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Sneak Peak: Yellow Brick War by Danielle Paige


We’re so ready to go back to Oz with Yellow Brick War by Danielle Paige so we’re giving you a sneak peek at the new book! Start reading the first four chapters of the dark, action-packed third book in the Dorothy Must Die series. In this third book in the series, new girl from Kansas Amy Gumm is caught between her home—and Oz. The only way to stop Dorothy from destroying Oz—and Kansas—is to kill her. And Amy Gumm is the only one who can do it.

Before you start reading, refresh your memory of what happened in the first two books with this series recap!


 

Chapter One

The witches were waiting.

The fire blazed behind the three cloaked figures like a scene from Macbeth—if Macbeth had been set in a bombed-out trailer park. Shadows flickered eerily across the uneven ground. A chilly wind whipped dry dust into tiny cyclones and sent a shiver down my spine. I was standing in the Dusty Acres trailer park—or what was left of Dusty Acres anyway. A fire blazed in the concrete barbecue, the only thing that remained of the place I’d once called home.

Home was nowhere now.

A trio of women faced me, each of them wearing a heavy cloak in a different color: red, gold, and blue. A purple cloak lay on the ground at their feet, glittering with rich gold embroidery. The witch in red was Glamora. The witch in blue was Mombi. And the witch in the gold cloak was hooded so that I couldn’t see her features.

“Rise, little witch,” Glamora said, picking up the purple cloak. “Take your place among us.” I stepped forward. The witches were right. It was time for me to fulfill my destiny. To defeat Dorothy once and for all—with the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked at my back. I took another step forward and reached for the cloak Glamora held out to me.

“You’ve been training for this your whole life,” she said. “You knew we’d ask you to join us. It’s time.” A second later, her words registered. What did she mean, I’d been training my whole life? I’d spent my whole life in this exact trailer park in Kansas, right up until the moment a tornado airlifted me out of Dusty Acres and into a world I thought only existed in books. Then, I’d trained with the Order, learning to fight in the underground network of caves where they housed new recruits, but I’d hardly spent any time at all with them before I’d jumped right into battling Dorothy. Now I realized—Glamora wasn’t looking at me—she was looking past me. At someone else.

“I know,” a familiar voice said behind me, and Nox stepped forward. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be for a while.” He met my startled look with a weary smile.

His face was tired and his eyes were sad. He looked exactly as he had when I’d left him, what felt like a thousand years ago. I’d followed Dorothy into the maze behind the Emerald Palace, leaving him behind. I’d found Dorothy—and the Wizard. And then the Wizard had opened a portal to Kansas, and Dorothy had killed him and pulled both of us through. Dorothy, I thought with a flash of fear. Where was she? If Nox and I had come through the Wizard’s portal, she had to be close by. I closed my eyes, reaching for my magic. And . . . nothing. It was gone, like something had scrubbed it out of me.

“You’re ready,” Mombi said to Nox firmly. She wasn’t looking at me either. What was going on?

“I’ll never be ready,” he said in a low voice. Slowly, painfully, he reached forward and took the cape out of Glamora’s outstretched arms, wrapping it around his shoulders. He looked at me. “I’m sorry, Amy,” he said.

I opened my mouth to ask him what he was sorry for, and then I realized. The witches didn’t want me to take my place among them. They wanted Nox. After everything I’d been through, all my training, they were pushing me aside. “Why did—” I began, but I never got the chance to finish my question.

A huge, booming noise sounded across the gray landscape, and a crackling fork of blue lightning split the sky, landing in the earth in front of Nox with a sizzling noise. Another boom of thunder cracked and echoed, and the cloak began to glow as it swirled around Nox’s shoulders. His face was lit with eerie blue light, and magic crackled and sparked around his body. I could feel the charge in the air, like an electric haze radiating from his lean, muscular form. His back stiffened and his mouth fell open. His face twisted as if in pain. “Nox!” I screamed, but the buzz of the magic swirling around him swallowed up his name. The third witch held out a hand to stop me as I lunged toward him.

“He’ll be all right,” she said. “Stay back until it’s done, Amy.” Crackling lines of power, like glowing ropes, unfurled from Nox’s body, wrapping themselves around each of the other three witches. I jumped back just in time as power slammed into each of the witches. All four of them rose slowly into the air as magic spun a golden net around them, binding them tightly together. I had no idea what was happening, but it was clearly something big. Something I’d never seen before. Something I didn’t even come close to understanding. For one single, shimmering second, the four witches’ bodies seemed almost to merge into one huge, flowing form. In the vortex of magic, I could somehow see all the way through to gleaming emerald streets and clear blue skies, and I knew I was looking at Oz. And then with a final, terrifying crack of lightning, the witches split apart and tumbled to the ground. The lines of power snapped back into their bodies like tape zipping back into a tape measure. Nox lay stunned at my feet, wrapped in the purple cloak and gasping for breath. And then I saw the crumpled form lying in the dirt on the far side of the witches. I didn’t have to guess who it was: the red shoes, pulsing with a dull throbbing light that hurt my eyes, gave her away. It was Dorothy. Her checked dress was torn and dirty, and her arms and legs were covered in dirt and bloody scratches. But her shoes still glowed with a sickly red light.

“Quickly, now,” the hooded witch said urgently. “While she’s still weak.” She threw back her hood and my jaw dropped.

“Gert?” I gasped. “But you’re dead!” I had watched her die. I had mourned for her. And now here she was, alive, in front of me.

“No time to explain right now! We’ll never have a chance to destroy Dorothy like this again!”

