My sleep isn't that bad, truth be told. It's nothing like the big, luxurious beds at Nine's penthouse, but even a patch of warm grass is a step up from the musty cots at Santa Teresa in Spain. I've lived there most of my life; I've had a lifetime to develop low standards of living.
I wake up close to dawn (another useful Santa Teresa habit), and with nothing to pack or really any way to brush my teeth, I rub my eyes, stretch, and am ready to go. Go where, exactly? I'm not sure.
I watch Sarah's sleeping form as I follow Bernie Kosar into the brush. She looks beautiful even when she's asleep—not like I ever wondered why John adored her so much. I feel bad leaving her, but I don't think I could solve anything by just staying with her in Paradise. It would be nice to see her again; Sarah in real life is just as nice as Sarah in this world.
But I desperately hope I never do.
It doesn't take long before me and BK broke through the greenery into the open area I saw from inside Paradise. It literally looks like nothing from here to there, but Bernie Kosar walks with a purpose, so I must only assume he knows exactly where we're going.
The sun is sitting above our heads before I seriously begin to get doubts. My lips are dry and my legs feel weak from walking. I lived in Spain for a good portion of my lifetime and I've never felt heat like this. But if alternative universe Sarah would be so helpful, alternative universe Bernie Kosar would be too, right? Besides, I can't have any doubts now, it's way too late for that.
"How much farther do you think we have, BK?" I ask, wishing there was someone else around that I could actually talk to in order to keep myself preoccupied. Nine and John's ability to communicate with animals always looked kind of silly to me, but now I wish I had it too.
I really don't know what to think of this situation. I would like to blame this all on Setrakus Ra, but what kind of telepathy attack is this, exactly? Send me to the (hopefully) fictional land of Oz to what purpose? If he really wanted me out of the way right then and there couldn't he have just send some Mogs or something?
Even me passing out, that's never been a symptom of anyone else's. The only thing that is coming to mind is a very unhealthy mental break down. Which can't even be the case because I just had one back in Paradise.
Bernie Kosar barks and runs up the next hill, and I feel motivated to follow. Maybe he's sniffed out the Emerald City? My logical side tells me not to get too excited.
Reaching the top, my heart drops a little, as expected, as I see what's in the valley below: A giant wall. From my position atop the hill the wall already looks huge, stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions. If I could jump right across this valley, maybe about five hundred feet, I still wouldn't be high enough to get over it.
My mind jumps to floating up the side of that mountain when we were in India. With that thought comes an uncomfortable sensation in my stomach, so I continue walking in an attempt to cover it up. Luckily, physical exhaustion gives way to emotional exhaustion.
By the time we reached the wall—and let me tell you it took a while— the sun had passed to sit unwaveringly to my left in a mid-afternoon heat. The wall was a solid, concrete grey with not a touch of embellishment; in fact, it looked almost like it had recently been made. I notice how I'm standing on dry, compact earth, the grass not beginning until a few feet out. The surface feels cool, unaffected by the sun's heat.
Bernie Kosar transforms into a hawk and begins to fly upwards, leaving me along on the ground. He soars up and over, disappearing into the uncharted territory behind the wall.
With absolutely no clue as to what I could be meeting on the other side, I summon my telekinesis and begin my ascent. I'm so tired I'm unable to keep my feet balanced and I'm constantly having to stop on the way up; one foot shooting higher than the other as if I were trying (unsuccessfully) to balance my weight on unsecure parallel wires.
If the others would have been there, I probably would have felt embarrassed. Nine would have laughed, Six would have yelled encouragement because I needed it. John would probably stay on the bottom and make sure everyone else got to the top. Someone would need to carry Ella… I'm suddenly feeling incredibly lonely.
I've barely reached the top—a flat landing no more than ten feet across—before Bernie Kosar swoops down the other side, making slashing noises as his wings cut through the heavy gusts. The air feels thinner up here, and every breath I take feels gives me half of the satisfaction that it should. The wind is violent, ripping at my clothes and hair and making my eyes water. "Can't we take a break?" I yell over the gale.
All I can hear is the hawk's squall in return. He doesn't reappear, unfortunately, so I'm forced to follow. I peer my head over the side, squinting as I stare down at the scenery below. It wasn't a giant pit full of some dangerous animals, so that was good.
It turns out that the wall doesn't go all the way around. The stretch that I stood on only wrapped a quarter of the way around the bowl-shaped indent in the earth, meeting two perpendicular mountains at its sides. The wall continued right across from me, and beyond there I could see rows of corn and the continuation of the yellow brick road. It was a perfect circle all the way around, and in the middle sat a cute little village.
