A Number's Game

The Hanging Garden

This is not how this was supposed to happen. After all this, all this running and fighting and facing a whole ton of impossible things, this was not how this was supposed to end. Hell, I was never supposed to end up in this not-dream-not-reality in the first place, but somehow I never imagined I would get to this point, even here.

He was gone.

I didn't want to cry, I didn't want to freak out again. He was dead, and he was still dead, and the phantom of his memory didn't require another mental relapse, and it certainly didn't deserve one when I knew he had always been dead in the first place. He had already been lost. But that didn't save me from the pain in my chest that threatened to wring out my lungs and squeeze the blood from my heart. It didn't stop me from feeling that all-too familiar ache in my throat that rendered my vocal cords useless.

I was like an animal that had gotten itself free of a trap: Dying, and fighting the pain that came from knowing that its current state was because it had allowed itself to get caught. I had allowed myself to get trapped for the second time by him, I let myself get close to him again. I only deserved this.

I didn't allow myself to get upset, even when everyone looked at me like they were expecting me to. Sarah, as easily as she had banished that monster had cracked the ice at my feet and floated my little raft over to her side of the river. The boys had rushed over to help me onto dry land, but I didn't let them.

Sarah immediately afterwards got into a long spiel about her powers, the Paradise River, and a lot of other things she had told me previously. Of course Nine had been weary of coming to Paradise in the first place, and I was glad that Sarah was giving them a run-down rather than me. Throughout it all, she had spared me a few worried glances, as if she were expecting me to keel over like last time.

But I didn't, I didn't even consider it even when I knew I was alone. Because next it could be John or Six or Nine, and I couldn't afford to lose control of myself or my Legacies. I still had a mission to complete, after all.

My real life was still waiting for me.

But the days began to bleed into the next, and I couldn't so much remember how I'd gone from dragging myself out of the Paradise River the second time to where I was now. I could remember Sarah, leading us through her jungle and explaining how part of her powers had returned to her once we had killed the Witch of Dulce. How now she had regained the power to deny people access to Oz, and the power to protect us.

Not only that, but her castle had returned with her magic. It seemed that every witch in Oz had a castle, so it came as no surprise when Sarah eventually revealed us to hers. With her magic reinstated, Paradise now recognised her as a witch once again. Which in Oz, must mean you get a free castle. I wondered briefly what would happen is we were able to take away Setrakus Ra's powers.

But that's pretty much all I did.

The days after that were full of arguing and strategizing. Neither of which I was very good at, so I did nothing but listen. I made suggestions here and there, but that was the extent of it. John, Six and Nine were in their elements with this, so I made a purpose of not getting stuck in the crossfire.

I remember Sarah mentioning that Bernie Kosar had made it back to Paradise, a little worn, but in good health. Then I remember finding him and getting a very thorough face-licking. And then, Six sending him off to get a message to Sam back at the Penthouse.

I spent a lot of my time talking to Sarah, going over the facts of my visit. How my story, in one way or another had caught up with my life in Oz. How now, I had not a clue on what was going to happen.

How some things here weren't accurate with Earth. Five, although we hadn't seen him since, still had two eyes even though I'd poked one out in the Everglades. Not to mention Nine's staff, which had helped us escape the Emerald City but I knew for a fact Five had broken.

But we spent the most time combing over what Ella had said to me back in Chinatown. She'd told me I had to go to the Emerald City to find something. At first, I thought it was the Wizard, but now I know that can't be it. Nor could I forget that she was the only person in Oz to recognise who I was. What was I supposed to make of that?

And then the screaming had stopped and I had to check in on Six, John and Nine to make sure they hadn't accidentally offed each other in the debate. But no, they had actually come to a final decision. And then suddenly, it was time to put the plan in action. The let's-go-to-the-Emerald-City-and-kill-Setrakus-Ra plan. But this time, with no Eight, we were forced to walk. Nine was able to run ahead and rendezvous with Sam and his army, but besides that it was a long trek.

I was left with way too much time to think about those three mysterious variables over and over again. And a lot of time to let Six and John drill me over our plan.

It was very simple, and incredibly complicated at the same time: use the fact that Ra doesn't know we've all been able to group together. While Six, Sam and the army attacked the City head on, John, Nine and I would access the palace and try to get to Ra while the Mogs are busy with a frontal attack. That was a simple version, but we all had the idea that nothing would ever be that easy.

