A Number's Game

Show Me the Way

I can remember hitting the ground, dust flying in my face and in my nose. My body tumbling, something in my shoulder cracking and the shards of wood in my side being pushed deeper in as the momentum rolled me. My pursuer was probably thrown away, as I could no longer feel anyone touching me. I lay on my back, appendages thrown wildly, my body in the same position as it had been when I'd stopped rolling.

It was silent, I realized. No blasters, the pounding of heavy feet on the ground, or even Eight yelling at me. In the time that I'd been unconscious I suppose they could have taken us anywhere.

A hand gently touches my side and I flinch, my eyes popping open at the shock. I'm met with John's baby blue gaze, his eyes filled with concern.

"Marina, what happened?" He asks softly, but I sense the urgency in his voice. I was touched that he seemed so worried. "We heard what sounded like fighting and woke up, and then you and Eight were on the ground and… you're really banged up."

I abruptly began to feel the effect of John's legacy at work as the splinters began to pop out of my side, the wounds resealing themselves effortlessly.

"Eight must've teleported us away," I gasp out, my voice returning to me. I felt myself getting stronger by the second, but I was still groggy. We must not have been within range for Eight to get us out of there, especially since there were two of us. That's why my head hurt, teleporting always seemed to have that effect on me. It must have been him that grabbed me… he saved our lives.

"Four, I'm no doctor, but I think he really needs you over here!" Nine sounded edgy, and I only knew he was talking about Eight.

"Go," I breath, pushing his hand away. "I can heal myself, he needs you." I don't have to say it twice as John nods, leaving my side and running over to where Eight was. I close my eyes and rest my head back, my instincts taking over and allowing the ice from my legacy fill my body, healing myself from the inside. It was more rapid than John's efforts, probably because there is not transfer. I feel scratches closing up, bruises fading, the fogginess in my mind dying away. The splinters in my leg and side are cleanly ejected.

I sit up, my first priority being to make sure Eight was okay. It's not hard for me to catch John and Nine, only a few metres from me. Thankfully, he's already sitting up as well, although his breathing his jagged and his shirt looks… really red.

I shuffle over and sit in their little huddle. No one says anything for a few moments before John asks me what happened again. This time, I have no choice but to tell them.

I explain the whole story, from my walking into the forest by myself to when we were teleported back to the edge of the Beyond. I did end up leaving out the little talk me and Eight had had on the cliff—it felt a little too personal to share. Eight didn't say anything otherwise.

When I had finished, Nine audibly groans. "I've been trying to get some action with the China dolls for years, and you've been here for a few days. It's so not fair."

John suppresses a smile at Nine's comment, and turns back to Eight. "I think you're done. How do you feel?"

Eight grins at him, tapping his chin. "A little jealous, a healing legacy would have come in a lot of handy in my lifetime."

We all laugh, and that slowly fades into silence once again. I decide to steal the opportunity before anyone else manages to.

"Thanks for saving my life," I say, lightly touching Eight's shoulder, fearful that he'll brush me away. I remember so long ago when he had said almost the same thing to me.

"It was my pleasure; that was one of the most exciting things I've ever done." He smiles at me, leaning into my hand. The next thing I know I pull him into a hug, and this time it feels… real. "We should get some sleep, we've got a big day tomorrow." He whispers in my ear.

"We?" I pull back, previously under the impression that he had no intentions of coming with us.

"What did he say?" Nine asks obnoxiously, unable to hear what Eight had said to me.

"The forest is no longer safe, it seems." He says with a sigh, but I relish the fact that he doesn't look very upset. I would even say he looked relieved. "And I think I'm done hiding from the world. We do have a prophecy to fulfill, after all."

John and Nine exchange a confused look. "A prophecy?" John asks.

Eight nods, looking smug. "Tomorrow, it's so long I fear we'll be up until morning getting through the length of the story."

From the moment I fell asleep that night to breakfast the next morning, the enticing offer of hearing this 'Great Prophecy' hadn't left my mind. Neither had it left the boys', as it was all they seemed to talk about as we gathered breakfast.

