War Journal

Entry # 1

My journey commenced within the hour. There'd been some details to attend to first. Immediately I'd sent word, through the owl, to Scarecrow; he'd need a little time to strategize, and that was all the time we had.

I found that I was shaking, and promptly invoked the discipline: deep focusing breaths, deep muscular stretches, the beginnings of warrior mind. I'd lit a candle in preparation, set it before the great axe mounted on the wall. I pinpointed my attention on the blade's unwavering gleam; if there were piggels in the rafters, they were not dancing now.

Fear is a chemical song-and-dance, but all substance is born of spirit. The chemicals can be spoken to. The substance can be transformed. As I moved, as I breathed, I felt the

transubstantiation: coming on like a drug, blowing through like radiation. I felt firecore steam and withered cell fill and a wind like a rocket like a lava hurricane. It was welling up and blowing out, making sure that I was covered.

It was all the body armor I was going to need.

I was thinking about death, but only a little. A little about theirs. A little about mine. I was thinking this while turning all my water into wine, making something fierce out of my loaves and fishes. Transubstantiation is a miracle that Jesus loved, and who wouldn't? It's just focused soul in flesh.

I took a last deep breath. I put my warpaint on. I took the axe off the wall. Ready as I was gonna get.

"See you later," I said to the place I loved; and prayed, in that moment, that what I said was true.

There were piggels in the rafters. They looked really sad. So did the walls and the candle and the bed. I took a look at myself in the Old Faithful Mirror. The mirror looked depressed, but it still told me the truth.

I looked like Vengeance Incarnate. That was good enough for me.

When I go into battle, I don't fuck around. Nick taught me that much, and I'll never forget it. I take empathy, yes...I'm not totally kill-crazy; I avoid every blow that I possibly can. But the ones that I can't avoid, I deal back in damage. If you don t wanna die, don t try to kill me. That's all.

Most of the creatures of Oz, magick though they may be, still have skeletons clanketing under their skins. Their mechanics are not so different. And the food chain waltzes on When they die, their flesh sloughs off There is bloat. There is rot. There is withering down. And you don t argue with the meat beetles, when they come; they've only come to claim what's theirs.

So the skull is still a symbol of meaning and power. Perhaps more here than anywhere, because everyone here is so keenly attuned to symbol.

In battle, I am the Skeleton Woman: my flesh white as bone, my eyes black as death.

It's not especially original, but it works like a bastard.

It was eleven blocks to the Ambassador's manse, under cloud-encrusted skies that only heightened the emerald glow. At night, the streets remain almost painfully lit, which is why everyone still needs shades. I wore mine: black rhinestone catseyes that somehow just enhanced my spookiness. Folks steered clear, but I could feel the word spread.

The Ambassador's gate was manned by a pair of Smidglings: runty quislings possessed of a chihuaha-like yap. Their oversized mouths sounded bigtime alarum while their undersized bodies scurried off to either side.

"I'm not here to kill you guys," I called out to them. "Or anyone else. I'm just here to seek the Mistress Enchantra. I want to ask her a favor."

The din caved in, and a squeaky voice said, "Who shall I say is calling?"

"Aurora," I answered. "As per her desire."

The gate flew open; I can only suspect that they yanked on the thing too hard, in their terror. The courtyard abruptly unveiled before me, with fountains disgorging and hedges bescuplted and two tiny Smidglings running hellbent for the door, slamming golfball-sized fists against the sturdy wood (which hollered, in the moments before the door flew open: too fast, yet again).

In the time that took, I had crossed the courtyard, come within a dozen steps of the sleep-blinking face that peered out of the doorway. It was the Ambassador himself.

He started to ask what the meaning of this was. Then he looked at my face and stopped. His butterball features went slack, and he backed off, voice puttering. Not a lot of spine in that boy. Even after he recognized me.

"Hi," I said. "Tell yer gal we gotta talk." He stood as if glued there. "Like, right now. Okay?"

He started to stammer a bit of um, well, I, when suddenly his mistress was there. You could see from her makeup that she'd been asleep, reflexively ground out sleep-potatoes from the corners of her eyes. She looked almost as scary as me, but it wasn't on purpose.