Glamora, Gert, and Mombi joined hands and began to chant, and I recognized the shimmer of magic in the air over their heads. Nox reached for Mombi’s free hand, and she took it without interrupting her chant. His voice joined the other witches’.

I tried again to summon my own magic. I was sure this time: there was nothing there. I flexed my fingers, panicking. The magic was gone. My power—all of it. Dorothy was sitting up and looking at her hands in confusion as if she was discovering the same thing. Something had happened to us in that journey through the Wizard’s portal—something that hadn’t affected Nox and the other witches. And then I knew. Dorothy and I were both from Kansas. I’d never cast a spell in my life before I came to Oz—because whatever magic Kansas supposedly contained, I had no idea how to tap into it—or if I even could. The Wizard had insisted Oz was pulling its magic out of the very dirt of Kansas, but Dorothy and I were out of luck. We were back in a world where we didn’t have magic. And if Dorothy was completely powerless, so was I.

“Help us, Amy!” Nox yelled over the other witches’ chant.

“I can’t!” I said desperately, and his eyes widened in surprise. Dorothy’s body was beginning to glow with a pale light that slowly overwhelmed the pulsing from her shoes. But realization suddenly dawned in her eyes.

“We’re in Kansas,” she said, her voice hoarse and weak. “You brought me back to Kansas. And I hate Kansas.” She struggled to her feet and the witches’ spell dimmed as her shoes began to glow even more fiercely. She flicked her fingers at us and scowled when her magic failed to appear. “I want my palace back,” she hissed. “And my power. And my dresses.” She looked down at the red shoes and they blazed with a brilliant crimson light.

“No!” Gert cried. “Stop her!” But the pale glow of the witches’ spell dissolved into a puff of iridescent glitter as Dorothy’s shoes radiated light and power. She wobbled a little, clearly exhausted. Her eyes were sunk deep in her skull. Her skin looked dry and stretched over the bones of her face. Her hair was lank and bedraggled.

“Take me home,” she whispered feebly. “Please, shoes, take me home.” Mombi lunged forward, her own hands radiating the light of a spell, but it was too late. With a flash of red and a sharp pop like a champagne cork shooting out of a bottle, Dorothy vanished.

Dorothy had gone home. And we were stuck in Kansas. For good.


 

 

Chapter Two

Mombi and Glamora quickly conjured up a silk tent that, fragile as it looked, kept out the dust and the relentless Kansas wind. I hadn’t seen much of Glamora lately, and her resemblance to her sister Glinda startled me all over again when I first saw her in the gentle glow of the strands of lights she strung up inside the tent. In a flash, the memory of the time I’d spent with her in the Order’s underground caverns came flooding back: her lessons on the art of glamour, her love of beautiful things, and the intense determination in her face when she told me about what Glinda had done to her. She’d nearly lost that first battle with her sister, and I knew how badly she wanted to bring Glinda down. But it still shocked me how close to impossible it was to tell the sisters apart. I’d seen more than enough of Glinda in action for her sister’s face to creep me out a little, no matter how much I knew Glamora was on the side of the Wicked. The thing I needed to figure out now, I was realizing, was how much the Wicked were on the side of me.

I tried getting Mombi, Glamora, and Gert to answer my frantic questions, but they ignored me as they bustled around our temporary home plumping cushions and pulling dishes and silverware out of thin air. “What just happened?” I hissed at Nox. He gave me a helpless look, and I wanted to smack him.

“There was too much to tell you, Amy. You know the Order has always had to keep secrets to survive.” I shook my head in disgust. When had anyone ever told me the whole truth? I’d thought I could trust Nox at least. Clearly, I’d been wrong. I was furious. More than that, I was hurt. Nox and I weren’t just soldiers who fought together anymore. My feelings for him were way more complicated than that—and I’d thought he cared about me.

“Amy, talk to me,” he said. “Please.”

“Forget it,” I snapped.

Glamora being Glamora, she’d also summoned a Pottery Barn’s worth of beautiful, soft carpets, heavy throw pillows, decorative tapestries, and a big antique-looking wooden table where the witches were conjuring up a meal. I remembered the handkerchief that Lulu had given me—the one that had created Glinda’s version of the same tent. In some ways, the sisters were uncannily alike. Glamora’s special touches even included the same votive candles and arrangements of flowers as Glinda’s. I wondered, not for the first time, how two people so alike could have possibly turned out so different. Were there other ways the sisters were similar? I’d thought foolishly that I’d been safe in Glinda’s tent. Maybe Glamora’s was just as dangerous.

“Amy,” Glamora said gently, “why don’t you come get something to eat?” I ignored the expression on Nox’s face as I turned my back on him and followed her to the table. What did he expect from me? The silk of the tent rustled and I knew he’d slipped outside, which made me even angrier. It was bad enough that he hadn’t told me what was going on. But refusing to face me afterward? That was worse.

Mombi, Gert, and Glamora were already sitting around the table over plates of food. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten, but I wasn’t hungry.

“How can you just sit there?” I exploded. “How is Gert still alive? What just happened back there? What are we doing in Kansas, and how do we get back to Oz? This is Kansas, right? Is that why I can’t use magic?” Mombi put down her fork and looked at me.

“You can’t use magic?”

“No,” I said. “Not here. It’s just . . . gone, somehow. But that’s not the point. You owe me answers.”

Gert sighed. “You’re right, it’s probably time.”

“It’s way past time,” I said.

Gert chuckled. “That’s my girl. No beating around the bush, our Amy.”

“I’m not anybody’s girl,” I said. “I’m tired of being jerked around. You obviously know a lot more than I do about what’s going on here.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Gert said. “But I do understand your confusion, and I’m sorry you feel hurt. I know all this has been difficult for you.”