Now that the secrets of the forest had been 'revealed' to me, it wasn't at all hard to find food. All I had to do was think about it, and the next things I knew I was knee-deep in a strawberry patch. The boys had vouched for more of the strange foods that they seemed to eat here, while I imagined up a tree that grew jugs of milk and Honey Nut Cheerios. And it actually happened. I had to wonder if there was any limitation as to what this forest couldn't do.

By the time we had all gathered what we wanted and were settled in a neat circle I was about to burst with curiosity. Eight folded his hands in his lap and smiled at us, and began the story.

"The world requires balance. For every good act there is an evil one, for every evil person there is a good one. There can never be all evil and all good, nothing would be able to survive. So when a wicked witch pops up—and they tend to often— a force of good must be created to counteract it."

"Fascinating," Nine snorts, resting his head on his palm. "Could we fast forward to the part that involved us?"

John rolls his eyes, Eight grins and continues. "I was getting there, but thanks for the leeway.

"When the Wicked One appeared in Oz, a force of good had to be created to counteract her magic. And that force ended up being us. Warriors, chosen by the wisest elders before birth and elected by the people."

"But we're not really warriors." John says, slightly embarrassed that he interrupted.

"And if you haven't noticed, the entire world wants us dead." Nine adds.

"Well, this life wasn't really the plan. We were supposed to go to the Emerald City once we were born to live in safety. But the witch was smarter. She… killed our families trying to figure out where they'd sent us. Including our protectors. She threatened anyone that would associate with us and created the China Dolls to do her bidding.

"The people of the Emerald City were cowards and they voted to send ten little kids out into the wild to fend for themselves just so they could keep their noses clean. The witch numbered us, just so the China Dolls could keep track of which of us were killed… and which weren't yet." He pauses, looking down. "And that's been our life."

John and Nine were silent, obviously contemplating the story. They looked distressed, but I didn't share their feelings. This was a story I had known all too well growing up—hunted for who we were by everyone around us, losing our entire families and having to fend for ourselves.

"But that's not really a prophecy," I whisper, looking at Eight. "There's got to be more to the story."

Eight shrugs dejectedly, his spirit hitting a tapering point. "That's all I was able to overhear from the forest travelers."

"But what was the plan for us? I mean, a group of warriors with no purpose?" I smash a fist into my palm. "We must be meant to come together, to fight off the witch and maintain the good half of Oz. And maybe," I smile shyly. "Maybe one of us is meant to become the new leader of Oz. To take over and let good rule."

"That's silly," Nine retorts, crossing his arms. "You can't just get a group of people together and hope that they'll be able to get along and fight together. I mean, I can fight well enough on my own."

"But you haven't been able to defeat the witch on your own." I argue. "We need to work together, maybe find more Numbers so we can be stronger."

John doesn't say anything, but I can tell by the distant look in his eyes that he's contemplating my offer. Eight nods at me. "It's completely possible."

"So what? We just march on into the Emerald City and let them know that we'll be taking over? A little far-fetched, don't you think?" Nine remarks.

"The wizard would be able to help us," Eight says back, excitement lining his voice.

"I'm dubious."

"Hell," John finally pipes in, a smile spreading across his face. "So what if that's not what this prophecy is about? Let's make it what it's about. I want to free Oz from the Wicked One. Besides, what other options do we have?"

His questions forces Nine to be silent, and has Eight eagerly get to his feet. "So why don't we go now? There's nothing holding us back, I can teleport us down there no problem!"

"Let's go," I say, glad to be leaving the forest and hopefully the China Dolls on the other side. "We're burning daylight."

"That's the spirit!" Eight whoops, and wraps his hand around me with a momentous hug, propelling me backwards and sending us both over the edge of the Beyond.

Eight laughs as we plunge and I don't even have a chance to scream before we've teleported to one of the floating rocks in the canyon.