"This isn't a good time," she said.

"I know," I said, stepping past her boyfriend. "Not at all. That's why I'm here."


"I've got a little problem, and I need your help."

She said Hmmmm and took a potent earth-mama stance. She didn't stay off-guard for very long; I had to give her that.

So I told her what I knew; what the owl had told me. She listened, gave up nothing, but for the slight curl of her lip.

The Ambassador, on the other hand, quavered: there's no other word to describe the helpless jellyroll waggle playing out beneath his bedclothes. While Enchantra listened, making a show of her dispassion, he was all but sculpting brown mountain ranges in the wide rump of his pajamas.

The reek of secrets gave me pause. It smelled like the airlock of a Vegas casino: the rank fart-stench of desperation. I looked at them.

They looked at me. Then they looked back at each other. She was annoyed, and he was terrified, and I was curious as hell.

"You seem upset," I said to Spang.

He started to say something. She abruptly cut him off.

"What do you want?" she asked me. So I told her.

The Ambassador blacked out.

It's hard to describe the pandemonium that ensued, only because I was so much a part of it. I knelt down to check on him. I was restrained by powerful pincer-like claws. I heard a whirr of voices, but I was already moving, coming up fast and stomping down hard. My handler squealed and let go as I whirled, axe in both hands, and confronted my assailant.

The guard - for this was what it turned out to be - was a strange amalgam of walrus and weevil: it had enormous girth on the bottom end, but insectoid head and upper limbs. It was hopping on one flipper, with its mandibles a-waggling.

I clonked it with the handle, sharply, once across the noggin. It went down with a lumpen thwunk, and only twitched a little.

"Erk!" cried out Enchantra. At first, I thought she was just surprised. Then I realized she was calling the guard by name. And I guess that surprised me some.

"He'll be okay!" I blurted out. I guess I was a wee bit wound-up, too. "He'll just have a little lump or something. I'm sorry." It was time for another deep breath.

Enchantra looked at me. Her violet eyes smoldered. There was rage in them - and lust, and cunning - but there was something else there that I didn't expect. It was fear, and I had a hunch that it ran deeper than Erk.

Was she scared of me?

"I'm afraid you'll have to leave," she said.

"But I need your help."

"It's out of the question."

"Listen." I could feel my spirits starting to sink. "I realize it's a lot to ask."

"You have no idea," she said.

"So tell me!"

"It's beyond you. It's beyond, everything."

I didn't know what to make of a statement like that; but a dark wind blew through me, the moment she said it. For the first time, I caught a nasty whiff of enormity: bubble bursting to usher in some unexpected scope. Like my problems, and Gene's, were just two drops in a bucket so huge that I hadn't even known it existed.

I guess I hadn't really put together how frightened the Ambassador really was. (I mean, the guy was scared of Pinkie! And I was locked in my own map.)

But looking at her, with those words still resonating in the air, I felt my stomach start to plummet.

And again, I started to wonder: oh Fonzie, what have you gotten us into?

I had several other questions, as I showed myself the door, wandered back out through the courtyard to the gate. I wondered why she seemed more worried about her guard-thing than her husband. I was wondering, do bugs actually get lumps on their heads? It occured to me that I hadn't actually gauged her perceptions when her husband had collapsed, so maybe I wasn't being fair.

I wondered these things, but they were like gnats around a bone. And the bone was: WHAT THE HELL DO I DO NOW?

I had no answers. Just a total despair. I was a mopey skeleton with an axe three-quarters dragging. I had no backup plan. I had no allies I could get to.

Scarecrow was waiting for me at the gate.

"SCARECROW!" I screamed, dropping my guard and racing toward him. He started to make the shhhhh noise, but I was already there: pinning that finger to his lip, squeezing him tight as tight could be. (He's so much fun to hug. And I was so happy to see him.)

"ScarecrowI whispered, not being a total fool; and he nodded, kissed my cheek with his painted-on lips.

"That's better," he said. "So come on. Let's get going."

