My music pierced through the veil of time. I’d found him. He was here. I stepped through the portal, staring at a world I did not know, wondering if maybe I’d found myself in a time loop just as Ewan and Red had. But it felt… different. The air, the scenery, hell, even the animals. I watched as what probably passed for a mouse in this land hopped—more like bounced—quickly away. It had no feet. What appeared to be a furry ball served as its body, and it made a strange metallic shwang shwang sound as it parted the thick blades of emerald green grass and hid itself from me. Frowning, I stared at the blood-red sky thick with angry golden clouds that grumbled with curls of black lightning. Evergreen boughs like elaborate women’s evening gowns in varying shades of blue covered heavily corrugated trunks, their piney skirts flowing like bustling trains over the damp black earth. Thick screens of fog rolled in from the forest, covering the pathway I stood on. But even so, I could make out its mustard-yellow coloration. The path was cracked and destroyed in sections, charred deepest black, as though it had been struck by powerful lightning. Alongside me were the ruins of what must have once been a thriving little village.
Now it was nothing more than scattered rubble here and there. Having been a huntress all my life, I was well aware of the signals in the woods. And right now, I heard nothing. No hoot of an owl. No chirping of crickets. It was silent. Still as a graveyard. A bad feeling began to settle through my bones and once again I questioned the sanity of my coming to this strange land just to follow a man who’d once hurt me deeper than any one person should ever hurt another. Especially someone they’d once claimed to love. Then I caught a flash of movement overhead from the corner of my eye and lost my train of thought.
When I looked up, I saw a sight I’d only ever imagined in fairy tales. A monkey with beautiful golden wings raced in the sky above me, headed toward a destination I could not see. But it was clearly in haste, which meant there was something ahead. I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing but ashes. And then another flying monkey and another, all headed unerringly in the same direction as their predecessors. A greasy knot formed in the pit of my stomach, and I clenched my back teeth. There was no question that I would follow. Because I felt Lleweyn’s soul beckoning to me. Now that I’d decided he was mine, my internal compass was as attuned to him as my own soul, which he’d once dared to steal from me. I clenched my flute in my hand.
“Even Wonderland would have been better than this hellhole,” I groused. Oh, I knew where I was, all right. The flying monkeys had given it away, but the busted-up yellow brick road had been my first clue. I stared into the giant trees and spotted several crows, silent as death, gazing down on me. I shook my head. I could play my flute and keep myself safe. But I would not be sleeping tonight. Getting off the pathway, I made for the very edge of the woods. I was sure I’d heard a soft, low warning growl. I squared my shoulders.
I’d rather deal with a couple of predators, then the witch I knew must still call this land home. I wasn’t sure how Lleweyn had wound up in Oz, but for certain that was where I was now. Shaking my head, I grumbled once more. “Some days it’s just not worth getting out of bed. You’re lucky I love you, beast.” And then I stopped muttering, because I heard another growl and another one after that. Bringing the flute to my mouth, I played. I played as if my life depended on it, because I was pretty sure it did. It had been nearly an hour, I was sure of it. And still I walked.
Still I played. I was getting really good at not needing to breathe in pressure situations, especially after the ordeal of navigating Hades’s underworld. Who cared if my head was currently buzzing, my vision was full of black spots, and my tongue felt as dry as sandpaper? Feeling good was overrated anyway. My heart stuttered like an enchanted bean when my flagging strength caused my playing to go discordant for a few seconds. I expected to see the monsters jump out at me, expected to hear the growl and smell the fetid wash of their hot breath breathe down my neck. But still they remained just inside the forest. I knew they existed, but I couldn’t quite make them out. Frowning, I looked above me once more into the tree line. Red, beady birds’ eyes watched me. Their black faces were coldly distant.
But even they did not make a move toward me. Normally, my playing could lull angels to sleep. But today I was scared and anxious and so damned full of nerves I was pretty sure I would be losing what meager scraps of lunch I’d had before coming here. I could feel him. Bump. Bump. My breath shivered through my lungs. I could feel him. Warmth. Adrenaline.
Home. My body ached with the sensations. I felt weary to my soul and as old as I now knew I looked. I’d been forged in a crucible of fire, reshaped, reformed… I was no longer sure who I was. I was different, and I wasn’t even certain that he and I were still on the same path. But I was like a dog with a bone. Once I got a scent, I couldn’t stop until I found whatever I was looking for. It was part of my chemical makeup, who I was intrinsically at the root of me. Tenacious, Lleweyn had called me once. But he was right.
