Cure for the Enemy
It's definitely John standing there, and I breathe a sigh a relief. He looks unharmed, although his hair is mildly more tousled than usual and his clothes look oversized and ratty. Holding him on either wrist is a midget, and the one I supposed was Mark stood in front of the three.
For some reason, Mark sounded a lot more menacing than he actually was. His hair was blue and combed back neatly, the locks almost but not quite covering a pair of barbed ears. He was short; probably no taller than my waist, his brightly coloured yellow shirt and orange blazer hanging off of him as if his parents were buying big sizes in order to save money when he hit his growth spurt.
Four heads crack in my direction, and despite my height I'm feeling small and alone. I want to say something, something brave to get those little… muchkins to leave John alone. But I stutter on my words and Mark ends up speaking over me.
"Check it out, boys." He turns to the two muchkins at John's wrist. "An Underdweller standing up for her fellow Underdweller." He sneers at me waving a hand in my direction, "Get out of here, this has nothing to do with you."
I'm expecting John to protest, take the moment of distraction to burst into action or at least free his wrists from a couple of boys that can't weigh more than fifty pounds a head. But he doesn't do a thing, in fact, he just nods his head at me in agreement.
My face burns. "Why don't you defend yourself?" I ask him, anger edging in my voice.
His expression doesn't change from blank, and he doesn't say anything. The munchkins laugh at me, and Mark takes the opportunity to punch John in the gut. It's not very hard, there couldn't possibly be that much power in such a little fist, but John doubles over as if the punch were a step away from a bullet would. Why is he doing this?
"This Underdweller doesn't want your help!" Mark yells at me. "He'd rather get beat."
I finally allow my mind to wander back to what had happened in Chinatown. They had called me a Number, gone to their greatest defense to contain me as soon as I showed signs of power. I was a threat. And if I am a Number without even really knowing what that means, I bet John is too. They just don't know it. "But he's not an Underdweller." I immediately don't feel comfortable using that word. I have no idea what it means, but I have a feeling it's meant to be derogatory.
"Then what is he? A china monster?" One of them snickers.
"He's a Number." I say, putting my hands on my hips. John hangs his head. The three munchkins burst out laughing.
"Yea, right!" Mark laughs. "You're telling me that one of the most dangerous people in all of Oz is a corn-watcher?" He grabs John by the scruff of his shirt and throws him down on the road. John grunts, but still says nothing. "Come on, Number, show us your powers!"
While they're distracted I stretch out my hands, letting my sticky palms breath for the first time in a while. There are red marks where my nails were digging into my skin, although I can barely feel it over the hot pumping of blood that raced to my fingertips. I stretch out my arm, and with my telekinesis I pick up Mark.
It's quite obvious that Mark has never experienced anything like it, because he starts to flail as soon as his feet leave the ground. "What witchcraft is this?" He screams, but a second later his face pales and he raises a shaky finger. "She's a… a…"
"A Number." John sighs, suddenly attaining his ability to speak.
"She's a…" Mark is speechless, his two cronies backing away slowly without the consent of their leader.
"You'd better run, Mark, otherwise things are going to get messy." I say in the most menacing tone I can. It's not much, but it's good enough to scare a guy who's already half out of his mind with fear.
"Take the Underdweller! Take the Underdweller!" Mark wails, running in midair as I hold him in place with my Legacies. "My father is a High Patrolman; they'll come after you if you kill me!" I finally decide to let him go and he bolts like a horse from a race gate.
Even though the trio are quickly disappeared down the road, their voices bounced around the corn field for quite a while after. "Numbers!" They yelled. "There's a wild Number in Oz!" Something told me they weren't spreading this like it was a joyous message.
John's back is to me, watching the trio flee down the road. He looks over his shoulder at me. "So, you're a Number."
"Wait… you're not one?"
"No, I am." His eyes are downcast. "I've just never met another one. I thought for so long that I was the only one left."
I'm about to ask what he means when he cuts me off. "I'm Number Four, but I go by John." He sticks his hand towards me and I take it.
"I go by Marina." It feels so strange to be shaking John's hand again, like we've never met. Well, technically, we have never met. But at the same time, I feel like I'm lying to him by faking ignorance.