I'm breathing heavily once I realized exactly what happened. Eight just laughs again, hugs me tighter and then suddenly his warm embrace is gone. I really hope the idea of him having two healers at his disposal won't send him to more insane stunts like this one.

He's less nuts with getting John and Nine down, and now that we we're all collectively on one rock I realize that we've got a long way to go. It's completely black down here apart from the faint glow of the rocks and the small gap of light coming from the opening of the Beyond. It seemed so small considering how big the opening was.

Below me it was all black. It may have been just a silly legend that the canyon was bottomless like Eight had said, but I wasn't in the mood to take chances.

"Can't you teleport us across?" Nine asks, peering over the edge of our platform with me.

"I would be risking missing the platform as there rocks are always moving and we drop to our deaths." Eight says lightly, shrugging.

Nine blinks in his direction, makes a congenial-looking face and leaps from the rock we're on to the closest. The rock the remaining three of us are on wobbles and I nearly push John off sticking out my arms to balance myself.

John decides to go next, lightly jumping from our rock to the next. He doesn't seem to have that much trouble and he turns back to face us, giving me an encouraging smile. "It's not hard, you can do it."

Meanwhile, Nine is sixteen or seventeen rocks ahead of us. "Hurry up, slow pokes!"

"It's not a race!" John yells back, clearly annoyed.

"It is for me! Gotta be the best!" Nine laughs as he boosts himself to the next platform.

John mumbles something about competitiveness but continues to go, easily crossing to the next stone.

I'm slightly annoyed by Nine's bravado, but I remind myself that that's just the way he is. I give Eight one last anxious look and turn to the next rock. It seems to have floated farther away. I jump, letting that extra bit of strength that I possess help me forward.

I land awkwardly on one foot, quavering with the effort of righting myself. I feel someone else land on my rock and I feel Eight's hands under my horizontal arms, helping me stay balanced.

I blush and thank him for helping me. After that, there were a few more instances where I had trouble staying up, but Eight was right behind me every time. And as I thanked him for his help for the umpteenth time I could have sworn I saw him blush too.

By the time we'd managed to hop, skip and leap our way across the canyon I was feeling pretty tired. As much as I'd love to boast my super strength and speed and all that, the truth was that just as my abilities were enhanced my energy usage was enhanced as well. It was kind of a double-edged sword.

The boys weren't looking so great either—except for Nine. He was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, riding an epic wave of adrenaline. He impatiently tapped his foot and crossed his arms as Eight, one by one, relayed us back up to the surface.

Just as I was the first to go down I was the last to come up. I waited in the dark of the canyon as John and Eight disappeared with the promise of returning promptly. I waited, patiently crossing my arms and staring upwards at the light until I got dizzy and had to stare down in the darkness to regain my composure. I was tempted to start to hum out a song just to keep myself busy, but nothing came to mind.

It was taking Eight a long time to come back down, I realized. I mean, had it taken him this long to bring Nine back up? Then again, I still had John to talk to, it wasn't as bad. I briefly imagine that the boys just forgot about me. No, that would be absolutely ridiculous.

I abruptly feel a pair of arms wrap around my waist and without warning I'm back on the surface. I glance around, a bit confused by the sudden change of atmosphere. The Emerald City was a lot closer than I had thought, now only a few hundred metres away. I guess I underestimated how long the Beyond really stretched. From this distance I could start to make out the forms of tiny people bustling around the city's walls; the city giving off a warm, inviting glow.

The only thing dividing us from them: a flower field that surrounded the city. From where we were standing I could clearly see they were blood-red poppies. I suppose that poppies aren't dangerous, but I couldn't help getting a hostile feeling from the patch. Was it not a little strange that the city's only visible defense was a flower field?

I look over at John and Eight who are staring out into the patch, frantically arguing about something. I follow the direction of their eyes and see what they're watching: Nine out in the flower field, recklessly wading around in the flowers like it was his backyard.

"Do we know that that's safe?" I ask, not taking my eyes off Nine as he makes a face at us.

"He doesn't seem to care either way," John grumbles, hugging his shoulders like he was really hurt about Nine not listening to him.

