Chapter Thirteen

War Journal Entry # 3

Ricks Burrito Explodes

As the moon rises over the Emerald Burrito, there's a line around the block. Business has been good - almost bad, it's so good - and we are racing to keep pace with the flow. Of course, we're all aware of the blackness surging toward us; it's the talk of the town by this point. But people gotta eat, and it strikes me that we're gonna need all our strength if this cloud is as black as it seems.

It's right about this time that this guy in a corporate shmoozo suit comes swaggering up to the front of the line. He's an Earthling, and he's handsome in the way I most despise: white teeth and inch-deep tan, Ken-doll sincerity and a predator's charm. He's even got the fucking corporate young-turk ponytail (an artifact that trickled down sickly from Hollywood's Miami Vice phase to the hills and plains, so that now even accountants from Nome or Botswana sport them to prove that they're "edgy" and "cool").

"Hey," he says, smooth as laxative, at the door. He profers his hand. "You must be Aurora Jones."

"Do I hafta?" I say, and he looks at me funny.

"Uh-hah," he throws out. It's like an imitation laugh. "Well, hey! It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm C. Scott Rung, from Meaty Meat. But you can call me Scottie."

"Okay," I say. I still haven't shaken his hand. I'm thinking Meaty Meat. Oh, jesus christ, and hating him all the more.

At the front of the line, this nice winkie couple is eyeballing him sideways. They look like they've travelled quite a ways off the farm to find out what all this musical mexican hubbub is about. I smile at them, turn back to "Scottie"

In the background, "Mack the Knife" is playing (I try to include some standards).

"Damn," he sez. "I'm just so sorry about Alphonse" It is a moment calculated to yank my strings, perhaps bond us together in meaningful closeness. "He was really one hell of a guy."

"Indeed," I say.

"But, hey. Life goes on."

"You might have noticed," I point out, "that there is a line."

"Oh, well, yeah," he sez, but his eyes roll back, like a shark going into a coma. It's clear that he doesn't like to deviate from the script; there's, like, this sine-wave emergency broadcast network boooooooo emanating from the depths of his head.

"The thing is," he continues, "that I've got some very important people who would like to have dinner here tonight. People who I think you will - under the circumstances - really want to meet."

Hmmmm, I'm thinking, looking at this smarmy guy, and sorta transposing Rokoko over him: like a color transparency in an antique health class slide show, describing the geography of organs over bones. Meanwhile, a young munchkin couple leaves, and I usher the Winkies inside.

"So you want to make a reservation?" I say.

The line moves up. More people stare at Scottie.

"Exactly!" he enthuses. "That would be perfect. Say, maybe an hour from now?" He looks at his watch, though I can't imagine why; every watch I've ever seen in Oz tells time like Milli Vanilli sang a cappela.

"How big is your party?" I ask him.

"Party of seven," he says. Clearly, he'd intended to say it all along, had pre-prepared the words in order. I find myself wondering if he's the one corporate robot that actually made it into Oz. That might explain his watch working.

I find myself wanting to look up his sleeve, and sense another pivot-point in the unfolding drama. The Rokoko-transposition is no vague, random thang; it strikes me as clear that the same mysterious force is at work here, trotting out a fresh face in its attempt to win me over. Beneath the fur and spifffy threads, it's just a scaled-down version of the same old shit: instead of twenty-three tables, we're down to seven seats.

And I think about the goomer magick. And I think about the looming cloud. And I think that, well, hell, there's no point at all in delaying the inevitable.

So I say, "Okay. Party of seven. I'll put together a special menu. I think that you'll be pleased."

C. Scott Rung gives me a very special smile. It's the one, I suspect, that he reserves for victory. Then he throws me a wink, like a sex conquistador.

It is all I can do not to barf on his suit.

So. An hour goes by. I bet it's actually slightly more. But lo and behold, here comes See Spot Run with his nightmare entourage.

I recognize Skeerak at once. He's impossible to miss. He is just too goddam huge. I'm guessing 7'4" when he slouches, which I'm guessing he never does. He has crystal-plated pecs that he thrusts out like a showgirl, tight tummy armored as a crocodile's back. He also has a head like a stop sign, only red and black, with seventeen asymettrical eyes that run all down the front and the back.

This doesn't leave much room on his face for other features, but that's okay. He wears his nostrils on his neck. As for the rest, rumor has it that Skeerak sports his mouth where his crotch oughtta be, with a phallic tongue 12-anna-half inches long (they say it also spooches goo that burns like molten lava). This would account for the steel-plated trap door on the front of his clankety pants, kinda like a union suit in reverse.