John glances behind his shoulder in the direction Mark and the others had ran. "You know, he wasn't kidding when he said his father was a High Patrolman. They'll be back to kill us in less than an hour." He motions towards the path ahead. "Shall we?"
We begin to walk, side by side. He says nothing, but I have a million questions brimming at my lips. "Why would they want to kill us?" Is the first one that bubbles up.
He shrugs, gazing ahead of us. "Kill what you can't control. And you know, the Wicked Witch lives around here. If she catches word we're here, her followers will be on us in minutes. They don't want to be around here for that."
"The Wicked One," I breathe, thinking of what Ivanick had said back in Chinatown. So there was someone out to get us just like on earth; not something I wasn't used to.
He nods. "That's what they call her."
Here's an interesting fact: I was having a better conversation with illusion-John than I had ever had with John in real life. With the real John Smith (and by that I meant the one who lived on Earth) we didn't talk much. We did talk, but most of the time it was about something strategic or me giving him older-sister advice even though he'd had more experience in just about everything than me.
But this John didn't have a girlfriend—plus whatever went on with Six—to deal with. He didn't have the brotherly relationship with Sam or the best friend relationship with Nine that basically left me and Eight alone and probably pushed us together even more. It was just me and him, and we actually talked. Mind you, it wasn't about stuff that actually existed, but he was serious about it and that was talking enough.
He explained to me what an Underdweller was; it wasn't as bad as I thought. It was a term used by the people in the countryside of Oz to describe the people from the city, because the Emerald City sat in a valley.
"Well, how did they know you were from the city?" I asked, still not sure what he meant.
"Because I'm not dressed like a Quadling." He says as if it were so obvious.
I decided to just leave that type of language for them to use.
And it turned out that John didn't know much more than I did about our statuses: That there was a Wicked Witch out for our blood (The Wicked Witch of Dulce, he called her), that being a Number deemed us dangerous and scary to all inhabitants across Oz be it Munchkin or Chinadoll, and that the reasons being were completely unknown. John had grown up alone, always hiding and running but never knowing why. The cornfield had just been the latest of many, where he'd posed as a corn watcher and had the opportunity to practise his powers as they began to develop.
By the time we'd left the cornfield and ventured into what John called the 'Friendly Forest' I realized I had been dancing around the fact that I had come out of the river. My comparisons to all of his stories had been very vague, but I was scared that if he knew I wasn't really a 'Number' he would abandon me. Real life John wouldn't, but this guy wasn't real life John.
"But what would you wish for?" He asked me as I told him about my plans to go to Oz and see the wizard.
"I, uh…" I decided it had better be now or never. "I want him to help me get back home. I'm not really… from Oz, John."
"The Paradise River, right?" He gives me a knowing smile.
I do a double take, confusion transforming into relief. "How did you…?"
"'Twas the place the lost go, The River, the indefinite home, the Paradise River resides the unknown." He recites it like something he's heard many times. "I know the story, Marina. The people who feel like they don't belong, they jump in the river in hopes that they'll find a new home wherever it takes them."
"No, I'm actually from another place, the River brought me here." He gives me a quizzical look and I desperately decide to elaborate. "The Witch of Paradise told me so!"
"You mean the Wicked Witch of Paradise?" John says bitterly. "She's always trying to mess with people's heads."
"The Wicked Witch?" I couldn't believe that Sarah was evil. Sarah would never—she gave me food, water, gave me Bernie Kosar to help me find the wizard! Why would she lie to me?
"As wicked as they come."
"I don't believe—" I began, but my sentence was drowned out by an ear-shattering roar. The forest around us seemed to suddenly grow darker, birds and animals fled from their various hiding places in the trees, skirting around us as they ran in the opposite direction we were headed. A cheetah—god knows why there's a cheetah living in a deciduous forest—zig zags in front of us, nearly crashing into John as it scrambled away. What could something so powerful be so afraid of?
From off in the distance I can hear the sound of branches being snapped carelessly as something made its way along. It lets out another screaming roar; John grabs my arm.
"A piken," He whispers, pulling me off the path and into the woods.
"They run wild here?"
But he never answered my question, instead pressing a finger to his lips to signal me to be quiet. We stop weaving through the forest after a while to hide behind a random tree, John putting me behind him as he holds the tree from both sides.
"We should be okay here," He pants, sounding like he just recently allowed himself to breathe again. A bead of sweat ran down his brow. He was getting nervous.
