Chapter Thirty-Two

War Journal

Entry # 12

I awoke to the lilting strains of Louie Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," carressing the air at a REALLY HIGH VOLUME, from speakers that seemed to be mounted squarely inside of my head. I came up so fast from those dark dreamless depths that I practically got the bends.

"OW!" I said. It barely cut through the orchestration. I clutched my ears and squeezed my eyes open, cursing the light.

Then I saw the black cloud.

My first reaction was to question my awakeness. My second reaction was to question my sanity. I'd already seen more than enough of the fucker to inspire the appropriate awe and terror, but this was ridiculous. In a horrible way. From where I lay, the sky was bisected, like a tropical fish tank splitting water from air. Like there was a wall of glass that began at the easternmost wall of the city, then headed straight up to infinity.

And against that glass wall - generated by Glinda? - the black cloud squirmed like a living thing. An ameoba, rendered so microscopically huge that you could scan its subatomic undulations. Roiling fierce against the barrier.

Trying to force its way in.

I dragged my ass up past my knees, assumed the standing position. The world wobbled slightly, then righted itself. I levelled my gaze on Mikio's Science Club, who were gathered at the edge of the roof. They looked like a Marx Bros./Three Stooges reunion, featuring everyone from Zeppo and Shemp to Curly Joe.

Was Mikio Groucho, or Moe, or what? He looked more like the late, great Toshiro Mifune, doing his version of the Absent-Minded Professor. He was at the center of the crew, performing wild gesticulations, no doubt squirting out some more of his weird genius.

As I watched, several associates scurried off to help manifest his latest inspiration. But, of course, I had no idea what they were on about. All I could hear was St. Louie's gravelly benediction, thundering out of my stereo system.

By now, I was awake enough to appreciate the sentiment. One of the world's sweetest songs, and most perfect recordings, was far more than mere ironic counterpoint; in context, it was a purely Oz-ian gesture of innocence as strength and power as compassion. My pissiness withered of its own accord, as the beauty of the gesture soaked in; and I was grinning by the time I penetrated the throng and wrapped my arms around that lovely boy.

"Hey," I said, then slipped my tongue between his lips, just long enough to get his dancing.

"Oh, hi!" he said, then reared in and kissed me back. "It's gettin' grim here, but I think we're onto something!"

At which point, the Skyrrla let out a radiance so huge that I felt, more than saw, the blackness recoil. It made my short hairs stand on end, but I liked how it felt: the dreadfulness massively undercut by that warm Skyrrla vibe. And when I looked at Mikio, his features almost washed-out by the brilliance of the surge, I could tell that he felt it, too.

"Mmmmmm," I said, not wanting to understate it. He smiled, held me close. I sought his neck out, nibbled on it. He made his version of the noise I was making. We took a moment just to bask in the warm glow.

In that moment, it felt like no harm could come to us. Ever. It was a mighty fine feeling. For that moment, I looked at the cloud like I would look at a monster movie. Safely detached. Vicariously grooving on the special effects. Viewed from that perspective, it really looked pretty cool.

Directly before us, the cloud had backed up several feet. It began to churn from within, turn oily, as if it were secreting or dredging up lube from somewhere in its innermost depths. There was a swirling in the blackness that began to glisten, then practically drip. No rain cloud, however swollen, had ever exuded such viscosity. As a pure spectator, I was totally impressed.

Then the slickness began to spread, down the length of the cloud; and, perversely, the farther away from me it went, the more terrified I began to feel.

"Mikio?" I could hear it in my voice. "Is, um, the Skyrrla making that force field thingee happen?"

"I don't think so," he said, "but it certainly seems to help."

This was true. All along the rest of the city walls, the cloud was still pressed against that invisible wall of cosmic glass. That's what made its retreat from the Skyrrla plain to see.

And now I noticed that - where the oil-cloud touched the wall -  the air was beginning to sizzle.

"Oh, fuck," I said, pulling away from Mikio. It didn't feel like a movie any more; and despite the continuing glow of the Skyrrla, I now felt neither confident nor warm.

"Where are you going?" He could see in my eyes that I was already gone.

"You guys keep up the good work," I said. "I'm gonna help hold down the fort."

