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A dark descent, p.1
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       A Dark Descent, p.1

           Lisa Fiedler
 
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A Dark Descent


  TO RENE,

  A TRUE SORCERESS AND MY MOST TRUSTED COMRADE,

  I HAVE LOVED TRAVELING THIS ROAD WITH YOU.

  AND TO DEAN, FOR YOUR CLEAR THINKING.

  —GABRIEL GALE

  TO SHANNON,

  WHERE ALL MY MAGIC BEGINS.

  AND TO OUR NEWEST COUSIN, TARYN . . .

  MARRIAGE, LIKE A GOOD BOOK, SHOULD BE A PAGE-TURNER!

  —LISA FIEDLER

  1

  WICKED LANDING

  The tumult overhead was nothing short of Wicked.

  Clatter and motion, fury and speed. Dark Magic seemed bent on tearing the sky to pieces in its desperate race to the south. Underfoot, the solidness of Oz felt close to crumbling.

  The Witches are coming.

  Miss Gage’s warning rang in Glinda’s ears, colliding with the sound of the enemy’s approach: croaking and hissing from the West; a droning buzz from the East, and a deep lowing groan from the North.

  Where moments ago the air had sparkled with the pure emerald light of King Oz’s final thought, there was now a vicious melee of stingers and wings. The ground shuddered under a violent stampede of trampling hooves and swiftly slithering things. Billows of scarlet dust rolled forth as the menacing armies of the Witches advanced.

  “Why are they coming?” Locasta asked, her violet eyes focused on the fracas above their heads, her fingers fidgeting nervously with the new gold bracelets on her wrists.

  “To see for themselves that their rival in the South has been vanquished,” said Miss Gage.

  “Will they attempt to avenge her?” Ben rasped, his face pale.

  Gage shook her head. “More likely they’ve come to celebrate her defeat.”

  As the commotion drew nearer, Clumsy Bear whimpered and covered his face with his paws. Glinda and the others watched as Ava Munch, the Royal Tyrant of the East, touched down. She was riding an insect of uncommon proportions—a weevil as large as a lion, with jagged legs and waving antennae. Swarming around Ava was a platoon of bulging-eyed creepy-crawlies: oversize wisp-wasps, mosquitoes and fruit flies, beetles and tumble-bumbles with iridescent wings. Out of the din they swooped, stirring up a small cyclone of dead leaves as they landed. Dressed in a sheath of blue satin, Ava hid her face behind her Silver Mask, as though she were ashamed to be seen in the hideous company of her own army.

  Daspina the Wild Dancer of the West arrived next, gracefully astride a spiny-tailed skink lizard. Flanking her was a legion of warty toads and scaly snakes, all of inordinate size. Draped in yellow scarves, the Wild Dancer shimmied in her saddle, her Silver Shoes catching the sunlight.

  Finally, from the North roared Marada, the Wicked Warrior; her army was a careening herd of draft animals, each ridden by a Gillikin soldier armed to the hilt. The beasts—yakityaks, buffalopes, oxen, and bulls—came snorting and bellowing. The Witch used her Silver Gauntlets to yank back on the reins of her mount, and the gigantic yakityak skidded to a halt. Its pointy horns missed impaling Ava’s weevil by less than an inch.

  “Watch it!” Ava warned, removing her Silver Mask.

  Marada growled and raised a gloved fist in a warning of her own.

  Glinda spied a small, white-faced monkey scampering about. His presence among these creatures was inexplicable to her, and his wide eyes surveyed the scene, as if he, too, wondered what ugly twist of fate had brought him here. What Glinda found most stunning was that he had wings.

  Sliding down from the skink, Daspina sashayed on dainty silver heels—first a few steps to her left, then a skip back to her right. “The Harvester is quite vanquished,” she declared, as if there had been any doubt. “Gone to seed, one might say!” At this, she laughed and turned a pirouette.

  “She was worthless,” Marada spat. When she leaped from her yak, the spurs of her heavy sandals left deep gashes in the dirt. “Ruling by delusion and trickery is not ruling. It is merely deceiving. She was as weak as the flowers she grew! I could have crushed her with one blow.”

  “And she was a terrible hostess,” Daspina observed with distaste. “She never once threw a ball or cotillion, not even a pitiful little tea party.”