The tree John had been holding bursts into flames. I shriek in surprise, jumping back as the tree turns into a bright inferno. John pulls his hands away, flames still dancing on his palms, a look of horror on his face as he realized what he just did.
The piken roars again, its footsteps getting closer as it is undoubtedly attracted by the fire.
No one even has to say it; me and John turn and run. I couldn't fight a piken, John probably couldn't do it alone, and we were in its home court. We dart between trees, aimlessly moving forward while trying not to trip over the gnarled tree roots that patched the forest floor together like a quilt.
But we couldn't run forever, this thing will unquestionably catch us. Then, out of the corner of my eye I spot it: a bungalow-style cottage, made of a simple brown wood that camouflaged the building in the woods so well it was barely noticeable. Barely.
"John! Inside!" I point in the direction of the cottage, my legs following my finger. I can hear John catch on behind me. We race for the cottage but I eventually get there first; thanking my lucky stars that the door was unlocked as I yank it open and John barrels inside, me right behind him.
I slam the door shut. John is breathing heavily, hands on knees as he tries to regain control of his pulse. I'm down there with him, but I dart my head nervously from side to side, making sure there was no terrified cottager whose house we had just broken in to.
The cottage is just as small on the inside as it appeared on the outside, made even smaller by the excess of furs and skins on the walls, floor and just about every flat surface. All of the furniture was made of woods of difference colours, pieces together randomly. There were difference coloured wooden knobs on the dresser, a small bed with a pelt for a blanket and a stove-like contraption in the far corner. The table marking the midpoint of the room was laid with knives and blades of difference shapes and sizes, which had me wondering who exactly lived here… and how wise it was to be trespassing. But at least we were alone at the moment.
A…Piken." He says again, pausing for breath. "I thought they were extinct."
I seat myself on the tiny bed in the corner of the room, knotting my hands in the furry blanket. "You've never seen one before?"
"They were hunted down, dangerous animals. How could there still be one left? They're not exactly subtle creatures." He shrugs, straightening himself. He turns his head, taking in the appearance of the cottage. "And I never knew of anyone who would be living in the Friendly Forest. He must be an outcast, or…" He looks at me, clearly excited. "Maybe another Number!"
As if on cue, I hear someone outside fumbling with the doorknob. I jump behind the bed, still a little scared that we've broken into a maniac's home rather than another Garde. Then again, the blades do seem Nine's style, although I never pictured him as a woodland cabin kind of guy.
John sees what I'm doing and leaps over the bed to join me just in time for the door to fly open.
I have to control my urge to scream.
I clap a hand over my mouth as a boy with shiny silver skin walks in through the door, an axe made of metal—from hilt to tip—thrown over his shoulder. Over his other shoulder is a padded canvas bag with I-don't-want-to-know what inside. He's mumbling to himself, and as he sets his axe down on the table and his skin reverts to normal am I better able to see his face: Five.
John squeezes my hand, excited. He doesn't know of course, that Five… I feel my emotions washing over me like hot flashes: anger, grief, remorse; before my internal slot machine stops on triple rages. I decide to collect my pay out.
Before I can even reconsider, I climb to my feet and reveal myself. "Five!" I screech, reaching out a hand and catching the traitor with my telekinesis before he can even react. I step on top of the bed and back to the floor, raising Five as he kicks the air, arms floundering.
"Stop!" He yells, surprise and fear written across his pudgy face. "I'm one of you, I'm one of you! You saw my powers!" He chokes out.
"Marina, what are you doing?" John touches my shoulder, his voice urgent. "He didn't do anything!"
"Just put me down!" Five pleads. "I'm on your side!"Him saying that makes me even angrier. I let him fall, punching him in the face as he falls towards the ground just the way Nine taught me, with my thumb out. I mean to put as much power in it as I can, and the traitor goes flying across the room, hitting the wall on the other side. His head lulls to the side as he sinks to the ground, clearly unconscious.
"What the hell!" John yells, throwing his hands in the air. "Why did you do that?!"
"He's a traitor." I say quietly, the anger evaporating as quickly as it pooled. Why was I being so emotional? "He tried to kill…" But I don't know how to end that sentence. What proof would I have to make John believe that I wasn't just crazy? Suddenly jumping out at Five seemed like a terrible idea.
