The Wicked Will Rise Page 69

Lying on the steps like a broken, discarded rag doll, his arms and legs splayed out in every direction, was the Scarecrow. His head was hanging limply, lolling off to the side. He didn’t look like himself.

“Shit,” I said. “It’s showtime.”

I summoned my knife, hoping to make this a fast fight, and screamed in horror at what appeared in its place: somehow, from out of nowhere, a black, hissing snake was writhing in my grip. Before I could drop it, it had wrapped itself around my arm, where it pulled its head back and unhinged its jaw, ready to strike me.

Without thinking, I sent it away, the same reflexive way I had learned how to do when I didn’t need my weapon anymore.

Nox was staring at me, his mouth wide open.

But I found that I wasn’t exactly surprised by what had just happened. “It’s this place,” I said. “The evil in here. It’s screwing with everything.”

We didn’t have the luxury to puzzle through it any more than that, because the Scarecrow was now moving. He sat up and looked at me with his painted-on little eyes and gave a weak grimace.

“Hello there,” he said, without any of the sinister menace I was used to from him. Instead, he sounded like someone’s weird, only slightly creepy uncle. “Do I know you?”

I saw immediately that there was something wrong with him, but it took a moment longer to actually see what it was. Then it dawned on me: his head looked misshapen and oddly deflated. Like there was something missing from it.

I was pretty sure I knew what that something was.

Without my knife to rely on, I felt a little bit unprepared, but I had other weapons to work with. At least, I thought I did. But when I tried to fire off a flame dart at him, all that came out of my fingers was a puff of noxious, green smoke that smelled like rotten eggs, and I realized with a sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to rely on my magic at all.

Luckily, for now at least, it didn’t seem that the Scarecrow would be much of a threat. As I ran up the stairs toward him, he made no move to attack me or even get out of the way. Instead, he was just muttering something to himself. A spell, I wondered, reminding myself to keep my wits about me.

No, I realized as I got close enough to hear. It wasn’t a spell at all.

“And so the imp says to the toadstool . . . ,” he was saying. “No, wait. Let me start that again. Two young harlots and a fish walk into a . . .”

When he saw me racing for him, he looked up at me again, as if he was seeing me for the first time. “Did I already tell you this one?” he asked. His eyes rolled back, and his canvas head dropped to the side, where it flopped at his shoulder.

“I used to be very clever, you know! Everyone said so. I was even king, after a fashion. Now look at me.” With that, his painted-on face collapsed in a mask of grief and he began to weep silently to himself.

“Who?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Dorothy,” he said. “My dear old friend Dorothy. How could she?”

It was pathetic to see him—the cruelest and most terrifying of Dorothy’s companions—in such a state. But I didn’t feel sorry for him. How could I?

I grabbed him around the throat and picked him up, squeezing tight. His cross-stitched mouth let out a gurgling sound as he gulped for air. I squeezed harder, and then harder as he let out a gurgling noise. He flailed his stuffed arms, but didn’t really resist. If anything, he looked relieved.

Then, finally, his eyes popped open and he gave a final, high-pitched whimper as his stuffed body went completely limp.

However much he had been alive in the first place was a mystery and probably always would be. But whatever it was, that life was gone. I had killed him.

Before I tossed him aside, I grabbed at the loose fabric of his scalp, and yanked his head clean off.

Second beheading in one day. I guess you could call that a record, huh?

When I examined what had been his head, turning it inside out and dumping the stuffing onto the ground, my suspicions were confirmed. All that came tumbling out was some straw, a few cotton balls, and some loose change.

Just as I suspected, the Scarecrow’s brains were gone. Dorothy had already gotten them. Now she had a full set: heart, brains, and courage. But why? What did she want with them?

I tossed the Scarecrow’s head onto the ground like the trash that it was, and stomped on it for good measure.

“Whoa,” Nox said. At first I thought he was reacting to yet another act of brazen cruelty from me, but then he put a finger to his lips and said, “Listen.”

I didn’t hear it at first, but then, in the distance, from deep in the palace, I detected a rumbling sound. The ground beneath my feet began to shake, and as it did, the octopus statue before us came to life; its arms began to wriggle and its eyes began to glow with a nasty green light. Slowly, its mouth slid open, revealing an entryway just big enough to step through.

I glanced sidelong at Nox. I’d never seen him look so terrified.

“I guess we can take that as an invitation,” I said.


Inside, the palace was nothing like the place I’d gotten to know by heart when I’d been posing as one of Dorothy’s most loyal servants.

In fact, it was no place I’d ever been before, outside of a nightmare. At first, it was hard to even understand what I was looking at. The vast entry chamber we were in had been turned upside down and inside out. No. Scratch that—inside out and upside down implies a certain order to things, and here, it was like none of the normal rules of physics applied at all. Like something out of an M. C. Escher drawing, there were entire staircases that floated in midair, leading to nowhere, furniture suspended from the slanted walls, and, overhead, an entire jungle looked like it was growing out of the ceiling.

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