I took a step back, looked down. If I'd been thinking, I'd have noticed that he wasn't as tall as usual. That was because he was sitting on a rather splendid sawhorse. A sawhorse impatiently flicking its tail.

"Oh, wow," I said, impressively. I'd heard about the Sawhorse; and, of course, read about him in the Oz books a trillion times. But I'd never actually met him before. He belonged, after all, to Ozma.

And that was when the other shoe dropped. "Omigod," I said.

"She sent for us," said Scarecrow. "Sawhorse beat the owl to my door."

If you haven't actually read Baum's books, then you might not know that Sawhorse is fast. They talk about it in children's terms. But the fact is that you have no idea.

I used to ride motorcycles, back in Earth. I liked to achieve high speeds. Horses are fun for other reasons, but they can't do a hundred per. There's nothing like g-force on solid ground.

And I'm tellin' ya: Sawhorse is there.

We were at Ozma's palace so fast that I blinked fifty times just to try and catch up. The light was so blinding that my shades almost hurt. I'd like to say that I was thinking, but there wasn't time to think. The questions caught up at my fiftieth blink.

And this is what they were:

Why was Nick attacking the Hollow Man's castle? What did that have to do with Fonzie? Love him lots though I may have, and may to this day, I'd never thought of Alphonse Guttierez as a pivot upon which vastly-significant decisions were made. This was a man who couldn't even scramble eggs. He had great recipes, yes; but.

And what about poor old Gene? I felt so incredibly guilty. It was like inviting a friend to a party where you knew a nuclear blast was going off. What had he done to deserve this pandemonium? Probably nothing. Probably just happened to be there.

I thought about Ozma, but I thought while I was walking; and the splendour of the palace knocked some cars out of my train. This was a place I'd been working my way toward slowly, knowing it was the top of the list, feeling stupid about just barging in and saying, "Hi! I've been dying to meet you!"

In Hollywood, it's one thing to round a corner and bump into a star. It's another thing to crash their party, no matter how many names you can drop with impunity. I always sorta felt that, if they wanted me to come by, they would just invite me, right? It had certainly always been that way in the past. (I met Nick in the woods. I met Scarecrow on the road. I met Keith Richards, just before he died, in the gutter a half-block from Musso and Frank's.)

I guessed that this qualified as an invitation. Especially given the escort that greeted us at the gate. It was made up of seventeen uniformed brass (I counted them), glimmering robotoid green. Tik-Tok was among them. So were sixteen others, similar in configuration. Including the one that was Mikio's pal.

Tik-Tok himself walked us down the emerald carpet: short, squat, mustachioed, with his pith-helmet mounted like a surrogate toupee. Again, I was struck by how much he, like Scarecrow, looked just like those old John R. Neill drawings from the original books. How had they gotten him so right and gotten, say, Nick so wrong?

It was a question I'd never really gotten a straight answer for; and now wasn't the time to ask.

"May I say," Tik-Tok said, "that if I could feel fear, your appearance would frighten me immensely."

"You're so sweet," I told him. "And so shiny, too!"

"The princess had us polished and wound up, just this evening," the robot explained proudly.

"Wow. I hope she didn't do it on my account!"

"I think, in fact, that she did, Miss Aurora."

I looked at Scarecrow for confirmation. He winked: a piece of magick that never failed to amaze me. "From what I can gather," he said, "this is the most significant, Oz-shattering event in ages."

"No kidding?"

Both Scarecrow and Tik-Tok said, "None."

Head suitably aswim, I proceeded inside with my noble escorts.

Beyond the front doors, it was even more stunning than I'd imagined. (In a city where even the storm drains are jewel-spackled, you gotta wonder how much farther up one can go. Well, now I know. And lemme tell ya.)

It seemed as if the walls were literally woven out of emeralds: like some elegant spider of astonishing grace had devoured ten trillion kajillion gems, synthesized them into webbing and then spun them out as walls. Great walls, defining cathedral expanses, under ceilings that were easily twelve stories high. It was insane to attempt to calculate just how much genius had been involved; but standing there, overwhelmed by the glory in the details, it was impossible to disbelieve in the existence of God.