We just kind of stood there, frozen, as I tried to decide what to say. That was, until we find out that we were not alone in the cottage. Again.
"Damn, I hope you didn't kill him." I instantly recognize Nine's voice. I look around, frantic to spot him, but the cottage is empty apart from John, Five and myself.
"Because I kind of wanted to do that." Nine continues, and this time I follow the sound of his voice upwards. He's sitting on one of the support beams that make up the ceiling, and I feel stupid for not checking there as soon as we entered the cottage.
Nine gracefully drops to the ground, doing a little bow when he lands. He looks like some kind of lumberjack wearing a red flannel shirt and worn jeans. In his right hand I can see the short stick that I know expands into his weapon of choice. It's funny, I thought that had gotten destroyed.
I glance back at Five, noticing that he has two intact eyes. How could all of this possibly be from my mind if this place isn't even up-to-date?
My attention is snapped back to Nine as I hear what he's saying. "And you're this new Number everyone's been talking about? You don't look like much." Usually when someone is talking about something important, the role of ambassador always went to John. He was the leader, not one ever spoke to me. But Nine was speaking to me.
"Everyone's been talking about?" I echo, a bit confused.
"Sure, you're like some sort of Underdwell celebrity. First person to ever come from the Paradise River, then she nearly destroys that China doll fortress in the same day. Not to mention escaping the cold grasp of the Wicked Witch of Paradise." Nine licks his lips, grinning. "I thought maybe you were on some kind of rampage, but now I think you guys are just lost." He snickers.
"And to answer your question, John," Nine jabs a finger at John. "He tried to kill me. At least half a dozen times, and I can guarantee you that he probably had a hand at a few more of us. You're lucky she has so much sense, I was this close—" He pinches his fingers together, "—to jumping in and killing him, and I can't promise you wouldn't have been a casualty."
John glances at me rather apologetically and I give him a reassuring smile. He shouldn't be the one apologizing; really, if it weren't for Nine coming to my defense he had every right to doubt me. I keep forgetting that we barely know each other.
Nine has gotten himself busy prodding Five with his now fully extended staff. "You knocked him out pretty good," He comments.
"Who are you, anyway?" John asks, watching Nine curiously as the brunette pulls a copper wire from his belt and begins to tie Five's wrists together.
John blinks. "But what do you go by? You're real name?"
"I go by Nine."
"But… people are afraid of us. The witch…" John argues, crossing his arms.
Nine puts the finishing touches on his knot, stands back to admire his work. "I don't know about you, but being a Number is all I have. This one—" He points at Five, "—argues that numbers for names are cruel, but… this is who I am now. This is my identity, not whatever I can make up and now whoever we used to be." He raises his staff. "And screw the witch, I've been trying to lure her after me for years. I mean, have either of you ever actually seen her?"
I shake my head, although I know I'm not one much to speak. John mirrors my actions. But it was obviously a rhetorical question, because Nine was no longer paying us any attention. He heads over to Five's bed and pulls a wooden chest from underneath, opening it and digging a hand inside.
"Use his own traps against him," He mutters.
I can see John edging towards the door, obviously made uncomfortable by Nine. I remember John once telling me about how badly he thought of Nine when they first met, and how his opinion completely transformed later on. I was guess we were still in the first met phase.
Before I can say anything to Nine John pulls me by the hand out the door, closing it behind us quietly. "Well that guy was…weird." He says as soon as he feels we're out of earshot.
"I hope you mean that in an endearing way, Johnny boy." Nine's suddenly leaning on John's shoulder, his lips an inch away from John's ear. "Because I've been told I can deliver one hell of a loogie."
"How do you know my name?" John grumbles, shrugging Nine off his shoulder.
"Enhanced hearing." He taps his ear. "I heard you guys coming from a mile away. And I also heard there was a Piken around. I thought they were extinct too, Johnny boy." He claps John on the back rather hard.
The blonde grits his teeth. "We don't need help dealing with a Piken."
"Yea, we do." I say.
"See, the lady agrees with me." Nine winks at me. "And considering you get into a ton of trouble by accident, I would love to see what kind of trouble you would get in on purpose. Mind if I join your quest?"
"She doesn't need you, she's got me." John pipes in before I have a chance to speak.
"I don't recall you saying you were going to accompany her."
