The last issue of the Oz Squad comic was published in 1996 but the chronicles of the Squad continue. Below is an except from March of the Tin Soldiers, the first in a series of Oz Squad adventure novels.
Oz Squad: March of the Tin Soldiers
By Steve Ahlquist
Illustrated by David Lee Ingersoll
The streets of Washington DC were in chaos. Panic overwhelmed the city. People were running, abandoning their cars and residences. It was hard to hear anything over the siren wails of police and rescue vehicles. Officer Jake Newsom, young and idealistic despite five years on the force, turned the volume on his police radio all the way up, and the speakers blared out a jumble of information: President Norcross has been whisked away by helicopter. The National Guard has been mobilized. Some sort of creature is tearing through the streets, killing and destroying everything in its path.
When the crowds and the abandoned vehicles made it impossible to continue, Jake exited his patrol car and drew his firearm. It was the first time he had ever felt the need to draw his weapon while on duty. The gun felt heavy in his hand. A man skilled with using words, Jake had found that he could usually talk through any problem with the citizens under his protection. Now his heart thumped in his chest as he navigated the maze of empty cars towards the broad boulevard from which he could hear the staccato bursts of gunfire and the dull screams of dying and terrified officers echoing in streets.
A sudden swirl of papers and dust surprised Jake as he rounded a corner and took in the scene of catastrophe before him. He blinked to clear his eyes and shook his head in confusion at what he saw. The moment of confusion nearly cost Jake dearly as he delayed until the last moment before ducking as something large was tossed in his direction.
With a shock he realized that it was the body of a National Guardsman. The heel of the flying man’s shoe clipped Jake on the shoulder, an instant before the flying body crashed into the windshield of an abandoned SUV. The Guardsman had been killed with a long, bloodied piece of wood clutched in the hands of a fifteen-foot tall grinning clown.
The clown wore a brightly colored robe, red on one side, gold on the other, that stretched to the ground. The figure glided when it moved, shifting with ease through the streets, pushing automobiles out of the way like mere toys. The clown’s eyes bulged from an oversized head above a warted, down turned nose and sported a smile that seemed frozen in place, betraying mania, cruelty, and perversely, joy. The clown wore a tall pointed hat.
With a flash of recognition, Newsom realized that the creature before him was Mr. Punch, a giant version of a character he had seen in a puppet show years ago when he was only a child. In the play, Mr. Punch used his gigantic bat to beat anyone or anything that got in his way or upset him. He remembered that the puppet play had upset him as a child. While all the other children laughed, he had cried at Punch’s antics. His parents had made a point of introducing Jake to the puppeteer at the end of the show, and it was explained to the young boy that Punch was just a character, like any you might see in a cartoon.
Seeing the puppet here, larger than life, Jake now fought against the urge to disbelieve his eyes. Mr. Punch was truly here, in the flesh, twice as tall as a man and more dangerous than anything Jake had ever seen.
As the crazed eyes of the giant puppet creature wheeled about in its head, never resting and never coming together in a focused stare, soldiers and police officers assaulted Mr. Punch with automatic weapons fire. The bullets either bounced off or were absorbed harmlessly into the creature. Jake was frozen with indecision. His service revolver felt as useful as a feather duster.
A police cruiser screeched past Jake, and the soldiers and police officers engaging the creature dove aside, making a path. Mr. Punch brought his wild eyes together and focused on the car, watching it approach. The puppet’s wicked, fixed smile seeming to expand ever so slightly as it raised his puppet head. Jake recognized the man at the wheel, a friend and fellow officer from his precinct, Billy Chan. Billy had a look of determination on his face as he piloted the car. Jake watched as the car hit fifty miles an hour, and cringed as the brave officer jumped from the vehicle, rolled in the streets and sustained terrible injuries.