I didn’t give up. I didn’t know how to. I was as close to him now as I’d ever been since the day he’d been torn from me. My lashes flickered, and I couldn’t play anymore. There was no more breath in me to do it, because fear and worry and anxious and cruel thoughts were starting to eat away at me. And with a shudder, I stopped playing. The sudden silence was jarring. I could hear the shivering of the trees, hear the low rumbles of beasts prowling just beside me, and feel those damned red eyes burning holes right through me. I stopped walking and stared at the ruined yellow brick trail that led toward only the goddess knew where. After years of being so focused on only one thing, I now stood in the center of a wasteland that smelled of char, staring straight ahead through the gray sky at odd furry beasts that flew, and wondered yet again if I’d made the right choice.
I’d not given a thought in all the years, not once, of not doing this thing, of not rescuing Lleweyn. I’d never wondered even once if I was doing as I should, because I’d always known, always believed that I was in the right, that it was my sacred duty alone to retrieve my male. And yet… was he my male? From the moment I’d stepped foot in Oz I couldn’t seem to stop doubting myself. I’d nearly told him I loved him right before the games ended, but had that even been real? I thought of all I’d suffered in my dogged determination to get him back at all costs and was suddenly tired. Just bone deep tired. I gripped my flute tightly, even as my palms grew slick and my heart began beating a rapid tattoo in my chest that sounded unnatural to my ears. Bump bump bumpbumpbumpbump… bump. I sucked in a trembly breath, feeling odd and queer all over. My skin was both hot and cold. I stared down at the long tips of my white braids.
Who was I today? Was it possible that the Rayale of yesterday and the one of today were two completely separate women? And why had I never thought to question that until just now? My pulse rocketed in my veins, and my stomach clenched so hard my knees actually grew weak. “Oh my gods,” I muttered and twirled on my heels. I was going to be sick. Grabbing my stomach, I forgot all about the beasts that could rend me limb from limb and made it just to the edge of the charred and withered grass line before I did finally lose the meager remains of my lunch. I mostly dry heaved, feeling as though I were forcibly trying to expel my soul through my mouth by the end. “Somehow, you are the very opposite of what I expected would come.” I whirled, defenses up where they’d not been just seconds ago. I raised my flute to my mouth and stared at a fairy tale come to life. Shock kept me from playing. My hands just stayed where they were, refusing to go either up or down.
My head suddenly swirled with the stories I’d heard as a youth. The tale of the green-skinned witch. Ugly. Withered. Old. With a bent nose full of warts and a voice that could crack glass. A black witch’s hat perched on her balding head, and a black smock that would hide the twisted deformity that was her body—at least those had been the stories. But as I studied the nubile beauty that stood before me in a gown of nothing but thousands of black ravens’ wings, I could not fathom that the stories of the twisted witch and this one could be the same. Save for one thing: She wore the infamous slippers, but rather than being ruby red, they were a glittering silver that refracted even the weak rays of the setting sun so that she looked as if she walked upon a seashore of glittering diamonds. And in her hand was a silver staff with a crystal ball at its tip that glowed a surreal and unusual greenish color that every so often would cast a pale green color upon her flesh.
The ball rolled with angry gray clouds. She wore no hat, and her long, thick black hair hung fell in soft, almost delicate waves around her trim shoulders. Her face was striking, sharply contoured in places but also extraordinarily feminine and softly sloping in others. I frowned, sensing that I should probably be far more upset that I’d been found by one of the most legendary and fearsome witches ever. And for a brief second, my lips twitched as I thought about what Ying would say if she learned that the witch lived in truth and not just within the realm of bedtime stories meant to make children fearful. We’d always been morbidly taken by Red’s descriptions of the Wicked Witch when we’d been younger, what seemed now like a literal lifetime ago. Every so often, Ewan and his pack and we would sit around a fire as we’d tell stories. And none were more riveting than the ones Red told. Red had once been from the Earthen realm and had brought many fascinating stories with her that most of us had never heard before, such as the magical land of Oz and its strange, twisted creatures, amalgamations of humans and monsters. But for me, the most fascinating of all of them hadn’t been Dorothy and Toto or the strange little Munchkins or even Glinda the Good Witch, who I’d always felt to be somewhat more sinister than the stories had tried to lead us to believe.