"Well, now I am." He retorts, looping an arm in mine.
"We could always go together…" I say shyly, doing all I can to conceal my excitement. First John, now Nine. Maybe finding everyone else wouldn't be as hard as I had initially thought.
"Sounds good to me," Nine laughs, looping my other arm.
John mutters something unpleasant.
We walked for about five minutes before we accidentally found the piken again. It was waiting by the now burnt-out tree, a maniacal glow in its eyes as it saw its prey coming right back to where it last saw us. For a countless time that day I berated myself for being so dumb.
Nine immediately wanted to fight the thing—John wanted to run. We ended up doing a bit of both: Nine ran up and down, slashing the thing with his staff as he used his anti-gravity to get at the thing's eyes, face, neck. I can see John and Nine beginning to form a bond and John runs alongside, hurling fireballs at the piken while Nine was out of the way. They work well together, I thought.
And while the two heroic boys battled the Piken, I trailed after the fight as we ran after it. I flung a few rocks at it, but what else could I do? Any attempt to try and use my new Legacy seemed fruitless when the two of them were dealing with the beast perfectly.
I was starting to get a third wheel vibe.
The piken was bloody, it's calloused skin pulsating with the extra effort of facing such admirable foes, but it was nowhere near dead. I used my telekinesis to toss a rock about the size of a small car at its head. It bounced off harmlessly, but it turned to growl at me anyways.
While it was distracted John jumped at one of its knees, forcing its leg to buckle and for the animals to fall to the side. The ground shook and I wobbled, but Nine didn't falter as he leaped in the air and plunged his staff into one of the piken's eyes.
The beast roared, fresh rage radiating off it as it bucked Nine off its head and kicked John away. It lumbered to its feet, seeming disoriented. With a final howl it turned and ran in the opposite direction we had come.
John and Nine high fived, grinning at each other. They watch the beast run, Nine cat-calling after it; but the piken doesn't turn back. Of course we had put up a good fight, I've just never experienced a piken that didn't, well, fight to the death.
My question is answered when a giant ball of a gooey, translucent liquid lands on my shoulder.
I look up to see where it came from, my moan of disgust trapped in my throat as a girl's head looks down at me, her face a mess of thousands of whiteless red eyes. Instead of a mouth she has a pair of snapping pincers. Instead of a body…
I scream, falling onto my back.
"Marina!" John yells as the two boys spin around. Nine, however, is the first one to take action, using his super speed to grab me in his arms and bring me a safe distance away from the monster. By the time he sets me down, I can really see what I'm looking at.
The head has straight black hair which would have gone past her shoulders had she had any. Instead there was a rotund torso, and eight hairy black legs. She was tall, her human face looking down at us from a height that I probably could have walked under without having to crouch. A thousand eyes spun to look at us, at least a few hundred settling on me.
The giant spider began to make hissing noises at us. No, not hissing, it was speaking.
"Numbers," She hissed between her pincers "Such fools to come to me." The pincers spread apart, revealing a human mouth and two rows of pointy teeth behind it. "I will enjoy the taste of their blood."
For having such a large size, the spider was quick. She bolted at us without warning her nippers extending further as she prepares to sink her teeth into one of us. John and I leap to the sides, but Nine remains frozen in place.
What was wrong with him? I don't have time to consider what as I use my telekinesis to throw him to the ground just in time for the spider to walk right over him. She's rears, confused as to why there isn't a person in her sharp teeth.
I take the opportunity to run over to Nine, ducking under the spider's bulk and trying to help Nine to his feet. He doesn't budge, although he's beginning to look a little green. "Get up!" I scream at him, but he doesn't seem to be aware of me. He was conscious, just not conscious.
It's only thanks to my enhanced strength that I'm able to throw him over my shoulder. Nine could face anything, Nine was always completely fearless, and now a stupid giant spider has rendered him immobile? It didn't add up.
I was only able to walk a few steps before I'm slammed onto my stomach, strands of sticky white stuff plastering me and Nine to the floor. Ew, spider's silk.
A fireball flies over my head, followed by John who leaps over us like a gazelle would a fallen comrade. The spider roars in the background.
"Nine!" I scream again, struggling against the tight bonds of the silk. "Do something! He me get rid of this stuff!"
