A/N: Well ladies and gents, here it is: the final chapter. I hope you've enjoyed this long and deranged story of mine. I've had a lot of fun writing it and reading your reviews, but alas, all good things must come to an end. With any luck, this conclusion to The Shattering of Oz will wrap up the dangling plot threads in a suitably fulfilling manner. So, without further ado, read, review and above all, enjoy!
Disclaimer: Oz, Wicked, and Return to Oz do not belong to me.
PS: I hope nobody minds me tinkering with Ozma's backstory a little for the purposes of the story; I realize it deviates from what was said at the end of Return to Oz, but once again, I feel it's the only way to deal with the explaination without having yet another Ozian government official lie to Dorothy.
For the next few minutes, the crowd stood in rapt silence as Ozma explained herself:
The only surviving member of the ancient dynasty that had ruled Oz prior to the Wizard's coup, the girl had spent her earliest years being hastily transported from one sanctuary to another under a variety of different identities- at one point, she'd even been magically disguised as a boy. Her guardians had been the only allies of the old royal family left in the country: these disenfranchised servants became both surrogate parents and teachers to Ozma, grooming her for power in the vague and desperate hope that she might one day be able to retake the throne. Then, when she turned seven years old, the last of her retainers died, leaving her alone; for a time, she'd wandered the countryside, looking for help, not even bothering to keep her identity a secret anymore.
Unfortunately, the first person who she'd encountered had been none other than Mombi, freshly-graduated and already simmering with resentment: she'd taken the child in, partly because she needed a servant but mostly because it meant there'd finally be someone lower than her on the pecking order. For almost four years, the witch bullied, belittled and tormented Ozma without mercy, blissfully unaware that even as she went on experimenting with magic, the child she so casually abused was watching- and learning. Then, after four years of suffering in silence, Ozma finally plucked up her courage and retaliated, creating Jack Pumpkinhead to frighten Mombi. Enraged that her ward had dared to rebel, Mombi had imprisoned her within an enchanted glass sphere and left her there until a suitably monstrous punishment could be devised. For good measure, she'd put Jack in suspended animation- a state he'd remain in until the invasion.
Just a few days after the hellish imprisonment began, the Nome King discovered them; drawn to the isolated hovel by the constant flickering of magic, he'd been looking for allies and resources in his attempt to conquer Oz and achieve godhood, having yet to find the Ruby Slippers. Though he'd accepted Mombi's services, he'd also ordered that Ozma remain sealed inside the prison sphere: though he'd caught glimpses of impressive magic potential within the girl, he'd also learned of her upbringing, and feared that she'd be too loyal to her birthright to ever willingly join forces with him.
So, Ozma had remained trapped for the next decade whilst the King went about arranging his route to dominance over Oz and the Nome Dominions. Because daylight couldn't penetrate the walls of the sphere, and because the elaborate magic of her prison prevented her from aging, Ozma's only way of marking time was the muffled ticking of the clock across from her perch. Captivity would have driven her to insanity had she not been listening so closely to the conversations beyond the walls of her prison, or become so immersed in the study of the spells she'd learned while in Mombi's company- spells that she slowly learned to master, allowing her to- after a fashion- see the world beyond her prison.
Perhaps a week ago, Ozma had been disturbed by a jostling and shaking from the outside word- tremors which she later learned could have only been caused by the Nomes' attack on the Emerald City. Scant hours later, she'd found herself flung from the depths of the prison sphere; alas, she'd had less than a moment to enjoy her freedom before being abruptly sealed inside one of the ballroom mirrors. This time, her jailers were much more careful: with the Nome King dictating the terms of the prison, more emphasis was placed on keeping the captive properly suppressed this time; enchanted into submission, and prevented from using clairvoyance, scrying, or any one of the few dozen other techniques that could cast her mind beyond the boundaries of the mirror, Ozma's imprisonment was eternal and inescapable.
Mombi had been too busy gloating over her new palace or preoccupied with experiments to notice that the Nome King's foray between worlds had done Ozma an unexpected favour. In the form of an insubstantial wraith, she'd travelled beyond Oz in a desperate attempt to find someone able to save the country. Eventually, following the trail of the key between dimensions, she'd found Dorothy; realizing just how interested the Nome King seemed in the child, she did her best to alter and sabotage his plans as best as she could- summoning Bilina to Dorothy's side, or guiding her to the new secret entrance. And through little more than luck, her gambit had paid off: thanks to Dorothy, Oz had been restored...
"... and I have been freed," Ozma finished.
There was a bewildered muttering from the crowd; it was hard to tell exactly who started applauding first, but wherever it began, within the next ten seconds, the entire room was shouting Ozma's name.
Far above the ballroom, Elphaba could only stare down at the cheering masses below in utter confusion: she'd heard of the monarchs that had ruled Oz before Diggs had come to power- who hadn't? – but to see the last scion of the family appear in front of her was almost unbelievable, even by the standards of the last week or so. And more to the point, what was this girl's agenda? Was she really only after her throne? In the last few minutes of monologue, Ozma had been very selective in what she'd actually said: she'd never actually blamed the Wizard for what had happened to her, nor had she ever hinted that he'd risen to power through lies and trickery. She was quite obviously playing to the crowd, but why?
More importantly, what did her return mean for Oz and its people? What did it mean for Glinda, Fiyero and everyone else Elphaba had counted as friends and allies? What did it mean for Elphaba herself?
The commotion from below briefly increased: apparently, the topic of discussion had finally turned to just how Dorothy was supposed to return to Kansas; Dorothy herself was swiftly removing the Ruby Slippers- hastily shooting an apologetic glance up at Elphaba.
And as Ozma donned the Slippers, Elphaba felt the magic suddenly billowing through the room: a powerful teleportation spell was being readied- enough to send Dorothy back to her world for the second time in a row. At first, the spell was little more than a faint glow around the Slippers on Ozma's feet; then, a moment later, the glow now surrounded Dorothy Gale, lifting her into the air as the magic of the spell began to disassociate her from local reality. The audience began to shout their farewells, Dorothy tearfully waving goodbye in return... and as she did so, Elphaba couldn't help but notice that, in the last few moments before she disappeared entirely, Dorothy was looking up at her.
