The Wicked Will Rise Page 39

Was this the same road that, once upon a time, had led both me and Dorothy from Munchkin Country to the Emerald City? That was a hard question to wrap my head around. That road had a fixed beginning and ending, but I knew from experience that it was also known to move around, depending on traveling conditions. I’d been told more than once that it had a mind of its own. It was possible that Ozma had summoned it with Old Magic, and it had veered off course to help us find our way.

The sun was still out, the walk was peaceful, and I was actually making some headway teaching Ozma to sing “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” The only problem was that she didn’t really know how to count, and kept mixing up the numbers.

After a while, I gave up on correcting her and just let her keep on singing. Even though the song didn’t make any sense at all anymore, her voice was actually nice, and I let my mind wander.

This morning’s conversation with Glinda had been unsettling, although I guess it could have been worse. But what did she want from me? Why had she changed her tune so drastically? She had to be trying to trick me . . . but trick me into what?

I was reminded of Lulu’s warning in the forest, to keep ahold of yourself. If Lulu was worried that Oz was corrupting me, did that mean that Glinda thought so, too? Had she come to me this morning because she thought she’d be able to take advantage of that?

Glinda had made it sound like, out of nowhere, she had no more use for Dorothy. I wondered what could have caused such a huge rift between them in just the few days since the battle in the Emerald City—unless their alliance had never been as solid as it had appeared. And where did that leave me? Did Glinda think that the fact that I was from the Other Place meant that I would be able to pick up the slack now that her favorite little despot had fallen out of her favor?

It was frustrating that everyone was so convinced that I had this great potential to be evil, when all I’d done was show up, get thrown in the dungeon by Dorothy, and then follow the Order’s instructions pretty much exactly. I’d fought for what I thought was right. For what I believed in. And now even people like Lulu—people who were supposed to be on the same side as me—seemed suspicious of me because of it. It all felt a little unfair.

Anyway, I had a hard time thinking of myself as a ticking time bomb waiting to explode in a burst of evil when I was in such a good mood. Yeah, the morning had been a little dicey, but ever since Ozma and I had started walking, it had been a pretty perfect day.

The whole time we walked, the mountains stayed fixed in the distance. They were a jagged set of purple teeth on the horizon, rising higher and higher as we moved closer. Based on the deep indigo hue of everything around us, as well as the little I remembered of Oz geography, I was pretty sure these mountains had to be the Gillikins—the treacherous, sprawling range that stretched all the way across Oz’s northern territory, separating wild from wilder.

We’d seen no monsters since we’d left the forest—not counting Glinda—so I was guessing things were still basically civilized for now. But the landscape was slowly changing, and even without crossing the Gillikins, I wasn’t sure that we were going to stay in civilized territory for much longer. As morning faded to afternoon—in a way that felt pretty normal by Oz standards—the sunny fields and groves of trees gave way to muddy swampland dotted with intermittent patches of brush, milkweed, and the occasional stunted, tired-out-looking tree. The sun had disappeared behind a dense, rolling cloud cover, leaving everything around us a gloomy gray that was only barely tinted with a washed-out lavender. Everything looked as though the life had been sucked out of it. The world had lost its color.

The air had changed, too. It had thickened, turned sticky and cold, until I felt like I was draped in a used, mildewy towel like the ones my mom had always had a penchant for leaving strewn all over our trailer.

Ozma had stopped singing.

Only the path we were walking on lent any bit of cheeriness to the landscape. The road had brightened in contrast and now cut a curling swath into the distance, no longer yellow but a glittering, pulsating gold.

Then even the road began to lose some of its fight against the gloom. This morning it had been a wide and open boulevard, but as the terrain grew rocky, it narrowed and snarled to weave its way through the obstacles that had begun to pop up.

Meanwhile, though it didn’t feel like we were getting any higher, the sky appeared to be getting much closer. The clouds were now so low over our heads that I could practically reach up and touch them, and then I didn’t need to reach at all: the road curled sharply, leading us into a corridor of boulders barely wide enough to lift your arms, and I saw the clouds scraping the bricks just ahead of us, swallowing the path.

Sitting at the edge of the fog was a lone figure: it was a woman, wearing a long, hooded cloak of midnight blue feathers, each one tipped with gold. Her skin was smooth and unlined, but there was a sharp wisdom in her eyes too. She looked both very young and very ancient. When she saw us coming she let out a long, stuttering howl that bounced against the rocks, echoing in a chorus like there were twenty of it instead of just one. And she began to change. She spread out her arms, and her cape became a set of enormous wings; her nose and mouth joined together and stretched themselves into a long, thin beak. Finally, the creature blocking our path was no longer a woman at all, but a giant bird.

I took a step backward. This thing—whatever it was—didn’t look like it was going to attack, but there was something spooky about it, and my previous experience with giant birds hadn’t exactly been fun.

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