Chapter Twenty-Six


War Journal

Entry # 9

Out on the battlefield, it was totally a party. At least for the moment. Until total hell blew in. From the second I stepped out the gate, I was awash in foofaraw.

On top of that, I was getting cheered like a gladiator. People up on the east wall bleachers were hooting and calling my name. Having never been a varsity jock in school, this was a new one on me; but I must confess that I turned, waved my axe at the crowd, and danced around a little.

It was fun, and absurdly gratifying, but the black cloud was on a roll. While I basked in the glory, I took note of the banners that fluttered all along the east wall. HAVE FUN! said one. HAVE A SANDWICH! said another. HAVE A BIG FUN SANDWICH WITH US! said yet a third.

I wasn't sure if this was utterly persuasive, so I cast my gaze a little bit further down the line. Somebody else, on a separate tangent, had written DON'T KILL US! in big squiggly letters. In context, it worked pretty well. I suspected the Flutterbudgets.

Beyond that was a personal favorite: a childish scrawl that clearly read WE ALL ARE FRIENDS, AND THIS IS DUMB. Some goof wrote HI! Another wrote WHY? Another wrote TRY SOME PLUMBLY PIE!

I was sensing a pattern; but past friendliness and snacks, there wasn't a whole lot of incentive here. I mean, by Oz standards, that was certainly plenty; but the cloud was clearly not from these parts.

On the other hand, it probably wasn't reading the banners, either.

I waved bye to my fans, turned back to my peers in the battlefield lab rat community. There were nearly a thousand would-be warriors gearing up. Less than half of that was truly battle-ready.

I saw some born victims heading for the front lines.

For example, Miss Cuttenclip's Paper Soldiers. They were noble and bold, but what were they going to do? Give some ogre a paper cut? Crumble ashen into flame? You couldn't tell them that, of course. It would certainly hurt their pride.

I hoped that Ozma had pointed this out to them somehow, but if she had, it clearly hadn't done any good. Just like the valiant members of the Bunnyberry Precision Marching Team, who were also thoroughly marked for death. You couldn't tell them anything. They had their minds made up.

On the other hand, I was thrilled to see that Poogli had set up an Emerald Burrito stand. It was set quite a ways from ground zero, but deep enough into the fray to count as a buffer between the walls and the hordes. And Poogli, I knew, could wield a serious bunch of blades.

Pinky was helping out at the stand. She didn't recognize me at first, but when I called out her name, she came running and hugged me even harder than Mikio. "Can you believe how scared I am?" she squeaked.

I stroked her hair. "But you guys did such a great job with the stand!"

"You really think so?"

"Yes!"

"Oh, YAY!" She squeezed me again, let go, her eyes both smiling and filling with tears. "You have to promise not to die."

"Okay! You, too!"

"I'll really try!" Then she ran back to Poogli's side, and I proceeded toward the coming slaughter.

By the time I caught up with Dorothy, she had already staked out her turf: about a half-mile from the gate, midway between it and the oncoming rim of the cloud. At least a half-hour had transpired between now and Mikio's kiss; staring up from the ground, it looked like the fucker was already on top of us.

In reality, it was maybe two football fields away; and the figures in its shadow were still utterly enshrouded. It sure seemed like there were a lot of them, but that's all I could really tell. I assumed that Rokoko was in there, could feel my blade already hankering for his ass. I was a little less thrilled about O'Mon Node. Not to mention Skeerak, a shitload of ogres, and whatever other mutants Bhjennigh might have conjured up from blackness.

At that point, it was sheer reassurance to see Scarecrow grinning at me. But there he was, stroking Lion's mane, while Tiger and TikTok and a dozen other robot boys flanked Dorothy and Toto to either side. A handful of other serious warriors were gathered, Mikio's gilliken gal pal among them. We acknowledged each other with respectful distance.

Allalo from Topeka was there, hanging out with a passel of Oz-style injuns. So was No Jimmy, the only guy not named Jimmy in all of Jimvania. (Evidently, this had made him a really good fighter.) I recognized several others by reputation, though we had never met: Big Lumpkin, nearly nine feet tall; Tiffy Flora, with her razored flower petals of death; Ev & Bev, the three-armed siamese twins; and the enormous Porky Pine.

Still others intrigued me for the opposite reason: they were stunning to behold, but I had nothing to go on. Like, how had I missed hearing about the six giant walking stone heads? They had big stone arms growing out of their ears, big stone swords growing out of their hands. You'd think somebody would have mentioned them, at some point along the way. But no. They were certainly news to me.

