|Would you like to be a flying monkey? I can arrange that.|
His name is Nathan Vach, and he's having terrifying dreams. Left alone after his father and brothers die in the Second Ogres war, and after his mother perishes from illness, he retreats into his family's big home far from anywhere. But the dreams continue to plague him, so he decides to visit a metaphysician in Munchkinland. There he learns startling news: that he has a gift for someone--a Soul Gift. It's a Gift that will be a great blessing to he or she destined to receive it. Walking home, he has no idea just how powerful that Gift is--or the individual who, unbeknownst to him, will soon try to claim it. Read on!
"IF YOU WANT TO BE TRULY GOOD ..."
"IF YOU WANT TO BE TRULY GOOD ..."
Get better I did.
It took the mogwai’s share of three months. In time my strength began to return. Zelena repeatedly used what she called “micro-magic” to set my broken bones and spur them to heal. It was very tiny doses of magic that wouldn’t cause me to die, split from my Cruxx as I was, but, carefully administered, could “sneak under” the danger, so to speak.
As I got back on my feet, she regularly left, sometimes for three or four days, sometimes more. The last time she returned from such a hiatus, this one three days, I asked.
She smiled stiffly. I’d made dinner—chicken soup—and served her a bowl. She took it and watched me sit, which, still healing, I only could with care. She gingerly sipped from a steaming spoonful, and the chill in her spirit seemed to melt. She sighed.
“You are a marvelous cook. You should ...”
She stopped. After a time she shook her head. She seemed to be mentally castigating herself about something.
“I should what?” I asked as I poured us some ale.
She stared blankly past my shoulder for a long time before refocusing on me. She held the gaze, then resumed looking around.
“I feel safe here. I feel like this ... this little home you’ve got ...”
Perhaps it was the fact that she still possessed my heart, or maybe it was the ale, that gave me the boldness to ask:
“Who are you, Zelena? Who are you really?”
She gave me a sideways smile, one I’d gotten used to and which was usually followed with a glib answer. But something caught her halfway this time, and she cocked her head. She went to take another spoonful of soup, but stopped and lowered it back into the bowl.
“He’s a monkey now,” she said, glancing down at the table.
I blinked, bewildered. “Who’s a monkey now?”
“The Wizard. The Wizard of Oz. I turned him into a flying monkey. I’ve been Oz’s ruler for months now.”
I was speechless.
“I lifted the ban on the Munchkins ... I turned a few racist mucky-mucks who complained into monkeys as well ... I started a program to clean up the Dragon Piss Road. I opened the gates of the
to all, and I turned most of the judges and constables, all filthy and corrupt, into more flying monkeys ...” Emerald City
Her gaze was pleading, like she very much wanted me to believe her.
“I haven’t been all bad,” she went on defensively, taking an angry gulp of ale. “I know people think I’m evil, but I’m really not. I’m wicked, to be sure ...”
It wasn’t a flirtatious smile this time, as it always had been after that declaration, but an honest one paid for with a lifetime of pain. There was no way to miss the regret and sadness behind it.
“... but I’m not evil. You want evil? Evil is half the population of that city! I’ve actually started to clean it up. But all people want to do is pick at my scabs!”
“You rule Oz ... but you’ve chosen ... to take care of—me?”
She finished her soup in silence. “Delicious,” she whispered with the final spoonful. She wiped her mouth.
I thought that she had chosen to ignore my last question, and so went to stand to clear away the dishes and retrieve more ale, but she touched my wrist. Her look was probing and troubled. I sat back down.
“Why aren’t you angry at the ogres?”
She shook her head disbelievingly. “They killed your family! Why don’t you want revenge? For that matter, why don’t you want revenge on the trolls who nearly killed you? And your mother ... why do you not burn with rage at the injustice of the fact that your parents were not wealthy enough to pay for the potion that would have cured her? It exists, Nathan! She didn’t have to die! Not in a fairer world, she didn’t!”
“You are angry that it is not a fairer world?”
“Why aren’t you?”
I didn’t have an answer. Her stare was as hard as sapphires.
