The Wicked Will Rise Page 30

I was fast, but the thing was faster. It had ricocheted away from me before I’d even managed to get a look at it, back into the trees where, even with my magically heightened senses, I could barely make out the sound it made as it crawled from branch to branch.

Just a few minutes ago, I had been feeling lonely and a little helpless. In other words, I could use a good fight.

“Come and get me!” I shouted, brandishing my knife, knowing I barely needed it. Once again, my loneliness had turned, like magic, into fury. I would kill this thing with my bare hands if I had to. “C’mon, asshole!” I screamed, my voice reverberating through the trees. “I don’t care who you are. Mess with me again. I dare you.”

I stopped, picking through all the sounds around me until I heard a soft heartbeat, a few feet away, behind a tree. But when I listened more closely, I realized that it didn’t belong to my stalker. From its steady, even pace, I knew it could only be Ozma—no one but her could remain so calm in the midst of all this.

So I tuned it out, glad she was safe, and then focused on all the other sounds.

I scanned through all of it, casting aside the noises that weren’t relevant—the crickets and owls in the trees, the snakes slithering through the grass, the wind in the leaves—building a picture of my surroundings in my head. When I listened hard, it was almost like being able to see again.

It only took me a minute but then I found it. Thump. Thump. Thump.

The noise wasn’t coming from anywhere near where I’d been looking for it, but once I found it, it was unmistakable. The beast’s heart was racing from adrenaline; its breathing was heavy and hungry.

But I didn’t want to use the same trick twice, and so instead of throwing another fireball, I decided to try something new. I called down a bolt of lightning from the sky to fry my mystery attacker before it knew what hit it.

There was a sizzle, and the electrical smell of ozone, as a blue bolt zigzagged in through the leaves, striking at the place where I’d guessed my target to be hiding. The creature shrieked as my spell connected.

But if I’d thought that would be enough to kill my enemy, I was wrong again. There was a whistling sound of a vine swooping through the air, and then the creature was on top of me, its legs wrapped around my midsection as it scratched at my face with giant, almost human hands.

I felt its claws drawing blood, but I spun on my heel, using the thing’s momentum against it, tackling it to the jungle floor. We landed together, me on top, and I pressed my forearm to its chest, pinning it—whatever it was—to the ground.

“Game over,” I said. It had been easier than I’d expected, and I found myself almost disappointed that my workout had been cut short. I was getting pretty good at this.

I raised my knife to go in for the kill. I didn’t even really care what it was that I was killing, I just wanted the fight to be over.

But then it spoke in a voice I recognized. A surprisingly squeaky voice.

“No! Uncle! Uncle! I give up already!”

It couldn’t be. But who else sounded like that?

I willed my knife to glow, illuminating my now captive enemy.

“You!” I exclaimed. Looking up at me in shamefaced, pathetic defeat was none other than Queen Lulu of the Wingless Ones. One second ago, I’d been ready and eager to kill. Now I wasn’t sure what to do.

I looked over to Ozma, who was leaning against a tree a few feet away, observing the whole scene with a kind of birdbrained calm. After a moment’s pause, she gave the monkey a dopey, sad little wave.

Under me, Lulu blanched at the sight of Ozma.

“What do you want?” I demanded slowly, debating whether to put my knife away. “Why were you following us? Don’t lie to me.”

“Didn’t mean to scare you . . . ,” my captive wheezed. “Wasn’t gonna hurt anyone. I just wanted to see her. I didn’t . . .” She stopped herself, seemingly overcome by something she couldn’t say.

“See her? You could have seen her whenever you wanted. You wouldn’t even let her into your throne room. Now you expect me to believe you just wanted to see her? Do you think I’m stupid? And why do you even care?”

She wriggled under my weight, trying to crane her neck toward where the princess was hanging back. Lulu blinked. I would have thought she was fighting tears, if I hadn’t known she wasn’t the type for sentimentality.

“I was afraid she’d remember,” she finally said.

“Remember what?”

“She was so little when it happened but . . . you never know with fairies. What if she remembered?” She sounded almost frantic.

I looked at her quizzically. I had no idea what she meant. Then I remembered, and with a jolt, I suddenly understood what Ozma had meant by Mommy.

“She was mine. I was supposed to protect her. I was all she had, and she was happy anyway. She loved me. Trusted me. I left her, see? Left her all alone. When she came to the village . . . I couldn’t look her in the eye, not after all I did. How could I? But I didn’t want her to leave like that either. Barely there a day. And not even a simple sayonara?” Queen Lulu bit her lip and clenched her eyes shut. “My spies told me you were trying to dip out, and I knew I had to say good-bye. I had to see her. Just once, that’s all. I wasn’t going to hurt anyone.”

Lulu was quiet but almost panicking, too, so different from the imperious, fast-talking dame who had haughtily held court at Mombi’s trial. Her brassy bluster had faded in the bright, searing light of her own memories, leaving only regret.

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