If on the chance that we couldn't find Ra or we couldn't beat him, Six's forces were eventually supposed to retreat, then come and find us. With the threat of Six gone the Mogadorian leader would no doubt want to get to us next, and reveal himself. That's when we would combine our forces to take him down.

But all of that rode on the idea that we'd be able to defeat him in the end. I couldn't forget when we were in Dulce, when it had literally been all of us versus him and we couldn't do it. But we had also just met, and we didn't know how to work off each other. Now things were different, and so I had some hope. I wasn't sure if I was doing anyone any favours by not mentioning anything.

At this moment, we were picking our way across the palace roof, and I could hardly believe it was happening. I could still never forget that this was all imaginary, but I'd thought about this moment for so long that I couldn't believe it was actually happening. This was it, the actual end-game. Today, we'd either have liberated ourselves or be dead.

We had initially thought that I would have a hard time getting to the entry point we had designated: a small, crass-looking hole Sam had managed to hack out right under the roof of a spire while he'd been posing as a guard. The idea behind the hole had always been to sneak in more guards, but it had quickly occurred to Sam and his crew that sneaking in backup through a single-sized hole might be little difficult. Thankfully, it could serve another purpose. It was supposed to be an attic, where not many people went and would be perfect for us to call home-base in the palace. I had been nervous about having to climb on the roof, so Nine had lent his anti-gravity to me.

As it turns out, anti-gravity is a lot harder to control than it looks. I would bounce up, nearly float away and John would have to catch my ankle to keep me from becoming a part of the atmosphere. It took longer than we'd thought to find the entrance, and then we'd had to wait for John to make the hole bigger because Nine was too big to fit through it.

But what we'd ended up in wasn't an attic at all, it looked like some kind of torture chamber. The room, although still made of the same green crystal like everything else was, felt very dark. The same pulsing green manacles that had incapacitated John and Nine were lined along the wall, one pair hanging from the ceiling from a glowing crystal chain. Along a different wall was a table lined with all kinds of weapons (and a few surgeon's tools), and along the other were a row of six or seven jail cells. In the far corner closest to the door was what looked like a surgeon's table that had been turned on its side.

Nine laughs to himself as he wriggles through the hole. "Wow, S and M much?"

Both John and I ignore him.

"So we're all clear on what we have to do?" John asks, glancing over at me. I nod, and Nine makes a comment about needing John to explain it again.

We had decided that we would make the place of the final battle the throne room. It was where Sam said Ra spent most of his time, but even if we didn't find him there he would come there eventually. We just had to make sure we made our way there discreetly enough so that he wouldn't see us coming until the last moment. Nor could we risk not getting there in time and letting Sam and Six fall into a death trap.

The stakes were really high, and relying on us.

"Catch!" I hear Nine say, and I spin around just in to stop a sword from impaling me. My hand wraps around the blade, and I feel a familiar sting as the blade slashes the skin of my palm. I immediately want to drop it, but I'm already worried we're making too much noise so I carefully put the hilt in my other hand.

As soon as the pressure is off my hand, the cut is already starting to close up. I wipe the blood off on my shirt and turn to glower at Nine. "Seriously?"

He shrugs. "What? You didn't want a sword?"

I'm tasting blood in my mouth, and it takes me a second to understand that my bottom lip is clamped down between my teeth. That rage I was feeling right after the poppy field is pooling in my stomach again, but this time without Eight to make it stop. How could he be like this, still? How could one person be so reckless?

By the look on John's face I can tell he's reading what I'm thinking. He looks over at Nine and delivers a warning glare.

By the eye roll, Nine clearly isn't getting the message.

In other circumstances, I probably would have started yelling. But we had to be quiet, so I stalked up to him with about as much control as I could and got close enough that he would take my whispering as screaming.

"What is wrong with you?" Is the first thing I can think to say, and by the look he gives me he isn't very intimidated. He opens his mouth to say something but I don't let him proceed.

"After all this, all this fighting and how you almost got us killed in the poppy field, you still have the nerve to be reckless with our lives? You're not invincible, and neither are we are one day you're going to get yourself killed! And no matter how stupid you are, I couldn't take it if I lost anyone else! Don't you get it?"