More to the point, he has arms like jackhammers, albeit fingered at the ends and made of overpumped meat. I think about fighting him. It's not a happy thought. He has a nasty reputation, richly earned through many deaths. None of them his. None of them pretty.

The odds are real good that he could easily kill me.

And he is not alone.

To his left is O'Mon Node, the Jack Palance of Oz. He's roughly my size, which is more than big enough; and he's a legendary sadist in a land that barely has use for the term. A freakishly oversized munchkin, he is gray-eyed, gaunt and chill, and appears to have no real emotions at all. Except when he's killing. From what I hear, that always seems to perk him up.

I could probably take O'Mon, if push came to fucking shove.

But of course it's not that simple.

On the right, there's Rokoko as well.

And as if these three aren't BAD ENOUGH, then there's the executive branch. It consists of Gurk Hwort, the munchkin Ambassador to Emerald; Rumpus, leader of the newly-formed Lollipop Guild; some elderly American suit who might be C.I.A.; and, of course, good ol' Scottie Dogg.

All of them are maybe ten yards away now and closing, executives in the lead. It's heartening to know that I could slaughter the front line in six seconds flat. It's the back line that spooks me. As you can imagine, I'm starting to sweat this, and trying real hard not to let it show. I feel like Gary Cooper from High Noon and the Galloping Gourmet, all rolled into one: half-sherrif, half-chef, all terror.

The line of waiting diners on the sidewalk has not diminished. In typical Ozian fashion, they've been amusing themselves quite nicely: telling jokes, singing songs, playing goofy games with fantastic objects. But now, as the posse approaches, I see a ripple through the crowd.

Apprehension flows across their features. What I bottle inside, they display all too freely. The singing stops. The jokes death-rattle. The games are replaced with a tense stance of dread. I scan the ranks for friendly fighters, see a few. But mostly not. Most of these people are just nice folk, hungry for goomer.

It's not enough.

My mind does rapid inventory of the customers already inside. Is there anybody in there who can back me up? Aside from Poo-gli, who is good in a pinch, my cranial chalkboard draws a great big blank.

And I find myself thinking: what the fuck IS this? Who let these motherfuckers through the gate? I am hoping like crazy that I am not the only one who knows they're here, aside from the people in line.

And just as I start firing mental beams at Glinda, like an e-mail without even tin can or string, I hear dual roars echo from down the street.

Noble Lion. And Hungry Tiger.

Scottie's gang hears the roars as well. They freeze in their tracks, and the smirks disappear. (Did I mention they were smirking? Well, they were. The lousy pricks.) Suddenly, they are staring off to their

right. I step out of the doorway, and suddenly stop.

There are hands at my waist. They are tiny and quick. I look down and see Pinky, her eyes saucer-wide. She is strapping a belt to the strut of my hips. The belt holds a scabard. The scabard holds a sword. The sword is really heavy. I'm impressed by her strength.

"Thank you," I say, but I do not yet draw the sword.

Now Lion and Tiger appear, huge and fierce. They have people astride them, one apiece. The first is made of cloth and straw and magickal brains.

The other, I'm guessing, is Dorothy herself.

"Oh, wow," I think, feeling ever so much better. I've never seen her before, but it has to be her! She looks so much like a grown-up Fairuza Balk that it's almost scary (Judy Garland, my ass. I always felt Fairuza ruled): fierce dark mane, big lips like me, and a knowing heart behind those spooky eyes.

Dorothy is dressed in flowing white that hearkens back to gingham. She is a sweet, smart, strong midwestern gal who simply knows what's what. If her eyes are spooky - and they are - it's because she knows too much. She has the eyes of a midwestern cowgirl shaman who has long since parted the veil.

Given the way that age plays out in Oz, she is biologically about 43 now. She looks good. She looks fantastic. The combination of earthiness and magick wisdom is uncanny in its power. I can't take my eyes off of her. And neither can the crowd, nor the Party of Seven.

But it is Scarecrow who breaks the silence. (He's dressed pretty much like himself.) "Hello!" he says, waving as much to them as he is waving to me.

Gurk Hwort is the first to smile, though impressively phony it is. He's a horny little bugger, as most Ambassadors are, and a born politician besides. "Greetings!" he says, looking straight past Scarecrow to Dorothy, not fooling anyone.