It could have been Elphaba's imagination, but she swore that Dorothy mouthed the words "thank you," in that final split-second.
Then she was gone.
Elphaba absently wiped away a tear, and wondered what was going to happen next. As she did so, she happened to look back down at the ballroom- only to find Ozma gazing up at her.
Even at a distance, even with the protection that the two-way mirror should have provided, there was no mistaking the look of recognition in the child-monarch's eyes.
Ozma had seen her.
"What do you suppose she's going to do with us?" Glinda whispered.
"Good question. I suppose it depends entirely on how much she's been told in the meantime; judging by the people who've turned up to advise the girl, I'm dead."
"If you think I'm just going to sit in a corner and listen while they have you executed-"
"They'll kill you as well-"
"Let them try-"
"Would you two please shut up so I can panic in silence?" Diggs whispered. Ever since the return of Ozma had been announced to the rest of the palace, the former Wizard had been growing more and more agitated with every passing minute; his attitude hadn't made much of an improvement when, less than three hours after the coronation was over, it had been announced that Glinda and "her allies" were to report to the audience chamber immediately for a meeting with Her Royal Highness, Queen Ozma the Returned. By the time the others had arrived outside the double doors to the chamber, Diggs had turned a sickly concrete grey and was now sweating copiously. In fact, had he been able to, he'd have probably made a run for it the moment the announcement had been made, had it not been for the current state of his legs- and the fact that he was now flanked by guards at all times.
"What the hell are you worrying about?" Elphaba demanded. "It's not as if she can just have you put on trial and executed- people would recognize you."
"Oh, wonderful: I don't have to worry about public executions anymore; she can just have the guards cut my throat and fling me into a ditch. That makes me feel so much better. I mean, it's not as if she'll want revenge or anything like that, will she? Jesus Christ, this is going to be even worse than meeting the Nome King again. I mean, true, I good as ruined his kingdom, but I didn't actually ruin his life- not directly anyway: I didn't make his childhood a living hell, or make him a fugitive in his own territory. I didn't have him sealed away for ten years-"
"You didn't do that to Ozma either. The Nome King did that."
"And the argument will be that I made it possible by ousting the girl from power and getting the King interested from revenge."
"Why are you so worried?" Glinda said exasperatedly. "I mean, just because she's a child and controlling the state doesn't mean she's going to kill you on the spot-"
"She's not a child! Chronologically speaking, she's at least twenty years of age, and because of the coup, she had to spend half of her life inside a glass bauble. So, logically speaking, what we have on the throne is a girl with the body of a child, the intelligence of a grown woman, and the hunger for vengeance of an escaped convict! Face it- I'm screwed from beginning to end."
"Well, that makes three of us," Elphaba mused; she was surprised at the airy tone she'd managed to carry at that point: it almost made her sound relaxed about the meeting that was to follow. Of course, she wasn't, but first impressions were everything at this point. If Ozma was going to have her tried and executed, she might as well meet the jury with a brave face.
It was at that moment that the doors swung ominously open, and Elphaba, Glinda, Diggs, Rasp, Woolwax, Javelin and Brollan were escorted into the audience chamber.
However, the hordes of jeering spectators she'd expected to find were absent; in fact, there were only a couple of dozen people in the chamber: the guards that had escorted them in, the guards protecting the throne, a few minor officials and functionaries, Fiyero, Boq, and of course, Ozma. But it was Ozma's reaction to their arrival that Elphaba found the most curious: whereas the guards and bureaucrats wore the same expression of mingled hatred and terror reserved exclusively for the Wicked Witch of the West, Ozma looked surprisingly calm- as if she recognized Elphaba by sight.
Within ten feet of the throne, Elphaba and the others were immediately surrounded by another row of bayonet-wielding guards- but even thought they obligingly pointed their weapons at Brollan, Rasp and Diggs, it was clear that they were really aiming at the resident Wicked Witch; once again, there was no mistaking the hatred on their faces- or what they intended to do next.
Then, someone cocked their rifle, the click of a bolt hammering into place echoing wildly across the cavernous audience chamber; milliseconds later, everyone was shouting: Elphaba was demanding that Glinda to be spared, Glinda was yelling that Elphaba was innocent, Diggs was begging for mercy, Rasp and Javelin were trying to negotiate, Woolwax and Brollan were snarling baroque death-threats, FIyero and Boq were desperately ordering the guards to stand down, the guards were screaming at Glinda and the others to step away from the witch, and the remaining civilians were, of course, howling for Elphaba's blood. About the only person in the room who wasn't making some kind of noise was none other than Ozma, who remained as serene and phlegmatic as ever.
Just it seemed that the noise wouldn't end without someone opening fire, the child-monarch raised a hand, and with a flourish of magic, the audience chamber was plunged into silence.
"Stand down," she ordered.
"... what?" said the guard captain helplessly.
"Lower your weapons and stand down; the Witch is not to be harmed, nor are her compatriots."
"But your highness, she's-"
"I am well aware of this. Your dedication to your work is impressive, captain, but I do not wish to see the situation escalate as of yet. You may stand down."
With much reluctance, the guards lowered their bayonets and returned to their places flanking the throne. As they did so, a harried-looking servant emerged from the double doors, carrying a massive stack of papers; sprinting across the room at a speed that would have bewildered Javelin, the servant quickly distributed the papers to the room at large, turned on his heel and scurried away without a word of explanation. Peering down at the paper that had arrived in her hands, Elphaba realised that it was actually some kind of legal form; in fact, it looked suspiciously like a contract.
"Officially speaking, the events of this conference are strictly classified and not for public distribution," Ozma explained. "The documents that you have been provided with are to ensure that those who participate in this meeting do not constitute a security breach; if you sign them, you will be legally and magically obliged to remain silent as to what happened here: enchantments will ensure that you will be unable to speak of this to anyone except myself, those who have also signed a contract here, or those with the appropriate security clearance; in the event that you break the enchantment, we will know, and we will be within our rights to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. Is this understood?"