It was a stupid setup, architecturally, considering that anyone could get in to the village if they decided to climb up the mountains, which went much taller than the wall did. Why build the wall in the first place?
Unbeknownst to me just yet, there was a very good reason.
As I carefully float down the other side, the things below me began to grow clearer. The buildings, strangely enough, were shaped like giant teacups and teapots, saucers and anything other dish you might find at some royal tea-type thing. Each cup-house was decorated with unique, colourful floral patterns that just happened to match the tiny flowers in each of their finely-pruned flower boxes. A little river found itself the diameter of the village, intersected multiple times by tiny yellow bridges. It was a strange sight, but also quite… serene. Like some kind of fairy tale come to life.
The inhabitants of the village began to fall into focus, although at first I had them confused with dolls. Why would anyone set up so many dolls? I had thought. But they moved like tiny people, no, tiny figurines, walking, skipping, running around. They were pale, but with beautiful, flawless white skin that glistened in the afternoon sunlight. Rosy cheeks, glossy black hair in cute little hairstyles. Pigtails, pixie cuts, you know what I mean. The girls, different from the boys by only the slimness of their faces and the slightly longer hair wear baby blue dresses in a shiny fabric, probably silk. The boys wear cute little overalls in the same fabric.
Packs of them chase each other around the buildings, others outside just strolling about; although it's impossible to tell which are adults and which are children, if these shiny-doll people even work that way. They all look the same, exact other than some nearly indistinguishable features that probably weren't visible unless they were up close. A chipped nose, a torn dress. A slight difference in their anatomy that's probably a result of an accident in the kiln.
My feet touch the ground, but none of them seem to notice. Bernie Kosar lands at my knees, transforming back into a dog. He snarls at the doll-people, but doesn't do much else. They just continue on their merry way, acting out the perfect backdrop to a perfect movie. A couple holding hands passes by me, and I could have sworn they just walked by here. Had they gone in a circle?
I let out a shushing noise, trying to calm BK, and suddenly the chatter stops. Hundreds of tiny heads turn in my direction, hundreds of shiny black orbs and pretty eyelashes. They stare at me, motionless. Their faces are set in blank stares as if they don't know how to react to my being there. I just stare back, probably as unsure of what to do as they are. Bernie Kosar begins to growl again.
From far behind the crowd, I spot movement in the corner of my eye. Someone is politely moving their way to the front of the crowd, but each 'excuse me' and 'thank you' sounds wrong, almost as if it didn't match the cute porcelain faces of these… people.
It sounds like a biplane is starting its' engines in Bernie Kosar's throat.
Finally the source of movement breaks out of the onlookers. He appears as just the same as the rest, the only difference being the lavender overalls compared to the blue. "Greetings," He says with that not-matching voice, bowing gracefully in my direction. "Welcome to Chinatown. My name is Ivanick, a leader amongst the china people."
I wave shyly, completely unsure of what to do. Did this kind of this happen often in Chinatown?
"You are ever most welcome here." Ivanick says enthusiastically. He goes on a long monologue about Chinatown, saying 'you are ever most welcome here' at least another five times. "We never have guests here," he gushes.
"And you brought a pest with you, how nice." For the first time his eyes have left me and moved to rest on Bernie Kosar. He leans over his shoulder to whisper something to the doll to his left.
"WHOA!" I nearly jump when I see the other dolls pull out a gun with a comically oversized barrel. I crouch down next to BK, extending a protective arm in front of him. The dog sounds like he's humming with rage. "Wait, Ivanick, you can't just do that! We're guests!" I yell desperately.
The china doll leader taps his chin with delicate fingers, making a clicking noise as porcelain hit porcelain. Suddenly, the china people weren't looking all that cute. In fact, they seemed to be inching in with every passing sec—
Without warning I head the blast of a gun going off, and with only seconds I do the one thing I can think to do: I protect myself and BK with my telekinesis. I feel my mind catch the bullet like a Kevlar vest, and as soon as I feel it's stopped I turn off my Legacies and let the bullet drop. I hear it shatter upon hitting the ground, and with a quick glance down I see that the bullet was made of a glossy ceramic.
The brief moment of stark silence that followed is pierced by a high pitched shriek: "She's a Number!"
I can't help but be slightly confused. Of course I was a 'number', it had been a part of my identity since the day I was born. Although Marina is what I go by now, Seven will always be my only name from Lorien. It wasn't a big deal anymore, ever since the charm had been broken that protected us individually. But for some reason I think the term number might mean more to them than it did to me.