"What brings you here?" Scarecrow inquires, dismounting as he speaks.

"Why, good food, of course!" Hwort exclaims. "And, of course, a gesture of peace!"

It is hard not to laugh, so I don't even bother. It's not diplomatic, but it sure feels good. All eyes turn toward my guffaw, and I wipe away a tear as I turn to my guests.

Dorothy is smiling. So are Lion and Tiger. Scarecrow's painted that way, so it hardly even counts. Skeerak has no visible mouth, so I guess by his eyes, which do not imply happy. Between Lion and Tiger, he might just be up the crick.

Now that the odds are more even, I come off the front step and slowly advance. Dorothy dismounts from Lion, who nuzzles her lovingly, eyes locked on Skeerak. Tiger, meanwhile, begins to circle behind them, moving toward the crowd still gawping from the sidewalk. O'mon turns in tandem, pacing Tiger, hand afloat an inch from his hilt; though his gray eyes give away nothing, there's a whisper of smile on his lips. He is the only member of Scottie's posse who could be said to be enjoying himself.

The vibe in the crowd now has shifted once again: excitement picking up where simple pleasure left off, edging its way past the fear. As Tiger comes up beside them, many reach out to stroke his fur. Like Lion, he is a magnificent beast.

But most eyes are locked upon the blessed triumverate, lined up now in the street: Scarecrow, Lion, and Dorothy, together once again. It's almost like stumbling into a Beatles reunion.

Then suddenly it strikes me: where the hell is Nick?

All the while I'm thinking this, I'm getting closer and closer. C. Scott Rung takes a slow step forward, uncertainly walking point.

"I take it," I say, "that this is your party of seven."

"Well, six," he says. "We're still waiting for one. And Skeerak will be waiting outside."

"Skeerak doesn't eat in.. .public," Rokoko interjects, flashing trademark fang. I don't know why Rokoko thinks that's such a good idea, always making with the Big Teeth thing. Maybe it's just a nervous habit.

I roll my eyes, turn back to Scottie. "Then why is Skeerak here?"

"Well, isn't that obvious?" little Rumpus exclaims. His beady black eyes are moist in his squishy, trembling face. "We can't even walk down the streets of your city without being b-bushwhacked by Imperial goons!"

"Shhhh," hisses the Ambassador nervously.

"No, I will not shush!" he blurts out squeakily. His whole body's shaking with anger and fear. "Is this the way you receive all of your guests? Because, if it is, I must insist...!"

"Rumpus, shush!" the Ambassador commands, and Rumpus shudders into silence.

Then, to me, "I apologize, Miss Aurora. We did not intend to make a scene. But as you know, certain.. .tensions have arisen that somewhat complicate matters tonight."

I appreciate - not his candor, precisely - but his sudden states-manliness. He is, unlike Rumpus or fellow Ambassador Spang, remarkably professional, not to mention self-possessed.

"Okay," I say. "Apology accepted. So you'd like some dinner, and you want to talk."

"Precisely."

"Fine. Then wait right here. I'll be with you in a moment."

And with that, I turn, and head off to meet - how else can I put this? - my hero.

It's funny to write about it, even now. This Dorothy Complex I have. About being the girl that just never comes back. That just never lets go of the magick.

It has everything to do with why I'm here, and why it is I'm staying.

In the World, I was just another postmodern kid: hard-pressed to believe in death and taxes, much less the sovereign laws of some alleged Lord Above. No big surprise that I was thoroughly unhappy. What was there to be happy about? The World was a cop show, shot entirely on video; and the big revelation - if we got one at all - was that no one believed in the cops any more. Not the crooks. Not us civilians. Not even the cops themselves.

The reality was that all the idols had been toppled - even the good ones - long before I was born. The species blew through its icons in much the same way that it blew through our planet's fossil fuels.

It must have been exciting, even liberating, to be there; but lemme tell ya, there was no afterglow. When you tear something down, the next job is to rebuild. But they didn't. They couldn't. They didn't know how.

So there I was, like some depressing teenage science fiction cliche: scavenging for chunks of busted totems in the moral wasteland, sifting through the muck, trying to paste the good parts together into something that resembled a guiding light. And suddenly, in the depths of my despair.

Enter Dorothy.

When the word got out that Oz was real, I nearly shit a cinder block. I couldn't believe, I couldn't believe that - out of all the alternate realities human imagination had seemingly conjured from midair - it would be this one that we would find a bridge to. This one that actually existed.