There was a hesitant mumbling of agreement from the crowd.
"Good. You may now sign."
After much awkward scribbling, the signed contracts were hastily collected by another harried-looking bureaucrat, and the grumbling onlookers finally fell silent; it was clear that nobody could guess at what was going to happen next, but judging by the looks of mingled anticipation and apprehension on the faces of the spectators, nobody doubted that it was going to be earth-shattering.
"Now, to business," said Ozma. "Firstly, regarding the Witch-"
"And her execution?" finished one of the nearby officials, the hope in his voice almost palpable. There was a muttering of "hear hear" from the crowd.
Ozma looked puzzled. "For what reason in particular?" she asked, innocently.
The chorus of "hear hear" ended abruptly, plunging the room into an incredulous silence- broken only by the sound of Glinda trying desperately not to laugh. Eventually, someone in the crowd burst out, "She's the Wicked Witch of the West, your highness!"
"I am well aware of this fact, but is there any particular crime you wish to charge her with at present: under the current government's laws, I find little to accuse her of."
"Your highness, she has been opposed to Oz itself since she first declared herself a witch! She encouraged uprisings among the Animal population, she disrupted vital medical research throughout Oz, she threatened to destroy the Wizard's government-"
"The accusations made by the Wizard and his court do not concern me at present," said Ozma, suddenly cold and unsmiling. "Apart from disturbing the peace, reckless endangerment and a few instances of justifiable homicide, this woman is innocent; services to the crown negate most of the offences that she has committed."
"Services perf..." One of the nearest bureaucrats took a deep breath. "Your highness, perhaps in your long absence from Oz, you have been left uninformed as to what the Witch was responsible for; I mean, apart from the use of evil magic to secure her return to life-"
Ozma snapped her fingers and as if by magic, a servant hurried from the back of the room towards Elphaba; as he pattered close, she noticed that he was holding a glass of water sitting on it. Before the disbelieving eyes of the spectators, Elphaba accepted the glass and drank the water in a single gulp.
Ozma smirked. "Her death was a clever hoax, as I recall. Meanwhile, I am no less uninformed as to what she is responsible for, given that I watched almost every minute of it. The Nome King was not the only one observing Oz over the last ten years. And I am also aware that the Witch actually has a name: Elphaba Thropp, unless I'm surely mistaken."
In spite of every last bit of anti-authoritarian sentiment that she'd gathered over the years, Elphaba actually found herself curtseying.
"But... but..." The gaggle of bureaucrats by the throne was a flurry of whispered argument for the next few seconds, before one of them finally stood forward. "You said the Witch-"
Ozma coughed pointedly.
"... sorry. You said... Miss Thropp... had performed services to the crown-"
"Indeed- if the testimony of secretary Rasp's entourage is any evidence."
"Entourage?" Rasp echoed.
Ozma held up a small stack of papers. "In the last few hours, we have received many telegrams from across Oz; most of them are incident reports regarding the current state of the country and shall be spoken of later, but the ones that concern us now are those sent by a small group of Munchkins found in the ruins of the governor's mansion, all of them asking what had happened to Mr Woolwax and Miss Thropp. When asked, they actually reported that had been part of a resistance movement- led by you, Mr Rasp- against the Nome Invasion- and that the Wicked Witch of the West had been one of their allies." She smiled. "These are not the only reports of Miss Thropp's involvement. The Scarecrow and the Tin Man have been informing me of her past exploits- some of them related to them by Dorothy Gale herself- all of them indicating that, while not entirely loyal to the government, she has indeed been an ally to Oz and its people. I think that more than warrants the acceptance of Miss Thropp by this court, yes?"
There was a reluctant chorus of mumbled agreement from the crowd. Some, however, remained unconvinced. "You are that sure that Miss Thropp can be trusted, your highness?"
"The fact that I am here to answer these questions should be evidence enough: Miss Thropp was instrumental in ensuring the downfall of the Nome King and my release from captivity."
"It will be explained in detail later. But for the moment, we must discuss Miss Thropp's future employment."
Now it was Elphaba's turn to look incredulous. "You want to give me a job? After what happened last time?"
Ozma sighed. "Miss Thropp, it's no secret to the general public that, at present, the country is dangerously unstable. The Nome King might not have been able to destroy Oz altogether, but there's no denying that he undoubtedly left his mark on the land in more ways than one." She held up the stack of telegrams. "The Emerald City may have been rebuilt, but others still lie in ruins. Hundreds of thousands have been restored to life, but thousands more are still dead. The day and night cycles of the land are currently in disarray... And we have reports of all manner of magical distortions and collapses from one end of the country to the next: fields of broken glass a thousand yards across; rivers of blood and wells of bile; literally bottomless pits; rainclouds causing involuntary transformations; the ever-popular rifts in the fabric of the space-time continuum; areas where time itself runs in reverse, or where gravity is disabled, or where the laws of perspective have failed, or where the ground has turned into ocean and the people have turned into fish- the list goes on and on. Now, we have already sent envoys to Ev and other lands beyond Oz for aid in assisting those who have lost their homes or worse to the reality breakdown; however, we require a means of directly repairing the damage and making the afflicted areas habitable again- and the only reliable method we have found is, of course, magic."
Elphaba blinked. "There's nobody else in the country that can do this?"
"Regrettably, magical tuition has dwindled over the last ten years: according to statistics, Shiz University is the only institution still in the business of teaching magic, and in an extremely limited fashion. The number of adepts remaining on Ozian soil is, of course, correspondingly low- and likely even lower thanks to the Nome Invasion. At this time, you and Glinda are the only ones capable of dealing with the problem."
"What, clearing away reality distortions?"