  “Still, her Magic was potent,” Ava admitted in a grudging tone. “And there was an elegance about her. Handsome features. Good bones—”

  “Good bones are the best kind to crush,” Marada noted.

  “—but she was more vain than she had any right to be.”

  At this, Marada whirled on Ava with raised brows. “You dare to call another vain?”

  “My vanity is warranted,” Ava insisted. “Aphidina was merely pretty. I stun.”

  “In more ways than one,” Daspina conceded with a nervous giggle, eyeing Ava’s mask.

  Marada grunted; it might have been laughter. The sound made Glinda queasy.

  Now the three Wickeds fell silent, looking out over the ravaged castle grounds, each with a glint of longing in her eyes. The monkey, who as far as Glinda could tell had no particular connection to any one of them, sped anxiously from steer to insect to amphibian, none of which paid him any mind.

  “Surely I could collect immense amounts of taxes were I to lease this land to the Quadling farmers.” Ava’s fingers twitched as if she could feel the gilt coins being pressed into her hands.

  “And I could erect dance halls and bowling greens and gaming fields,” Daspina twittered. “There would be garden parties and carnivals every day and every night if this were mine.”

  “The lists for training would go there,” Marada planned aloud, pointing to where the Grande Allée of Symmetrees had stood just that morning, before Aphidina’s defeat. “And there, rows of sturdy barracks for my soldiers.”

  “Don’t you mean ‘barns’?” scoffed Ava, gesturing to Marada’s cattle grazing on what was left of the Haunting Harvester’s grass.

  “I would put my herd up against your pests in any battle!”

  “Oh, would you?” Ava’s eyes burned. “One well-placed sting on the rump would have your mount galloping back to Gillikin with his tail between his shaggy legs.”

  “My soldiers have fangs,” Daspina boasted, her hips swaying with pride, “and venom.”

  For a moment, the three harridans stood motionless, hurling lethal glances at one another. Glinda shivered at the nearness of the Wickeds, thankful for the protection of the Road of Red Cobble beneath her feet; she was close enough to reach out and pull the mask from Ava’s hand.

  “This is a little too close for comfort,” Locasta whispered. “I know they can’t see or hear us, but I wish they’d just go back to where they came from.”

  “So do I,” said Glinda, ducking back from the whipping hem of one of Daspina’s scarves.

  It was then that she felt the tickle—a soft, fuzzy graze against her trembling hand.

  Startled, she looked down and saw that the monkey had crept to the edge of the Road of Red Cobble. The fluffy top of his head, swiveling from side to side as he took in the patch of road with great curiosity, was brushing against the tips of Glinda’s fingers. Tilting his face upward, he met her green eyes with his enormous round ones. He blinked, as if trying to determine what her purpose was, there upon that patch of road.

  Then he turned to Marada, and Glinda held her breath.

  The monkey’s wings fluttered slightly as he snapped his gaze to Ava, then Daspina. Glinda knew it would take no more than a single screech for him to alert this rancorous triad to her invisible presence, and she sensed he knew it too. But after a moment of eyeing the Witches, he seemed to decide against raising the alarm and returned his attention to the cobblestones.

  Expelling her breath in a grateful sigh, Glinda watched the monkey tap his slender toes onto the red bricks, holding there a moment as if waiting to experience some sensation. But when not
hing occurred, he simply shook his head in disappointment and trotted off. Glinda’s eyebrows furrowed. The road had accepted him. But weren’t these cobbles only welcoming—not to mention visible—to those who were worthy to travel them?

  Her thoughts were interrupted by the words of the Royal Tyrant: “Perhaps I shall claim the South as my own so it will belong to me now and evermore.”

  “That simple, eh?” Marada let out an inelegant snort. “You think just because your lineage is noble you can claim lands at will?”

  “You are quite the saucy former princess, aren’t you?” Daspina snipped, gliding toward Ava. “Why should such a bountiful country as Quadling be yours for the taking?”

  “Because,” Ava drawled, returning the Silver Mask to her face, “I can do this!” A bolt of blue fury burned through the slit eyes of the mask, heading straight for the Witch of the West. But the Dancer was keen and graceful, and Glinda watched in horrified awe as Daspina quickly knocked her heels together. Three quick clicks of those Silver Shoes and she’d moved faster than sight or sound to the far side of the Tyrant.