And then I heard about the little girl who had actually discovered it: blown in by a twister, in a quirky multi-dimensional moment so cosmically huge that L. Frank Baum literally channelled the whole thing through the funhouse mirrorball of his dreaming unconscious.

Yeah, I knew those famous last words: "there's no place like home." It also made total sense that earthbound Earth would seize upon them. As if that were the lesson to be learned from her adventure. . .which is to say that there was really nothing to be learned there at all.

But the fact - at least as it was reported - was that Dorothy currently still lived in Oz, with no intention of ever returning (and indeed, in one of the many Oz books that never made it to Hollywood, Dorothy did settle in Oz for keeps, bringing along Auntie Em and Toto and such).

I thought about that little girl, and how cool she must have been: standing up to all those authority figures and saying, "No! Oz is real! And you know what? It's better

And I said to myself, "Oh, man. If there is one single strand of coolness inside of you, you will go and do that, too."

So now I'm here, in a world where there are heroes; one look at this crowd is all that you would need. They know that they can count on Dorothy. That Scarecrow won't sell them out for a six-figure deal and a spot on Leno. That Lion and Tiger will stand face-first between them and any force that would try to do them harm.

And here I am, standing right here with 'em; and the way these folks are looking at me, I almost feel like a hero, too.

But that's the thing. I'm not the fourth Beatle. I'm just this chick who hung out with him long enough to pick up a trick or two. I'm no George Martin, I'm no Billy Preston, I'm not even Joe Walsh from a Ringo pick-up tour. I'm, like, second kazoo for Dr. Demento, and where the fuck is Nick?

"Hi," sez Dorothy.

Then Scarecrow steps forward and gives me a hug, and I hug him back, and it feels real good, but I'm still looking at her. And I'm staring, and I'm trying not to stare, and then I'm staring some more, cuz I just can't help myself.

And she is staring back at me, and I wonder what she sees. What could she possibly be seeing in me? Is it good? Is it cool? She sure looks like it's cool. She looks like she's been wondering about me, too.

I think about Fast Eddie Felsen in The Color of Money: Paul Newman, checking out Tom Cruise. I hope she doesn't think I'm a total dink.

But that's not how she's looking at me.

She stands at about my height. Maybe a little shorter. It's hard to tell, at a couple feet's distance. I see lines in her face, and I like them alot. They're a hundred years of experience squeezed down to forty, the lessons etched across her features with breathtaking delicacy.

I'm so glad that she's still older than me.

"Dorothy?" I say.

"Aurora?" she sez.

Scarecrow kisses my cheek, let's go. Those brains weren't just for nuthin'. Lion smiles at me, then looks away shyly, remembers what's up, glares back at the bad guys.

I take those last fateful couple steps forward. She extends her hand. I take it and shake it. She looks in my eyes. I look in hers.

I can't even tell you.

"You look," she says, "like you have this under control."

I say, "I'm so glad you're here."

She laughs, deep and throaty, rustles her hair.

"Well, you know," she says, "it's kind of important."

"I know."

"I know you know."

At this point, it's almost like there is no war; like the whole world isn't standing there, looking at us. It's all I can do not to nail her with a kiss. It would work. It would be good. I can just tell.

And that, of course, is when Rumpus starts to holler.

"Coming?" I say.

And Dorothy answers, "Absolutely."

As we turn and head toward the door, the crowd erupts in applause. It's Oscar night at the Emerald Burrito! All we need are some spotlights and a big red carpet.

Of course, whatever Rumpus was grumping about is swallowed by the sound. This makes him even more irate. Like his cronies, he is furious at having been upstaged. (Poor babies. And it started off so well.)

Scarecrow, for his part, works his audience like a pro: bowing, strutting, firing back the love with clownish, grandeloquent gestures. Dorothy is demure, with a warm and knowing smile. Lion is regal and ever-attentive. I just laugh, cuz I can't fuckin' stand it. It's all too surreal for me.

Poogli meets us at the door. Two arms hold blades; he's clapping with the other four. The rest of my staff is all huddled behind him.

"Set up the big table," I tell them. "And another for our friends."

Poogli's eyebrows furrow, and little Cheeba says, "But..."

"I'm sorry," I tell her. "We have to do it." Scarecrow and Dorothy nod their heads. Seeing this, the staff gets on with it; and I turn back to the scene in the street.