"No- though that will be part of your duties. It is apparent that there is too much damage for two witches to repair alone- not without prolonging out the repair process for years and leaving thousands of people to suffer in the meantime. No, what we need are more magicians, especially ones that can neutralize reality breakdowns. We want you and Glinda to tutor the next generation of magical adepts."
Glinda's jaw dropped. "You want us to be teachers?"
"You will both be suitably reimbursed for your time, of course: Elphaba will receive a salary, accommodation- and, where necessary, protection... and while I might not be able to present her to the Ozian public as a hero just yet, it may be possible once the political climate has had time to cool and we have time to arrange a suitable "reinvention" of your character- perhaps five to ten years at the most. How does that sound?"
Not for the first time that day, Elphaba felt the urge to lie down and fall asleep; the week had already been too eventful for her tastes, and it wasn't getting any calmer anytime soon. She took a very deep breath: "With due respect, your highness, the last time I agreed to work for the government of Oz I found out that it was the cause of the Animal rights abuses that I'd wanted to address. Can I really trust you not to do the same thing, or to make the same mistakes?"
"Would it mean anything if I told you that I would never be as brazen or corrupt as my usurper?"
"No offence, but I'm pretty sure the Nome King would have said the same thing before he went mad. I mean, what's to stop you from going the same way as him or the Wizard?"
Ozma smiled eerily. "Isn't it obvious?" she asked, suggesting that it should have been perfectly clear from the beginning, whatever it was. "You are."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"You've made it clear you don't tolerate corruption from the leaders of Oz- that you'd do anything to stop tyrants and despots; what if I was to make that your official role in my government once the tuition is complete?"
Elphaba opened her mouth to reply, only to realize that she couldn't think of anything to say: could she really agree to join forces with the leadership of Oz again? Could she really be trusted to hold onto her ethics in the face of every luxury that she'd be rewarded with? True, after spending whole year in the wilderness, the prospect of living in a royal apartment with soft beds, hot water and five-star food and drink available was decidedly enticing; being rewarded for practising magic only made the deal sound sweeter still... but when it came time for her to look deeply for signs of corruption within the government, would she be able to look past every single reward she'd been given? Could she really trust herself to stay true to her principles-even after what had happened back at the Nome King's palace?
In all honesty, she would have declined the offer then and there had she not happened to turn around and get a good look at Glinda's face: if anything, the expression on that face looked almost pleading- and for good reason; after all, hadn't Ozma offered the two of them a chance to work together for the first time in a line of work neither of them could feel guilty about? Wouldn't taking this job mean that the two of them could finally be happy with what they'd made of their lives? And what about Fiyero? Accepting the deal would mean that he'd never have to endure the dangers and indignities that life in the wilderness plagued him with; it meant that he and Elphaba would never be separated again.
And then Self-Doubt once again made itself felt in her mind: it doesn't matter how you try and dress this up, it snarled, you're still going to be accepting bribes to look the other way when the girl finally goes completely mad with power. I mean, it's not as if anyone's going to be watching the watchman, is it? Who's supposed to stop you from going rotten?
But for once, Elphaba already knew the answer to that: Fiyero and Glinda, of course...
"Very well," she said at last. "I accept the agreement." Over the audible sighs of relief from around the room, she asked, "When am I supposed to begin work?"
"I would imagine we need a month or two to track down suitable list of candidates and prepare the coursework; in the meantime, I think you've more than earned some recuperation time." She cleared her throat, the smile suddenly vanishing from her face as she turned towards Diggs. "And now to the second order of business: the fate of my usurper."
As the crowd once again descended into a fit of bewildered whispering, Diggs reluctantly stepped forward; it was clear from the look on his face that he knew there'd be no escaping his crimes now, and though he was obviously terrified out of his life, he didn't struggle when the guards moved to restrain him. In spite of everything that the former Wizard had done, Elphaba felt a pang of sympathy for the old man once again, and wondered if she should speak up for him: after all, he'd helped them back in the Nome King's palace; without him, the battle would have been lost.
Meanwhile, the audience had finally recognized who Diggs really was; even with the innumerable scars, there was no mistaking him for anyone but the Wizard- certainly not after his grand farewell last year. And suddenly, people were begging for answers, wanting to know what the Wonderful Wizard had been accused of.
"A multitude of crimes," said Ozma, her voice cold. "First among them being the participation in a coup that removed me and my family from the throne; impersonating a magician; the persecution of Animals; political terror... the list goes on and on. Quite frankly, Mr Diggs' crimes would merit execution, at the very least, consecutive life sentences without parole..."
The room went deathly silent. Digg's eyes slid shut.
"... however, I have received numerous reports of his conduct over the last several hours and I am aware that the Nome King's defeat might not have been possible without the accused's mechanical expertise; furthermore, he has already been imprisoned for one year under deplorable conditions and suffering grievous forms of torture. With this in mind, and given the need to temper justice with practicality, I am inclined to show mercy in the sentence I pass: Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, (here, Ozma briefly paused to take a very deep breath) you are hereby sentenced to twenty years of indentured servitude, and your skills as an engineer and designer shall be used to benefit the state. During this time, you shall be under strict supervision, and will not be allowed to leave your cell or access potentially dangerous materials without my permission. Also, as punishment for the impersonation of a magical practitioner, you shall be required to learn enough magic to legally qualify as a wizard."
Diggs blinked. "That's all?"
"As I said, justice should be merged with practicality; having you executed would have been a pointless waste of your abilities. Besides, I was inclined to be merciful in the case of Mombi, too: she will serve the crown just as you shall- though in a different capacity, of course."
"But how can you not be angry with me? Insanely angry? I mean, Elphaba gave me a chance as well, but she didn't just hand it to me on a silver platter- and certainly not as serenely as you just did."
Ozma's eyes briefly flared a vivid green, just as they had when the child had first emerged from the mirror. "My imprisonment has changed me- not in quite the same way that your time in the dungeons of the Nome King's palace changed you, but almost as miraculously. Perhaps I exhausted my capacity for anger and hatred in the depths of my prison; or perhaps it was simply part of what was lost when I was first dissolved into energy and poured into the sphere." She smiled sadly. "Either way, the transformation from child to monarch did not occur without cost..."
