Chapter Seventeen

War Journal

Entry # 4

It wasn't until I got outside that I realized how huge that cloud really was. It smothered the whole of the northeastern sky, back as far as the eye could see, and seemed to fan out for miles to either side. As if its intent were to cut the sky in half.

But I knew that I was understating the case.

It wanted to swallow it all.

The leading edge of the cloud - its prow, so to speak - was less than five miles away and closing. Its approach was not so much fast as implacable, all the more troubling for its terrible confident slowness.

And according to Owl, who'd been patrolling the skies, the bad news didn't quite end there. On the dark ground below, moving perfectly apace, was the Hollow Man's army. Also in full advance.

"Oh boy," said Ralph, staring up at the cloud. He looked profoundly sober, and none too happy about it.

I wanted to taunt him cruelly, say hey, look! Your FRIENDS are coming! or something equally pointed and cheesy. I refrained, not so much out of mercy but because I hate petty snippery more than almost anything, and it felt really important at that moment to keep my emotions clear. If I wanted to be one of the good guys, I had to act like one. Even if I didn't particularly feel like it.

So instead, I just led the boys through the gathering throngs, toward the magnificent courtyard where, above it all, Ozma was patiently awaiting our arrival.

Now, mind you, I have seen hundreds gathered in the courtyard before. The Pixie Olympics were quite a spectacle. Nobody wants to miss out on the Bunnybury Precision Drill Team. And, of course, I've been there for GoomerFest, every single time.

But there were, like, maybe three thousand people heading through the palace gates. Most likely even more. And when you think about how sparsely populated Oz is - how pared-down it is from that population bomb that we call Earth - it started to seem like every single person in Oz had showed up for this thing.

Then again, it was a command performance.

And the cloud was coming closer.

I muscled politely through a crowd of Gurkins, large pleasure-dotted fellows with a rich garlic scent. They were from the northern country, up above Tattypoo, and rarely showed up around here. They looked sweaty and tense, which was only natural; the cloud had most certainly swept over their land. And besides, they have a vinegar base, which I'd think would make anyone edgy.

Beyond them was a bevy of Flutterbudgets, loudly moaning and wringing their hands. I rolled my eyes, hustled Gene and Ralph past them; that kind of negativity was not what those boys needed to hear.

The Flutterbudgets are a species of chronic complainers that live just southwest of the city. Long-limbed and droopy-faced, they are largely contained to a single village, because they are, frankly, the most annoying species in Oz. At least so far as I know.

In the best of times - which is most of the time - they are beset with ceaseless, utterly unsubstantiated dread. Nothing you can say will assuage their fears. Nothing you can do could possibly pose a real solution. It's like every speck of paranoid psychosis in Oz got naturally selected into these people: like they're the liver in the astral body, the psychic repository for everyone's toxic loser vibes.

On the one hand, that might help account for why everyone else is so nice. On the other hand...jeez! What a bunch of whiners!

It struck me that, this time, maybe they had something to whine about. They hadn't been affected yet; but if Emerald City fell, they were among the next in line. It was a short jump over Lake Quad, and the few Quadling villages in between, to their home.

And, honestly, it was hard to imagine any Evil Force being merciful when it came to dealing with Flutterbudgets. I was half-tempted to smack them myself.

So, of course, the primary verbal motif was, "AUGHH! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!" I could see that it was getting to Gene.

"They're not oracles, are they?" he asked me in earnest.

"No, they're assholes," I countered. "Come on!"

Next, we ran into the gang from Utensia: King Kleaver; Captain Dipp of the Spoon Brigade; a whole army of walking cutlery, looking sharp and shiny. Their attitude was a whole lot more positive. In fact, they were downright gung ho. Not real smart, but it didn't matter. I was really glad to have them on our side.

Of course, seeing himself reflected in an enormous walking butter knife didn't make Gene feel much better. The memory of his battlefield adventure from the other day was obviously still too fresh. I held two fingers up behind his head, gave him wiggly devil horns, and he didn't even laugh.

"We're almost there," I said.

We waded our way through the China People: a bit dirty from their journey, but exquisite nonetheless. Innumerable gillikins, munchkins, winkies and quadlings milled about, their reactions pretty equally spread between optimism and worry. Miss Cuttenclip's Paper Soldiers stood at the ready, but rippled in the faint breeze as we passed. Gobs of others were there, far too numerous to mention.