“It would be a lot less difficult for me if you would just tell me what the hell is going on!” I yelled. I’d been through so much, and still hadn’t managed to kill Dorothy. Tears started to fall and I cried. I cried because Nox, possibly my only friend, probably wasn’t such a great friend after all. I cried for poor Polychrome, who’d I’d watched die trying to fight Glinda, and I cried for her dead unicorn. I cried for Star, my mom’s pet rat, who the Lion had swallowed whole in front of me. I cried for all the friends I’d lost already in this stupid, senseless, never-ending yellow brick war. And maybe, just maybe, I cried a little for myself, too. When I was done I lifted my tearstained face to find Gert, Glamora, and Mombi looking at me with eyes full of concern. I’d doubted them all, and for good reason. I was more than tired of doing other people’s dirty work. But maybe they really did care about me.

“You done?” Mombi asked, gruffly but not unkindly. “Because we have work to do, kid.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, embarrassment already beginning to replace my outburst of emotion.

Mombi waved a hand at Gert. “Tell her what she wants to know so we can get on with it,” she said.

Gert looked at me questioningly, and I nodded. “Okay, let’s start with the easy question first. You asked how I’m still alive,” she said. “The truth is, I never died.”

If that was the easy question, I couldn’t wait for the hard ones. “But I saw you,” I said. “I saw you when you died, right in the middle of the first battle I ever fought.” I pushed back the gruesome memory of my first meeting with the Lion and his awful animal army. Like a lot of things that had happened to me in Oz, it was something I never wanted to think about again. “I saw you fight the Lion, and lose. It happened right in front of me.”

“You did see that,” she agreed. “And I did lose, there’s no doubt about that either.” She shuddered briefly and closed her eyes as if in pain. I wasn’t in a mood to be sympathetic to the Order, but it was hard to stay mad at Gert. It was like holding a grudge against your grandmother for accidentally burning your favorite cookies. “But witches are very, very difficult to kill,” she went on, opening her eyes again. “Even in a battle like that one. I’m honestly not entirely sure what happened to me when the Lion defeated me. The best guess I can come up with is that Dorothy’s magic is weakening the boundaries between your world and ours. When the Lion won, everything went dark for me for a long time. It was as though I was wandering through some kind of shadow country.”

“The Darklands?” I interrupted, and Gert looked surprised. I realized that the first time I’d used my magic to find my way into that spooky, desolate parallel universe was after Gert died—or didn’t die. Whatever. Gert didn’t know I knew about the Darklands.

“She can get there, too,” Mombi explained curtly. Gert nodded.

“Your magic has grown considerably since last I saw you, Amy,” Gert said. “Anyway, no—I wasn’t in the Darklands, I don’t think. There’s a lot we don’t know about that place. As far as I know I was here, in this clearing, the whole time.”

It took me a second to realize she meant Dusty Acres. “You were in the trailer park?” I asked.

Gert looked confused. “I don’t know what that is,” she said. “But I couldn’t leave this area, no. I’d start out in one direction and somehow, without even realizing it, I’d be exactly back where I began, no matter how far I walked. I couldn’t touch anything—no matter how far I stretched, everything was just out of reach. I didn’t see any other people—not so much as a bird or a beetle.” She looked sad and incredibly old. “It was awful,” she said gruffly. “It took me a long time to regain any strength, and I’m still much weaker than I was before. But eventually, my magic was strong enough for me to get a message to Mombi and Glamora. They used the breakdown between the worlds to join me here. We had some idea the Wizard would try to use you to open a portal back to Kansas, and we knew the doorway would be in this place, so we came here to wait for you.”

“You knew the Wizard wanted to kill me—to use me to open a portal back to Kansas—and you didn’t stop him?” I asked angrily.

“Gert was next to useless,” Mombi said bluntly. “I’m pretty weak myself. The three of us weren’t strong enough to stop the Wizard outright. But we knew if Nox joined us and completed the circle, we’d be powerful enough to defeat him and Dorothy.”

“Wait, back up,” I said. “What circle? Does this have to do with what happened out there?” And if they were powerful enough to defeat the Wizard and Dorothy with Nox helping them, why had they ever needed me in the first place?

“You already know about the balance of power in Oz,” Gert said, and I remembered her uncanny trick of reading minds. “Oz depends on magic to survive, and no one person can tap too heavily into it without harming Oz. That balance is part of what the Order was trying to maintain. There have always been four witches—one each in the North, the South, the East, and the West. But that balance has been out of whack since Dorothy’s first visit to Oz, and it’s even more out of line now. When Dorothy’s house killed the Wicked Witch of the East, she opened up a vacuum that no one was strong enough to fill.”

“I still don’t understand,” I said.

“We’ve been trying to defeat Dorothy by fighting one battle at a time, but that’s like trying to put out a forest fire by hauling water in a bucket,” Mombi said. “The Order has been scattered across Oz. Half the soldiers you trained with back in the caverns are dead. Others . . .” She shrugged. “We know where some of them are, but we’re too spread out to do any good anymore. What we did out there”—she waved vaguely at the ruins of the place where I’d lived since my mom slid into her downward spiral of addiction—“was make Nox into one of us. The Wicked Witch of the East, essentially.”

“By restoring the Quadrant, we’re finally strong enough to kill Dorothy,” Glamora said. “We had all our hopes pinned on you—”

“But I can’t kill Dorothy,” I said slowly. “Because we’re linked somehow. So you have to do it yourselves.”

Mombi nodded.

“Not to mention the fact that Dorothy just teleported herself back to Oz and we’re stuck here.”