She rose and retrieved the shiny jeweled case in which she kept my heart of hearts, and returned. She sat and opened it.
“There are three other witches ruling Oz with me.” She smiled for a moment, as though she was going to praise them, then gave a quick sneer and resumed examining my heart, which glowed, pulsing calmly, bright and happy in its external home. “They are insufferable. They believe they are all light and goodness, and who knows, maybe they are. They taught me to let go of my envy and anger, and I did, at least enough to hide any outward evidence of it.”
She aimed her glare at me. As I watched, amazed, she turned completely green. It made her blue eyes and red lips stand out even more.
I couldn’t help myself. I reached and touched her cheek. She did nothing to stop me, and did not flinch.
“It’s ... beautiful,” I whispered.
She took my hand in her green one and held it.
“You’re the only one who thinks so,” she murmured sadly.
The moment was locked in her stare. I couldn’t look away.
She broke it by lifting my heart with her free hand and handing it to me.
“It’s all light. It’s virtually pure,” she declared as I examined it with her. “You don’t fight back, Nathan. You don’t raise hell when you should. You don’t hate—when you should, Nathan, when you should. You are ... you are just like those stuffed mannequins posing as witches—all goodness and light. Pure of heart. Noses in the air. Preachy and utterly useless.”
Before I could protest, she added, “That’s where you are headed. You aren’t that now, but it is where you are headed.”
“What do you suggest?” I asked somewhat breathlessly.
“I know how to release that Soul Gift you have for me. I have helped heal your body, and I think I can help heal your soul, too. Otherwise you won’t be able to give it to me. And I want it. Soul Gifts are always great blessings.”
Her eyes flashed a hint of sadness. But before I could be sure of it, she leaned in close, then closer still, until her green cheek grazed mine.
“If you want to be truly good, my dear Nathan,” she whispered, her breath teasing my ear, “you’ve gotta be a little bad.”
She kissed my cheek, holding her lips there for a couple of seconds. She wasn’t using magic on me, I was certain, but she might as well have. I was helpless.
And then she was gone, disappearing in a soundless whirlwind of green smoke.
I didn’t see her for five weeks after that. I thought she might have decided to recover her pendant by herself and forget about me. After all, what good was I ultimately? Not too damn much, I reckoned. Maybe she had figured that out. Maybe my Soul Gift wasn’t all that valuable after all.
I couldn’t face trolls! The last time I did I nearly died! I had no magical ability. I was, for all intents and purposes, a young recluse living peacefully far from everyone.
I thought a lot about what she said about me. And you know what? It was true. Before my body had been broken, my spirit had. It had lain wounded in this big house and had given up. The result was a pure heart that had no actual life in it, no real spark, no volition, no drive.
For a long time I rationalized my inaction as practicality, as honoring my fallen family, as not wanting to sully myself in the dirty affairs of humanity and trolls and ogres and Munchkins and all the rest of them.
She had warned me that I would become like her sister witches, that I’d become a “stuffed mannequin.” In essence, my goodness, like unworked calcium in an unused shoulder or knuckle or knee, would stiffen into arthritis. The purity would taint itself like water in a still and stagnant pond. It would darken and become toxic.
I had to learn how to let go and face life with courage, and let myself love again.
I was feeling much better. I got back out into the fields behind the house and began working to clear the weeds that had cluttered the garden during my convalescence. On the weekend of the fifth week I ventured into Lageb, bought fresh meat and supplies, made arrangements for the village grocer to bring them by as soon as possible (I didn’t have a horse or carriage, and so I paid him a hefty premium to bring supplies to me in bulk), stuffed my pack as full as I could to tide me over until he arrived, and made my way back home.
I couldn’t get Zelena out of my head. Everything I did had some connection to her. I thought it was because she had my heart of hearts, and tried dismissing it using that rationale, but somehow knew that wasn’t it. She wasn’t toying with me.
She ruled Oz! She was the ruler now! I couldn’t help thinking that over and over again as I hiked past hills and meadows and fields now as familiar to me as the back of my hand. That peckerwood Wizard was one of her flying monkeys! She was Oz’s ruler now!