  “What was that?” Locasta asked.

  “Those stolen shoes,” Gage replied with a foreboding look. “It seems they allow the Dancer to skip from place to place without the bothersome inconvenience of utilizing the moments it would ordinarily take to do so.”

  “Well, they did belong to King Oz once,” said Ben, who was still holding Aphidina’s Chainmail. “No wonder they carry such power.”

  “Power corrupted by the Witches,” Shade added softly. “King Oz would never cheat time.”

  Glinda knew Shade was right; whatever Good Magic these pieces of silver contained before the Witches ripped them from the fallen king had been converted to Wicked long ago.

  Now Ava turned the mask on Marada, but for all her immense bulk, the Wicked Warrior was agile; she dodged the blue bolt, then crouched low to hammer her heavy Silver Gauntlets against the ground. The terrain bucked up like an angry stallion, throwing both Ava and Daspina off their feet to land hard in the red Quadling soil—Ava sprawled on her back, and Daspina on her hands and knees. Fortunately, the red road beneath Glinda and the others remained steady. They all turned to Ben, clutching the chainmail.

  “Careful with that,” Locasta muttered wryly, and Ben slipped the silver mesh cautiously into his knapsack.

  “Enough of this!” sang Daspina, executing another trio of heel clicks; this returned her instantaneously to the skink’s side. “We were not sent here to battle among ourselves.”

  “More’s the pity,” Marada muttered, but she stood and swept the red soil from her gloves.

  “Much as I hate to agree with the dancing fool,” said Ava, tucking the mask under her arm and frowning hatefully at the place where Aphidina’s castle once stood, “she is indeed correct. We all know who will decide what is to become of Quadling. She ordered us here only to show us what Glinda Gavaria has done.”

  Hearing her name on the lips of the Wicked Witch of the East made the hair on the back of Glinda’s neck prickle. But the true import of Ava’s statement was not lost on Miss Gage. “She ordered them? Who’s ‘she’?”

  The elusive and terrifying fifth Witch, thought Glinda, that’s who.

  Marada punched the knuckles of one gauntlet into the palm of the other. “Hah!” she barked. “I for one do not fear children. They are small and weak, scrawny and stupid. They cower and cry and have very little intelligence.”

  “This may be true of your little slavelings in Gillikin,” Ava averred (and Glinda instinctively grabbed hold of Locasta to prevent her from bounding off the road to attack the Witch for her insult). “But children do grow up. They learn things. I realize that Glinda is presently no more than a pupa—”

  Glinda’s jaw dropped. “What did she just call me?”

  “An insect,” Ben clarified, “in its immature stage.”

  “—but once she is trained, she will surely be a force to be reckoned with.” Stroking her weevil’s glossy shell, Ava clung a little tighter to her Silver Mask and looked concerned.

  “That is a most unsettling thought,” Daspina remarked with a pout. “I believe I shall double the guards along my Winkie borders.”

  “I will do the same,” said Ava. “It is in our best interests to keep the Sorceress larva out, for with the proper tutelage, there is no telling how powerful her Magic might become!”

  Marada glowered and again surveyed the emptiness of the Harvester’s grounds. “Perhaps we should teach this youngster-beast, this Glinda, a lesson ourselves. Let us not wait to hear the Krumbic one’s plans for Quadling. Let’s annihilate it!”

  On the red road, the four friends, the bear, and the teacher froze. Even Feathertop, hovering over Ben’s shoulder, stiffened in horror.

  “Can they do that?” asked Ben. “I thought Ember would protect Quadling Country now that he’s free.”

  “He can only protect the final thought and its power to birth Goodness,” Miss Gage explained. “Quadling and those who dwell in it will never be completely invulnerable until Wickedness is abolished entirely.”

  “Great.” Locasta rolled her eyes. “No pressure.”

  “Destruction is always an excellent idea, Marada,” said Ava, returning the mask to her face. “Even if it was yours. I say we begin by torching the village.”

  Daspina twirled and clapped her hands. “Oh yes! A bonfire! How lovely. And how Wickedly injurious.”

  Marada clasped her big hands above her head in a gesture of certain victory. “And while the village burns, I shall capture as many Quadling prisoners as my soldiers can carry and bring them back to Gillikin as slaves.”