Once again, she cleared her throat- her signal to change the subject, Elphaba realised. "Now," Ozma continued, "Onto the final order of business for today: commendations and rewards for those who have aided and served Oz in its time of crisis. As I have already discussed, however, some cannot be given publically due to the sensitive nature of their deeds- I once again apologise, Elphaba. Nonetheless, there is something I can give you in the meantime..."
As she spoke, servant appeared at Elphaba's side as if by magic.
In his outstretched hands, he held the Ruby Slippers.
Two hours later, the long and complicated procedure of arranging various payment packages finally came to close. All things considered, the rewards dealt to those "Heroes of Oz" had been impressive but well-deserved: Javelin, Woolwax and the other survivors of the resistance movement were in line to receive titles and awards; Brollan was to be attended by the very best of Oz's remaining magicians in the hope that they might be able to restore him to normal; and with the old governor of Munchkinland still dead, Rasp was now one of the potential candidates in line to replace him.
And now, Elphaba was finally able to stagger back to her apartment and relax; after the lunacy of the last couple of weeks, she needed at least three hours in a comfortable armchair- and a very stiff drink.
So, after managing to acquire three or four bottles of "Deadly Emerald" from the servants (most of whom didn't seem quite so inclined to run for their lives or fling jugs of water at her anymore, thankfully), she collapsed into a chair, opened the bottle, poured herself a glass, and started drinking in earnest.
The drink itself tasted like a bizarre hybrid of cranberry juice and being kicked in the head with a hobnailed boot, but at that point, Elphaba wasn't all that interested in taste: she wanted something that would loosen the knots in her brain and knock out at some point before midnight, because there was no way in hell she was ever going to get to sleep without it. She'd heard and seen and learned far too much this evening- or afternoon, or whatever the time was- to be able to properly relax on her own; there were simply too many thoughts buzzing around the inside of her skull for that. So, she was going to sit down and get pissed until she could achieve unconsciousness.
She was onto her second glass when there was a knock at the door: unsurprisingly, it was Glinda. Much more surprisingly, she was holding an oversized flute-glass in one hand and a half-empty bottle of wine in the other.
"I... uh, I couldn't sleep," she admitted. "Do you mind-"
"Of course not," said Elphaba. "It's not as if I'm going to be sleeping anytime soon, either. Come on in."
She staggered in, and after drifting across the four-inch-thick carpet, the two of them flopped into armchair, and got started on their respective beverages once again.
"So, we're under new leadership," said Glinda between sips.
"And we're going to be teachers. Teachers. I honestly don't know what that girl's thinking; I mean, how am I supposed to teach anyone anything?"
"Well, you do know a lot of magic, and you were always good a public speaking-"
"No, no, no, no, no- it's not the same thing, is it? The public speaking thing, that was all about lying to people. I mean, how the hell am I supposed to teach people anything worth knowing? I'm not a magical specialist like you, not really; I'm just a witch who ended up in the spotlight one too many times. Why the hell do you think the Nome King used me as an understudy?" She paused, eyeing the bottle of Deadly Emerald. "Is that any good?"
Elphaba blinked rapidly; she was on her fifth glass, and the world was already starting to look a little cheerier. "Good enough for my purposes," she remarked. "Try a glass if you like."
So, a sixth glass of Deadly Emerald was poured; once it was in Glinda's hands, though, she seemed very reluctant to actually drink it- especially after taking one sniff of it and declaring that it smelt like formaldehyde. After a lot of coaxing, she finally took a less-than-microscopic sip of the viscous green liquid... whereupon she automatically lapsed into a massive coughing fit.
"Ack!" she said loudly. "Kagrrrrddhff! Gnnnnifjeijifdj! Uurrrgh! Winunarrggle! Ack!"
"Good, isn't it?"
"Not exactly the word I'd use," Glinda wheezed. "Arg." She took a very deep breath, and then finished the glass in a single gulp. As Elphaba poured her another shot, she added, "It doesn't make any sense to me. I mean, I can understand why she'd choose you- you're a magical genius, you can understand the Grimmerie without having to translate it, you pretty much defeated the Nome King in a one-on-one duel... and I'm just baggage, really when you get around to it." She raised the glass of Deadly Emerald to her lips and downed it with a shudder. "I just don't-"
"Glinda," said Elphaba wearily, "You've got to stop doing this."
"Stop doing what?"
"The self-deprecation; the "everything I do is worth absolutely nothing" business. I mean, it's obviously been on your mind for everyday since I faked my death, and judging from what I saw back at the Nome King's palace, it's not doing wonders for your health. I mean, you can't stop hating yourself for things that happened over a year ago- things that were my fault." Glinda opened her mouth to disagree, but Elphaba – now drunk and feeling somewhat devil-may-care – immediately reached out and put a hand over her mouth. "Just let me speak, please," she said desperately. "You are so much better than you think you are: you are very talented witch. I mean, yeah, you might have lagged behind a bit in magic class back at Shiz, but that doesn't matter; you've pretty much redeemed yourself since then. You're not stupid, okay? You just weren't all that inclined to put your brain to good use, but that doesn't matter: you've changed since then-"
"No I haven't!" Glinda protested, a noticeable slur in her voice now. "I'm still a stupid selfish bitch-"
"No – you – aren't!" Elphaba shot back. "You can't start blaming and hurting yourself for this sort of thing. Just because you've made mistakes in your life doesn't mean that everything's beyond repair." She stood up, somewhat unsteadily. "I mean, we've both made mistakes, and you know what? The Wizard's no longer a danger to anyone except the royal budget, the Nome King's dead, someone vaguely reasonable is in control of Oz, and we're finally working together- just like we always wanted! We've actually triumphed for a change, and I don't know about you, but-"
At that point, Elphaba tripped backwards over a leather footrest and went tumbling to the ground. All traces of gloominess vanishing, Glinda collapsed into a fit of helpless giggling- almost hard enough to topple out of her chair and land squarely next to Elphaba on the carpet.
