There was no cartoon moon in the sky like I'd seen on my first night in Oz. A canopy of blackness hung over the night, and only the faint green glow off the dashboard allowed me to see my hands in front of me. The headlights cut the only holes in the gloom, giving us fleeting glimpses of shrubbery, trees, an occasional startled cow, and not much else.
Ralph applied his brakes with a howl of red light, and I did the same, and I marvelled at how obedient these machines were. They seemed to crave the attention of a human - after all, it was what they were designed for.
He got out and came over to us. The window rolled itself down, and Ralph pointed up, at an angle.
"I gotta get somethin," he said, "Up there."
Whatever, I thought, suddenly wondering if the humvees could fly under certain circumstances, or what.
Then he stumbled back into his vehicle, and it started up the dirt road that wound up the side of a mountain. The rest of the herd followed.
The ride up the mountain was hair-raising: the humvees hugged the sheer edge of the road, and drove inches behind one another. My driver-ed teacher would not have approved. After about ten minutes of this, we reached a clearing. Through the dissipating fog I could spy the shape of a long, flat house, and a feeble light burning inside it.
Ralph jumped out again, and stumbled up to the front door. I followed him, and Ledelei followed me. Ralph pulled up a huge, ornate brass knocker from the center of the door, and slammed it down again, three or four times.
After a few seconds, an old man with a long, white, soup-stained beard opened the door. He peered out cautiously, holding a candlestick up in front of him.
"I came to get somethin," Ralph said to the guy.
"You need what..."
"I came to get somethin. About twelve years ago. I left it here."
"Left it here, you say?"
The old man looked down at his feet for a second.
"Well, come in, boy, come in."
We were all ushered inside, into a long, low room where a large fire burned in a hearth, and a grandmotherly woman sat in a rocker near the fireplace, knitting what looked like a sweater. She had a pile of these, already completed, lying on the floor next to her. She smiled sweetly at us.
"The Three Adepts got tired a long time ago," the old man said to me, apropos of nothing. "They moved on - to where, I can't say, but when they did, Ozma decided to leave the boys and girls in our care, and we been takin care of 'em ever since."
I nodded my head, said "Is that so?" at appropriate moments, wondering what the hell he was talking about.
Then he said, "Abadabio somingali tovena, sti nali porenga," and I must have gotten a really weird look on my face that was familiar to Ledelei, because right then, she said something equally incomprehensible, and shoved a fistful of language leaves into my hand.
A few seconds after I ate those, the old man introduced himself as Sahmamool, but told us to call him Sam, and said that his wife's name was Lahda.
Lahda looked up for a moment, smiling, then lowered her eyes back to her task and began to rock again.
Sahmamool beckoned us into the next room, which turned out to be another long, low hallway. He stuck the candlestick out in front of him, and beckoned us some more. Down at the end of the hallway was a large, high door. These people in Oz were incredibly fond of big doors for some reason. Go figure.
"Useta call em Flatheads, way back when. But now, it's not- - what do you Earthers say? Not 'P.C.' P.C., shit. Them boys' heads always been flat as a table top. Nothin much in 'em. The Adepts tried to give em brains one time. They were all smart as a whip when they had 'em. But they just made a mess of it, like always. Got themselves into a war, started makin' magic. Real good at making messes, these ones.
"Ozma didn't much care for the war or the magic making. Took 'em off their mountain, took away their brains, brought 'em up here where somebody from Emerald could look in on 'em once in a while." He looked at me, pointed. "I heard one of you Earthers wrote a pretty story about it all one time. Slapped a ridiculous happy ending on there. Heh - least they still have a mountain." He leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "Still got a little magic, too."
There were maybe a hundred of them, men, women and children, all dressed in long shapeless, filthy gowns, in a gigantic room like a gymnasium. They were curled up in various states of sleep, and their snores rose up as one, like a chorus of chainsaws in the distance. They appeared to be examples of a race of humanoids I hadn't seen yet, kind of a cross between the Frankenstein monster and Zippy the Pinhead. They were all completely bald and, starting at just above the eyebrows, their heads were absolutely flat.
"Now you gotta be quiet," Sahmamool whispered, "they sleep pretty sound, but no use takin chances. One wakes up, they all do."