And amidst all the flourish and filigree - the sculpted glass and ornate, near-Oriental tapestry - stood the great doors that led to the Throne Room itself. It was through those doors that we were headed. And though both Scarecrow and Tik-Tok had been through them a million times, I could see that their awe had not entirely diminished.

They paused there, bid me enter without them, their sojourn in the entourage now come to its end.

And it was there - in that chamber of even more surpassing beauty - that I met, not just Ozma, but Glinda as well.

The first thing that struck me as was how incredibly young Ozma looked. I knew that age doesn't play out the same way here - an effect I'm very excited about, myself - but swear to God, she looked like she could still be in junior high. Her features, though slender, retained that near-cherubic roundness, that astounding pubescent ripeness that screams PLUCK ME FROM THE VINE!

Her hair was long and shimmery-soft, which you could see from across the room. Her face and figure were simple perfection. Her eyes, though blue, were warm and wise. As she glided toward me in her flowing Robe of State, her feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground; and I thought to myself, with a surprising twinge of pettiness, yep. She's a princess, alright.

But it was true. She was a princess: the very model upon which all our childhood dreams were based. And in my extra-spooky skeleton suit, it was like the most embarrassing Halloween ever. Compared to her, I felt clunky and dumb; I felt, in fact, like pulling a Nick and chopping my own stupid head off.

Before I could even begin to snivel, however, Ozma took my hand and said, "Aurora Jones. Welcome. It's wonderful to meet you." And then, as almost an afterthought, "You look so amazing!"

And the weird thing is that I totally believed her; that is, I believed that she meant what she said. There was a purity to her, an easy intimacy - not flirty, but exuberant - that was utterly disarming. After Enchantra, it was like going from rotting spam to lobster tail. She made Enchantra look like Rhea Perlman playing a cheesy Cruella De Ville.

I started to stammer some dopey thing, unable to hold her gaze. She shushed me gently and said, "Come. Glinda's waiting, and we haven't much time."

At which point Glinda the Good Sorceress appeared: blinking out of the ether like she'd been standing beside us the whole time. Evidently, she could do things like that.

"Yaugh! I said; no improvement on "Erk!," but I couldn't help myself. Glinda laughed, and Ozma as well. It appeared to be with, not at.

Glinda was tall, at eye level with me. Her beauty was mature, and overwhelmingly powerful. Her gray eyes reflected the green of the city, and a depth of wisdom virtually unfathomable to me. When she smiled, eons whispered from the delicate lines in her face: a face that easily could have belonged to Bette Davis in her early thirties.

"We hear that you are planning a journey," she said. I told her that this was true.

"That is very brave," said Ozma. "And we want to assist you, however we can. To that end, I will be loaning you Sawhorse."

"But the two of you will have to go alone," added Glinda. "And you will have to do so at once."

This was better and worse news than I had imagined, and I told them exactly that. They laughed, understanding, and then Glinda showed me a very large book that she suddenly held in her hands.

"Oh, no way!" I exclaimed, watching her flip it open. It was, in case you hadn't guessed, Glinda's Book of Everything That Has To Do With Oz: everything that's ever happened in Oz, is happening now, or is set up as a future possibility. She flipped, as I expected, toward the back of the book, where the present was being written down exactly as it happened.

"It seems," she said, "that your friends are en route to Bhjennigh's castle, taking the main road straight to his gate. They are disguised as ogres; and evidently, they look extremely silly.

"If you ride all night without pause or cease, you will catch them by dawn; and there's a good chance that you will reach them before they come within view of the gate. I've instructed Sawhorse on the way to go, and I advise you not to confuse him with alternate suggestions. He is stubborn, so he'll ignore you, but he won't like it; and when he's moving at top speed, it's inadvisable to distract him."

I nodded, listening intently, while simultaneously trying to get a glimpse over her shoulder at the page. I just wanted a taste of its style, the flavor of its omnipresent voice. I wanted to see what it said about Gene in his ogre-suit, which sounded hilarious to me. Maybe glean a little more insight into what I was to do.

Maybe even find out (gahh!!!) what it had to say about me.