Mombi nodded again.

I sighed and put my head in my hands. I was getting really sick of witches. “If you knew all along that you could make Nox into one of you, why didn’t you do it sooner? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because once Nox is bound to the Quadrant, he’s in for life,” Gert said. “There’s no hope for him to ever be anything else. We didn’t tell you—he didn’t tell you—because we hoped it would never come to this. We’re older than you can imagine, Amy, and for us the sacrifice is—well, it’s done. There’s no going back for any of us. But this is a terrible fate to wish on someone as young as Nox.”

“He can never live a normal life,” Glamora said quietly. “Like us, he’s responsible now for the future of Oz. He can never have a family. Grow old like an ordinary person.”

“Fall in love,” Mombi added, with a significant look at me.

“He can fall in love,” Gert corrected. “He just can’t do anything about it.” She paused. “Of course you still have a place with us, if you want it. But we’re in Kansas, Amy. We’ll find a way to get back to Oz. And once we’re there, we can defeat Dorothy without you. You can go home.”

Home. I could go home. It struck me suddenly that I was in Kansas—and I could stay here.

Home was something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. I didn’t know what Oz was to me anymore. When I first got there, I had thought it was a place where I could finally belong. A place where I had found friends. Then it had become something else entirely.

But had Kansas ever been home either? What was I going to go back to? My mom was gone—who knew if she was even alive. I hadn’t exactly been Miss Popularity at Dwight D. Eisenhower Senior High. The trailer where I’d lived with my mom wasn’t a place I ever wanted to see again—and even if I did, it was long gone. Home might not be Oz, but it sure wasn’t the empty, ruined landscape outside the tent the witches had conjured up. And I’d been through so much in Oz, seen so much, that I couldn’t even imagine going back to a normal life. I’d learned how to do things I hadn’t even known were possible in a completely new world I hadn’t known was real. I’d battled some of the most terrifying enemies imaginable. I’d flown with monkeys, hung out with royalty, killed Dorothy’s baddest minions. What was I going to do next, get a job at the mall?

“It’s up to you, Amy,” Gert said, reading my mind again and pulling me back into the moment. “You don’t have to decide right now. But you do need to decide if you want to help us get back to Oz.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “So we’re not stuck here forever? What’s your plan?”

Gert sighed. “It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “Even with Nox as part of the circle now, we’re not powerful enough to open a portal back to Oz. The Wizard was only able to do it because he had the magical gifts he’d given to the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Woodman.” I tried not to think about that last, awful glimpse of the Wizard exploding into blood confetti as Dorothy twisted his spell. “But we do have an idea.”

Of course they did—yet another top-secret plan they only decided to clue me in on when they felt like it? I sighed, and Gert gave me a sympathetic smile. “Okay, let’s hear it,” I said, settling back into a pile of Glamora’s cushions. They even smelled heavenly—like the way the makeup counter at a mall smells, kind of glamorous and relaxing all at once.

“You remember Dorothy’s shoes,” Glamora began.

“Yeah, not likely to forget those,” I said.

“Not the shoes she has now,” Gert said. “Dorothy’s original shoes.”

I stared at them. “Wait, what do you mean her original shoes? Like, the ‘no place like home’ ones? Those are real, too?” I almost started laughing. What was I thinking? Of course they were real. If Oz was real, why not Dorothy’s magic silver shoes?

“The first time Dorothy came to Oz,” Glamora explained, “she didn’t want to stay for good.”

“If only she’d never returned,” Gert sighed.

“My sister, Glinda, sent her home with a pair of enchanted silver shoes—the predecessors to the pair that brought her back here a second time. Dorothy always assumed they’d been lost when she crossed the Deadly Desert, and though she tried to find them again, she was never able to.” I wasn’t sure how to explain to Glamora that all this Ozian history was a series of classic books—not to mention a hit movie—in Kansas, so I didn’t bother trying. “But what if the shoes are still here?”

“Here, like Kansas?”

“She means here here,” Mombi said. “Where Dorothy’s farm used to be.”

“Dorothy’s farm used to be in Dusty Acres?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” Glamora said. “Dorothy’s farm used to be in the exact spot where your school is sitting right now.”

“High school,” Gert prompted. She looked at me with her eyebrows raised. “Barbaric system, really. Oz’s method of apprenticeship is vastly superior.”

Were they serious? Dwight D. Eisenhower Senior High had somehow been sheltering the long-lost magic silver shoes of Oz this whole time? It was almost too much. If only Madison Pen-dleton had known that when she’d done her book report on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Not that she’d have needed anything extra to get her A+. Everybody loved Madison already. Everyone, that is, except for me. “How do you even know the shoes are still magic?” I asked. “What if they don’t work anymore? What if they only go one way, from Oz back to the Other—um, back to Kansas?”

Mombi sighed. “You’re right. It’s a long shot. But it’s the only shot we have. We have to take the chance.”

“Okay,” I said, “so you guys find the shoes. Then what?”

“Amy,” Glamora said, “we’re not going to find the shoes. If you agree to help us, you are.”

“But I don’t understand how,” I argued. “I mean, my magic doesn’t work here any better than yours does. Why can’t you find them without me?”

“Because they’re in your high school,” Gert said. “It would look a little funny if three old ladies and a teenage boy showed up for class in the middle of the school year, don’t you think? Consider it an undercover mission.” She beamed. “To tell you the truth, you’re our only hope at this point. If you want to help us get back to Oz, you have to go back to high school.”


 

 

Chapter Three

“No,” I said. “No way. Absolutely, positively, no way in hell am I going back to high school. I didn’t even want to come back to Kansas.