And then I saw Mikio, hurrying toward us, a handful of his posse in close pursuit. I listed to the right, keeping my fellers in tow, snuck past some Dilly-Dallyers, and arrived at intercept point.

"Hi!' he said. "You look amazing!" I blushed (I bet) and responded in kind. He hugged me hard. I hugged him back. Then he looked at me, and I looked at him.

"This is fucking intense!" he said, and I laughed.

"No arguing with that."

"So what are we going to do?" he asked.

"I guess we're about to find out."

"I had a dream last night," he said. "It was one of those Nicola Tesla-type things. You know, where you see a device in your dreams. You see all its working parts. And you know that if you built it just like that, it would work exactly the way you want it to?"

"Yeah," I said. "Actually, I do."

"But I'm missing a piece," he said. "And I don't where to find it. I'm just trusting that I wouldn't get a vision like this if I wasn't supposed to pull it off..."

Just then, the gong sounded again: so loud now that I felt my fillings rattle.

We stood maybe fifteen yards from the gate to the palace, where Tik Tok and his brethren acted as doormen for the throngs. I looked up, and saw clearly the balcony from which Ozma would no doubt address us. It hung two stories up, ornately ballustrated, offering a clear view to all.

Jellia Jamb - Ozma's personal maid and constant companion -  emerged onto the balcony. She had a large feather-duster which she used to dust off the balcony's rail. A roar went through the crowd -  the kind you'd hear when they tested the drum mics just before a Metallica concert - and Jellia waved, her sweet smile a benediction on the crowd.

"I better head up to the front," I said to Mikio, casting a glance back at Gene and Ralph. "Ozma wants to see the three of us. How 'bout you?"

Mikio shrugged. "Not so I know."

I wanted to kiss him so bad in that moment. I don't know what it is with me. I see someone I love, and I want to merge faces, to communicate with tactile tongue what I can't get across with words.

But the gong was still bonging, and I'm just so goddam shy. So instead, I gave him a big shrug back.

"See you later," I said.

And then he was gone, as I pushed through the crowd, heading up to the gate itself.

Once again, Tik Tok greeted me first. "Miss Aurora," he said. "You look frightening again."

"And you look even shinier! These are my friends, Gene and Ralph."

"Gene and Ralph are welcome. Let me escort you to your place."

In that moment, I took stock of my companions. They did not look well. Gene was doing what I figured he'd be doing. It was Ralph I was worried about. While Gene absorbed the strangeness -  waggling somewhere between astonishment, sarcasm, and fear -  Ralph looked like he was ready to bolt any minute.

Of course, the question was: where could he run? Back out of

Emerald, straight into the hordes? Perhaps they'd accept him. But could he accept them? For all his crappy allegiences, he struck me as a pretty all-right guy. Could he really just march back in and attack us? I doubted it sincerely.

On the other hand, there was the escape hatch back to Kansas. No doubt, he could force his way back to that. Unless I stopped him. Which would be easier said than done. Short of whacking his head off, it would be hand-to-hand struggle, with none of the closure that comes with simple death. Assuming he didn't kick my ass - a definite possibility - I'd be his prison guard then. I'd be a fucking cop.

"Ralph?" I said to him. "You coming?"

He looked me in the eyes then, and what I saw was: no exit. Whatever might be waiting for him on the other side of the interdi-mensional door, it sure as hell wasn't escape. I thought about that, tried to imagine how deeply my old world was trying to interpenetrate here. Meaty Meat. CIA.

It gave me the willies.

Pretty clearly, it gave Ralph the willies, too. He took a deep breath before he answered.

"Uh huh," he said.

Then the three of us - four, counting Tik Tok - were trundling down the Emerald Carpet, shown our places at the front of the in-filtering throng. Lion and Tiger were already there, as was Scarecrow. It was great, once again, to see them.

Ralph looked embarrassed, amidst their company - actually, ashamed is more to the point - but they all greeted him with great warmth and openness, which I'm quite sure made him feel even worse.

Gene, on the other hand, rose to the occasion by pulling one of the most boneheaded stunts I have ever beheld.

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