To Jake’s eyes, the sacrifice did not seem in vain. The police cruiser smashed into Mr. Punch, exploding upon impact and creating a terrific fireball. Witnessing the explosion forced Jake to finally persuade his brain to move his feet. He pulled them slowly from the ground as if they were rooted in place. Jake lost balance and fell clumsily to one side. Seconds ticked by as the young police officer cleared his head of the echoes of the explosion, deafened by the blast. Face down on the pavement he looked at his watch as the second hand dragged itself through another instant of time. Jake staggered to his feet. He had lost his hat, and his hair stuck up at odd angles.
Concentrating, Jake ordered his eyes to focus on the point where police car had impacted on monster-puppet. Jake was amazed as Mr. Punch shimmied through the smoke and flames unhurt and unstained. He felt ill and helpless. The crazed smile was still painted on the giant puppet’s face and its weird eyes were still independently scanning the streets for victims. Jake saw Officer Chan gurgling on the pavement. Adding to the injuries sustained from jumping from the moving vehicle, Billy had been too close to the blast zone. Now, as the clown-monster moved forward, the bulk of its robes and unseen feet pushed Chan aside like so much trash, scraping the injured officer across the pavement.
Faster than the eye could see, the clumsy hands of Mr. Punch swung the bat towards an abandoned car, lifting it into the air and hurling it down the street like a can swatted by a boy with a stick on a summer’s day. The car lobbed lazily through the air, tipping end over end, and landed on an abandoned school bus, crushing it. Inside Officer Jake Newsom, something snapped; fear was replaced by anger.
Jake stepped into the street and raised his gun. The eyes of Mr. Punch swayed crazily, then, one after the other, they settled on the tiny policeman with the useless gun. The creature’s robes swirled in the light breeze, and with his giant wooden club the clown shoved detritus aside to clear a path. City trash and battle debris gave way before Mr. Punch as he glided effortlessly towards the police officer. Jake gave no ground as the monster approached. He had become unreasonably calm.
The eyes, thought Jake, aiming his gun. He fired exactly as he was taught in the Police Academy. It was as easy as qualifying at the shooting range. Exhaling, he squeezed the trigger six times, firing repeatedly into the eyes of the monster.
Mr. Punch did not so much as blink. The six bullets were completely ineffectual. The giant puppet maneuvered into range and Jake knew that when Mr. Punch swung his bat he would be dead. Jake would be launched like a golf ball across the city. Since standing still meant dying, Jake moved.
There was a whoosh of air behind Jake. It was the bat, he knew, missing him. Jake did not attempt to run away from the creature, he was certain that way lead to death. Instead Jake instinctively sought safety in the one place he hoped Mr. Punch could not find him. He raced towards the clown-monster and grabbed the red and gold robe, drawing himself beneath. It was dark under the robe, and Jake felt the skin of the creature against his back. The texture of the skin was shocking: cold flesh, clammy and smelling of death.
When Mr. Punch moved, Jake moved with it, and found that he could easily stay hidden beneath the robes. He knew that this was a temporary safety at best. As Jake’s eyes adjusted to the darkness he noticed that the creature merely slid along the ground, it did not walk so much as slither, like a slug. What Jake could see of the flesh of the monster was bluish and wrinkled.
Mr. Punch was surprised to have missed the little man he had aimed at, and more surprised to find the man seeking safety beneath his robes. The puppet looked about the battlefield; most of the men who had engaged him were dead or had retreated. Mr. Punch tipped his large head back and looked towards the sky, as if in reverent contemplation. Finally, Mr. Punch seemed to come to a decision. Swatting aside the remains of the shattered school bus, Mr. Punch glided down the avenue, still heading for his ultimate destination. There was a rustle from the back of Mr. Punch’s robe. The little man was making his escape. Mr. Punch turned his head to see Officer Jake Newsom tending to the wounded Billy Chan.
Huddled over his wounded friend Jake spared a glance back at Mr. Punch, wondering if the unstoppable creature would turn back and finish him off, or continue forward on its frenzied rampage of destruction.
For a brief instant Jake met the gaze of Mr. Punch. At first the police officer felt fear, then the fear gave way to curiosity, and finally the curiosity gave way to awe. Within the eyes of Mr. Punch, Jake recognized something ancient and powerful. A connection was made and Jake felt subtly changed. A blessing, he thought, a blessing from the Trickster God.
