The Wicked Will Rise Page 38

I hadn’t really ever thought about it one way or the other. But as soon as he’d said it, it made perfect sense. As handsome as he was, and as much time as we’d spent together, there had always been something missing—a distance between us that had always been hard to pin down. Now I knew what it was.

“And even if I wasn’t,” he said. “Would it matter? I kinda get the feeling you’re into someone else anyway. So it’s probably just as well, right?”

“I guess,” I said. “Just do me a favor, okay?”

“Sure,” he said. “What?”

“When you’re in there . . . keep an eye on me. When you can see me, I mean.”

He tilted his head, and his hair fell in his face. “What do you mean?”

“I mean . . .” I paused, not wanting to admit what I was really afraid of. “I mean, if you think I’m about to do something, you know. Scary. If you’re in there somewhere, and you see me not being myself. Try to give me a signal. Or stop me. Or whatever.”

Pete nodded, understanding. “Fine,” he said. “If I can, I will. But you have to look out for me, too. Don’t let them do anything to me.”

“I promise,” I said. I hoped it was a promise I would actually be able to keep.

I had a bunch more stuff I wanted to ask him, but it was too late. Pete’s body began to shudder. He winced in pain and jerked his head back. He swallowed hard.

“Told you,” he said. “She wants control again. Here I go. Hopefully I’ll see you again soon. We’ll have plenty to talk about. But I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s going to be as easy after this. She’s different now. She’s going to fight hard from now on. I can tell.”

As if on cue, his face began to change. It was like the two of them were wrestling each other to occupy the exact same square foot of space. Pete’s skin rippled as the princess struggled to get out; his arms and legs began lengthening and contracting. His face was flipping back and forth between his own and Ozma’s and something in between.

Pete screamed. He clutched his head. Then he was gone and Ozma was standing in his place, looking steely and hard. She gave me the once-over, cocked her head, and raised her eyebrows, her lips pursed. It was kind of intimidating.

Was she mad at me? Did she blame me for bringing Pete out again?

It didn’t matter. As nice a respite as the last hour had been, it was time to go. I wasn’t sure exactly how I was supposed to pack up the tent, but it turned out I didn’t need to worry about it. As soon as I decided it was time to get moving, the tent seemed to understand. It collapsed in on itself like I had issued a command out loud, and folded itself back up into a small, neat square of cloth that I placed in my back pocket. I knew that it was dangerous to use again, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave it behind.

Ozma turned in a circle, getting her new bearings, and then she began to walk. If nothing else, she certainly was single-minded. That spider spell really worked.

She moved carefully and deliberately, but slowly. For every few steps she took, she’d back up a few times and then change direction. Finally, when she had found a spot in the meadow a few paces from where we’d started, she stopped, paced around as if judging it, and knelt to the ground as I looked on from a respectful distance.

On her knees, the princess ran her hands carefully through the grass, letting her fingertips graze each blade. Next, she turned her attention to the flowers and began to examine them.

I moved in closer, trying to see exactly what she was doing. All of the flowers I’d seen in the field were one shade of purple or another, but as Ozma searched, she managed to find an assortment, which she began to pluck up as she settled on the ones she wanted: first a tiny red one, then an odd royal blue flower with thin, spiraling petals, and a purple crocus and a yellow buttercup until, finally, she was holding a tiny bouquet representing the four colors of Oz.

She rose, holding the flowers to her chest, and, with her other hand, licked her index finger and held it up. She turned clockwise, then counterclockwise, gauging the wind, and then stopped. I felt a prickle on the back of my neck as a gust came from behind me, out of nowhere. As the wind blew around us, Ozma tossed the flowers into the air and watched as the current caught them up and carried them, flying, into the distance.

Ozma was still. A second later, a brick appeared in the grass at her feet. Then another, and another, each one of them blooming in front of her like flowers in a time-lapse video.

They popped up slowly and then quickly, and while they appeared scattered at first, a pattern began to emerge. It was a road. And it was yellow.

Ozma stepped onto the path to begin the next part of the journey. “Follow,” Ozma said.

So I followed: not Ozma, but the road itself. Now the princess and I walked together, side by side, in a looping, meandering path that I knew was taking us into the mountains.


We spent the morning walking, following the Road of Yellow Brick as it took us through pastures and meadows and an orchard of squat trees whose branches hung heavy with luscious plums that I was still too full from breakfast to eat; it led us across babbling streams and over rolling hills, into and then out of lush, vibrant valleys.

A few times, way off in the distance, I noticed clusters of domed buildings that looked like villages, but whenever they popped up in my peripheral vision, the road always veered off in the opposite direction. I was familiar enough with Oz to get that it wasn’t just luck—the road knew that we wanted to be stealthy, and it was helping us.

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