  Locasta went ashen. “We have to do something! The Quadling citizens will be caught totally unawares. They can’t possibly defend themselves against three Witches.”

  “Neither can we,” Glinda murmured, feeling helpless and afraid.

  Until her eyes again fell on the little monkey, whose curious face was now turned skyward.

  She followed his gaze, and her heart filled with hope.

  Just overhead was a twinkle of green—a piece of King Oz’s final thought, glowing emerald against the blue and red of the sky. Suddenly Glinda’s whole mind echoed with the king’s wise words: That moment in which all is lost is the same moment in which begins the battle to regain it.

  And that moment, it seemed, was this moment!

  Heart racing, Glinda reached into her sash and drew Illumina.

  “What are you doing?” asked Ben.

  “Beginning the battle,” Glinda replied. “I think I can infuse the ground with Oz’s last thought.”

  “Excellent plan,” said Gage. “It won’t keep them out of Quadling permanently, but with any luck, it might shock them enough to send them scurrying now.”

  “Hurry,” Locasta advised. “They’re preparing to ride.”

  Indeed, Daspina was prancing past in a flurry of yellow silk, the toes of her silver slippers a mere inch from the Road of Red Cobble. “I shall collect every crystal punch bowl and silver candlestick in the South,” she announced, as she slipped into her saddle. “These will be the spoils that adorn the tables at my next banquet. And I shall kick the teeth out of the mouth of any Quadling who attempts to stop me.”

  Glinda aimed Illumina toward the bobbing green orb overhead.

  “More to the left,” Locasta coached.

  “Now higher,” said Ben.

  “Gently,” Shade advised in a hushed voice.

  Glinda guided the tip of the sword toward the orb until the ball of light balanced upon it, quivering like a green flame on a candlewick.

  “You got it!” Locasta cried as Glinda lowered Illumina cautiously out of the sky.

  Just then Marada came marching past them with such gusto that the road shook; Glinda stumbled and nearly lost her grip on Illumina. Ben gasped; Shade ducked into the collar of her cape. But Glinda held fast and the orb remained perched on the point of the sword. Gage, Locasta, and even Clums
y Bear shared a sigh of relief.

  “Are you sure this is going to work?” asked Locasta.

  Glinda wasn’t sure at all. But if all were to be lost, it would not be because she failed to take the chance.

  Plunging the tip of Illumina into the dirt at the edge of the red cobblestones, she sank the green orb into the soil. Blazing streamers of green light erupted beneath the hooves and underbellies of the Wicked armies, and the surge of Goodness threw the Witches from their saddles. Daspina twirled in the air; Ava shrieked and Marada flailed. All three hit the ground with a sickening thud.

  “Good Magic!” Ava howled, slapping at her satin sleeves as if they were engulfed in flame.

  Lumbering back toward her yak and leaping into the saddle, Marada bellowed, “Retreat!”

  “Retreat?” cried Daspina as she scrambled onto the skink, blowing on her singed fingertips. “So . . . no punch bowls, then?”

  “Not unless you are willing to pay for them with your blistered skin!” Ava shot back, leaping onto her giant weevil. “Fly!”

  “Slither!” Daspina commanded, snapping the lizard’s reins.

  Marada spurred her yak so violently that the animal grunted in pain. The rest of the draft beasts followed, thundering northward as Daspina sped west and Ava and her flying creatures veered east. With the monkey flapping frantically to keep up, the three armies formed a thrashing mass that briefly covered the setting sun.

  From below, on the safety of the red road, Glinda, the Protector of Oz, watched their escape. She knew they could not feel her furious gaze upon them.

  But they will, she vowed silently.

  And soon.

  * * *

  When the Witches were out of sight, the Road of Red Cobble sank back beneath the grass. Glinda wasted no time; she spun on her heel and headed for town.

  “Wait!” called Ben, galloping along beside her. “Where are we going?”

  “To find Mythra.”

  “Mythra?” Locasta echoed. “But you already found her in the Reliquary.”

  “That was a statue,” Glinda corrected, doubling her pace. “This time I need to find her for real. You heard what my mother said before she ran off on that yellow brick road. ‘Find Mythra.’ And that is exactly what I’m going to do!”

 
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