Glinda would have none of it. She subtly shifted the print out of view, continued as if I were not so rude. "The approach you have taken is admirable," she said. "Your intentions are good, your execution consistent. If your goal is to rescue your young friend Gene from a battle that is inevitably going to happen, then the odds are that you'll do well. But if you hope to keep the battle from happening at all - or if you think that, by staying and fighting, you can help to win the day - then I fear for you, and suspect that you will not be pleased with the result."

This was a bitter pill to swallow. I took a second to think about it, tucked it in one cheek, and tried to focus on the next important question.

"But why is Nick attacking the castle? What does that have to do with the death of. Guttierez?" It seemed so weird and final to put it that way. Such a distancing thing, to call him by his last name.

"These matters," interjected Ozma, "are too involved. Upon your return, we will discuss them at length. It is enough to say that there is war upon the wind; and things that do not seem apparent will be clear before too long."

"Okay," I said. "Then I guess I should go."

And something went bing behind my eyes.

I felt strangely vertiginous but utterly centered, like a tree that survives in a hurricane's eye. It was a head rush, a riptide; but the moment it struck, I felt anchored in a way I know I've never felt before.

Some people don't believe in destiny. They believe in random chance. Then they wind up believing in nothing at all, which is as random as you can get.

I've always believed that life was fraught with meaning, which is a huge part of why I came to Oz in the first place. It's a mecca for magick, just like L.A. is a mecca for penile suckage and other popular Entertainment Events.

If I were to try and nail the moment in 25 words or less, I'd say: in that moment, I truly understood that my destiny was about to come clear.

But even now, in retrospect, I still don't know what it means.

Scarecrow hugged me again on my way out the door, and it was a hug based in love, not fear. Just the beat of reassurance I needed, as I marched down the carpet to the waiting Sawhorse. There was some robot foofaraw - hell, they applauded me as I passed - and the axe felt awfully goddam good in my hands as I mounted my steed.

And away we went.

Then it was nothing but the night and the Emerald City: the latter overwhelming, then receding into distance as the former took over and ensheathed me in its folds. Nothing but the steady, stunning rhythm of the Sawhorse, indefatigably speeding down the Yellow Brick Road.

We did not speak; I'd taken Glinda's caution to heart. And at over a hundred miles per hour, the important thing is to feel. As we blasted deep into the dark northeast, I must have hit the big O roughly a trillion times. (What the fuck: I wasn't driving.) In that way, hours go by like magick (ever wonder what happened to make Dali's clocks?). And by the time the trees themselves had grown black and mean, I'd tried out every seated position I could possibly stand.

So the last hour or so was spent in deepening vigilance, always hoping for those dopey ogres to appear over that next hill. There was a road that flanked the Munchkin River, and I was pleased that we encountered no ruffians there. Jacked up on endorphins, I was ready to fight, but I wanted to save it for the money scene.

It was from this perspective, in the dawn's earliest light, that I found myself entering into the battle that will doubtlessly alter the rest of my life.

Roughly ten miles from the Hollow Man's castle, we came up from under the Hook Nose Cliffs, and I caught my first glimpse of the castle itself.

It is a terrifying structure, designed to strike terror in anyone who surveys its mass. If you have any doubts about the existence of Evil, take a look at this fucker and then tell me what you think. I'm a big fan of black, and have been from way back - long ago, I learned that bad guys often favor white horses and hats - but this guy had gone way beyond goth concerts, Giger, Anne Rice, s&m games, or Johnny Cash.

This was Evil: and if you didn't know enough to recognize it, then you didn't know dick. This was evil you could feel down to the whorls of your toeprints; evil that could crisp your innocence from

nearly a mile away.

At the center was the Tower. You could feel its awful power. You could feel it radiate chaos like a poison in a vein. It was blackblack-black adorned with white that looked like screaming faces. They were faces so huge that, even at this distance, you could feel their astounding pain.

To either side of the Tower were enormous sprawling wings: four stories apiece, each the length of a big city block. Lot of room for launching mayhem in there. Plenty of office space for the architects of doom. The whole thing, taken together, looked like a blunt missile poised for liftoff, and you just know that the bastard can steer. It'll chase you all the way to the ends of the earth, feint when you feint, turn around and bear down.