"LADIES, GENTLEMEN, AND DISTINGUISHED OTHERS!" I call out from the doorway, as the din politely recedes. "TONIGHT, WE'VE BEEN JOINED BY SOME VERY SPECIAL GUESTS! A PEACE-AND-DINNER PARTY, WHICH HAS COME IN FROM THE EAST." Very little enthusiasm there, "... AND OUR OWN MOST EXCELLENT FRIENDS!" A predictable explosion of joy.

"I HOPE YOU WILL MAKE THEM ALL FEEL WELCOME; AND WE WILL DO OUR BEST TO SEE THAT EVERYBODY EATS!"

That said, I welcome Dorothy and Scarecrow inside, while Lion takes his position by the door.

We set up the big table by the door, as well, so that if any trouble happens, we can drive it back outside without having to plow through any innocent diners. It's not just the least, but the most we can do.

And it's good to know that Lion's right there if we need him.

Then I usher in the Party of Six (the seventh having not yet appeared). I put O'Mon and Rokoko closest to the exit, though they insist that the extra seat be situated between them. This quite naturally makes me wonder who their mysterious straggler might be; but they aren't saying, so I let it go for now.

I am introduced officially to O'Mon Node, who says nothing, regarding me with spiderly patience: from the looks of it, I am just a bug who has not yet hit the web. I am also introduced to the old guy in the government suit, whose name - I am told - is Xavier Waverly.

Mr. Waverly, I am told, hails from Nebraska; and he's been a fan of Dorothy and Scarecrow and the rest since he was six years old. The terrier eyes beneath his bushy eyebrows twinkle as he suggests that, before dinner is over, he might get to shake their hands. I tell him I'm sure that they'd be delighted, then ask him what he does.

He says it's mostly consulting work: he's retired, ex-Navy brass, keeping himself busy by helping out in an advisory capacity. I ask him what he advises on. He says, "U.S.-Oz relations."

He then goes on, at glowing length, about how much he loves it here. How thrilled he is to bear witness to such wonders, here at the end of his career. How much he treasures the pace of life, the gentle magic that suffuses each day, the fundamental decency and simple beauty of these people and their world.

He says all these things very well. He says nothing I don't agree with. He is easily the most open, convivial, down-to-earth character at the table. As such, I begin to fear him most.

It would be easy to like Mr. Waverly, easy to let him win my trust.

But then I look at the people he's hanging around with.

"Gentlemen," I say. "I do believe it's time for dinner."

At that, the kitchen door blows open, and the entire staff comes trundling out, laden with plates. They descend upon the table in an agitated flurry: clinking dishes, trying hard to be cheerful, trying not to get too close to O'Mon or Rokoko.

The food - but of course - looks and smells delicious. Rokoko starts to salivate; even O'Mon's eyes light up. There is food enough to feed them twice. It is laid out like a banquet.

"Several days ago," I say, "I got a visit by Mr. Rokoko; and though we had our disagreements, certain things - in the meantime - have clearly changed.

"So I've taken the liberty of whippin' together a special menu for you. As I told Mr. Scottie, I suspect you will be pleased. Feel free to sample everything. Like the old saying goes: it's all good, baby!"

And with that, I take my leave.

The next fifteen minutes are a total cakewalk. They eat. That is all that they do. If they speak, it is just to get one bountiful platter passed down from that end to this.

I hang out, when I can, with Scarecrow and Dorothy. It's a lot more fun. She informs me that she's never had Mexican food before, which is amazing until I think about it. Probably not a lot of Mexican restaurants in Kansas at the turn of the last century.

I serve her my most authentic burrito, and (at Poogli's request) one of his new goomer weaves. It's meant to look like her - he tried real hard - but let's just say that it falls somewhat short. In the end, I tell her it's the Wicked Witch of the West, and we all have a good laugh over that.

All the same, she chows down hard. Scarecrow, of course, doesn't eat. So while she oohs and ahhs, he keeps an eye on the goings-on at the big table down the way.

Mostly, I wander from table to table, making sure everything's cool. Dinner proceeds without incident, but everywhere I look, the air is full of sidelong glances and low, conspiratorial murmur. I feel like I'm in Casablanca, and the Burrito has turned into Rick's Cafe (which, I guess, makes me Humphrey Bogart, though I always hoped I came off more like Lauren Bacall).

In the absence of a piano or a guy named Sam, I slap on a little Henry Mancini, let his sleazy horns encapsulate the thick vibe of noir. I wonder how Chandler or Hammett or Cain would write about this, and what they would call it. The Maltese Goomer, maybe. The Munchkin Wore Black.