Upon hearing this, the dolls did the most unexpected thing: they turn on the person closest to them and straight out attack. They started off punching and scratching, but quickly enough their hands, being too delicate, were broken. Most of them reverted to kick each other, others instead threw themselves at the nearest doll to them. It sounded like a bad day a Greek restaurant—pieces of fragile porcelain flew, followed by intense screaming. Dolls rolled around on the floor through piles of their own kind, wrestling the heads from one another's necks.
A loose doll leg wearing a ballet flat rolls up to me. The air is beginning to sound more like stepping on eggshells than smashing dishes.
I don't know what to do. Yell for them to stop? Would they even listen to me? Next to me, Bernie Kosar makes a pleased grunt. I want to yell at him too.
Something approaches my leg, and when I'm finally able to tear my eyes away from the total destruction before me, I see Ivanick's large back eyes staring back up at me. "So, you're a number, and you're all alone?" He muses, reaching out a pale hand and patting my leg as if to make sure I was really there.
"Ivanick!" I jump back, slightly repulsed by him touching me and majorly repulsed by his complete lack of concern. "Do something! They're killing each other!"
He ignores me. "What to do with you?" He says to no one in particular, as if I was a prized pig. "I suppose I should report you, but…" He looks up at me, flashing rows of shiny, needle-like teeth. "You look absolutely delicious."
I swallow, trying to dislodge the word stuck in my throat.
"But I suppose your pet will do," He says, moving past me towards Bernie Kosar. I don't even give him the chance; with one swift kick and a weird battle cry I didn't think I was capable of, Ivanick is sailing through the air, breaking into pieces upon impact with the cobblestoned ground.
He's motionless for a second, just another victim of the anarchy. Then like the persistent villain of a creepy horror movie, he springs back to life. Ivanick flips himself over, rolling from his stomach to his back. He uses his elbows to sit up in place.
Most of his face is gone. One whole eye, half his nose. His lip is chipped in a weird spot, revealing the mangled teeth underneath. His forehead is covered in hairline cracks and a good portion of the head is open on the top, like some sort of sick basket. I feel a little guilty.
The doll inclines his chin, eyes staring lifelessly forward, and cracks it down so hard his head rolls right off his little neck.
I gasp, but my throat runs dry as black wisps of smoke begin to pour out from the doll's neck. At first, it looks like only a hand, fingers curling and uncurling. On grows a pale white shoulder, then a bulky chest, followed by a thick neck and face housing a pair of endless black eyes. A Mogadorian. A huge, not-so-delicate looking Mogadorian.
Now I understand why they were breaking each other. Because behind those frail shells they kept their real selves. Behind those frail shells were an army of Mogs. Versus me. Alone.
My mind reels. Bernie Kosar gets on all fours beside me. From the broken remains of the China dolls I see black smoke rising, limbs beginning to form. Ivanick smirks at me, long locks of dark hair falling into his eyes. I have seconds before I'm overrun with Mogs, and subsequently, killed. If only I could freeze time, give myself a moment to come up with a plan—
My new Legacy! It may be my only chance. For once since I met the other Garde, I didn't feel completely defenseless. I had an offensive Legacy now!
I immediately start to focus. I try to summon the feelings that I had before my ice Legacy first showed itself, the coolness that came from my hands. The feeling of ice permeating around me like a protective shield. I get myself into a fighting position, feet spread apart, knees bent, arms raised. …I've seen Six do it a million times.
I reached my hands outwards, waiting for something to happen. Think, uh, cold thoughts. How the hell do I think cold?! What does that even mean? My other legacies—seeing in the dark, breathing underwater and even healing—never required much effort on my part. At this point they were automatic for me, while Six and John and Nine still had to 'turn on' their legacies. No one ever taught me where my switch was.
I head the click of a Mog blaster, and I realize I just wasted all the time I had to possibly run. Why not run and then try and use my Legacy? I had never been the great strategist that Six is, but I knew better than this! I couldn't take on a whole Mog army by myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
"Stupid little girl," Ivanick crooned at me. "A Number such as yourself should know better than to come here. The Wicked One would want you alive, but to what degree was never specified." He smiled at me, letting that sink in. The village has grown silent, apart from my shallow breathing. Eventually I quiet my breathing, and there is no sound at all.
"What are you waiting for?" I ask quietly. I'm not usually the one with a plan, and now I have no idea what to do.