The wings, as well, bore screaming faces.

I sucked on that bitter pill.

And still, the road wound upward: deeper north, at the outlands of east. And still, I saw no trace of Nick's army, seeming less comical now than poised at the brink of tragedy. I found myself wondering if I could adhere to the cautionary strictures laid out by Glinda. If Nick was getting his ass kicked, wouldn't I try to help?

More and more, the old terror returned. I took to deep breathing. It did what it could.

And then, as the sun rose enough to cast long shadows, I came upon a crest that clearly overlooked the castle. The ominous shadows it cast were almost sufficient to smother the road. But there - perhaps three hundred yards and closing - was a tiny ragtag army.

Moving toward the castle.

"YAH!" I screamed; and, believe it or not, the faithful Sawhorse increased its speed. As if it had been waiting for just that signal. As if I had somehow been holding it back. "YAH!!!" I repeated, and forward we thundered, my lips peeling back in g-force extremity.

Two hundred yards and closing, the last of them finally began to turn. It sent a ripple through the troops, who slowed at once and turned to see. It occurred to me that they didn't know who I was, and that this might not be good.

"IT'S AURORA!" I screamed, feeling vaguely ostentatious. "IT'S AURORA! YOUR FRIEND!"

Ferociously hoping they could hear.

And at that moment, I saw the gates of the Hollow Man's castle open. A drawbridge going down. And beyond it, the hordes. I could see them coming, despite the still-deep darkness. Like an amorphous black that pours out of a thinner darkness, suddenly alerting you to just how truly dark dark can be.

The drawbridge dropped, and the hordes spread out in near-liquid waves, to either side. They spanned the wings to either side and then promptly redoubled, densifying by tiers. By my speed-blinkered calculations, they already had Nick's gang outnumbered by roughly a dozen to one. That number seemed to triple in the next thirty seconds.

And then Nick's army let out a cheer.

At first, I thought why are they cheering for me? I mean, I had an axe and everything, but that seemed like meagre inspiration indeed. Then I realized that they were staring over my head, at something apparently above and behind me.

I hazarded a nervous glance over my shoulder.

They blackened the back of the brightening sky, like a swarm of locusts descending. In their hands were the glistening swords and shields of an army in full advance. Fast as I was going, they gained with a vengeance, cutting into my lead with every microsecond spent.

The Winged Monkeys had finally come.

I thought to myself: wow, Enchantra came through! But the distance was closing swiftly. One hundred yards and closing, with the faces of the ogre-hoaxsters maddeningly enshrouded still. I looked for Gene, had no idea, every second moving closer.

Then the Hollow Man's hordes attacked.

And instinct took over entirely.

From the moment that they broke rank, I was hellbent for blood and leather: war-whoop howled and great axe brandished, breakneck into the fray. Sawhorse seemed to be surfing my wave: not a speck of hesitation, just full-throttle forward thrust. I closed in on my com-patriates, gave a wave, blew past them maybe thirty yards. The first grim monster crossed my path. I sliced his ass in thirds.

And then the aerial assault descended: swords flashing, meat spraying, monkey chant overwhelming the screams. I saw wings sever and ribs split in half, friends and enemies merge in wet carnographic display. A swing at my head was countered, flung wide, returned as a blow that split shoulder from torso. Ogre blood hit my face, and it tasted like shit.

Glinda's words rung suddenly huge in my head. This was not why I had come. Another enemy presented himself; I took the top of his head off left the rest to howl dismay. "SAWHORSE!" I screamed. "We gotta find my friend Gene!"

"I KNOW!" replied Sawhorse; it was the first time he had spoken since we met. Seeing him slow, in the burgeoning light, I was stunned by the stubbiness of his little wooden legs. Then somebody else tried to kill me some more, and I extended their butt-crack through the crown of their head.