Then Billy Chan groaned, and Jake let his first aid training take over. With luck, thought Jake, I might be able to save my friend’s life.
Smiling his knowing smile, Mr. Punch moved on. It was a good little trick the tiny policeman had played, hiding beneath his robes, and above all things Mr. Punch loved good little tricks.
A literal world away, in an enchanted garden outside the Royal Palace of the Emerald City, Princess Dorothy Gale adjusted her simple tiara and resumed her grip on the legs of a flamingo. The flamingo was upside down in her hands, with its head next to a wooden croquet ball. Carefully, Dorothy lined up her shot, taking into account the distance through the hoops, the slightly irregular grass and the minor squirming of the flamingo in her hands. She concentrated as she was taught, and matched the breathing of the flamingo to her own. She drew back slightly, and then followed through on her stroke as she exhaled. The idea was to use the flamingo’s head as a mallet. This might be thought of as cruel, except that these particular flamingoes were bred for just this task. They relished the thought of banging their brains on hard wooden croquet balls, and got positively ornery if they were not played with at least once a week. A gift from the Queen of Hearts for a favor done years ago, Dorothy often felt that she was on the receiving end of a weird Wonderland joke. Still, her ten-year old son Ozzy loved this game and quality time with her son was rare.
Woman and flamingo now operating in perfect harmony, Dorothy drove the flamingo’s head into the croquet ball as her cell phone unexpectedly chirped in her pocket. The flamingo glanced up at Dorothy in annoyance, moving its head to an odd angle just as it connected with the ball. Dorothy not only missed her intended target, her croquet ball bounced completely off the course. Dorothy rolled her eyes as her son, Ozzy, positively squirmed with excitement.
“Good shot, Mom!” said Ozzy with unveiled sarcasm, “My turn!”
Ozzy was a tousled-haired ten year old wearing sneakers, jeans and an “Electric Elephant” tee shirt. The Electric Elephant was an ancient artifact of unknown origin that had returned to Earth several years ago, and if not for Dorothy’s efforts it may have destroyed the planet. Now it was a simple satellite, floating harmlessly above the Earth, beaming pirate-radio broadcasts of extra-dimensional underground Rock and Roll to an appreciative and secretive audience.
Ozzy ran onto the croquet field, a flamingo in his hands, near to bursting with excitement. From the sidelines Bungle, the glass cat, transparent save for her emerald eyes, deep red heart and translucent pink brains, stretched lazily in the sunlight and pretended to not be watching the game. This was somewhat dangerous, as the curves of Bungle’s body sometimes acted as a lens, focusing the sun’s rays and starting fires under dry conditions.
Also watching the game was Belina, a chicken with brown and orange feathers and long time friend of Dorothy who was perched on the top of the final wicket. Belina was a gossipy chicken with a lot of attitude. She clucked derisively as Dorothy checked the caller ID on her cell phone.
“Don’t you ever take a day off, Dorothy?” asked the chicken. Of all of Dorothy’s friends, only Belina remembered her as the simple farm girl from Earth. Belina spoke to Dorothy as if she were not a Princess of Oz, the Queen’s Consort and the Protector of the Realm, but just a common woman, and Dorothy loved her dearly for it.
“It’s Jinjur,” said Dorothy, reading the caller’s name on the phone, “at the embassy.”
Ozzy was busy manhandling his ruffled flamingo into position. As usual, Ozzy had in mind a spectacular rebound shot that would win the game in one swing. “Mom! Watch this!”
“I’m watching, honey!” Dorothy replied. She flipped the phone open. “Yes?”
Ozzy wiggled his whole body from his ankles to his shoulders in preparation for his shot. The flamingo’s head had grass stains on it from where the boy had banged its head on the ground, and was enjoying the buzzy headaches it had already gotten from repeated contact with the hard wooden croquet balls. The flamingo was having trouble focusing his eyes and as Ozzy lined up his shot, the bird tried to anticipate exactly what was going to happen. An excellent flamingo mallet could often help a player by compensating at the last moment, twisting its neck to add or subtract momentum, or angling its beak to influence direction. Working with a ten-year old meant that the flamingo needed to bring all of his malleting experience to bear.