Suddenly, Elphaba was laughing too, not because the fall was particularly funny to her (she wasn't that drunk) but because the logical conclusions of everything she'd just told her were finally slotting into place: it was true- against all the odds, they'd somehow succeeded. They were all alive, and somehow, there was something not unlike a promising future on the horizon.
After that, however, things got a little hazy: she had vague memories of Fiyero arriving at the door to join the festivities; of Glinda asking some of the servants if any of them knew how to make cocktails; there even a few vague recollections of magic being used- of Elphaba herself standing in the middle of the room, crackling prisms of thaumaturgical energy flickering between her outstretched hands as she laughed at the hilarity of it all, the last of her apprehensions forgotten.
The last thing she recalled, before she finally lost conscious- with Glinda dozing off on her left shoulder and Fiyero happily volunteering himself as a pillow for both of them- was how perfect the day had been.
"NOMES! NOMES!" someone was shouting.
Elphaba groaned loudly, and reluctantly pried one eyelid open; on the upside, the events of yesterday hadn't been an extremely cruel dream, and she was still slumped on the lounge with Fiyero and Glinda half-collapsed beside her. The obvious downside was that the sun was at noontime height, she was hungover, and people not too far outside the apartment were shouting about...
"Nomes," she hissed.
Lurching clumsily off the lounge, she made a beeline for the nearest window and all but flung it open. Perhaps a few hundred feet below Elphaba's apartment, the square was crowded with people, each of them trying to get a look at the figure standing at the palace steps: even at a distance, there was no mistaking the imposing figure of a Nome. Pausing only to wake up Glinda and Fiyero- and obtain a decent pair of binoculars from one of the panicked watchmen milling around in the corridor- she shut the window and made her way to the nearest balcony to get a better look a the situation.
As it turned out, the Nomes who'd just arrived weren't actually attacking the city and they weren't actually an army: in fact, there were only seven of them in total; the first was clearly a VIP of some stripe, as he wore the same overcomplicated array of jewellery and decorations that Elphaba had come to expect from Nome nobles; the second was difficult to place, for apart from some copper plating on his shoulders, he wore no obvious decorations, and was armed only with a clipboard and a briefcase; two of them were heavily-armed soldiers; the other four were workers, all of them charged with carrying the massive wrought-iron palanquin that the group had brought with them. As for the palanquin itself, there was no guessing if it had any passengers inside, for it had no windows to speak of- just an airlock door.
For the moment, the group didn't appear to be doing anything except waiting; even when a number of guards tentatively surrounded them, they showed no signs of aggression, or even vague concern. It wasn't until a portly gentleman in an expensive suit (identified by Glinda as one of Oz's foremost ambassadors) stormed out of the crowd towards them that the Nomes finally reacted; in this case, the VIP stepped forward, and- to the amazement of the crowd- spoke to him.
Because they were so far away, there was no telling what the conversation was about, but judging by the look on the ambassador's face, it had to be pretty extraordinary. After a minute of debate, they appeared to reach a decision, for clipboard-bearing Nome was allowed to pass through the cordon of guards and approach the nearest building: there, he opened his briefcase and drew from it a jeweller's loupe, a pair of tongs, and a single emerald the size of a nectarine- and suddenly the situation made perfect sense to Elphaba.
"They got Emeralds of their own after all," she remarked to no-one in particular. "Dorothy, you magnificent bitch."
"What do you mean?" Glinda asked.
"Well, when I saw that the Emerald City was rebuilt- complete with emeralds- I got a bit worried that that the Nomes might just try and attack the city all over again just to get them back. But I guess Dorothy gave the Nomes another set of emeralds to replace them while she was still using the Ruby Slippers."
Meanwhile, the Nome at the wall was conducting a very thorough inspection of the emeralds that clustered the building- and comparing them to the one he now held with the tongs. Finally, after eight minutes of studying, he put away his equipment and marched back to the VIP with his report. There was another moment of inaudible conversation, and then the VIP unexpectedly reached out and shook hands with the Ozian ambassador.
In perfect unison, Elphaba, Glinda and Fiyero sighed in relief.
The three of them were sitting down to try and recover their equilibrium, when there was a knock at the door: it was one of the palace messengers- one of the many staff-members that had been contracted to keep Elphaba's "resurrection" a secret.
For a moment, he could only hover in the door, caught between fear of Elphaba and incredulity at what had just happened. Then, he announced, "They want to talk to you."
"The Nomes; they wanted to talk to you and Miss Glinda."
After making themselves as presentable as humanly possible and taking the few dozen flights of stairs to the ground floor, Elphaba and Glinda finally arrived in the palace entrance hall, where the Nome guests had finally set down the iron palanquin. The Nome ambassador was now deep in conversation with Ozma, apparently discussing the etiquette of visiting Nome magicians; in any case, the two witches were hastily directed away from the diplomatic conference and towards the palanquin.
"You know who it's going to be, don't you?" said Glinda quietly, as the airlock valve slowly began to turn.
"I can guess. I mean, if it's a Nome and he or she doesn't actually want us dead, then-"
"But if that's the case, then why's he in this iron box, of all things?"
"Your guess is as good as mine."
And then the airlock swung open with a bloodcurdling creak of hinges that sounded more like the last wail of a tortured ghost to anyone with the slightest bit of imagination, putting an end to conversation for the moment; hastily smothering all quiet niggling doubts as best as they could, they each took a deep breath and stepped into the stygian darkness beyond the door.
Not entirely unsurprisingly, the door slammed shut behind them.
Moments later, the interior of the palanquin was suddenly lit by an eerie blue light that could only be magical in nature; there wasn't much of interest within the wrought-iron chamber that Elphaba and Glinda had found themselves in, however: the walls, floors and ceiling were kept bare and sterile as possible, and apart from the viewing windows that the occupant of the palanquin no doubt used to survey the area, there wasn't much in the way of creature comforts. But it was the occupant that drew their gaze.