"Nine, come back!" I yell out into the flowers, cupping a hand around my mouth so he can hear me. "We need to make sure it's safe to cross!"

"It's safe enough!" He yells back, spinning around in the flowers like a little kid. "I'm trying to prove to Johnny Boy that he doesn't need to be so uptight! They're just flowers!" Just as he's saying that a flower seems to grow twice his size, and as he spins around to face it, the petals sprays a red mist in his face.

Within less than a second Nine falls into the flowers, disappearing from sight.

I gasp and John let's out a frustrated growl. Eight immediately disappears from John's left, reappearing in the middle of the flower patch where he last saw Nine. He searches through them, parting flowers with his foot until I see a flower stretch up behind him.

"Eight!" I scream, pointing at the flower from my spot on the sidelines. "Behind you!"

He teleports away just in time, reappearing just a few metres to his left. Another poppy begins to grow and I scream out at him again, but he doesn't react in time. He's effulged with a cloud of red mist. He coughs for a second, trying to fan away the poison with his hand. Still coughing he sinks to his knees and is sucked into the flowers.

"No!" I yell, reaching out an arm as if I could pluck him out of the field. My telekinetic powers wash over the field, searching for things to grab on to. But after a few seconds of searching I can't find them; it's as if they were gone.

"John, I'm going in!" I yell, ready to run into my certain doom as it seemed. I wasn't prepared to lose either of them. Before John could even get the chance to protest I suck in a breath and barrel into the flowers. I can see poppies growing in my peripheral vision, rising to tower over me as I run by. One pops up in front of me and I used my telekinesis to tie it in a knot so it sprays its mist at my feet.

I scan at the field, furiously searching for a head, foot, anything that might signify where they were lying. "Eight! Nine!" I scream, letting out the fresh air stored in my lungs.

More flowers grow to my left and I smack them aside with my telekinesis. I run off to the right but I'm barricaded in, and I turn and run in the other direction just to be faced with another pillar of poppies. I'm cornered from all directions. I'm considering using my telekinesis to levitate myself out of there when I'm met with a shower of redish mist.

Everything immediately starts to get hazy and my vision blurs. I can feel my eyes go wide as my brain tries to process this new vapour. I'm starting to get a detached feeling, as if I was floating away from my body. I sway side to side, completely unable to fight the woozy feeling in my knees, my legs stuck in place like metal poles.

In front of me I can see massive flowers being burnt to a crispy hulk, but my brain doesn't seem to be able to register it. Like a stray plastic bag being pulled along by the current, I feel an arm wrap around my waist and whip me from my spot on the ground.

My head lulls back as I'm held up against someone's side and all I can see is charred earth being passed underfoot—upside down. I can smell is ash and see little floating specks of ember fizzle out midair and crash land into the earth. I began to see the field was on fire… a really, really big fire. But I feel calm, letting everything outside of me bounce right off. I could just lie here like this, still—

I'm abruptly slammed onto the ground and it's like I'm shaken awake. I immediately sit up, the adrenaline dam held up in my brain releasing itself and sending a tingling sensation all over my body. Everything that had happened since I got sprayed seemed to register at once, as if all of my senses were being turned up tenfold.

Burning plants. A blazing fire. The overwhelming scent of raw cinders. Someone darting in and out of the flames—probably John. Red mist exploding as it made contact with the flames. The sounds of John screaming something incomprehensible. The sound of what seemed like fireworks going off. The feeling of smooth rock underneath me.

My hand grazes the surface I'm sitting on. It shimmers beneath me, a sparkling green crystal. I twist around where I sat, and there it was: The Emerald City. There was an entrance not less than a kilometre away.

Nine is thrown down next to me—hard. He immediately sits up, his pupils dilating from tiny pinpricks. His head beats back and forth, obviously trying to comprehend all that had happened in the time he was out.

John is panting in front of me, his hands on his knees. "I can't…" He takes a deep breath, "…find him."