I thought about giving him a last big hug, but it would've been anticlimactic. Evidently, he felt the same way, too, because he just looked me in the eye, made the solidarity fist, and then blew me a kiss off its knuckles.

My axe was back by my bedding. I grabbed it on my way out the door, down the stairs, and out into the mad streets of Emerald. What I found there was panic: the genuine, old-fashioned, clutch-your-hair-and-run-around-screaming kind.

It didn't take long to figure out why.

From the ground, it looked like large black globules were spitting out from the sizzling rift in the sky. But as they got closer, I could see the wings, a-flap above their misshapen bodies. Before I could suss just what the hell they were supposed to be, one of them zeroed in on me from three hundred feet above.

The closer it got, the less I liked it.

The thing had no discernible face. It was roughly the size of a bowling ball, discounting the wings (which had the span of an eagle's) and the tendrils that dangled below it (maybe twice as long as Bob Marley's dreadlocks, at their most extreme).

It was an oil-black flying jellyfish from Hell.

And it was one of hundreds, now descending from the sky.

I waited till the one with my name on it was close enough to swat, which I did, using the flat of the axe. The thing hit the wall and went splut. Very juicy; and wherever it sluiced, smoke came out of the stone.

I was extra-glad I hadn't opted to cleave it, gotten splotched by that shit in mid-air. I was also pleased that they went down so easy. Things you can't kill are a pain in the ass.

Nonetheless, people were diving for shelter, and I couldn't say I blamed them. I found myself backing toward the nearest doorway as I took out two, then three of the fuckers; by the time three more descended on me en masse, I ducked inside and let them smush against the door.

So good. They were stupid, too. Kamikaze blobs from Bhjennigh, just dropping out of the sky. If they started hovering around, laying in wait, I'd have thought they were a whole lot scarier. But still...

Outside the door, somebody screamed: not in fear, but agony. The sound was close, but as I followed it with my ears, I became aware of other, more distant screams. They seemed to be coming from everywhere. Which meant that lots of people were probably dying.

I turned around, taking stock of my sanctuary - a cozy little apartment, done up in gillikin style - and was surprised to find myself far from alone. Perhaps a dozen wee people were huddled against the back wall, silently staring. Most of them were children. I didn't recognize them, nor did they seem to recognize me. Or maybe we were all just in shock.

"It's okay," I said. "Is this your place?" They nodded yes, pretty much as one. "Well, thanks for letting me in. Are you all okay?"

They nodded yes, then began to cry.

It took a minute to establish that some of their relatives were still out there, as well as god only knew how many people they loved. I knew the feeling well. I was worried about everybody. It occured to me that, short of Mikio and his pals, I didn't know where anyone was, much less how they were doing. I hadn't seen Dorothy since the battle; I had no idea what was left of Scarecrow; I didn't know if Lion had lived or died. Not to mention poor old Gene...

And what of Ozma? What if she fell? What if this was only the beginning of the end? I thought of Glinda, up in her tower. At least it was contained. But what if something worse was coming, already

fighting its way inside?

And then, like a dolt snapping back from stupidity, my thoughts returned to Mikio. Yeah, I knew where he was, and that was nice. But where was he?

Oh, just up on the rooftop: essentially defenseless, and totally exposed...

There was a sturdy little wooden table near the door, on a center stand. The top was just slightly bigger than the average shield. Or umbrella, for that matter. Because I needed it to function as both, it was my new favorite piece of furniture. "Excuse me," I said, "but if I can use this, I could maybe help to save everybody's lives."

They liked that idea, so they cleared off the table and I tipped the table over and chopped off the top, leaving about six inches on the stand I could use as a handle. It worked pretty well. I thanked them, promised I'd get them another if I survived, and then went out the door: table over my head, axe in the other hand, racing back in the direction of Mikio's building.

Almost immediately, something went sploosh and sizzled on my nice tabletop. So the things were still at it. I kept my head down and ran. Another jellyfish caromed off the slowly-dissolving table and blew up on the flagstones to the left of my feet. I dodged the acid muck, rounded the corner to Mikio's block.

So far, so good. I hazarded an upward glance, checking the rooftop situation. Against the wall of darkness, I could faintly detect that defiant glowing green. "Oh, YAY!" I cried out, like a warrior Pinky.

And then the black lightning returned.

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