“We don’t have a choice,” Mombi said.

“Well, I do. I am not a member of the Quadrant.”

“Amy,” Gert said gently. “We still need you.”

“Why don’t you just glamour yourselves?” I said, exasperated. I wanted to help them—at the very least, it would distract me from the decision I had to make. But I sure didn’t want to help them like this.

“Amy, you’ve already realized how difficult it is for us to use magic here,” Glamora said. “We’re close to where the Wizard opened the portal, so we still have some connection to Oz. But the farther we get away from Dusty Acres, the weaker we’ll probably be. We simply don’t know what effect Kansas will have on our power, and we can’t risk a long-term glamour spell.”

“You don’t need me. You can send Nox,” I said. “He can be—he can be a foreign exchange student. From, uh, France.”

Glamora cocked her head at me quizzically. “From what?”

“It’s like a—uh, it’s like Quadling Country,” I said. “But with baguettes.” The witches stared at me blankly, and the stupidity of my own idea hit me. Right. A foreign exchange student with no papers, no parents, and no passport. A foreign exchange student who had never even heard of the country he was supposedly from. Nox would last about five minutes at Dwight D. Eisenhower Senior High, dreamboat hair or no dreamboat hair.

I didn’t want to admit it any more than Mombi did, but the witches were right. Whether or not I wanted to go back to Oz myself, they didn’t have a chance of finding the shoes without me. And unless I could come up with a better plan—not that theirs was much of one—the shoes were the only chance they had.

“I can’t even get extra credit for learning magic,” I muttered. “How long have I been in Oz anyway? Everyone in Kansas probably thinks I’m dead.”

“You know time works differently here than it does in Oz,” Gert said. “As far as we can figure out, about a month of your time has passed while you were in Oz.”

Only a month? The idea was crazy. So much had happened to me, so much time had passed. I didn’t even feel like the same person anymore. The Amy Gumm who’d lived here was a total stranger. I didn’t belong here anymore. I wasn’t sure I ever had.

“You’ll have to find them fast,” Mombi added. “There’s no telling what damage Dorothy will be able to do in Oz. We have to get back as soon as we can.”

“I haven’t even said I’ll help!” I said angrily, but I knew Mombi was right. Yet again it was up to me. “Fine. I’ll find the stupid shoes. So where am I supposed to live while I’m repeating senior year?”

“Oh,” Glamora said cheerfully, “that part at least is easy. We found your mom.”

My mom. Just the word brought back a flood of memories, most of them bad. I’d just been dumped back in Kansas, watched Nox take a place among the witches that they hadn’t even considered me for despite how hard I’d worked, and I had no idea if it was possible to return to Oz—or if I even wanted to. And now I was going to have to stay with the woman who’d abandoned me to party with her friends while a tornado descended on our house? It was too much.

“I need a minute,” I mumbled, and ducked out of the tent. The air was still and cool; overhead, clouds moved quickly across the stars as if a storm was on its way. Like we needed any more of those. One tornado per lifetime had been way more than enough.

I couldn’t help but wonder: What if, that afternoon in the trailer, my mom had decided just that once to take care of me? To drive me to safety—somewhere both of us could ride out the storm together? What if she had finally done the right thing? Was what I’d gained in Oz—strength, power, respect, self-reliance—worth what I’d lost? Without Nox, what did I even have to go back for? Being with him was the closest I’d come to happiness in Oz, but if his duties to the witches meant we could never even try to have a relationship, I didn’t relish the idea of returning to Oz just to be the Quadrant’s servant.

I wondered what would have happened if my mom had kept me safe and I’d never been airlifted into Oz at all. I knew that somewhere inside the mom who’d abandoned me that day was the mom who’d once loved me as though I was the greatest treasure in her life. But Kansas had a way of stripping the good out of anything, like the harsh prairie winds that peeled pretty paint from siding until all the houses were the same peeling, hopeless gray. And who was I kidding—my life here, in Kansas, had basically been hell.

After my dad bailed, I’d watched my mom’s downward spiral: slow at first, circling the drain faster and faster as pills and booze took away anything that resembled the happy, cheerful, loving mom I’d once known. By the time the tornado picked me up out of Dusty Acres, my mom was a couch-hugging wreck who only got up long enough to stagger down to the nearest bar with her best friend, Tawny. And the day the tornado had hit she’d cussed me out for getting suspended—as if über-pregnant tyrant Madison Pendleton’s picking a fight with me had been my fault—before abandoning me to the mercy of the storm in order to hit up a tornado party. I remembered what she’d looked like the last time I’d seen her: caked in drugstore makeup, her cheap skirt not much longer than a belt, her boobs racked up to her chin with a push-up bra. Trashy, bitchy, angry, and mean: like a trailer-park version of the Seven Dwarfs. I could’ve died, easily, because she’d left me that day. And now I was supposed to go back to her? To pretend everything was fine? The witches had asked a lot from me during my time in Oz, but this was something else.

“Amy?” It was Nox. I could barely make out his silhouette where he perched on a crumbling cement foundation. Somehow, he was the person I most and least wanted to see at the same time. What comfort was he going to be to me now? He’d made his choice. We could never be together. “Amy, I’m really sorry,” he said. I hesitated, and then sat down next to him. He put an arm around me, and I flinched. Hastily, he pulled away.

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I asked. “Why did you even let me hope we could—” I broke off, grateful he couldn’t see my cheeks flush in the dark. I was sixteen and I’d only known him for—well, for a month, apparently. It’s not like we were engaged, I thought bitterly. Except it had felt like so much more than that. I guess Oz did that. Made everything feel larger than life.