He'd changed little since the last time they'd seen him: perhaps there were a few vague epaulette-like decorations to his rocky shoulders, perhaps he was a little taller than before; it was hard to tell, especially given that he was seated now. As a matter of fact, he was seated in a vast throne of copper wire and iron plating, his limbs firmly strapped to the arms and legs of the chair; in a measure that looked a little like overkill to Elphaba's eyes, he was also chained to the walls of the palanquin by no less than thirty-eight thick chains, each one chiselled into the his stone flesh. Copper wiring had been strung across his body at regular intervals, and vague currents of magic could be detected as they flickered from wire to wire.
All in all, Basalt had seen better days... and yet, as the two of them crept closer, they realized he was smiling; he didn't try to escape, or even struggle in the slightest. In fact, unless Elphaba was mistaken, the Nome actually appeared to settle back into his throne as he saw them.
"It's good to see you both again," he whispered hoarsely.
"What... what happened to you, Basalt?" Glinda asked.
"It's-" His face briefly contorted, as if suppressing a spasm of pain. "It's all part of my rehabilitation: the wiring draws off excess emotion and memory, channels it away from my soul; the chains stop me from using magic, ensure that I don't hurt any visitors during the downswing; the walls prevent me from leaving my body until the recovery process is complete."
Remembering the hellish psychological condition that Lord Eldrect and his house had been after being unable to leave their bodies, Elphaba asked, "How is that supposed to help you stay sane or get the emotions under control? I mean, that's like trying to treat claustrophobia with an isolation tank- it just doesn't work."
"I need... the doctors said I needed to be isolated, to be diluted, d- distilled; until I can distance my memories from those of the King's and learn to cope with the new emotions, I can't leave. It's not all bad: I can still read, after all. And in the end, I have to accept these measures if I want to regain my sanity; if it means being able to think clearly again, to know what I'm feeling, I have to accept them."
"But how long is that supposed to take?" Glinda demanded. "Are you going to sit there for the next- I don't know- ten years? Fifty? A hundred? A thousand?"
"It's either that, or risk losing myself to Roquat's memories-"
"And becoming Roquat," Elphaba finished. "I'm amazed the Chamberlain let you out of the palace with a risk like that on his hands. As a matter of fact, why did he let you out of the palace? I don't think he would have taken you on a diplomatic mission just to say hello to us, would he?"
Basalt grinned. "There's been a bit of political upheaval in Nome society since we last saw each other. With no clear line of succession except me, things got very interesting, to say the least..."
"Did they eventually decide on anything, or are they still debating?"
"Well, a bit of both, to be honest."
Glinda laughed. "Spoken like a true politician; are you sure you're not going to be King?"
Now it was Basalt's turn to laugh- loudly and for far too long to be considered sane. "No," he chuckled at last. "I'm not going to be King; I doubt the Chamberlain would want to put the fate of all Nomekind in the hands of yet another madman. Besides, I'm not exactly the most legitimate choice. But without any chosen successor existing at the time of the King's death apart from me, the restructuring government has decided to put the succession to a vote."
"A vote? Since when are you supposed to vote for Kings?"
"It's not unheard of," said Elphaba helpfully. "Elective monarchy's rare in Oz, but that doesn't mean it's never happened before; it just means that a lot of VIPs from the upper echelons of government are going to get together and vote on who's going to be in charge- themselves, if possible."
Basalt nodded. "And it won't be me, thankfully. But in the meantime, because I happen to be a living record of everything King Roquat did, said or thought, the government consider me useful enough to keep around as a consultant to the future King. The libraries of the country are also requesting interviews regarding the magical knowledge that Roquat learned over the course of his long life. I've actually got a little bit of influence now- at least enough to request that I be brought along on this diplomatic venture. In fact, I... I think I might actually have a future in the Nome Dominions." His smile broadened. "The ambassador told me of Queen Ozma's deal with you; it's turning out better than either of us expected, isn't it?"
You have terrifyingly low standards, Basalt.
Out loud, Elphaba remarked, "Certainly better than spending the rest of my life in the wilderness. But why are the diplomats here?"
"For the sake of continued peace: they know how badly Nomes are viewed in Oz, and they want to prevent any attempt at invasion once your country has been restored to its former strength. So, they are pledging several of our magicians to aid you in the tuition program- though not too many, given that we have reality disruptions of our own to contend with." He sighed. "It's going to be a very busy year. I can only hope the new King will listen to what I have to say."
Glinda smirked. "Oh, I don't know: having one of the assassins who helped kill the last King around? He'll probably be too scared to ignore you."
Once again, Basalt laughed for far too long and far too desperately, his cackling echoing wildly around the iron chamber; halfway through, the wiring on his body sparked violently, abruptly turning the laugh into a piercing scream of terror at some long-vanished vision from Roquat's past. It took several seconds for the fit to pass and the power surge to subside, and by the time it was over, Basalt was wheezing and gasping as if he'd just run a marathon, his body still twitching and shivering.
"Are you alright?" Glinda whispered.
"I'll be fine. These fits come and go; I'm much better than I was... so much better..." He took a deep breath. "As I said, it's going to be a very busy year, and..." He hesitated; if he were human, Basalt would have probably taken this opportunity to bite his lower lip. "I might not be able to see you again: with work and rehabilitation to deal with, I'm not sure if I'll be let out of the palace again in a hurry. So, while I have the chance, I wanted to thank you both for everything you've given me."
"You helped us too, don't forget."
"It's not just the way we saved each other at the end, Glinda: you gave me a name; you gave me trust when you had no reason to do so; you led me to study for the first time. And Elphaba, you helped me choose my way; you let me question what I believed. Both of you gave me so much- I'm not sure if I can ever repay the debt I owe the both of you... But I am prepared to try."