Once again, he's silent. I don't even know if anything I've said has gotten through to him. I realize that after all of this—ever since I was still escaping the Everglades—I was mad at Nine. I had told myself not to be, but it was because of him that Eight was dead.

I spin around, give John a hardened glance and make my way towards the door. I was ready to end this thing, and we were wasting time arguing here. I had never been a confrontation-savvy person, but right now I wasn't really following any of my personal rules. I was pretty much fed up with this whole thing and I was sure I could hold it in long enough to finish this.

Until Nine dropped a bomb on my head.

"How did he die?"

I freeze mid-step. The anger in my body dissipates immediately and is replaced by panic. Maybe he was mistaken, but Nine had always been a lot smarter that he initially came off. Had he really figured everything out?

I turn to look at him, trying not to betray anything in my look. "I don't know what you're taking about."

Nine crosses his arms. "You basically told us, back at Six's castle. You said that Eight was the expert on the Loralite thing, but you said it like it was about a different Eight. It makes sense, why you were so friendly with us when we couldn't even be friendly with each other. You knew Eight was that lion when none of us had any idea. That's why you defended John and agreed to let me follow you guys and didn't freak out when you saw Six. You knew us all already."

John looks absolutely bewildered, obviously having never thought of this thing before. I was a little awe-struck myself, I couldn't believe Nine of all people could piece all of that together.

"And we all saw how you were with Eight." He continues. "And you were so shocked when we met him in the woods I can only assume he died. Like he did here, but it wasn't the same. What about our Number Seven? Are you her or is there another one somewhere?"

It takes me a moment to fabricate a response. "I don't know. I really don't know anything."

"But Eight's death where you're from had something to do with me, didn't it?"

Was all this worth hiding anymore? I wonder if I would have been better off sharing the truth with everyone in the beginning, no matter what they would have thought of me. It would have been better than this, getting caught up in the details of my life. If I ever planned on leaving here, I should at least try and leave them with the truth.

"You provoked him—Five—and he attacked you. He was going to kill you, but Eight teleported in the way. I… couldn't heal him." I swallow, but the throat feels paper dry. Saying it out loud makes it feel all that worse and all that more real.

But surprisingly, there was no comment from Nine. Nothing about how he'd never have lost to someone like Five, or how Eight should have stayed out of the way. Instead he loosens his shoulders a lowers his eyes to mine. "I'm sorry, if I did that." The sincerity in his voice nearly shocks me. Nine has never been like this about anything.

I suddenly can't hold his gaze, so I look down at my shoes instead. "It's not your fault. You didn't do anything."

I'm started by how comfortable he is talking like this. "That doesn't matter. It could have very well been something I'd done." He pauses, and I make the effort to look up at him. He doesn't look like he's struggling for words, but it's almost as if the tightness in his jaw was exactly the same of when we were in Florida, and I feel like this is the conversation we missed out on that afternoon. "Maybe I'm not him, but that doesn't mean I can't… make it up to you by being better than that."

I just find it in myself to nod gratefully. In that moment, I regret being scared to look into Nine's eyes back in Florida. Maybe I would have seen this person I was seeing now, and I wouldn't have been so scared.

"He would have been proud to see us get this far," John says gently.

"I know."

I had decided that using the sword instead of my ice legacy would create less of a mess.

Shiing! My blade makes a clean sweep as it slices through its latest unsuspecting victim. The Mog on duty quickly turns to ash, disintegrating around my blade and making a messy pile on the floor. How much harder killing Mogadorians would be if they didn't do that. I couldn't imagine dealing with bodies.

We'd made our way from the attic/torture chamber down a winding flight of stairs to what I could only hope was a main hall. There were Mog guards set up in twos every little while, which we easily dispatched without any attention. Mogadorians in this world were incredibly low-tech, so there was no worry of some automated alarm going off.

But very few still carried those crystal spears from our first visit, now most carried one or two blasters. I suppose security was up since we'd been able to escape.

Two halls and three sets of doors later, I was wracking my brain for the instructions Sam had given us on getting to the throne room. He'd never been inside, saying that few were ever allowed to go in. It would be almost empty when we arrived, which would be a bonus. I wished he was here with us to show us the way.

We pass through another set of doors, and Nine quickly gets to work on killing the two Mogs standing on the other side. With one quick swipe of his staff, there are two piles of dust at his feet.