The edges of the sky were turning purple, suggesting that sunrise wasn’t far off. I couldn’t help myself—in spite of all my hurt and anger, I looked up. Kansas didn’t have much to offer, but the night sky was something else. The clouds had cleared, and the entire length of the Milky Way spilled across the heavens, blazing with stars. When my dad was around, he’d take me out at night sometimes with a pair of binoculars and point out all the constellations. I could still remember some of them—a lot better than I remembered my dad.

Nox and I were sitting literally on top of where my old trailer had been before the fateful tornado that picked me up and dragged me out of the only world I’d ever known. Being back here was unthinkable. But the Milky Way made me feel for the first time that maybe I had a home here, too. I hadn’t missed anything about my world, but seeing the constellations overhead made me reconsider. And if I couldn’t be with Nox in Oz, the list of reasons to return had just gotten a lot shorter.

“I’m so sorry,” Nox said again. “It’s not how I wanted this—” He took a deep breath and started again. “Look, it’s normal to have feelings for someone in the heat of battle. Emotions are intense. It’s happened before.”

Right—how could I forget. Melindra, the half-tin girl I’d trained with when I first came to Oz. She had wasted no time in telling me that she and Nox had been an item. When he took me to the top of Mount Gillikin to see the sprawling, beautiful landscape of Oz and told me I was special, it was the same routine he’d used on her. Now his words stung like crazy. How many girls had he shown that view? How many girls had fallen for his sad orphan shtick? Nox was straight out of Central Casting: Tortured Revolutionary Dreamboat—Are You the Girl Who’ll Finally Capture His Wounded Heart?

“Oh, great,” I snapped. “So I don’t mean anything to you.”

“Will you let me finish, Amy?” Now he sounded exasperated. “I knew you were different—that’s what I’m trying to tell you. From the very beginning. I haven’t had a lot of family in my life,” he added quietly. “Gert, Mombi, Glamora—as bad as they can be, they were all I had. Until you came along. I didn’t tell you because I knew they could call me in at any minute and I’d have to leave yet another thing I cared about. I guess I was dumb enough to think that ignoring the possibility would make it go away. Obviously, I was wrong.”

“Can’t I help you? Can’t I become part of the circle somehow, too?”

“Amy, I don’t think you can handle Oz’s magic much longer,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked angrily. “You think I can’t handle myself? Why do you just do everything they tell you?” A sudden thought hit me. “You’re jealous,” I said. “You’re jealous of my power, and the fact that I could be strong enough to take down Dorothy. You know you need me and you don’t want to admit it—because that would be telling the Order that brave, perfect Nox can’t do it all on his own.”

“Listen to yourself, Amy,” he said quietly. “You accused me of doing the same thing when we first met. Remember?”

I didn’t want to think about it, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. The night when I was still training with the Wicked. When Gert had first provoked me into using magic, and I’d gotten so angry I couldn’t even think. Nox had whisked me away to show me the stars and calm me down. I’d yelled at him for always doing what the Order told him without thinking, and he’d told me how Dorothy and Glinda had killed his family and destroyed his village. He’d opened up to me for the first time, and I’d seen the depths of what haunted him. Of what Dorothy had taken from him. Compared to Nox, I’d lost hardly anything at all. And now here we were again, under a different set of stars, having the same fight.

“I remember,” I said. “But everything was different then.” Everything was simpler, I wanted to add.

“Do you really think I’m jealous of you?” Nox said. “How could I be? I’ve seen what Oz’s magic is doing to you. It’s tearing you apart. I can’t let that happen to you. I won’t. You know you can’t kill Dorothy. You’re bound to her somehow. And we know Dorothy has been hopelessly corrupted by Oz’s magic—and probably the Wizard, too. When he first came to Oz, he wasn’t evil—just bumbling. Every time you try to use your power you turn into a monster. If Oz’s magic doesn’t twist you into something unrecognizable, it’ll—” He stopped short.

“You think it’ll kill me.”

“I think there’s a strong possibility,” he said. “You can’t use Oz’s magic, Amy. Not now, not ever again.”

“It hasn’t killed Dorothy. Anyway, I can’t use magic at all here,” I said, throwing my hands up in the air. “So it’s kind of a moot point for the time being. But if my magic returns somehow, or if we get back to Oz—using magic is my choice to make. Not Gert’s. Not Mombi’s or Glamora’s. Not yours.”

“It isn’t just your choice, Amy,” he said, looking deep into my eyes. “I can’t just think about you. I have to think about all of Oz. If you turn into something like Dorothy . . .” He trailed off, tugging helplessly at the Quadrant cloak. “This is so much bigger than just us.” I knew what he meant; he didn’t have to say it out loud. If Oz’s magic made me into another Dorothy, he’d have to kill me, too. But being told what to do still stuck in my throat. Especially after Nox had refused to tell me the whole truth for all this time.

“You care about Oz more than you care about me,” I snapped, hurt and angry. I wanted to take the words back as soon as they were out of my mouth. Of course Nox cared more about Oz than he did about me. Oz was his country, his home, the only world he’d ever known. Oz was his entire life. I was a bitchy, needy teenager who’d crashed the party at the eleventh hour and learned how to be an assassin. If Oz’s magic corrupted me, it would be my own fault. Dorothy’d had no idea what the shoes would do to her. But me? I knew all too well the dangers of using magic in Oz.