Our eyes meet for a moment and I'm sure he can see the panic in me because he quickly turns around and runs back into the fire.

"What just happened?" Nine finally speaks, scratching his head.

You would probably say I was crazy for doing what I did next. Looking back on it, I probably was. But I seemed to be in the right mind for spontaneous acts of anger as of late, so it wasn't something so new to me.

So I punched Nine in the nose. This time I didn't even have to remind myself to put my thumb on the outside, and it felt good to use something he had taught me against him. He barely flinches, but I can see him put his hand to his nose and come back with blood on his fingers. Good.

"What the hell?" He gives me a quizzical look as he rubs the blood on his jeans.

"It's your recklessness that gets other people hurt! Why don't you listen!" I shriek at him. "Why do you always have to push people?"

He goes silent and I feel like I may have pushed him a little too far. I mean, I know he had been insubordinate pretty much since the moment I met him, but… this Nine, as similar as he seemed to be, wasn't the one who had basically prompted Five into 'accidentally' impaling Eight in the Everglades. But was I wrong to be angry? Am I wrong to say that if he hadn't been so… Nine then maybe things would have ended differently? If he hadn't been so Nine right now we probably wouldn't be in this position. Eight wouldn't be lost. John wouldn't be risking his life to clean up someone else's mess….again.

My eyes stray to the fire in the poppy field, it seems to be dying down. Even from here I can see the growth regenerating, retaliating against John's fire. Then, from among the smoke I see a figure emerge—John, Eight slung over his shoulder. John's face is covered in soot, his hair mildly singed and his clothes burned, but he was alright.

Upon seeing them safe I let out a sigh of relieve and turn to Nine, an apology on my lips. But I never get the chance as Eight is dropped next to me and my attention immediately flies to his injuries, instead allowing John to rant at Nine about irresponsibility.

Eight regains consciousness just as the rest of us did: in a confused flurry.

"What?" He gasps, touching his chest as he sits up. "How did…?"

I place my hand over his, gently removing it and reaching with my other towards the blistering skin on his arm. "We got… knocked out by those crazy flowers." I say, watching his expression as he tries to remember what had happened. I suppose I didn't get the full brunt of that strange mist, but I had to wonder what it was like to go completely under like Eight had.

He nods, still contemplating his time missed. "Everything went fuzzy and…" His eyes widen. "how did we get to the other side?"

"Everything got weird after I ran in and, uh, got sprayed too, but thankfully John figured out how to go around them and rescued us." I say sheepishly, making sure to keep my eyes on Eight's arm. I realize now how silly it was of me to run in without a plan in the first place.

"That's pretty crazy," He says.


I finish his arm and, like an idiot, I look up to see him grinning at me. I freeze, my hand still grazing the skin of his forearm. "I like crazy, though. It's fun."

My mind goes completely blank and my stomach feels like it's trying to claw its way up my esophagus. But I instantly recognize the feeling, and it scares me a lot more than anything. It was starting to feel like… a crush.

The rest of the walk was uneventful, thankfully. I was running out of reasons why we were still going to this place. I had to keep reminding myself that this place wasn't reality, and I desperately needed to get back to just that.

I glanced over at Eight, feeling slightly torn. He was alive and right next to me, I didn't think it would be very easy for me to just let him go. Then again, this whole wizard thing didn't seem like such a reliable option. Was it really bad for me to hope this wizard wouldn't be able to come through?

When we finally—finally—reached the door I was relieved to see a familiar face: Sam. We'd never really had much time to get to know each other, but John was incredibly loyal to the guy, and from as much as I'd spoken to him he'd been really nice. I had a good feeling we wouldn't have much trouble getting into the city.

He donned a shimmery-looking green uniform with silver buttons, epaulets and all that fancy jazz. Between his hands he shared a crystal green spear that looked like it was more for show than for actual castle defence and a clip board-like thing that he held against his chest. He stood with a straight back and a stoic face, staring into the distance until he seemed to spring to life as our ragtag group approached.

"Identification, please." He asked with a detached voice, quickly glancing down at his clipboard and then back at us.