And then, alas, there was T'wah Sampo: the only guy from Oz I ever dated who turned out to be a total jerk. Not a rarity on Earth, but here it took me by surprise. Little winkie motherfucker asked me out, told remarkable stories that all turned out to be lies, tried to get me so high that I couldn't resist him, tried to muscle me down when I did resist him, and then whimpered like a sissy when I kicked his sorry ass.

"Hey, Sampo," I said. He looked up and jumped, and his face turned white. I was all for that. "You sure you're on the right fucking side here, buddy? I think the forces of evil are gathering over there." I pointed at the approaching army.

He halfass tried to laugh it off, but his memory of me dribbling him down the street seemed remarkably fresh when I looked into his eyes.

Whatever. I had bigger fish to fry - come to think of it, they didn't come much smaller - so I moseyed over to Dorothy and the front line chain of command. Many hugs were exchanged, all of them good.

And then we got down to business.

Our forces were arrayed on the battlefield thusly:

At the very front was our four-member diplomatic party (five, if you considered Toto). It consisted of Dorothy and Scarecrow, acting as negotiators, flanked to either side by Lion and myself.

Directly behind us was a pretty mean offensive line of fifty top-rank fighters. They were backed by another thirty of equivalent skill, spread out a bit more thinly. Along with the winged monkeys, still perched upon the ramparts, that was pretty much the heart of Ozma's physical defense apparatus.

Another hundred-and-fifty valiant souls were lined up, three tiers deep, behind. I was pleased to note that the Bunnyberry gang was set up at their forefront, performing inspirational feats of. ..well, precision marching and such. I was also pleased to note that the paper soldiers and cutlery people were there. Along with the mopey Mr. Sampo.

Behind them were roughly thirty-five stands, set up in a mode of carnival atmospherium. Not just the Burrito, but a dozen other food-vendors (including, to my surprise, two stands offering Big Fun Sandwiches). There were carney-style games of skill and chance, and stands set up for the expressed purpose of just giving away prizes to adversaries who didn't want to fight.

There were also - so help me God - a half-dozen kissing booths, offering sweet smoocheroos to all conscientious objectors from the opposite camp.

I found myself wishing that all wars were fought this way.

By this point, Bhjennigh's army was one football field away; so I was both relieved and terrified when both the cloud and the ranks came to a stop.

And their diplomatic party stepped forward, into the remaining light. It was our cue.

We took it.

I can't even describe how fucking surreal it was to step forward, in that moment; and then to keep stepping forward, one foot after the last, the final yards of distance bleeding away to nothingness. There was no conversation between us; and insofar as I could read from the brittle postures of the advancing party, there t'weren't much yakkin' goin' on there, neither. Whatever remained to be said would be said at the juncture between us.

At this point, I became aware of a thin, whispy fog that seemed to trail behind them, as if welling up from beneath their feet with every step they took. I looked at my own feet, saw no fog there, had to repress a shudder of supernatural dread. Bhjennigh's magick was really starting to creep me out.

"Glinda, protect us," I heard Dorothy mutter. It seemed as good a prayer as any, unless you looked up at the cloud. Then the whole notion of Glinda-as-Deity became a somewhat frailer supposition.

I tried not to give in to the fear.

There were twenty yards between us now; I estimated a minute or less before we were face to face. It was now possible to clearly see the approaching foursome. I was unsurprised to pick out Rokoko and O'mon, vastly relieved that Skeerak was nowhere in sight. Between the two fighters were Ambassador Hwort and good ol' Xavier Waverly.

It wasn't until they were almost upon us that I noticed there was something very wrong with their eyes.

The four of us stopped dead in our tracks. I looked at Scarecrow. He looked at me. Toto let out an unearthly moan, and Dorothy tried to shush him, with little success. She, too, was shaken by the sight before her. Those four dark figures.

And their coal-black eyes.

I became aware of a low rumbling sound, like an idling Harley. It was Lion's warning growl. His great back was arched, the hairs standing on end, every muscle beneath tensed for savage attack.

Almost casually, Scarecrow reached out to stroke his mane. I suspected it was as much for Scarecrow's reassurance as it was for our feline friend.

The Hollow Man's diplomatic corps came to a stop, less than six feet away. Ambassador Hwort took a single step forward. Dorothy echoed the gesture. The rest of us stood our ground.

"Dorothy of Oz," the Ambassador said, with a voice that did not sound entirely his own. "You are here as a representative of Ozma, and the Emerald City?"

"I am here," she said, "to represent myself. Along with the rest of my friends."