We stepped gingerly through the room, following Ralph as he tried to recall exactly where whatever it was he was looking for was.
"There was a goddam trap door aroun here somewhere," he said, a little too loudly. A few of the Flatheads stirred in their sleep, rolled over and resumed snoring. We all gave him really dirty looks, and Sahmamool waved us over to a particular patch of wall that looked, to me, the same as the rest of the wall.
"The switch is right here," Sahmamool said, as he set his candlestick down and reached his hands up to perform some hex on the wall. He hesitated in mid-whammy. "Are you sure you need t'do this now?" he asked Ralph, "because this here trap door ain't been oiled in quite some time, it just occurs to me." He looked around at the sleeping giants. "They might make a rukus."
"Look, Sam," Ralph shot back, "I don' know if you know what's been happenin outside lately, but, yeah, I need ta do this now." Then he looked around nervously through his drunken haze. "I need to. I'll take my chances."
Ledelei and I stared at each other, deadpan.
Sahmamool wiggled around like Charles Manson doing a jail-cell crazy dance, and a trapdoor of gnarled old wood appeared on the wall where there had been nothing a moment before. It started to tip outward and down, on chains and hinges that had been shut, seemingly, since the beginning of the last ice age.
It creaked long, and loudly. From behind us, there was a collective groan, like a thousand Boris Karloffs simultaneously flinching from the peasant's torches.
"Oh, shit," said Sahmamool.
I turned around in time to see the first oversized turd wizz by my head, slam against the wall and slowly slide to the floor. This was followed by several more, which I, along with everyone else, had distinct trouble dodging. They had pretty good aim, those Flat-heads. In no time we were all groaning in disgust as we were pelted with filth, as they scored hit after hit. The Flatheads were shambling towards us, children in tow, flinging feces that seemed to be materializing into their hands. The few who didn't possess the remnants of their magic were stopping to squat, producing their projectiles the old-fashioned way.
The trapdoor took an eternity to finally make it to where we could all squeeze through it, and away from the gymnasium full of excited Flatheads. We got inside, and all grabbed hold of a rope that was attached to the inside of the door. That sucker was heavy, but we got it shut without too much trouble, just as the Flatheads reached it and started banging on the outside.
The stench from our clothes and hair was appalling. We looked around us in the feeble light from Sahmamool's candle. The room was of the same rough-hewn wood as the rest of the place, but this hidden chamber was filled with junk: boxes and chairs, and old tables, the usual attic detritus. Everything was choked with dust and cobwebs.
Ralph started searching around as if nothing had happened, swatting at cobwebs, overturning crates, peering into corners.
I flashed Sahmamool a look of pure hatred. "You call that a 'rukus'?"
"Seen worse," he muttered sheepishly from over his candle, shadowed from underneath in the classic scary-story light.
"I need to bathe," Ledelei said casually.
Ralph motioned for us to come over to where he was hefting a large canvas sack out of a crate. There were four of them in all, surrounding him on the floor. At his instruction, we each picked one up. They were heavy. Sam had trouble with his, so Ledelei and I each grabbed an end of his bag and lifted it.
"Issere another way outahere?" Ralph asked Sahmamool.
Sam looked down for a moment, then fixed Ralph with a serious gaze. "Not that I know. But I only been in here the one other time myself. So..."
We stood there for a little while, listening to the Flatheads growling outside.
Sahmamool scratched his chin. "Hmmm. There is one other way. Seein' as I already did the hex to get in here, I might as well." He looked around at us. "You won't tell Ozma, willya?"
We all assured him that we wouldn't tell Ozma.
"All right, then," he said.
Sam wiggled his hands over his head, and made some incomprehensible sounds that would not lend themselves to translation by the leaves. There was a popping sound, and instantly, we all found ourselves in the front room again with Lahda, next to the fireplace. We were all miraculously clean, too, just like we were cartoon characters, fine and dandy in the next scene after just having being steamrollered or burnt to a crisp.
Lahda looked up from her knitting. "Some trouble with the children, Sam?"
"Yeeap," he replied. "I reckon we got some cleanin up to do in there"
"Hmm," she said, not looking up again. "Best stop it, now, with the hexin'. We'll clean up the regular way. Looks like we got us a late night tonight again, husband."
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