For me, the one I’d sometimes wonder about had always been the Wicked Witch. She took a step, and the dual-colored cloak, inky black on the outside and bloody red on the inside, trailed on the ground like a sea of shadowy blood. Red poppies instantly bloomed in her wake. Her face was a tight and composed pretty mask, but there was no emotion on it. It showed nothing to hint at what she really felt as she stared at me and walked a slow and deliberate circle around me. I ground my back teeth, watching as that carpet of red blooms exploded to life around me, caging me in somehow. When she’d done her full circle and stood in front of me once more, there was a new light in her green eyes. One of them looked odd, as if it gleamed brighter than the other. I knew she’d come to a conclusion of some sort. I only wished I knew what she was thinking.
“Who are you?” she asked, voice dulcet and oddly pleasing to my ear. But I did not sense any type of enchantment in it. I searched her gaze, trying like hell to figure out what my next move should be. I’d encountered so much in my quest to retrieve Lleweyn that I’d thought myself prepared for anything. But I did not feel prepared for this. I had not expected this. The only thing I knew of the Witch of the West was that she was petty and cruel. That she liked her games. I glanced at the piles of rubble all around us. What had happened to Oz? And more importantly, had this been her doing? Why was the Wicked Witch here now? And bloody hell where was Lleweyn? She cocked her head, causing her inky hair to coil and gather along her collar like a snake’s tail.
And I thought that maybe I was so tired that I had no sense in me to fear the thing that I knew I should. I stared at death, and she stared back at me. Her eyes were starting to grow bright with a luminous glow. Her pretty face was still tightly controlled and giving nothing away. If eyes were the windows to the soul, then her soul was dead. I swallowed, and my skin shivered with goose bumps. “Will you not speak to me, lass?” I blinked. “You aren’t who I expected,” I admitted softly, feeling strangely outside myself. Normally I’d have been scared. Before finding Ewan and Red, I might have even attempted to battle the Wicked Witch, to shout and rage at her as I played my flute, wielding it like the weapon it truly was until I’d flayed the very flesh from her body or she’d flayed mine from me.
But I’d been changed inside the fragment of time. I’d been remade, as it were. “Neither are you,” she said, and I twitched, confused by her statement. Her full lips turned up just slightly at the corners, and she looked younger somehow. More…I don’t know, innocent? Maybe. I frowned just a little. Innocent wasn’t exactly the right word here either. “How do you know me?” I asked. She smirked and shook her head softly. “I don’t know you.
Exactly. But my friend buzzed when he felt the disturbance ripple through Oz.” I heard everything she’d said, but only one thing really caught my attention, and my knees nearly buckled. “Your friend?” I whispered brokenly. She said nothing for the longest time. She only stared at me, cocking her head first left than right, eyes looking me up and down. I stared right back. I didn’t know that she was necessarily my enemy, but I knew for certain that she was not my friend. And more than that, she had a friend. A male friend.
A friend who’d sparked when I’d arrived. Who could that be other than Lleweyn? I wet my lips and swallowed hard. “He is my friend. Or maybe I should call him my pet.” I sucked in a sharp breath. It had to be Lleweyn. It had to be. Had she freed him from his stone tomb? But that didn’t make sense if she had, because surely he’d have left. Surely he’d have gone to look for what remained of his family… he wouldn’t have stayed, not Lleweyn. Family was everything to him.
Or it had been to the man I’d once known. Giving my head the merest shake, I said, “What is his name?” “He has never told me that.” My brows twitched. “Couldn’t you make him? You are a strong witch, after all.” I looked pointedly at the ruins of what had once been a bustling township. She snorted, appearing proud and arrogant, before saying, “that I am. And I’d have ended him for daring to deny me. But my magick does not work as it should upon stone. There are… quirks, as it were.” I sucked in a sharp breath, and all the emotions that had gone cold in me for so long suddenly came rushing through me like a tide.
I made the oddest sounds, like a highpitched groan, but I couldn’t seem to stop. “Ah, yes.” She almost purred. “So you are she, then? You are his song he always speaks of. I knew I was right not to have my wolves break you or my crows pluck out your delicate, round eyeballs.” I shivered. The stories hadn’t all been exaggerated then. “What is your name?” I asked her.