“You know that’s not true,” he said. The reproach in his voice was gentle but unmistakable. I wondered how much damage I’d just done acting like a spoiled little kid. I could feel a new distance, like someone had hung a curtain between us.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. My throat hurt like I’d swallowed a pincushion, but I was sick of crying. For some crazy reason, in that moment I thought of Dustin. Good old Dustin of Dusty Acres, my old high school enemy Madison Pendleton’s trusty sidekick. Like me, Dustin had wanted out of this dump. I wondered if he’d gotten it. I wondered if Madison had had the baby that had been threatening to pop out when the tornado hit. I wondered if going back to high school meant I’d have to see her—see both of them—again.

“I wish things were different,” Nox said. His voice was tight with some emotion I couldn’t pinpoint. Anger? Sadness? Probably he was regretting spending any time with me in the first place. This was war, like everybody kept telling me. Feelings only got in the way. And I was only getting in Nox’s. I owed it to him to give him distance. He had to save the world and he didn’t need me holding him back.

“Yeah, well, so do I,” I said, making my voice cold and hard as I stood up. “But they aren’t. So I guess I’d better get to work, since I’m the one trying to save all your asses.”

“Amy—” This time there was no mistaking the hurt in his voice, but I turned my back on him. It took all the strength I had not to look back at him as he watched me walk away.


 

 

Chapter Four

“All right,” I snapped, pushing my way back into the tent. Gert looked up, startled. “Let’s get this done. The last time I saw my mom she was a hot mess. Where’d she end up? How did you find her?”

“Not the last time, Amy,” Gert said gently. “You saw her again. Remember? You saw her in the scrying pool.”

I knew exactly what Gert was talking about, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it. So maybe I’d had a vision of my mom in a new apartment somewhere, pathetically cuddled up to my favorite sweater. And maybe in the vision she’d been clean. But if that was true, it was just as pathetic. She’d had to lose me, her house, and her entire life in order to get her act together? If she’d been a real mom she’d have managed it while I was still around. Normal people didn’t need tragedy to tell them not to blow the rest of their lives chasing their painkillers with booze.

“How do I even know if that was real?” I asked. “She could be passed out in a ditch somewhere for all I know. Or dead by now.”

“She isn’t dead,” Mombi said, looking a little exasperated. “We found her in a broadsheet!” she added proudly.

“A what?”

“A sheet with news and announcements,” Gert said slowly, as if talking to an idiot. “In the Other Place they have pictures”—she turned to Glamora—“can you believe that? Pictures! I think that’s a splendid idea.”

“You mean a newspaper?” All three witches looked at me, and in spite of myself, I stifled a giggle. “Okay, right. So she was in the newspaper.”

“The broadsheet described the movements of the tornado survivors,” Mombi explained importantly. “I used that information and compared it to a map of the surrounding countryside.” She brandished a tattered old highway map that looked like she’d found it in a culvert.

“You could have just Googled her,” I said, laughing.

“I don’t know that spell,” Mombi said gruffly.

Mombi had saved the newspaper with the details of the post-tornado emergency cleanup effort. My mom had been moved to temporary emergency housing along with everyone else from this area who lost their homes in the tornado and didn’t have anywhere else to go—which, as far as I could tell, was our entire trailer park.

“Great,” I muttered. “It’ll be a Dusty Acres reunion. I can’t wait.”

We talked for a while about what my plan should be, but the truth was that none of us really knew what we were doing. All we had to go on was a Wickedly half-baked theory that Dorothy’s maybe-mythical magical shoes were somewhere in my old high school, and if they were I would be able to find them. It didn’t even make sense. None of this made sense. Plus, if the shoes had worked to bring Dorothy back from Oz, who knew whether they’d succeed in taking all of us to Oz even if I could find them? None of us could use our full magic. We were totally making up this whole thing as we were going along.

But the prospect of action left me weirdly cheerful. Anything was better than sitting around waiting for the end—even visiting a mom I’d been only too happy to leave behind. It was a crazy, stupid, and probably impossible mission, but it wasn’t exactly my first crazy, stupid, and probably impossible mission. Once I decided to do it, I felt almost relieved.

Nox hadn’t come back inside, and I pretended I didn’t care. “You might as well get a little rest,” Glamora suggested. “It’s not even dawn yet—you can go see your mother later in the morning.” I wasn’t going to argue with that logic. As I settled into a corner of the tent, wrapping myself up in a soft cashmere blanket the color of Nox’s eyes (oh please, I told myself, knock it off), I was almost surprised to realize how tired I was. It made sense, of course. I’d been through a lot, and it wasn’t like we’d been taking naps in between battles. But I was tired all the way through to my bones. I felt like I could sleep for a thousand years without waking up, and the thought was tempting. I wasn’t just physically tired—I was tired of everything. Of fighting, of running, of losing. I wanted someone else to take up the burden of saving Oz for a while.

Get some rest, Amy, I heard Gert say in my head.

A warm tingle started in my toes and spread through my body, relaxing my muscles one by one as if I was sinking into a giant bubble bath. It felt just like the healing pool in the cave where I’d first been taken to the Order. Before I knew it, I was actually there. The purple walls of the cavern, studded with glittering amethyst stalactites, met in a high arch overhead. The massive tree, whose roots seemed to reach deep into the very heart of the earth, stretched toward the ceiling with gnarled branches covered in tiny white blossoms that drifted down around me like sweetly scented snow. I was floating in the deep, foamy pool, its water as warm as a bath. My clothes dissolved around me as the water drew out my aches and pains and exhaustion. I knew somewhere inside that I couldn’t possibly be back in Oz, that the vision was Gert’s doing, but I didn’t fight it. I drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The witches let me sleep in. The tent was empty and I could see through its delicate silk walls that the sun was high in the sky by the time I sat up, yawning and stretching. I didn’t feel all the way rested, exactly, but I did feel a lot better. I wondered how long it had been noon for, and then I remembered we weren’t in Oz anymore. The sun here moved because the earth was spinning on its axis, not because some crazy power-hungry bitch decided it should be sunny for as long as she felt like it. I wasn’t thrilled about being back in Kansas, but that part at least was a nice change.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” Glamora said, sticking her head through the tent flap. “Mombi ate all the bacon, but I’m sure we can whip up some more. She says it’s important to sample the local delicacies as long as we’re here.” I laughed out loud at the idea of anyone calling bacon a “local delicacy,” but my stomach growled loudly, and even Glamora giggled.