Something shifted in the munchkin's face. Not an expression -  from what I could see, he didn't have an expression - but something that moved underneath the mask of flesh. As if his skull itself had subtlely reconfigured, then snapped back into place.

I found myself searching those lifeless eyes, for something resembling a spark.

"All the same," he said at last, "you speak for Ozma, in this place. And so you will relay to her this message."

"Of course," she said.

"Then tell her," he said, "that your only choice is absolute surrender."

"Oh, my," she said, and her smile was huge. "Now you're just being silly."

There was a rumbling in the clouds. I felt it in my bones. No doubt Dorothy felt it as well, but it did not change a thing. I was stunned by how strong she was as she threw back her hair, rolled her shoulders, releasing stress as she gathered up power.

"CITIZENS OF OZ!" she called out to the blackened hordes beneath the cloud. "AND WELCOME GUESTS! WE HAVE NO DESIRE TO FIGHT WITH YOU!"

A startling moan erupted from deep within the enemy ranks: the terrible sound of longing, the question mark of hope. Dorothy smiled and held out her arms, as if to embrace them all.

Then Scarecrow slammed into her from the left.

And instantly exploded.

It all happened so fast, I barely saw the black lightning. Just Dorothy and Toto, collapsing at my feet. The billowing blackness, as I turned. Bits of Scarecrow, flying everywhere. Before I had a chance to react, it was over.

And suddenly, Skeerak was there.

He had materialized out of the black lightning, in the very spot where Scarecrow died. He materialized swinging, so that his sword was coming toward me before I could fucking blink. I knew a moment of horror so pure that it felt like dying already.

Then Lion was on him, plowing him back. The blow went out of control. So did everything else. I blinked as the two of them went down in a tangle; and all around me, the air erupted with the howl of war, the thunder-roar of armies racing headlong toward me from either side.

At my feet, Dorothy was crawling on hands and knees, gathering up pieces of Scarecrow. She reminded me of Jacqueline Kennedy in Dallas, scrambling onto the back of the Presidential limo for a chunk of her husband's skull. I stepped around her, almost tripping over Toto, and brought my axe up to fighting position.

It took O'mon that long to attack. By that point, I was ready. He slashed. I parried. He slashed again, not as well as I'd expected. There was no smile curling on his lips. There was no kill-twinkle in his eyes. He fought like a man who knew all of the moves, but had learned them from books and instructional vids.

Which didn't make sense, but I didn't care to sweat it. I just parried, slashed, parried, and then chopped his face in half. The whole encounter took less than forty-five seconds.

And then they were upon us, in colliding savage waves: Tiger leaping over my head to land on Skeerak's massive shoulders, just as Allalo and his tribemen raced past me, a band of ogres launching breakneck into their swell, weapons flashing, blood splashing like oceanic foam. An ugly gray squat thing came blasting toward Dorothy at roughly cannonball speed. I adopted a batting stance, swung, and popped it like a tic.

A whole platoon of white-eyed munchkins came surging toward us from the opposite side; and to my relief, they were screaming in terror, throwing their weapons down left and right. "LOOK!" I howled to Dorothy as she stumbled to her feet, nearly tripping over that goddam Toto again.

She picked up the dog, saw the oncoming munchkins, and began to smile, clutching her handfuls of Scarecrow tightly. "COME ON!" she yelled, then turned and took off, leading the Hollow Man's hordes of deserters back toward Emerald and a big fun sandwich. Thirty, fifty, a hundred ran past me. I wanted to join them, but not everyone was deserting. I saw a sweet little gal getting sliced up from behind. When she fell, I jumped forward and hacked her killer into coleslaw.

The next wave to hit us was substantially worse. It was black-eyed and vicious, chock full o' monsters and former civilians who'd been fully converted by Bhjennigh's evil magick. This included, to my amazement, a batch of what appeared to be American tourists gone horribly wrong. No sooner had I shown some goblin his spleen than I was face-to-face with some Ren fair reject: a gawky guy in a ratcatcher's suit, swinging his cudgel at me.

I felt a moment of guilt as I opened him up; I might have dated that guy in the seventh grade. But his eyes were like glistening charcoal briquets, a condition that not even death seemed to alter. And the moment he fell, another one was upon me: this one sporting a Hawaiian shirt, swinging his Polaroid by the handle like a mace.

I cut his arm off, which made him sad. The camera went flying, which made me sad. I would have loved an Instamatic, but it was not meant to be. And, besides, the next guy in line was a tv news anchor I recognized from Fox.

I was starting to enjoy this a little too much.

Too bad it couldn't stay that way...

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