No one responds right away and I look behind me at John, but he doesn't seem to be doing anything. He gives me an encouraging smile and I'm reminded of the role that I've been supporting since I got here.Right, I'm the leader here.

"Uh, yea, we don't… have any." I smile uneasily, rubbing my arm.

I hear Nine click disapprovingly and I realize that I sound really feeble. I clear my throat and level my shoulders, trying to make myself look more intimidating. I'm not so sure how well it was working. "But we're here with really important business for the wizard."

Sam smirks at me and glances down at his clipboard again. "Really? What kind of business?"

I smile knowingly, saying the first thing that comes to mind. "If it was the kind of business that I could just share with a door guard then don't you think I would have told you by now?"

Sam gives me a scrutinizing look. "Trust me, I would know if it was that important. If you guys don't have I.D. then I'm absolutely not going to let you into the city. Let alone to see the wizard."

"Come on, dude." Nine growls. "It's really important."

Sam scoffs at us, waving his clipboard impassively. "Go away, dude."

Why was he acting this way? It seemed so uncharacteristic of him…

I'm just about to argue when the door to the Emerald City slips open, revealing a tall man with silver hair and a matching outfit quite like Sam's except that his buttons were gold, probably signifying hierarchy.

"Goode." The man nods at Sam as he comes to stand on the opposite side of the door.

"Commander Purdy, sir." Sam mumbles at the ground.

Commander Purdy gives Sam a sour face at his response before he seems to notice the four of us standing in front of him. "Hello," He says, plastering a friendly face. "Are you here for the party?"

"Yes!" Eight jumps in, raising a hand in the air as he pops out from behind Nine. "We're here for the party!"

"Excellent!" Commander Purdy reaches for the door, and I can't believe it's just that easy. Until Sam bats his hand away.

"Sir, we can't just let anyone in! They don't even have Identification!"

"Nonsense," Commander Purdy's voice sounds acidic. "These are special guests of the wizard, Goode, don't be rude!"


"Silence!" Purdy yells. "Guests of the party don't require Identification. Now show some respect!"

Sam frowns and looks to the side, mumbling something.

"What was that?"

"Ermsry." He mumbles.

"Say again?" Purdy sounds like he's on the verge of a freak out.

"I'm sorry." Sam grumbles. "Welcome to the Emerald City."

"I didn't hear you!" Nine calls, laughing under his breath.

"I said I'm sorry!" Sam grabs the door and wretches it open, dropping his clipboard. "Now go inside!"

I nod and smile apologetically, a little embarrassed about putting him through all that. From the corner of my eye I see Nine make a face at Sam as we cross into the threshold, followed by John smacking him across the head.

"You just have to keep pushing and pushing, don't you?" He says, clearly irritated.

I could hear another short monologue of complaints coming, but as soon as we stepped inside we were all stopped in our tracks. The Emerald City… after all that walking, all that fighting… and it was beautiful.

Walking through the door we were immediately on a narrow bridge made of the same green crystal that molded the structure of the walls, floor, roofs and basically everything else. Overlooking the sides we could see smaller buildings below us full of people dressed in green clothes. The inside of the walls were lined with platforms that led to windows and probably led all the way around the city for easy travel. I wasn't completely sure, though, due to the massive crystal palace sitting at the centre of the city, completely blocking my view of the other side.

It was one of those classic castles with high archways, towering spires and delicately carved crystal figurines that stood at attention on balconies and doorways. The tallest point had to reach higher than the city itself. It was gorgeous—and gigantic—and it was less than a five minute walk away. Possibly my only out from this world was so close.

"Wow…" Eight breathes, coming to stand next to me as we admire the palace. It was just that stunning.