But he doesn't move, and his chest is pressing down on the shoulder that had recently been carrying him. His hand is glued to my back, but I can see his other is free, stretching out just beyond where the silk held us.
"Nine!" I turn my head to face his, and I nearly lost all of my drive to escape. Nine was crying. Silent tears, nothing like the pitiful tears I had shed on Sarah's shoulder the previous day. His eyes were closed, the tears leaking from his eyes and falling, untreated, down his face.
I cried, John could cry, Six probably would if she ever felt the need. Ella was only a child who could cry without consequence. Sam and Sarah, I'm sure, cried plenty of times in their lifetime. Even Eight… my stomach clenched.
But Nine, Nine didn't cry. He didn't, he was tough… he…
"Marina, Nine, I could use a little help!" John yells.
I didn't know what to do. Once again, I was stuck and unable to help anyone. Not even Nine, who seemed to be having an unwarranted emotional breakdown of his own.
I was suddenly aware of how cold it had become. The cocoon that held us in place was freezing, pressed against my skin. No… I was the cold one! I try to focus my energy in that feeling, but soon enough I feel the icy feeling of my skin fading away. No, not again!
I kick at the webbing, and it turns out to be frozen enough to break apart. I shrug the silk away and slip out from underneath Nine.
"Nine!" I shake his shoulder, although it feels futile. "Nine, please, whatever it is you know I'm here for you, but right now we have to fight!"
"Fine!" I slap his shoulder unnecessarily, climbing from my knees to my feet so I can help John.
I search around myself hysterically, desperate to set my eyes on them. My night-vision activates automatically, searching the shadows. I finally spot the pair in the dark recedes of a tree, the spider holding an unconscious John by the calf in her pincers, blood drips from John's leg where she held him. She scuttles around in the large branches of the tree, forming a giant web. I feel nauseous.
One of her multiple eyes see me, and she drops John in her silk net. "One still left alive," She slurs. "the female always has the juiciest flesh." Now I really feel sick.
I have no real way to fight, I can't just throw rocks at her. She has all the cards! But not unless…
She jumps down from the treetops, her bulk shaking the ground. I teeter a bit, but I stay upright. We're at a silent standoff for just a moment when she runs at me, nippers extended for the kill.
But she's too tall and I run underneath her, reaching upwards to knit my hands into her black, hairy underside. I shiver but I don't let go, bringing my feet up and planting them on her belly.
"She touches me! She touches me!" The spider bellowed, trying to extend her non-existent neck under her so she can grab me with her pincers.
When that doesn't seem to be an option she rears back, lifting one of her barbed legs to her abdomen and plunging it right at me. I let go of her hair and hit the ground instead, and the spider stabs herself with one of her own weapons.
She screams a human scream, wobbling a bit as black blood begins to leak from beneath her. "I will kill her!"
But now, with one successful hit, I feel a renewed sense of confidence. Even more, I have another idea.
I jump as high as I can, using my telekinesis as a booster to propel myself in the air and on top of the spider. She screams in rage and kicks, trying to send me flying off, but I dig my fingers into her shaggy back. I sit forward, the soles of my feet facing the back of her head. I kick her once; a good kick that made something crunch.
I gasp when he head spins around, eyes and nippers doing a 180 to face me. I kick at her again, my heel making contact with her eyes. She turns her head away for a second, but it snaps right back. She has more than two eyes, I could kick her a million times and she'll still be able to see me!
She snaps her pincers at me, obviously happy to see me struggling. That was, until the end of Nine's staff explodes out of her abdomen, thick black liquid splatters all over us. The spider's eyes go wide, watching her own guts bubble out of a hole that went straight through her, the grin fading from her human mouth.
I bring a hand up to shield my face as the black sludge pops at us, and I lose my balance and tumble over the side of the spider's enormous torso as she staggers and finally, falls onto her side with a thud. I scramble away on my hands and knees, slipping around in the blackness that was now leaking from three different wounds on the spider's body.
"How does that feel, huh?" Nine yells at the now motionless carcass of the giant spider, the staff in his hand covered in her blood. "Right through the heart, bitch!"
He continues to go on and on, and I lift my head to the treetops, looking for John. In the darkness I can see him still stuck in the web—but it's quickly starting to flake away, pieces of the web's silk fading into nothingness.
Enough of the web is gone and John falls. I run over to try and catch him, but I end up opting for my telekinesis to catch his fall and safely set him on the ground. By the time I've reached him, he's already stirring.