Reaching into a small alcove to his left, he drew a large leather-bound book and handed it to Elphaba. "I know of your attempts to restore Fiyero to human form," he explained. "And I also know that you have forestalled most of them-"
"-because of the Grimmerie," Elphaba finished. "There are some things I'm not willing to risk with its spells, Fiyero's life being one of them. But what is this?" She opened the book, leafing through a few of the pages; whatever it was, it was old, held together almost entirely through magic and expanded far beyond its page limit in much the same way. "Is this some kind of journal or something?"
"Yes- Roquat's, in fact."
"More precisely, this is a journal that has been owned and written in by every single Nome King in history- specifically for researching our Forefather's technique. Every single aspect, expansion, adaptation and update to the spell is written upon these pages for you to research. It might take time and effort to reapply it for human use, and to prepare a new body for Fiyero to inhabit... but I think you're more than ready for the challenge."
Elphaba stared. "How did you know I'd be able to prepare a-"
"Roquat had been spying on you for quite some time; he knew about your experiments in growing human tissue."
"Basalt, this is a cultural treasure; are you just going to let us borrow this-"
"It's not borrowed; it belongs to you now- both of you."
In the awed silence that followed, he once again gave the impression of wanting to bite his lower lip in consternation. "There was one other thing I wanted to give you before I left..." he said at last. "I saw this gesture performed so many times back when I was almost without emotion; at the time, I never really understood the purpose, even when I studied it in detail. After all, when even the logical reasons were grounded in emotion, how could a lowly Protector understand it?" He laughed, quickly sobering. "But you see, now I understand. Now, I know why."
Without saying another word, he awkwardly leaned forward and gently wrapped his column-like arms around both Glinda and Elphaba, hugging them as fiercely as he could without actually hurting them
"Thank you," he said softly, "for everything."
As the palanquin was slowly hauled back beneath the cobblestones and into the depths of the earth, Basalt reflected that there was one thing that he hadn't told his friends of during the visit. It was one of the many things that always seemed caught within one of the copper loops that now regulated his memory, something he was perpetually forgetting and remembering and forgetting once again.
More than once, he'd reflected that perhaps this process of forgetting was for the good of his sanity- for the memory that caused him such distress was none other than King Roquat's last words, and as always, they were accompanied by the same pain that Basalt had experienced in the moment he'd heard them- the pain of Roquat slowly devouring his soul.
It can't begin like this, a voice had echoed. I can't just start all over again; I've done so much damage to my contingencies, to my palace- to everything. And I'm... so... tired.
The pain in Basalt's psyche finally began to fade.
Perhaps it's time to end this story, Roquat's voice had echoed. Perhaps, in the end, I'm simply too old to walk the path any further... but perhaps someone I know can see it through to the end. Goodbye, Protector; may politics be kinder to you than they were to me...
And those had been the last words of King Roquat the Red, before his soul had finally dissolved into random energies and thoughts, tumbling into the open wound that Basalt had become...
"This meeting is not taking place," Glinda announced. "You are to tell nobody of the events of today or any other meeting that takes place under this roof, or of who you have met over the course of this meeting, or the objectives of the coursework. Failure to comply with these orders, those of your contract or the spells on your contract will result in instant dismissal followed by imprisonment. You have been selected to perform a service for the government of Oz, but that doesn't make you above reproachification: you will learn magic and you will enjoy the various benefits it can grant, but you are still subject to Ozian law. Is that clear?"
There was a chorus of yeses from across the classroom.
The students here had been gathered from all over Oz, each of them representing some wildly different lifestyle: in this classroom, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and rich kids from Gillkin and the Emerald City rubbed elbows with Munchkin farmers, Quadling hunters and countless others. Nor was age any kind of a barrier: some of the students were as young as twelve, while others were well past retirement age. The only criteria that truly united this diverse group lay in their mutual aptitude for magic: they had each shown a natural inclination towards magical study, a gift for spellcraft- or perhaps something even more impressive. Some had gone out of their way to actually research magic and learn of their true potential; others had found it out largely by accident. Whatever the case, they had each been evaluated for signs of magical ability, selected, and sent a letter regarding their participation in this vital coursework- the reason for which nobody had told them until this morning.
"Another thing I've got to make clear," said Glinda. "Just because a few of you have learned how to cast spells doesn't automatically make you magicians: you have to actually earn the title. And we have magicians with very serious qualifications showing up over the next few weeks; you're going to have to work very hard if you'll want to impress them." She cleared her throat. "Finally, I have to emphasize this: do not panic. With Oz in its current state, we've had to call in some rather unorthodox tutors over the last couple of months; you may be expected to learn magic from Animals, Nomes and various other creatures- and I expect all of you to do so without prejudice or bigotry. Is that clear?"
The room chorused "yes" once more.
"Very well then. Now, allow me to introduce your chief tutor..."
And then, without warning, a familiar figure appeared in the doorway; pausing only to take in the looks of surprise and disbelief on the faces of those around her, she crossed the room without any opposition or even surprise from Glinda, and stood at the head of the chamber. For twelve awful seconds, the students regarded her with abject terror, not knowing whether to run or try to fight, wondering why Glinda could possibly be smiling in all of this. Then, the nightmare standing at the front of the room finally spoke:
"Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen," said the Wicked Witch of the West, smiling gleefully. "Before we begin, I have to warn you: this is where it gets complicated..."
A/N: Thanks to everyone who's reviewed and enjoyed this story in the last year or so- and I mean all of you: A Hopeful Voice, Leia Emberblaze, wickedRENThead1783, nirky, maramouse, GoodWitchesOfOz, Anna Marie Raven, Nami Swannn, Wile E. Coyote, ComingAndGoingByBubble, unusual individual, Inbalwolf, bbfitz, ChaoticSymphonyofDarkness- everyone! I literally couldn't have done this without you. With a tear in either eye, I salute you, apologize for the numerous late chapters, and bid you all a very happy Christmas.
So, does the conclusion mean that there's going to be a sequel to this story? I'm not entirely sure as of yet. I will carry on writing fanfic- after all, I need some way of venting excess lunacy- but as for what the next Wicked fic will be? Who can say?
'Til then, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!