The Wicked Will Rise Page 7

“You’re very bad,” Ozma said scornfully. “You can’t eat the queen.”

I could have cheered, hearing her talking to him, totally unafraid, with such casual, careless haughtiness. You had to give it to her for nerve, even if it was just the kind of nerve that came from not really knowing any better. But the Lion didn’t seem to think it was very funny.

I was ready for him when he growled and sprang for her. I moved before he did, slashing my knife through the air in a bright arc of red, searing flame, aiming right for him. Ozma clapped at the display. I was getting better at this magic thing.

But I was also overconfident: my blade barely grazed the Lion’s flank. I drew blood, but not enough to slow him down. He simply twisted in annoyance and swiped for me with a powerful forearm. He hit me right in the gut and I went stumbling backward like a mosquito that had just been batted out of the way, landing on the ground on my butt in a burst of petals. I bounced up quickly only to see that Ozma, as it turned out, was perfectly capable of protecting herself.

She hadn’t moved an inch, but a shimmering green bubble had somehow appeared up around her. The Lion clawed and poked at it, but wherever the force field had come from, it was impervious to his attacks. Ozma blinked innocently at him.

“Bad kitty!” she said. She scowled and wagged her finger at him. “Naughty cat!”

The Lion growled a low growl, apparently not amused at being called “kitty,” and took another swipe at her. Again, though, his attack bounced right off her protective bubble.

While the Lion was distracting himself with the princess, I was stealthily circling toward him, positioning myself to strike again while charging up my knife with another magical flame.

“You’ve always been a stupid little thing,” the Lion was saying to Ozma. “Nevertheless, I suppose you have your own irritating kind of power. It’s a good thing there are other ways to teach a fairy a lesson.”

He turned from Ozma and reached for Maude, who had curled herself into a ball on the ground, her teeth chattering with terror. She didn’t even try to run. “No!” Ollie screamed, hurling himself in front of his sister.

This was my cue: I rushed him.

The Lion sensed me coming. He spun around and gave a furious roar, his jaw practically unhinging.

He lunged for me.

Fake out.

Just as he was about to grab me, I flipped myself backward into the air and blinked myself behind him, my teleportation spell reversing my momentum as I landed on his back. I grabbed a hank of his mane in my fist and pulled hard, yanking his head backward.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a while,” I said through gritted teeth, using every ounce of strength I had to slash my burning blade across his exposed throat. I cringed at the sound of his flesh hissing under my weapon’s white-hot heat, but somewhere, deep down, I found myself surprised at how used to this kind of violence I had already gotten. At how easily it came to me.

As the Lion howled, I felt some small kind of pleasure in his pain. I pushed it aside, but it was there. I felt the tiniest glimmer of a smile at the corner of my lips.

The Lion bucked and shook wildly and I hung on to his mane for dear life, thinking of my mom’s friend Bambi Plunkett, who had once won five hundred dollars riding the mechanical bull at the Raging Stallion on Halifax Avenue. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t going to be crowned queen of the rodeo anytime soon.

As the Lion desperately tried to shake me, I felt my hold on his mane begin to slip. He jumped into the air and we landed with a force that shook the ground, flowers flying everywhere. As he gave one last powerful shudder, I lost my grip and tumbled off him, my head cracking against the ground.

My vision blurred. In a flurry of fur and fangs, the Lion pounced, the weight of his body crushing my legs as he pinned my arms with his paws.

“I see you’re a courageous little one,” he purred, pushing his face just inches from mine. “I must admit, I didn’t expect it from you.” He licked his chops. “We’ll just have to change that, won’t we?”

A trickle of blood made its way from his throat, down his fur, and onto my shirt, and I saw that the cut across his throat was really just a surface wound. I’d barely hurt him.

This wasn’t going as well as I’d thought it would. I tried to blink myself out from under him, but my head was still throbbing from the fall I’d just taken, and as hard as I tried, I found that I couldn’t quite summon the magic for it.

Then, before I could decide what to do next, I heard a squeal. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something white streak through the grass as Star scurried away, and felt the Lion’s weight on my body lighten, as he leaned over and shot a paw out.

“No!” I screamed, suddenly realizing what was coming. But there was nothing I could do. He had grabbed my rat by the tail, and she wriggled and screeched as he held her over my face.

“Dorothy wants you alive, brave little Amy,” he said. “And while I haven’t decided yet whether to let her have her way this time, in the meantime, this one will make a nice appetizer.”

The Lion snapped his jaw open. Star’s final scream sounded almost human as he dangled her over his toothy, gaping maw.

First the fear left her. It went streaming from her trembling body into the Lion’s open mouth in a wispy burst like a puff of smoke from a cigarette. Then she was still, looking down at me with wide, placid eyes.

There wasn’t much left of her, but at least I knew that she wasn’t afraid when she died. The Lion dropped her into his mouth and chomped hard. A trickle of blood made its way down his chin.

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