I couldn’t stop thinking of her lips pressing against my cheek, her breath brushing my ear as she spoke what wasn’t a spell, but might as well have been one for the impact it had:
“If you want to be truly good, my dear Nathan, you’ve gotta be a little bad.”
I trusted that my Cruxx, no matter where it was (probably by the bridge, which I had no intention whatsoever of going near again), was safe, that it wasn’t turning dark. In other words, I trusted Zelena. She wouldn’t forget about such an important thing. I trusted that.
Behind the house was a cold shed. I unlocked it and went inside to unpack the groceries. I’d hurried into the house on the off chance she had returned, but it was clear after a few minutes looking around that she hadn’t.
I finished putting everything away and was heading for the door when I noticed it—a familiar, shiny jeweled case in a dark, unused corner. It sat on a chest I knew was packed with clothes Mom put in here to keep moths away.
I hurried to it and picked it up. It was the case with my heart of hearts!
I’d forgotten about it all this time!
Maybe Zelena had used magic on me that night!
It wasn’t locked. I pressed the small button next to the latch, and the latch swung open with a metallic clack! as it struck the ornate facing.
I opened the case.
My heart of hearts, pulsing at the same time my physical one did, lit up the darkened corner with a sleepy, contented red glow.
A note was taped to the inside top. I breathlessly pulled it off and unfolded it.
My Lovely Nathan,
If you have found this, then you are ready for your mission to find your Cruxx and my pendant, and to begin your life anew.
I have enchanted your heart. Just touch it and your new life can begin. Do nothing else with it. Just touch it. Do not try to put it back into your chest. You will die if you do, and that would be a great shame, for I truly enjoyed kissing that warm cheek of yours. Touch your heart and together we will heal each other, and the Gift you have waiting for me I shall claim with great joy.
Miss looking into those big, beautiful brown eyes,
I read it several times. It was like her beauty was its own spell, and she had cast it onto the paper, and I was a slave to its whims. I brought the letter to my nose. It smelled like her. Whatever perfume she wore—the same she always wore—was for all time lodged in my spinal fluid that moment. No one else could ever wear it. It was hers and hers alone, forever.
Minutes later I came to myself and put the note next to the case. I lifted the case and studied my heart.
So pure, I thought, staring at the radiance suffusing it and thinking of her heart, of the blackness that had nearly claimed the weak glow that struggled to stay alive in it.
“I need some darkness,” I whispered, “but you need some light, my love.”
I reached tentatively for my heart, my index finger hovering unsurely just before it touched it.
Touching my heart of hearts would unleash a chain of events that would require that, ultimately, I changed who I was, what I believed, what I wanted from life. Touching my heart of hearts would ultimately darken it. Touching my heart of hearts would snuff a little of this radiance out.
Wasn’t that a bad thing? Mom taught me always to be good, and that was what I had endeavored to do above all things.
Could too much goodness be a bad thing?
Was Zelena tricking me, manipulating me to her own ends? Was she using me?
I didn’t know. If she was, she was being extraordinarily subtle about it, which made no sense. It made no sense because I couldn’t get out of my head the sight of those trolls stacked like furry firewood on the bridge, smoking and dismembered, wiped out with freakish fury.
Subtle wasn’t Zelena’s way. What need of subtlety when one could do the things she could with a thoughtless wave of her hand?
I considered the Wizard and what she did to him and many others in the
. It was safe to say that subtlety was not employed. That made me happy. Emerald City
“I’m going to change,” I declared in the darkness enhanced by my heart’s pure red-white glow. “Nathan Vach is going to become something new.”
I thought of Mom and Dad, and Jesse and Dasciv, my brothers. I missed them all. I missed them all so much that when they died I decided to die with them, just much more slowly and significantly less courageously, all by myself in that big house.
“I love all of you,” I murmured. “But it’s time for me to live.”
I touched my heart.
White smoke surrounded me, and I flew through the roof into the settling blue sky. The world disappeared, then suddenly reappeared, green and glorious.
I was in the
. Emerald Palace