Ozzy pulled back his mallet and swung with all the might a young boy could muster. The flamingo anticipated the wonderful feeling of a bang to the head and the bright display of stars and colors that would fill his vision once he connected, but also thought to add some force to the swing by craning his neck into the ball. It is an odd feature of the game that your biggest ally in helping you make your shots is a small-brained bird that has suffered numerous concussive blows to the head. As the flamingo was knocked completely senseless Ozzy screamed, “Ka-Boom!”
The croquet ball was launched into the air, over two hoops, and directly into the wicket on which Belina was peacefully perched. The ball careened off the wicket inches below the chicken, sending her sprawling.
“Hey you idiot! Watch where you’re hitting that!” squawked Belina, landing clumsily on her side in the grass. The ball bounced once on the imperfectly maintained lawn and bee-lined for the glass cat. Ozzy’s eyes went wide. Bungle turned her head slowly and Ozzy could see the spinning croquet ball reflected in the eyes of the cat as she filled with panic at the anticipation of being shattered into a million pieces.
Then suddenly the ball stopped, frozen in mid-air inches from Bungle, where it was suspended for half a second before dropping straight to the ground, nestled in the soft grass. Ozzy smiled, and looked at his mother. Dorothy had the cell phone against her ear, listening intently, but she was pointing across the croquet garden at the ball, the wish-belt at her waist emitting a fading magical aura. The expression on Bungle’s face changed from fear to disgust, and then back to her usual neutral expression of distaste for everyone and everything.
“Humph,” said the Cat, “nice try, Junior.”
“Punch. I understand.” Dorothy said into the phone. “We’ll be there in ten minutes. Thanks Jinjur.”
Ozzy rushed towards Bungle. “Are you okay?”
“No thanks to you, stupid monkey-boy,” hissed Bungle, “my delicate features could have been lost forever!”
“I’m sorry,” said Ozzy.
Belina cut Ozzy off and took Bungle to task. “Why would a fragile thing like you risk being out on a field with wooden balls and flamingoes being clobbered about willy-nilly by a ten year old boy anyway?”
Bungle looked at Belina with more than her usual contempt. The cat and the chicken were not friends, their animosity towards each other over a century old. “My reasons are my own.” Answered the cat.
“Cats,” said Belina, “you think you’re so mysterious.”
“Cats don’t care what chickens think, cats eat chickens,” said Bungle with a sarcastic twitch of her spun glass tail. Before Belina could reply Bungle was up and over a small fence with a quick leap and through a cat sized hole in the surrounding shrubbery.
“Pleasant, as usual.” Belina shot back, hoping the cat would hear it.
Dorothy strode over, pocketing the cell phone and smiling the smile of a mother who knew she had to disappoint her son. Though she looked only twenty, Dorothy was actually over a century old. Being a Princess of Oz meant she never aged. She had short, dark hair, deep brown eyes, and kept herself in nearly perfect physical shape. In addition to her tiara, which she always tried to wear while in Oz, she wore sneakers, blue jeans and a white tank top.
“Mom, thanks for not letting me smash Bungle,” said Ozzy, “I’d have felt terrible.”
Dorothy patted her wish-belt and smiled at her son. The wish-belt was an ancient and powerful magical artifact. Dorothy had stolen it from the evil Nome King a long time ago, when she was about the same age as Ozzy.
“Bungle’s been broken before,” said Dorothy, “and I’ve always put her together again with this.”
As the flamingoes unsteadily made their way about the croquet course, packing up the wickets and hoops and comparing the magnitude of their headaches, Dorothy turned serious, and knelt before her son. “I hate to cut our day short Ozzy, but Mommy’s got business on Earth.”
The door to the garden opened and a woman appeared. She was under four-feet tall, with wide smiling features and a plump body. She was dressed in the uniform of a Palace maid, but she was in fact the administrative head of the household, Jellia Jamb. Jellia was in charge of the day-to-day activities of the Palace, leaving Queen Ozma the time to effectively rule the Land of Oz.