And just as I'm getting around to casting the film, I notice that Scarecrow seems preturnaturally fixated. I ask him what's up, and he tells me, "Shhhhh." I try to follow his gaze, but it's hard, cuz it's painted.

He seems to be staring at the empty chair.

"Hmmm," I say, looking back at him.

"Shhhhh," he repeats, unwavering.

And just then - as one - the Party of Seven turn 'round in their seats to face us.

At that moment, it's like some kind of psychic curtain descends. The night seems darker; the air grows chill, and negatively charged. I look at Dorothy, look at Scarecrow, cast a gaze quickly around the room. Everybody seems to feel it.

It doesn't feel good.

This would seem to indicate that the entertainment portion of tonight's event is over. "Oh, my," Scarecrow mutters, and I'm inclined to agree.

Dorothy asks if I'd like her to come with me. I tell her to wait here, and watch my back. Then I gird myself, call upon God quick (for strength), and walk over to their table.

Hwort is the first to address me. "Magnificent meal!" he says.

"Unparalleled," adds Waverly.

"Well, good," I say. "I'm glad you enjoyed it." Then, "So. Mr. Rokoko. Did it meet your specs?"

"I am," he says, surreptitiously stifling a belch, "almost appallingly impressed."

"I'm glad"

"We'd heard marvelous things, of course. But, frankly, I had no idea..."

"That's great. And the choice of meats?"

He leans into the table now, creepily intimate. I see that the others join in. "Uncanny. May I ask you.. .what were your sources?"

"First, let me check in with Mr. Scottie." I turn to the meatboy. "Are we U.S.D.A?"

"Let me just say," he smoothly intones, "that we are definitely interested."

"I told you!" says Rumpus.

I look at the empty chair.

There is something there. I can't see it, but I know it. Suddenly, Scarecrow's stare makes a horrible kind of sense.

For the first time, I take notice of the vacant place setting. The plate has been used. The plate has been cleaned. There are a few random crumbs that still cling to its surface.

I watch three of them airlift, and float toward the chair.

"Do you mind," I say, hoping my voice doesn't give me away, "if I sit down?"

The response is instantaneous. I can't even calibrate how many voices say, "NO/," but I hear them as background music, like the Pink Panther theme suddenly swelling from the speakers. I hear them, but it just doesn't matter.

What matters is a blackness that scratches my soul, leaving fingernail tracks that burn hotter than coal. It hurts: digging in somewhere deeper than muscle, deeper than nerves. I let out a yowl, and I reach for my sword.

All at once, Dorothy is beside me. I don't see her. I feel her. And she feels pissed.

As I draw my sword, she says, "I brought something for you."

I look at her. She looks at the chair, brings her right hand to her lips...

... and suddenly the air is a-flutter with green: pixie dust, particulate matter, blowing out from her palm as she fiercely exhales. It congeals around the vacant chair: a trillion glittering emerald dust motes, coalescing with a vengeance...

... and, just as suddenly, he is there.

I see the form within the flurry. I blink. It doesn't change a fucking thing. There he is: now looking like some Downe's Syndrome child, now looking like a demon from Hell. He morphs like a '90's car commercial, utterly transforming before I can get a bead.

"Oh, Bhjennigh," says Dorothy. "Why did you come?"

O'Mon and Rokoko are up now, shouting. The others slide desperately back in their chairs. Dimly, I'm aware of Lion's roar, and a wall of screams.

The loudest is Bhjennigh's.

It cuts through the other sound, all other sound: gobbling up frequencies as it shreds through the air, two octaves above middle C and climbing. I stare at the monkeyman toadstool king, the glowing green blackness like flickerstones in tar that clings to his constantly-shifting surface. I see a glimpse of a human face.

And then the black lightning descends.

It slices through the ceiling, cleaving neon sombreros on its way to the Party of Seven. It's a flood of crackling black energy: the opposite of light, but somehow just as blinding. I get a seering retinal imprint of Waverly's face melting, morphing as well as it vanishes in static.

Then the lightning is gone. And so are they.

Which is precisely the point that Lion bursts through the doorway, with Mikio and Gene and his friend right in behind.

And now I'm home, and Ralph is snoring, and Gene is manically pecking away at his magick word machine. The sun will be up soon, and I'm going down.

In a couple of hours, we'll get up, and talk.

And then, Lord help us, we prepare for war.

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