"What happened?" He whispers, cracking one eye open at me. The wound on his leg is already fading. "Did you kill it?"
I laugh, almost amazed that I actually made it happen. That I actually kind of… helped. "Sort of. How are you feeling?"
"Fresh as the dickens," John grumbles, already sitting up. I notice the black sludge that had peppered my arms and gloved my hands had faded too, almost all of it gone. "I guess when the spider died, everything else goes with her." I think out loud, and I think John can partially understand.
He glances over my shoulder. "Well, almost everything." I follow his gaze.
Nine is sitting on the ground, a now fully human girl with that same black hair lying in his lap. I know she's dead, but I don't say anything to John, and I guess he's thinking the same thing because he doesn't say anything to me.
We just wait and watch as Nine strokes the girl's hair and cries quietly to himself.
Eventually Nine dropped the girl, not giving much care as her body hit the ground. He got to his feet and walked over to us. Any sign that he had been crying, or even a little emotionally disturbed couldn't be seen on his face.
"We're in the forest of nightmares." He says matter-of-factly.
"That's why the piken ran away!" John snapped his fingers. "'Twas the woods of fear and blood does with wise man flee, the nightmare beasts come forth at night and take thy sanity."
"How many of these little nursery rhymes do you know?" I asked him, raising an eyebrow.
He crosses his arms. "They're not nursery rhymes! It's a poem about all the dangerous stuff in Oz." He begins to list them on his fingers. "The Witch's castle, the Paradise River, The Nightmare Forest, the Beyond—"
"Yea, yea, dangerous poetry, we get it." Nine waves his hand in John's face, cutting him off. "The point is," he swallows. "I had a very unpleasant experience back there, and you two are going to have to go through the same thing unless we leave."
"So let's leave." I say.
"Good." Nine nods his head and begins to march in a random direction.
"I believe that's the opposite of the way we came!" John yells after him.
"It's called the Nightmare forest not the Straightforward Forest, everything is backward here!" Nine yells over his shoulder. "Just trust me!"
I shrug at John. "What have we got to lose?"
"Our sanity." John mumbles as we follow after him.
It was less than a minute in that I found out how terrifying the Nightmare Forest could be. It started off when I saw my cepan wandering by herself.
"Adelina!" I scream, running towards and wrapping my arms around her. She looked down at me, dazed.
"You killed me," she whispered in my ear. I looked up, started by her harshness, but I all I could see were the thick trees above and suddenly my arms were holding air.
My hands shook for quite a while after that.
A little later John yelled out, pointing to a person who was clearly a Mogadorian grasping a dark-skinned boy by the throat on a high tree branch. The Mog dangled him over the gap as the boy clawed at the hands containing his neck.
Almost impossibly, the boy turns his head down at us and frowns. "Why aren't you helping me?" He screams right before the Mog plunges a sword in his chest and they both explode into dust.
Then there was an old man who had hobbled by, black hair streaked with grey. He was hunched over as he walked, in desperate need of a cane but there didn't seem to be any available. He coughed once before walking up to us.
"Why didn't you help my boy?" He rasped. "You were supposed to help each other, but you hurt him. Liren would not be proud, John." The old man wheezed before he quickly shriveled up and fell to the ground.
We were all shaking pretty well after that.
The part that bothered me the most was that all of these people were dead. Dead, and obviously didn't die at peace.
"Marina?" I turn at hearing a familiar voice, although I suppose all the voices I hear should be familiar. Behind us stood Crayton wearing a pressed black suit, his hands folded behind his back.
"H-Hello." I stutter, not sure what else to say. John and Nine give each other confused glances, obviously confused having never met Crayton.
"What's the matter?" He asks me, reaching out a hand but retracting it as he sees me flinch. "Did I do something wrong?"
I don't know what to say, so I don't say anything at all, instead I look down at my shoes.
"Marina, you are so brave, for coming here." He says kindly. I'm waiting for the truth to come out. "Ella told me all of the fantastic details of your times in Santa Teresa, and let me say, you are a brave girl."
I still don't meet his eyes. Instead he reaches out a hand and brings my face up to look at his. "Chin up, Marina. Don't let such silly fears rule your life. The regrets you should carry should only come from your own actions, not the actions of others."
