The Wicked Will Rise Page 40

“Amy Gumm,” the bird said, in a wispy, whistling voice that was kind, but with an edge of fierceness to it. “I have waited here many months for the day that you would pass through here. I see that your transformation has begun. But only just. I wonder: When you claim your name, what will it be?”

Something about its words jogged a place deep in my memory, and suddenly I recognized the creature. This wasn’t a roc. It was the same bird that Nox had carved into the hilt of my knife, the bird that he said reminded him of me, because of the way it transformed itself. The same bird I carried with me into every fight.

“Yes,” it said, laughing softly at my recognition. “I am the Magril. I see that you know me. Just as I know you. Just as I have always known you, since long before you came to this place.”

My shoulders tensed. “How—” I began to ask.

“Those like me do not concern ourselves with how,” the Magril said, “We are creatures of magic and transformation. We only ask to find the shape that is ours. I have found mine. You have yet to find yours. But you are on the path.”

My head was swirling with so many questions that I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t find the right way to say any of them.

“I understand,” the bird said, even though I hadn’t said a word. “But beware. I guard the Fog of Doubt. Think carefully before entering. Only those with unshakable faith may pass. Many have failed. You need not. I give you a choice: if you choose to turn back, I will send you home.”

“Home?” I asked.

“It is within my power, yes.”

“But . . .” I started. I didn’t know where home was. Did home mean Kansas? Dusty Acres? It had never felt like home when I had lived there, and now it felt as far away as something out of a storybook.

The Magril gazed at me like it could see right into my soul. “I cannot tell you where your home is,” it whispered. “That is for you to discover. I can only offer you the choice. Will you continue? Or will you return to where you belong?”

“I . . .” I started to say. And I understood I didn’t have a choice at all. “This is where I belong,” I said quietly. For better or worse, it was the truth.

The Magril ruffled its feathers. “As you wish,” she said. “I must leave you. But I offer you a final warning: To survive the fog, you must be willing to become yourself.”

Then, without waiting for a response, the Magril took off, soaring into the white expanse of nothingness above and beyond us. I looked at Ozma, who blinked back at me and twisted her lip uncertainly. I took her hand, squeezing it for reassurance—I just wasn’t sure if I was reassuring myself or her.

“Who are you?” she asked me. Another question I couldn’t answer. But I didn’t have to, not for now. For now, all I had to do was step forward. So I took a deep breath, and Ozma and I walked into the mist.

It turns out that pitch black is not the scariest thing in the world. Bright, blinding white—the kind of white that makes you wonder if the whole world around you has been erased—can be just as scary.

That was where we had found ourselves. The fog we had entered was so thick that when I held my hand out in front of me, I couldn’t see it. I wiggled my fingers just to make sure they were still there. Well, I could feel them, so that had to count for something. Right?

With my other hand, I was still gripping Ozma’s, tighter than ever now, but when I looked to see her reaction to all of this, she might as well have not even been there.

The only thing I could make out at all was the road, and even that was just a faded, ghostly after-impression, like the floaters you get in your vision when you stare at a light bulb and then look away. Still, it was there: pale and thin, spinning out ahead of us, up and out into the blankness.

From behind the shroud of thick fog, it was impossible to tell what lay on either side of the road’s edges. Were we a thousand feet in the air, with only the clouds separating us from a heartrending plunge to our doom? Or were we strolling through a peaceful meadow without even realizing it? All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and try to keep the faith that we would make it through.

Faith: everyone knows it’s something you’re supposed to have, but it’s harder to put that into practice when your senses are telling you all hope is lost.

And the fog was just getting started on me. We had been walking for probably five minutes when there was a soft, sinister whispering in my ear. It sent me jumping out of my skin. The voice was slimy and reptilian, neither male nor female. It was so close that I could feel breath tickling my earlobe.

“Turn back,” it said. “You’re weak. You’ll never make it. You’ve never been ready. You’ve never been brave enough, or strong enough. You shouldn’t have bothered. You should never have come here.”

I shuddered, and tried to remember the giant bird’s warning. This was the Fog of Doubt. Whatever was speaking to me probably wasn’t even real—it was just magical trickery playing off my natural fears and insecurities. If I was going to let a little ghostly torment get to me, I had no right to be here in the first place. I was tougher than that. I just had to ignore it.

The next voice I heard was one I recognized, even if it wasn’t the one I had expected. It was Madison Pendleton, who had made my life back home hell from the day that my father left us, who had turned all of my friends against me, just for fun, and who had gotten me kicked out of school—the same day that I’d been carried away to Oz on a cyclone.

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