A thin woman with a thicket of curly red hair begins to scamper down the bridge hoisting her poufy green dress, coming towards us from the palace, an annoying yapping sound coming from her mouth. "My, oh my, I just got the call! You four are so very late!" She looked familiar… like maybe she'd been in a movie I'd recently watched. Or possibly someone I had just seen while out in Chicago… but I felt like it was more important than that. I just couldn't put my finger on it…

"I am the good witch of Oz, at your service." The witch bows haphazardly, half of her hair falling out of its messy up-do. She reaches a hand out as she bends forward, and with a quick motion she grabs my hand and tugs forward.

I lurch forward and we begin to move at a pace that, with one misstep, will send up tumbling over the side of the bridge.

"The wizard will be so happy to know that the last of his guests have arrived!"

That was a little confusing, considering that up until a few minutes ago, none of us knew there was a party. But I kept my mouth shut as we were led inside the giant palace, as did the boys. I kept my mouth shut as the witch of Oz went on and on about how much we smelled, and when she insisted that we 'freshen up' in the wizard's prep rooms.

"Wait," I finally spoke up as the boys were being led away to another room within the palace. "We can't be separated!"

But I'm pushed in and the door is slammed in my face. So much for sticking together.

It felt good to take a shower again. I hadn't really noticed how filthy I really was until I watched the reddish-brown water disappear down the drain. My hair was thick with dirt and blood, and it took a few washes to get all of it out, but when I stepped out of the cubicle, steam rising from inside and fogging up the mirrors, it felt really, really good.

The prep room became a whirlwind after that—smiling people in green clothes doing my hair, my makeup, my nails. I had never had makeup put on in my life, and now here I was with the goopy stuff plastered all over my face. I had to admit, it felt pretty weird, and they didn't even let me look in a mirror.

I'm starting to zone out when a bundle of green fabric is thrust into my arms. I look down at it, then back up at the green woman who gave it to me.

"It's your dress," She says, raising an eyebrow at my confusion.

A dress. I'd never had my own dress before. I'd barely had my own anything back at the convent, and now there was a silky green dress in my arms, for me to put on. I hug the fabric a little closer.

By the time I was completely finished, I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed. My nails felt heavy with the thick green goop, and the dress, although it fit, is tight at the waist and exposes a lot more shoulder than I'm used to. But I'm thankful for the floor-length. I feel someone shove something into the knot in my hair, and I spin around to glance at the little green man who grins at me.

"Accessories never hurt anyone," He giggles.

The witch of Oz reappears beside me, smile a little too large. "Oh, dear, you look absolutely fabulous! Just look at that dress, it's gorgeous!"

I smile and nod, not really sure what else to say.

She leads me out of the room and into the hall—which is now full of people in similarly fancy green clothing. Most of the dresses were of a darker shade of green, my leafy colour standing out. I feel self-conscious standing around so many people who seem fully comfortable in this situation.

"Marina," John is standing next to the door wearing a dark velveteen suit. It's a weird fabric, but it suits him in a strange way. He's clean now, his hair combed down and his face dirt-free. "We've been looking around for you; we weren't sure where you went."

"They kept me a long time in there," I say sheepishly.

"Well, you look beautiful." He responds, and I blush.

"Come on," He waves his hand in the direction of the large doorway behind him. "The wizard is supposed to be making an appearance soon." At the last second he turns to the Witch of Oz standing behind me. "Have a nice evening, Ms. Walker."

The witch smiles and does a little bow again, this one more dignified, before she disappears in a small explosion of green light. We begin to walk away, but what John had just said bugged me. Walker… the name sounded so familiar, I must know her from somewhere…

Walking through the archway I see Sam again, standing guard at the opening. He looks bored. He seems to notice me as we walk past, his eyes lighting up, and at the last second he grabs my bare arm and pulls me towards him.

"I would get out of here now, while you have the chance." He whispers to me, then lets me go, pushing me away.

John gives him a dirty look but says nothing, and I hurriedly walk past. I couldn't help but feel a little nervous. Sam was an ally on earth… he wouldn't try and steer my wrong here, would he? So then who was the enemy here? As much as I tried, I couldn't stop the swelling feeling of doubt in my gut.