It's a terrible thing to see a tongue cut in half, waggling to either side of a suddenly-exposed esophagal tract. It made me glad that Sawhorse was turning, though the process was difficult for him. I watched our backs, saw that we'd bought a second, did a quick gymnastic flip off the side. Then I picked him up, spun him the rest of the way, and hopped back on, facing backwards.

The monster that suddenly confronted me was - how shall I say it - bad. It had three feet on me, easily, and a couple of arms as well. Worse than that was the blistering carrion reek that wafted off its naked skin. The thing had clearly been wallowing in month-old organ meats when it got the call to battle; this was evidenced by the grisly stringers still affixed to its jaws and teets.

It took the first swing, took it hard. I blocked. It hurt. Then the thing swung again, with its other set of arms, and I got the feeling that I'd get tired before it would. For the first time, I remembered I could die before we got out of here.

I swung for the face. It blocked me easily.

Then it took a neat slice out of my left cheek.

Because I would not shut my eyes, I saw the blade pass just beneath. Gravity sucked the blood drops down, so I was not blinded in the afterglow. A blazing rage came over me - YOU DON'T GET TO KILL ME, FUCKER! THAT IS NOT WHY I'M HERE! - and I hit it three times in the space of a second.

The first one, it blocked. The second almost got through. The third, with the blade, took away one swordhand. The monster screamed, lashing out with its stump. It caught me full in the face, knocked me back on my steed.

And then Sawhorse reared up, kicking the bastard full in the nuts, with an unequal and non-opposite force that could only happen here: the monster doubled and snapped right in half, its pelvis kee-runching and blown out its ass. Stubby legs or not, we were talking mega-power.

It was all I could do to keep from falling off. Thank God that was all that was needed. "WOOOO! THANK YOU, BABY!" I called out to my companion.

"HANG ON!" was his only reply.

At least a full wave of ogres had blown past us by then, with another about to crest on our tails. Just then, Sawhorse took off, leaving those hardies to eat our bloodied dust.

I flipped back around one-handed, held the flat of the axe out with the other. Clong! Clong! Clong!: ringing helmets like bells, knocking them bad soldiers flat from behind. These seemed a lot more sporting than just cutting off their heads, and was one heck of a lot funnier, too.

Now I could see Nick and his boys. They had sloughed off their costumes, and were full into the fray. I waved to Nick, who fiercely grinned back in the course of performing dissection ballet. Damn, that boy could fight! I was always impressed. Three down, then six, in the time it took me to travel ten feet.

"I'M HERE FOR GENE!" I hollered to him.

"OF LOS ANGELES?" Taking two necks out in one fell sweep.


Nick kind of shrugged toward the chaos behind him. Somebody tried to kill me, and I hurt them bad. "YOU LOOK GREAT!" Nick bellowed. "SURE YOU CAN'T STICK AROUND?"




Suddenly, Gene was visible in the crowd. Hopping up and down and waving. Looking scared out of his mind. "GOOD LUCK!" I called to Nick, and then Sawhorse pushed us past.

We were ten feet from Gene. Six feet. Three. Close enough to see the short hairs on his trigger finger. I reached out my hand to him, to pull him aboard.

And that was when I saw the broadsword, heading straight into his face.

The ride back was accomplished in near-total silence. I mean, what was there to say, and who was there to say it to? Sawhorse was busy, and I was too freaked-out.

And as for poor old Gene...

He's still unconscious as I write this down: stretched out on my bed in the coolness of dusk. It's been hours since our return; in that time, he has stirred maybe twice.

Glinda assures me that he will be fine, though his skull will be clanging for another two days. She has done all that she can for him, and that's good enough for me. If he hadn't fired that gun at just the moment he did - blowing a hole through the ogre's breastbone, yanking its torso in just that way - he would have caught the edge and not the flat of the blade.

I had no idea he could shoot like that.

Guess you learn something new every day.

And now, dearest Quilla, it is time for me to join him. I'm amazed we managed to get this down on paper before I thoroughly caved. The deathmask is off, though the bandages remain. I'm my old sweet self, which is to say that I've calmed down; I don't hope to be killing for a long time to come.

But I very much look forward to tomorrow.

I suspect that it's going to be interesting as hell.


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