We continue down the hall, and without warning it opens up at the end. We're standing on the upper balcony that Setrakus Ra had made his appearance on when we'd come her for that ball. The room below us was stripped of all decoration and furniture, now just a big empty room with shiny floors and no apparent sign that there'd been a disaster party only a few days ago. The giant doors that divided us from the grand hall were now closed, but the gaping hole John had made was still there. Right outside there, leading off from the grand hall was the throne room. We were nearly there.

Nine leaps over the balcony, using his anti-gravity to slow his descent into a perfect stop. John and I opt for the safer option: using the staircases on either side of the platform. Our footsteps echo around the room as we walk, no matter how discreet we try to be. But if there were any guards in the room they would have rushed us by now.

John peeks through the now incredibly convenient hole in the door. Two guards by the front door, three at the throne room door. Nine steps through the hole and runs up the side of the wall. John raises a hand, and the two farthest from us collide into each other at near terminal velocity, exploding into dust on contact. Their weapons fall away, and he sweeps them away with a wave of his arm.

The other three are now on high alert, having just watched two of their comrades having died not far away. Cue for Nine to fall out of the sky and crack one over the head. He explodes, and the other two reach for their blasters.

I feel my legacy activating. Before Nine can even react, I will the air to turn cold around the Mogs, and the familiar frost pattern spreads across their pale skin, their bodies freezing in place.

"Whoa," Nine chuckles, waving a hand in front of glassy eyes. "That is awesome." Then he swings his staff around, swiping through both guards in one motion. They shatter into dust, sending up a cloud and coating him.

John and I duck in through the hole, John picking up two blasters from the floor and I trade my sword in for one as well.

That's when we heard the first explosion. All the light fixtures shook for a moment, followed by the unmistakable sound of shouting. Six's attack was in motion, and we would have seconds to hide before this hall flooded with our enemies.

"Up!" John shouts, levitating himself upwards with his telekinesis. Nine runs up the wall after him, and I am hasty to follow. We're hovering above the chandelier when the doors from all sides burst open.

It was like a swarm of bees had just had their hive shaken. Mogs by the hundreds start pouring out into the great hall, and follow to filter out the front door. But the door is a bottleneck and the room continues to grow more crowded. I don't know what we'll do if someone on the floor spots us.

There's the sound of another explosion, this one more distant. I grab a hold of the chandelier to keep it from rocking. As if another set of instructions were presented to them, the guards started to run out in the opposite direction of the front door, towards the ball room. So far, the plan was pretty much working.

John lightly touches my arm, diverting my attention to the double doors of the throne room, which are still closed. We were going to have to open them ourselves and face the consequences; otherwise the rest of this plan would fall through.

"On the ceiling!" Maybe I would have missed the first guy to say it, but like a pack of barking dogs the Mogs break into a chorus of 'ON THE CEILING!'. I look down at the floor, where a few hundred pairs of black Mogadorian eyes looking back up at me. I don't even get the chance to react.

It was like nothing I'd even seen before. There was a sudden burst of offensive fire from the floor, I had no choice but to duck behind the chandelier to avoid certain death by multiple holes. Of course one chandelier can only take so much, and within five seconds the massive arrangement of crystal is free of the chain and freefalling to the hall floor.

Only about half of the guards are smart enough to get out of the way. A mushroom cloud of dust explodes from where the chandelier crushed about fifty Mogadorians. In the shock and panic of their deaths the rest of the guards forget to continue shooting at us for just a moment. A moment that they shouldn't have spared us.

Now, I've never considered myself a fighter. I was always Marina the Healer, and not much else. A few weeks ago, I didn't even know how to throw a punch. But now it was three against three hundred, and the last thing my friends needed was Marina the Healer.

I would never be as skilled as Six or as strong as Nine. I wouldn't ever as strategic as John or as clever as Eight. Yet, in that moment, I became Marina the fighter.

Needless to say, we literally reigned terror down upon them. John was shooting fire from the sky, setting the Mogs ablaze like a strip of dry grass. His victims started screaming and running in circles as they burned, bumping into each other and lighting their comrades before they combusted into ashes. Nine was out in another corner, mixing his telekinesis with his staff to toss, break and whack everything that came even somewhat close to him.