The room was huge, echoey, a little cold and completely green, of course. The floor, the walls, the massive double staircase were made of the same green crystal that refracted light in all directions, although there seemed to be a small light source coming from the giant crystal chandelier more than fifty feet above us. There were tables, although few, adorned with green table settings with small gatherings of chairs surrounding them. And of course, people, all dressed in beautiful green, mingling around like they were in the hallway, and in the middle of the room dancing to the slow orchestrated music that didn't seem to have any particular origin.

John leads me to where Eight and Nine are sitting at one of the tables. Nine looks noticeably better with his hair gelled back, Eight looked like someone had tried to comb down his hair, but it had bounced back in that way that made his curls look eternally messy.

"Did we miss anything?" John asks he sits down next to Nine.

"Well," Nine says in a sarcastic tone. "I think one of the old farts on the dance floor flashed me a knee. But besides that, not really."

John shakes his head in response, but I see the corners of his lips turn upwards.

I feel a pair of eyes on me, and I turn to see Eight staring at me. He blinks once before he realizes he's been caught. He looks away and stands up, saying: "We had might as well do something to pass the time." He approaches me and holds out a hand. "Would you care to dance?"

"Oh, come on, dude!" Nine moans. "There's only one girl between the three of us, I can't dance with John!"

We both ignore him and I hesitantly take Eight's hand. Of course I would love to dance with him… but I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little apprehensive about my feelings right now.

Eight pulls me out into the throng of twirling dancers. He puts his other hand on my hip, and a little electric shock goes through me. I place my hand on his shoulder, and we fall into step with everyone else, following their movements.

"I should warn you," He says with a lopsided grin, "I can't dance at all."

"I can't dance, either," I say, my laughter breaking the tension in my chest. I can't help but feel relaxed around him.

I grow quiet and he just looks at me, smiling. We break eye contact for a second as he spins me and we begin to go in the other direction along with the crowd. Our faces are suddenly a little too close for comfort.

"I still can't understand," he whispers, barely audible over the music. "why I feel so drawn to you."

I feel the redness spreading across my cheeks. I'm not sure what to say. Maybe there is more to all of this—everything that's happened to me—than I thought.

His face comes impossibly closer. "When I met you, it unlocked so many feelings for me… some that I didn't even think I was capable of anymore."

"Well, how do you feel right now?" I ask quietly after a few moments.

"I feel like I'm in the right place."

"Me too," I breath, and I really mean it. I feel so much… less scared here. Suddenly everything that had been going on didn't seem like such a big deal.

"Marina, I—" But he's cut off as the music abruptly stops, the slow rhythm being replaced by blaring trumpet horns. We stop dancing and awkwardly pull apart, and I'm suddenly feeling colder without his warmth pressed up against me.

Everyone else seems to know exactly what was going on, as the quiet hum of chatter hanging over the hall stops, and all heads turn upwards toward the balcony topping the two staircases. Two trumpeters are standing on either side of the door, and as soon as they finish their short tune they step aside to stand on the staircase.

Sam appears from behind the door, his hands folded behind his back. "All rise," He says in a commanding voice. "For the arrival of the wonderful, powerful, Wizard of Oz."

I quickly glance back at our table, but I can't see John or Nine anywhere. They must have moved somewhere... there was no time to go looking for them, now. I look back up at the balcony, waiting for the person that will hopefully be able to solve all of our problems.

Eight grabs my hand and squeezes it supportively. Thinking back, I'm really glad he did, because otherwise I probably would have fallen over without his support.

Emerging from the doorway, the wizard appeared branding golden robes that hung over his twenty-foot form. I immediately recognized the pale skin, peppered with tiny fracture-like scars, and the large, pulsating purple one overtaking his neck. He smiled at the crowd with a set of razor-sharp, pointed teeth, waving his hand to the sound of cheering crowd.

That thing was no good wizard… that thing was Setrakus Ra.

He raises his hand higher and blue electricity sparks in his palm, earning a louder applause from the crowd. We make eye contact for a split second, and in that stare… I already know we're finished.

This entire thing is a trap.

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