"Relishing the moment."
The quiet blanket that set over the village is pierced by a shrill scream. A hawk is plunging out of the sky, claws extended as it dives on the nearest Mogadorian solder. I'm aware that Bernie Kosar has left my side as the hawk begins to claw his eyes out, the rest of the army turns to look at this new threat, but more as if it's a strange door-to-door solicitor than someone being blatantly attacked. I take this as my chance to run.
"YOU FOOLS!" Ivanick screams, noticing me almost instantly. "You're letting her escape!"
In the confusion that follows I run to the nearest building, a cute teapot-shaped house. I couldn't eve fit through the door, being the height of my knee. If I somehow got through the door I would really only be able to stand inside, and this teapot looking like the luxury two-storey type.
The teapot explodes as an electric blast rips through it, blowing it to bits. I bolt from the building, covering my head with my hands to protect myself from porcelain shrapnel. A much louder roar cloaks my scream, and I know that Bernie Kosar has gone full-blown Chimaera mode.
Mog soldiers yell in confusion, some trying to battle BK while others take orders from Ivanick, demanding they find me. I run to the side of one building to the next, trying to use them as cover as I make my way across the village.
I head Mog blasters and guns go off in the background, the sound of shattering china. My feet crunch over the useless shells of the Mogadorians that litter the place. A building explodes to my left and I'm blown away by the force.
I fall, palms meeting stone as I skid across the road. I'm rolling uncontrollably, the next thing I know I'm face first in a bed of coolness. I'm disoriented for a second, then my head breaks the surface and I find myself in the river that I saw running the diameter of the village earlier.
I head a Mog blaster click from behind me. "Those were some smooth moves, Number." Ivanick says, probably the one or amongst the one holding the blaster to the back of my head. "But it wasn't good enough. Now get out of—"
"What is going on here!?" A female voice yelling over the pandemonium. But it's not the voice of a Mogadorian (whatever a female Mog sounds like) nor was it Sarah, it was—"Ella!" I yell out, a little surprised as I see the eleven-year-old float from the sky and land softly on her feet in front of me, but relieved all the same. Her hair is longer than I remember, falling loose and wavy down her back. She wears a floor-length gown of black silk, the torso and arms made of dark leather. It looked incredibly uncomfortable, with a matching tiara: silver with embedded black jewels.
"Ella, run! Get out of here!" I scream. I try to climb out of the river to get to her, but I feel the barrel of the cannon pushes back into my head.
Ella doesn't even give look at me, rather, glares right at the Mogs behind me. "What do you think you're doing?" She says sternly.
"Ella…" I choke out, but no one pays me any attention. In the background I hear Bernie Kosar roar again, followed by the sound of another shattering house.
"We're following the law, My Lady." Ivanick says, although not unkindly. He sounds almost… scared.
Ella throws her arms in the air, making her leather dress squeal. "So let's just shoot everybody that walks into Chinatown! They're all Numbers, so let's just destroy everything and chase after some poor scraggler!"
"We saw her powers." Ivanick growls.
Ella scowls at them, not a look accustomed to her face, although for a second I feel her eyes flicker to me. "Did you ever consider that it was a trick? An illusion? That the Numbers sent her in to pose as an imposter?"
Ivanick says nothing, Ella rolls her eyes. "Get her out of the river; let me speak with her since you obviously don't have the mental ability."
I can hear Ivanick grumble something unpleasant under his breath and he plucks me out of the fountain by my armpits and hurls me across the six-foot gap. I don't land so gracefully on the other side. Ella nudges the side of my head with the tip of her boot.
"Get up," She breathes to me. She turns her head to look at the Mogs across the river. "And you: Get out of here! Go deal with that Chimaera, or has your ability to recognise a threat deteriorated that much?"
I hear the sound of footsteps fade away into the sound of blasters. I feel a little dazed, and Ella helps me to my feet.
"We don't have much time!" She whispers to me urgently, peering over my shoulder at the battle ensuring. She shakes my shoulder. "Marina, are you listening to me?"
I nod. "Ella, how can you recognize me? I saw Sarah before and she didn't. And—"
She interrupts me. "I'm sorry, I wish I could answer all your questions, but I can't. Bernie Kosar needs help, and the only way you can help him is if you get out of here! You have to find the other Numbers, get to the Emerald City and find the—" An explosions rocks the ground beneath us. I stumble a bit and Ella helps to righten me. I try and twist from her grip to see what happened, but she turns me back to face her.