My fingertips tingled with cool as I settled on the ground. Two huge Mogs are the first to approach me, but I don't give them the chance to attack. Ice curls up my arms as I lob huge chunks at them. Like freezing water, the ice sticks on contact, weighing them down. They're both easy enough now with my new blaster.

I'm approached from behind, and I hear a blade whistling towards my head. An ice shield shoots from the ground and blocks the blade, shattering it. I turn and thrust out my elbow, a pointy spike shooting out from the shield and sticking the Mog in the face, imploding him.

When seven more approach at once, the floor grows slippery with ice and they all fall on top of each other. Blaster, blaster, blaster. I'm starting to get more and more creative with my legacy.

Freeze them solid, blaster. Spikes of ice from the ground. Encase the head in ice, blaster. Spikes of ice from the ceiling. I will a giant ball of ice, and bowl over a few more Mogs. Blaster, blaster, blaster.

It goes on for a while. I'm admittedly not as good as maybe I'm making you think, I relied on Nine and John quite a bit for back-up. There were times when I just couldn't get them all at once, and John ended up lending some crossfire my way. Or once where a particularly big Mogadorian used the slippery floor to slide over to me like a seal, and I would have had my legs cut off clean if Nine hadn't been at my side in a flash. But you get the idea, we fought a horde of Mogadorian soldiers etc. And then, finally, they stopped coming. Nine made one more final sweep with his staff, and then we were standing in a room ankle-deep in smelly grey dust.

I couldn't believe we'd fought that many.

"That's it?" Nine asks, his breathing a little laboured.

"No time!" I say, running over the throne room door, closing my hands around the handle. We were supposed to be fighting Setrakus Ra, not his army. Right now, the whole plan was in jeopardy. I pull and pull on the door, but it doesn't budge. What the heck?

"Let me try," Nine grumbles, nudging me aside to grasp the door. But like the same, he goes at it with no result. There must be some kind of magic keeping the door closed. Even if it were locked it should have gived a little.

"Now what?" John sighs, running a hand through his now grimy hair. "We're too exposed here, we've got to find a safer place."

"Or maybe it's so heavily guarded because he's in there, and waiting for us to come to him."

"One more try!" Nine is at the other side of the room in a runner's stance, his staff poised like a jousting stick. In a blur of super speed, he's across the room in less than a second, driving his weapon into the door with a defiant yell.

Not even a little budge. Not even a scratch.

Nine's growl of frustration echoes around the hall. I had thought, at that point, we were in deep trouble. What would we do now, if in fact Ra was in the throne room? Now he knew we were coming, and he didn't seem to be in any apparent hurry to come out and greet us. Six would be here soon, and we couldn't afford to have our entire force waiting outside like sitting ducks.

I'm suddenly aware that the distant explosions of Six's attack have stopped.

"Guys," I say, starting to back towards the ballroom door. "They've already retreated. Maybe we could—"

With my back to the now-gaping ballroom door, I'm interrupted as I'm struck from behind. I fall onto my hands and knees, feeling like the energy was sucked out of me rather than pain I was expecting. I know this feeling, it happened once before and once while I was standing in this same room.

My Legacies were gone, and Setrakus Ra was standing right behind me.

Although it's been used on them before at home, John and Nine here have never seen Ra's power-draining abilities. John is over at my side in seconds, thinking I was hurt and needing his help.

"Run!" I yell, trying to push him away. He turns to see what must have hit me and starts to retreat, dragging me along, when I see a beam of white light zip over my head and bury itself in John's chest. He loses his hold on my arm and is thrown off his feet.

I fall back down onto my stomach, and this time I don't have the chance to get up as a feel a large, heavy boot plant itself on my back and push me down. I'm terrified to look anywhere but straight ahead for fear of whose foot that is. But a shoe that large can only belong to one Loric-hating evil overlord, and I force myself to hold back a scream.

Mogadorian guards storm into the room once again, this time with massive Mog-cannons instead of blasters. They're coming in from all doors (apart from the throne room, ironically), and descend on John before he's got the chance to get away. They hoist him up, a variety of cannons trained on his face.