He smiles at me before turning and walking away. "Be strong, Marina! You have it in you!" He laughs as he fades away into the darkness.
After a moment of silence I hear Nine scratch his head. "That was… unusual. That nightmare was uncharacteristically positive."
"It wasn't a nightmare," I breathe, my legs taking a second too long to follow the whirring in my mind. "It was a good dream! This way!" I start to run, following in the footsteps that Crayton would have left had he been real.
The boys have no choice but to follow as I disappear into the forest. We had stuck to the areas where we could at least walk, but the farther I went the thicker the branches got and we were forced to swat them away. It became so thick that I had to walk forward with my shoulder bearing the brush. And then we fell into a clearing.
It wasn't a big clearing, or that nice of one. It was still dark enough that my night-vision legacy didn't shut off completely, but it had at least gone from dark to dim. The trees surrounding us seemed a little less hostile, the floor clear of the twisted roots that had attempted to trip us so many times. I felt safe suddenly, my fears from the Nightmare forest fading away.
"Well, that brought us absolutely nowhere. I was at least expecting some kind of magical elf or something that would beam us out of this forest." Nine drones.
I feel a little put out, but I don't agree with him. There was a reason Crayton led me here, I know it.
"There are elves in Oz?" I ask apathetically, not taking my eyes off the treeline as I inspect the clearing. There may or may not be a magical elf, but there was something in that form. I just had to find it.
"Of course not, that would be stupid." Nine retorts.
John nudges my shoulder. "Guys… how about a magical lion?"
"A magical lion? That's doesn't sound much better than a magical elf, dude."
"No, I mean, there's a lion!" John yells, spinning Nine around and pointing to the other side of the clearing. I turn with them, my throat feeling like it's closing up as I see the massive golden beast approaching us slowly. But not out of fear, no.
He looks right at me as it advances on us. It tilts his fuzzy brown head to the side, almost as if he was trying to understand what I was just as much as my mind desperately wanted to know what he was. This forest was full of dead people, so why couldn't it be…? I scold myself for even hoping, but I find myself drawn forward anyways.
I hear Nine's staff click out and extend. John's hands light up with the ease of a bic lighter. "Shall you take it, Johnny boy, or shall I?" Nine asks.
"Neither of you guys," I say, and their heads snap back to give me identical confused looks.
"You want to take it?"
I shrug past them, putting myself in the front. "Just let me deal with this. I just need to know…"
The lion keeps up his even pace, showing no signs of well, anything. I can feel John and Nine inch back behind me. "Marina…"
After what feels like an agonizingly long time the lion stops, less than a yard between us. He could easily jump at me now and tear me apart, but he does nothing. I reach out a hand slowly, deliberately, inviting him to come closer.
One of the lion's paws scratches the ground, hesitant to move. I take a step forward and he doesn't recoil. And slowly, slowly, I bring my hand down and touch his scruffy fur. I have to remind myself to breath.
"Hi…" I whisper, not moving my hand. "How are you?" I don't know what else to say.
Nine chortles from behind me.
Thankfully Nine goes ignored, and the lion shakes his head back and forth, letting my fingers run through his fur. I take the hint and start to pet him, curling my fingers around his soft fur. He continues towards me slowly, bringing his head up and resting it on my shoulder.
I want to cry.
"Hi," I say again, wringing my hands through his fur. "Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi hi." I laugh out the last few greetings. I sound crazed, but I don't care. My other hand comes up to grab him as I hug his head to my shoulder. "Eight." I murmur.
I knew that was the wrong thing to say as soon as the word left my mouth. The lion retracts, pulling his head from my grasp and backing away, a growl building in his throat. He looks at us all one more time, his eyes ending on me.
He turns and ran. But I couldn't bear to see him go. Not like this, not again. He was so close, just to be taken from me once again.
"Wait!" I screamed, reaching a hand out as if I could just grab him. "Please, Eight! Don't go!" But it was no use; he had disappeared into the darkness. "Eight!" I kept on screaming. "Joseph!" I yelled, completely desperate. "Naveen!"
And then he was there. Not a lion, but him. He looked exactly the same as the day I had first met him: cotton pants, no shirt. This time, however, his arms were crossed over his chest and his face was twisted in a scowl. "How do you know my name?" He asked, glare pointed directly at me.