"Marina," She says, her voice impossibly more urgent. "This is all in your head, but you can get hurt here. You can die here, do you understand me? This is the only way I could contact you, and even now—" —Her form momentarily flickered—"There is not much I am allowed to tell you, nor am I the right person to."
My head is still spinning from my fall, and this is just the icing on the cake. I don't know how to process all this new information. "Ella, I don't understand anything." I feel tears welling up in my eyes. No, I can't cry. Not now, not again.
"I know," Ella presses a soft hand to my cheeks. "I know, but you just have to trust me. You are one of the strongest people I have ever met, Marina. You have the power inside you, stronger than anyone else." She smiles at me. "I know it. That's why I chose you, not Nine or Six. They will never be able to do what you do."
I give her a watery smile in return. There people go again, calling me strong. I can't even fight, don't they see that? I can't even go a day without crying. Six wouldn't cry, if she were in my place. "How are you controlling them?" I ask, more out of desperation than out of blatant curiosity. "How do I know I can trust…?"
"It's a… long story. And just an extra thing to have on your mind right now. This is important, not just for you, but for all of us. This—" There's another explosion, and Ella pushes my shoulder away, her previous thought forgotten. "You have to go!" She yells. "I'll help BK, just follow the yellow brick road and you'll find your way!"
"How do I—" But my question is answered as Ella pulls a wand from the sleeve of her dress and flicks it in my direction. I feel as if a pair of gentle, invisible hands have plucked me from the ground and begins to carry me off. Up, up, up until I can only faintly hear Ella yell: "Good luck!" Before I see her small form dash in the direction of the battle.
Once again, someone else is saving me. And I'm supposed to be the strong one?
I hit the ground in a run, like a landing plane. As soon as the momentum's warm off, I start to run again. Away from Chinatown, away from the explosions and sorrowful howls of Bernie Kosar as he takes a beating for me.
I have too many questions, so many things to think about that I don't know where to begin. So I just run until my legs ache, focusing on the path before me and placement of my feet. I run until I can't anymore, until the plumes of smoke are far behind me and all I can see of Chinatown is the giant wall that separates them from me.
Now I realize that the wall wasn't to keep things out, it was to keep the china dolls in.
I've slowed myself to a walk by the time I reached the cornfields, my adrenaline gone and exhaustion taking over my body. I'm tired and hungry. I glanced desperately at the corn, but there was absolutely nothing ripe enough to eat.
I reach out my hand and touch the corn anyway. It feels green and natural, and somehow reminds me of home. Of earth, that I'm not entirely cast into limbo, that there still might be some hope for me. My mind drifts to Ella and all she just said to me, but I shake the thoughts out of my head. No use confusing myself.
And that's when I see him. Pale skin, black clothes, dark hair that falls in his eyes as he walks. He wasn't close to the cornfield, not yet, but he was close enough. Another Mogadorian, not Ivanick, but similar. Maybe one that had followed me from Chinatown. Maybe one all alone. All I knew is that I had to get out of there.
I dash down the road, fresh adrenaline pumping energy into my swollen muscles once again. I ran for quite some time afterwards, but eventually I run out of steam again, this time feel a lot more… permanent. I hope that I had been able to put enough distance between us, but I had a feeling that it would never be enough for me.
I also have a feeling that I'm lost. Very, very lost. The ground had grown flat as I journeyed farther into the corn, and with that I lost my height-vantage point. In every direction all I could see were rows and rows of premature corn, my only guide being the yellow brick road under my feet. Yet, I couldn't help feeling a little uneasy about it, thus far nothing about 'the land of Oz' had been at all straightforward.
"Well, lookey-look what we have here."
Voices. A male's voice, one I didn't recognise, but it wasn't a Mog and that was good enough for me. I'm walking, continuing down the path until I can really pick out what they're saying:
"Still hiding in the corn fields, Underdweller?" The male voice snickers again, followed by two other horking laughs.
I nearly gasp when I head John's voice pipe up, having to clamp a hand over my mouth. "I don't hide in them, Mark, I guard them from harm. It's kind of what I do." He sounds confident, on the verge of sarcastic, and it makes 'Mark' mad.
"But if you're protecting them," He snarls, "then who's protecting you, Underdweller?"
Surprisingly, John says nothing.
"That's what I thought." Mark laughs, followed by the mortifying sound of flesh hitting flesh. John audibly groans.
I know I've heard enough.
"Stop it!" I yell, rounding the corner and revealing myself to them. I know what I was expecting to see… and this was not what I was expecting.