I couldn’t use magic to fix myself up, so I dragged my fingers through my dirty hair and straightened my clothes as best I could. Gert’s magical cleansing vision had been all in my head. I was pretty distinctly in need of a real bath, but I decided not to worry about that either. If my mom wanted a pretty princess, she could brush my hair herself. I’d had about enough of other people’s expectations.

Nox was wrapping himself up in his Quadrant cloak, obviously preparing to go somewhere. He refused to meet my eyes. The distance between us that had sprung up last night felt even stronger now. I wanted to say something to him, reach out. But I didn’t know how to cross the gulf I’d somehow created. I’d been the one to push him away, but I was already regretting it.

“Where are you going?” I asked in a low voice, and he practically flinched.

“Gert and Glamora want me to protect—” he began, but Glamora cut him off with a breezy wave of her hand. Gert and Glamora exchanged glances.

“We’re sending him out to do reconnaissance. Make sure the area is safe.”

Safe? That was a joke. The scariest thing about Dusty Acres was how empty it was. There was obviously something they weren’t telling me. Nox mumbled something incoherent that could have been “good-bye,” “I love you,” or “go to hell,” and stalked off toward the road into town.

I caught Gert studying me with a soulful expression that seemed almost sympathetic. They were trying to keep us apart, I realized. If Nox and I couldn’t be together, the witches were going to make sure we weren’t around to distract each other. I felt a brief surge of fury. Shouldn’t that be up to us? Did I not get a say in my own life? What game were they playing anyway? I’d already decided to keep my distance from Nox. But that was my decision, not theirs.

After a picnic-style breakfast of bacon and eggs, Glamora waved the dishes and picnic blanket away, and I stood up. “I want to get this over with,” I said tiredly. “Where’s my mom?”

Apparently, Gert had been using her extended involuntary Kansas vacation for recon as well as recovery. “I used what we already knew from the vision of your mother you saw in my cave,” she explained. “Her hut is right near the high school.”

“At least I won’t have to take the bus to school,” I said. “And it’s called an apartment.”

Mombi snorted. “Keep your attitude in check, missy.”

The apartment where my mom was living wasn’t far from Dusty Acres, either, and we all agreed it would be better if I just walked there. Glamora was more tired than she should have been from whipping up our tent and breakfast, and Gert and Mombi admitted Kansas was having an effect on their magic, too. At least it wasn’t just me who was suffering, although it wasn’t much comfort knowing the witches would have a hard time helping me if anything went wrong. Quadrant or no Quadrant, I was on my own.

It seemed like a bad idea to use their power to transport me a distance I was perfectly capable of walking. The witches offered to escort me, but I only laughed.

“Yeah, right,” I said. “No offense, but this is the twenty-first century. I’m going to have a hard enough time explaining how I got here, let alone three old bats who look like extras from a senior citizens’ Dungeons and Dragons role-playing party.”

Mombi smoothed her blue cloak huffily. “We don’t have dragons in Oz,” she said.

“Never mind,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m fine on my own.”

Gert stepped forward and hugged me, and for a second I let myself get lost in her familiar, comforting embrace. No matter how much the witches had kept from me, and no matter how much I felt like they were using me half the time for some secret, complicated plan of their own, Gert’s hugs were still the best. Somehow, she always managed to make me feel like everything was going to be okay. Even when it pretty clearly wasn’t.

“We won’t be with you here, Amy,” she said. “Mombi will take us all into the Darklands to wait. We’ll be safe there, and we can conserve our power.”

“Great,” I said. “So I can’t use my magic, I’m completely on my own, I have barely any time to accomplish the basically impossible task you’ve given me, and on top of all that, I have to move back in with my mom.”

Glamora nodded earnestly, her blue eyes wide. “Yes,” she said. “That’s really all you have to do.”

I sighed. Sarcasm was wasted on pretty much everyone in Oz except Lulu. And Nox, a little voice piped up in the back of my head. I told it to shut up.

“We’ll be with you in spirit,” Gert said, squeezing my hands. “And when you need us—when you’re ready to use the shoes to open the portal back to Oz—send us a sign, and we’ll rejoin you.”

“What, like the bat signal?” I said, rolling my eyes.

“What do bats have to do with anything?” Mombi asked.

“Never mind,” I said.

The three of them hugged me in turn—even Mombi—and then joined hands. Mombi closed her eyes and muttered something under her breath. Weakened as she was, she was still far more powerful than I was—I’d only ever managed to get myself into the Darklands for a brief period when I was fighting Dorothy, and she was taking two other people for an indefinite stay without even batting an eyelash. Not that Mombi really had much in the way of eyelashes. Slowly, the witches began to turn gray and then fade, like watching a color movie degrade into black-and-white. The brightness seeped from their bodies and their images flattened and grew transparent. Gert opened her eyes and blew me a kiss, and then they faded away altogether.

This was it. Yet again, I was on my own, and the future of everything was in my hands. I sighed and started walking.


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