The Wicked Will Rise Page 6

“It seems so,” Ollie mused. “And what about the rocs? They haven’t been spotted in these parts as long as I can remember. I had almost begun to wonder if they were just a legend.”

“Do you think someone could have sent them for us?” I wondered aloud.

“Perhaps,” Maude said thoughtfully. “But who?”

Ozma, who had been kneeling on the ground nearby, plucked a purple lily and tucked it into her hair. She turned to us and spoke.

“He did it,” she said, gathering up a bunch of the flowers and pressing them to her face, inhaling the perfumed scent.

“Who?” I said, still not able to tell if this was just her usual babble or if she somehow knew what she was talking about. I studied her closely.

Ozma greeted my question with a blank stare and tossed the flowers to the ground. Instead of scattering, their stems burrowed right back into the dirt and then they were standing upright again—as if they’d never been picked in the first place.

“It’s coming,” she said. “He’s coming, too. Run and hide!”

Before I could question her further, there was a rustling in the trees and the soft, heavy thump of footsteps. A moment later, a hulking shadow emerged from the forest, and I knew instantly who Ozma had been sensing.

The Lion.

The air went out of everything. The chirping of the birds stopped; the Sea of Blossoms was suddenly still and calm. Or maybe calm was the wrong word. It looked more like it was afraid to move.

Even the sky seemed to know he was here. Just a second ago it had been bright and sunny, but in a flash the sun seemed to dim, casting us in gray and gloomy shadows.

The Lion padded toward us. Where his feet met the earth, the flowers withered instantly into black and shriveled husks. Next to me, I felt Ollie and Maude freeze up with fear.

The Lion circled for a moment and then looked down at me, baring a grotesque mouthful of fangs in what was probably meant to be a smile. “Well, if it isn’t little Miss Amy Gumm, Princess Ozma, and their two furry friends,” he said. Maude and Ollie shrank back in terror. Ozma stood up and regarded the scene passively. The Lion glanced to my shoulder where Star was still perched, and he raised an eyebrow. “Make that three furry friends,” he corrected himself.

My hand twitched as I instinctively summoned the magical knife that Nox had given me. The solid handle materialized in my hand and I took a step forward, feeling its heat burning against my palm.

“You,” I spat.

If the Lion was bothered by the threat in my voice, he didn’t show it.

“I thought surely the fall would kill you, but I have to admit I’m glad it didn’t,” he said, sinking back on his haunches and surveying us. “This way I get to enjoy you myself. It’s been such a long time since I had a nice, square meal. And after that terrible brouhaha back in the Emerald City, I’m sure that Dorothy will forgive me if I don’t take you back alive.”

“Good luck with that, dude,” I said. “I’m not as much of a pushover as you might think. I killed your pal the Tin Woodman last night, you know.”

A look of surprise registered on the Lion’s face, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. “The Tin Woodman is a lover, not a fighter,” he said.

“Was,” I corrected him. “Before I ripped his heart out.”

The Lion narrowed his eyes and looked me up and down. He was used to people cowering before him, like Maude and Ollie, who were both quivering with fright, crouched on either side of me, their teeth chattering in terror.

This was the effect the Lion usually had. His courage had somehow been twisted into something dark and sick. Now it was a weapon. Wherever he went, he brought a cloud of terror with him. Just being around him was enough to make most people shrink in fear until it consumed them.

Then the Lion consumed it. He ate fear, literally. It made him stronger. I’d seen him do it—pick up a terrified Munchkin and suck the fright right out of him until the Munchkin was just a lifeless shell and the Lion was supercharged, bursting with power.

And yet, today, standing ten feet from him, I found that for the first time I wasn’t afraid. I had already faced down everything that had ever frightened me and I’d come out the other side.

Instead of fear, I felt my body fill with a deep rage. There was something about the anger that seemed to put everything into focus—it was like a pair of glasses I had put on, and I was finally seeing everything clearly.

The Tin Woodman’s heart. The Lion’s courage. The Scarecrow’s brains. According to the Wizard, once I had all of them, Dorothy could finally die the death she deserved. I already had the first item in the bag strapped across my chest: the Tin Woodman’s metal, clockwork heart. Now the second thing on my list was within reach—if only I could figure out where the Lion actually kept his courage.

No big deal, I thought. I could always figure that out after he was dead.

I wanted to wait for him to make the first move, though. I was counting on him underestimating me, but even on my best day the Lion still had ten times my physical strength.

“Now, let’s see,” the Lion was saying. “Who should I eat first?” He looked from me, to Ozma, to Ollie, to Maude, raising a gigantic claw and passing it around from one of us to the next.

“Bubble gum, bubble gum in a dish,” he rumbled in a low, ominous croon. Maude. Ollie. Me. He paused as he reached Ozma. “You know,” he mused, “I’ve never had much of a taste for bubble gum.” The muscles in his hind legs twitched. “Fairies, on the other hand, are delicious.”

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