“Jellia will take care of you until Ozma is free, later today,” said Dorothy.
Jellia smiled. “I’m baking cookies, and later I’m carving a new pumpkin head for Jack.”
“Can we make him cross-eyed again?” asked Ozzy, “That was funny!”
“Be nice to Jack, Ozzy,” admonished Dorothy, “don’t tease.”
Ozzy made a non-committal grunt and Dorothy decided that it was as much of a promise as she was likely to get. Jack Pumpkinhead was one of the stranger citizens of Oz. Created by Queen Ozma, Jack was an unwieldy amalgam of sticks and clothing that possessed a carved pumpkin for a head. Jack’s intelligence was variable, ranging from stupid to clueless, and his head needed to be replaced weekly before it was too rotten for him to think at all.
Leaving Ozzy in the care of Jellia, Dorothy let herself through a wooden gate and out of the gardens. She scaled a ladder to the top of a palace turret, to a landing-pad where her three best friends and teammates were already aboard an idling helicopter. Nick Chopper, the Tin Man, was in the pilot’s seat. In the back seats were the Scarecrow and Lion.
From the croquet field Ozzy waved as the helicopter lifted off. He watched as his mom and three uncles were born aloft, high into the sky and then suddenly vanish from the air in a burst of light. The helicopter, he knew, had left Oz and gone to the other world where Earth was.
With a wistful look at the empty sky Ozzy whispered, “Be careful, mom,” and then hurried after Jellia.
Ten minutes earlier, Alexie Armitage was sitting in his darkened, wood paneled office. Armitage disliked bright lights. The corners of his office were shadowed, and occasionally Armitage stared into these corners, as if there were someone there. Sometimes there was. Ignoring the shadows Armitage glanced impatiently at his wristwatch with a tight pursing of the lips that was the closest he ever came to a smile. The wristwatch always kept perfect time, and never needed to be wound or repaired.
Armitage was one of the most powerful men in the United States government, yet most people had never heard of him. He was CIA Director of Magickal Affairs, and his job was to contain threats to the security of his country against creatures and artifacts of a magical nature. As much as he knew his job was important and necessary, he looked forward to the day when things like magic and the people who wielded it were a thing of the past. Magic brought chaos and unpredictability. It was impossible to rely on natural laws when supernatural occurrences were an almost daily reality.
Armitage had a reputation as a CIA agent who took a hard, pragmatic look at situations, and made hard, pragmatic decisions. When it became apparent that a special branch of the agency was needed to deal with magic in general and the Land of Oz in particular, Armitage was given carte blanche to do whatever he needed to get the job done.
His first step was to gather, either legally or extra-legally, all magical items on Earth, including swords, books, goblets, shoes, wands and anything else possessed of charm, glamour or magic, and lock them away in a deep underground military bunker.
His second step was more ominous. He sent his agents across the Earth, arresting, detaining, or ‘neutralizing’ people and creatures that wielded magic or were magical by nature. Wizards found themselves locked up alongside fairies and dragons. There were no charges brought, no warrants served. Those wielding magic soon learned that to practice your craft meant losing ones so-called inalienable rights. Others were worse off: werewolves and vampires had been hunted to virtual extinction.
The results of Armitage’s efforts were to make Earth a sort of magic ‘no-fly’ zone. If you came to Earth and used magic, you were ruthlessly targeted and brought to heel. If your uncle died and left you a magical umbrella, you became an enemy of the state unless you turned it in pronto, and even then there was no guarantee of your safety.
The one constant snag in the plans of Alexie Armitage was the existence of the Magical Land of Oz. The United States first became aware of Oz towards the end of World War II, when Princess Dorothy Gail announced her intention to join the Allies against the predations of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Over the years Oz had proven to be an ally, but an ally that could not always be trusted to act in the best interests of the United States.
Armitage was over one hundred years old, but had effectively stopped aging in his forties. He did not think it hypocritical to use a magic portrait to prevent himself from aging. It was his sworn duty to protect the United States and his legal mandate to use whatever means he deemed necessary to protect this world from threats both magical and supernatural. In furtherance of his goals Armitage often used the tools of magic, no matter how distasteful he felt them to be.
