sky, they were moving in a pattern that I couldn’t get a handle on—they were configuring and reconfiguring themselves into brand-new constellations right before my eyes.

“They never get old,” Maude said, sensing my awe. “As many times as you see them like this, they’re always a surprise. This is probably the last time I’ll see them,” she said sadly.

When I glanced into Ollie’s eyes, I saw that they were wide and filling with tears.

I looked at his paper wings, and wondered again how he had come to wear them. I know it sounds strange, but he had always been proud of being Wingless, proud that he’d been able to sacrifice the thing he loved most about himself in order to keep his freedom.

I decided to broach the subject as gently as I could. “Are you ever going to explain where exactly you got those?” I asked him.

“I told you,” he said tersely. “The Wizard gave them to us. They’re only temporary. But they were necessary.”

“But why?” I asked. “And—”

Ollie cut me off. “I promised I would protect you. I needed the wings to get the job done. And they’ll be gone soon enough.”

“But the Wizard . . .”

Ollie squeezed my arm. “Later,” he muttered. “For now, no talking. It’s good to fly again. It feels like being a kid. Just let me enjoy the stars.”

I don’t know if it was the mention of her name or what, but suddenly I felt a wriggling in my pocket and remembered what—who—I was still carrying: Star, my pet rat. Star had come here with me all the way from Kansas, and somehow, she’d stuck by me through everything. There were times—like when I’d been trapped in Dorothy’s horrible dungeon far below the Emerald Palace—when I was pretty sure I would have gone crazy without her to keep me company.

I pulled her out and placed her on my shoulder, feeling her sharp little claws sinking through the fabric of my dress and digging into my skin.

Back in Kansas, I’d hated Star, who technically, had started out as my mom’s rat, not mine. I’ve always heard that rats are supposed to secretly be really smart, but if that’s true, Star must have been playing hooky in rat school. Back home, she’d always been mean and stupid, interested in nothing except running on her squeaky wheel and biting my hand when I tried to feed her.

Being in Oz had changed her, though. In Oz, it was like she had grown a soul. She had become something like a friend—my oldest friend in the world, these days, and we were in this together. I sometimes wondered what she thought of everything that had happened to us.

I wish I could have talked to her about all of it. I mean, animals talk in Oz, right? But not her. Maybe she was just the strong, silent type.

Star snuggled up in the crook of my neck, and we coasted along silently into the night, the stars brushing against my cheeks like little snowflakes. The clouds stretched out in every direction like an infinite ocean. I dipped my fingers in and let them skim the surface, scooping up little cottony pieces just to watch them melt into nothing in my hand.

Up here, things were peaceful. We couldn’t see the burning city anymore. It was just us and the stars. I could almost imagine that Oz was still the place I’d read about in storybooks, the magical, happy land of Munchkins and talking animals, where witches were wicked but could be killed with nothing more than a little old-fashioned Kansas elbow grease and a bucket of mop water.

I was still imagining the Oz that could have been—the Oz I should have found—when I felt Star’s little body slacken against my neck. She was asleep.

That did it. You might think it would be hard to relax in a situation like this—and believe me, it was—but between the twinkling stars and the wind on my face, the swooping up and down as Ollie sailed into one current after another, and the comforting, steady feeling of my rat nestled in my shoulder, soon I was asleep, too. I didn’t dream.

When my eyes fluttered back open, the sun was a red wedge on the horizon. Morning was dawning, and all of Oz was spread out below us like an old crazy quilt. I’d never been in an airplane before, but somehow I had a feeling that this was better. We were flying low enough now to make out the details of the landscape—the purple swatches of farmland bordered by toy-sized villages; the winding, glittering rivers and the hazy, jagged mountains to the north.

In the distance was a dark, forbidding forest that stretched as far as I could see. I had a feeling that was where we were headed.

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