I actually do let a sob escape when I see them being led in. Sam and Six, wrists bound by those awful pulsing handcuffs. Six's clothes are singed, and in some of the holes I can see terrible, bleeding cuts and large burn marks. Strands of onyx hair fall into her face as she turns to look at me, her eyes defiant but outright screaming that this was most definitely not part of the plan. I want to sob again.

Nine spins in a circle, waving his staff around in warning to anyone who dares come closer. But it's useless—we've lost this, once and for all. And whether any of this is real or not, I know that I'm not going to survive this.

Like a swarm of hungry hyenas, Nine is buried within the Mogadorians in less time than he has to react. He slashes at one, turning him to dust but there are just too many for him to fight off.

"Excellent effort," Setrakus Ra says after the moment's struggle, and I feel the rumble of his speech through his boot. "but useless against me, as you can see." I can see by the flash of anger in Six's eyes he's talking directly to her. Of course, they've been at the forefront of war since the beginning of this.

But now I feel his eyes train down to me. "And thank you, Number Seven, for making all of this possible once again. Try as you might, there is no power in this world equivalent to mine."

Then, I start to feel him put pressure down on my back. So this is how it ends; being crushed under a massive foot like a cockroach? (It seemed oddly ironic, considering the Mogadorians thought of us as such). I'd wondered this a lot since I've gotten here, I think. I thought it might be the end in Chinatown, or when we'd fought the giant spider. I thought it was the end when I'd nearly been impaled by a splintered tree in the forest of nightmares or when I'd fought the witch of Dulce on the cliff. I thought it was the end when I'd fallen into the Beyond. I'd thought it was the end when Eight had died.

All of those seemed almost preferable to what was happening now. I started to gag as the air was pressed from my lungs, the heat rising in my cheeks as the blood was pushed out of my torso. I heard the first sound of my ribs beginning to crack, my organs being crushed.

It was the end of Marina the Healer, Marina the Fighter, Marina that didn't know how to throw a punch and Marina who was scared to kill. It was my end once and for all.

That's when the ground started to shake. Slowly at first, more of small tremor that could have easily been confused for the collective stomping of the few hundred Mog guards crowding the room. I was pretty much half-out of it by then, coughing up blood as the Mogadorian leader clearly wanted to make this slower than it needed to be. But eventually, even I started to feel the earth rocking and I knew it wasn't just in my head when everyone seemed to be thrown off balance.

The captors holding John lost their grip, and he utilized the opportunity to wrestle free and kick one in the face. The shaking got visibly worse, and the Mogadorian guards started to topple over, freeing Nine before he too falls prey to the earth and tumbles down with the rest of them. From my point of view on the floor the earth turns into a sea of churning bodies before me, and as my vision continues to blur I can't make out what's happening in the room.

Suddenly, there's a massive amount of pressure on my back, double what it was before as Setrakus Ra himself loses his balance. I feel my back snapping and my ribs being crushed, and then the weight is gone as the earth forces Ra off balance.

My ability to breathe is returned to me, but every breath felt like inhaling fire. My rib cage protests painfully as I inhale, the entire situation not being helped by the fact that I was on my stomach. I have no choice but to breathe again, and the ache gets exponentially worse. I can't possess the strength to keep my eyes open anymore, and I take in another sucking gasp almost against my will. I'm dying. And this time, I don't have my Legacy to rely on for protection.

The earth continues to shake, or maybe I was just that delirious, and I'm unsure what's happening when the room once again erupts into yelling. I hear the sound of blasters going off, then the return fire of Mog cannons. Intense screaming from what sounds like the Mogadorians, but my mind is starting to drift, and I don't know if anything I'm hearing is real.

The feeling of my Legacies being returned to me strikes as fast and quick as lightning. I feel like an old machine being fed fuel for the first time in ten years. I immediately sense my bones starting to reknit, my lungs inflating back to their previous, non-flat selves. It was like seeing sunshine after a month of rain. Like feeling the satisfying cool of an air conditioner after a long walk out in the sweltering sun. Like a very long, deep gulp of water when you haven't drunk in days.

I suddenly notice someone has picked me up off the floor, cradling my body against their chest with one hand and the other placed under my knees. I notice that this isn't the most comfortable position for my broken ribs, but it's preferable to the boot and I have no energy to fight.

I force my eyes to flutter open. I'm still half out of my mind, because once I look up and see his face I'm absolutely certain that I must be dead or crazed from near-death.

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