The art materials were found during a raid of the home of an English artist living in a seaport town in New England. Before securing the artist in a top-secret government prison (where he would never again touch brush to canvas) the artist was coerced into painting one final masterpiece: a full-length nude portrait of Alexie Armitage.
The portrait was not complementary. The captured artist had not wanted to immortalize the CIA Director but had been forced so at the point of a gun. Normally, an artist of such caliber would do all in his power to capture the essence of his subject in the most flattering way possible, but with his rights abrogated and imprisonment inevitable, the artist fought back with the only weapons at his disposal: art and truth. Alexie Armitage was captured in all his balding, overweight, under-muscled glory; a physique earned from years of sitting at a desk. It was only after the picture was finished that Armitage realized he was still wearing his wristwatch. Now it was a part of him, and could never be removed.
After the painting was complete it was secured in a crate and locked away deep in the underground bunker alongside other wooden crates containing vorpal swords, flying carpets, fairy dust and magic beans. Every day that Armitage aged, every injury and sickness he suffered, every fattening food he ate and cancerous cigar he smoked and every sin that would have stained his immortal soul was transferred away from him and to the painting. The portrait, locked deep within a dark vault, should it ever see the light of day, would reveal a decrepit, diseased monster, consumed and punished by a life of excess and sin whilst the true Alexie Armitage endured, ever pristine and never changing.
Armitage had secured his immortality, but had done so in such a way as he could never be other than the way he was when the painting was completed. No amount of sun would tan his skin, no amount of time at the gym could build his muscles, no amount of dieting could slim his stomach. Sixty years of life without consequence had caused Armitage to become a man of great appetites and boldness; he ate copious amounts of food, drank great quantities of alcohol, smoked without fear of cancer, and entered battle zones without body armor. He was immortal, a veritable god in all but appearance. It was only when he looked in a mirror did he see how truly small and ordinary he was.
Armitage now looked at his watch again, the watch that kept perfect time and never needed repair or winding. It was mere happenstance that he had forgotten to remove the watch when he posed for his portrait, and as a result the watch had been granted the same immortality Armitage had gained. The tight shadow of a smile played across his lips once more. It was time.
There was a knock on his office door and Gerry Mander entered without waiting for permission. As far as Armitage was concerned Mander was a Harvard educated sissy, one of the bright, young, attractive agents that were all too common at the CIA and NSA these days. Armitage had seen the type again and again over the years. In only a short time Mander would begin to show his age, and a few years later would be as old and out of shape as Armitage was. Armitage nodded his permission for Mander to speak.
“Sir,” began Mander, “there’s an incident developing downtown. A giant clown monster…”
Armitage picked up a television remote control from his desk and pointed it at a screen on the wall. A cable news channel came on the screen, detailing the devastation caused by Mr. Punch. The shaky camera on board a circling traffic helicopter tried to get a good shot of the rampaging clown, but all that could be seen was a large blurry figure smashing cars and people as it made its way through the streets, on a path of destruction that would bring it to the White House itself in less than an hour. As the screen illuminated the room, the shadows in the corners receded slightly, curling and shifting there uneasily.
Mander had worked for Armitage for nearly a year, and had a mixture of fear and respect for the man. Mander knew Armitage as a legend in CIA circles. Armitage had been with the agency since it had been founded, and was rumored to be ancient. Mander, fresh out of college and CIA training, had been thrilled to be assigned to this unit. He had seen a lot since joining Armitage, some of it strange and wonderful, but most of it horrifying and disturbing. Mander pretended not to notice the shadows twisting in the dark corners of the room and concentrated instead on the news report.
“As I said, sir, a giant clown is trashing the city, and resisting everything we throw at it.” Mander tried to keep his voice neutral, but betrayed too much excitement for Armitage’s taste.
Armitage muted the sound of the news report and tented his fingers, peering over them to stare at the junior agent. “It’s more than a giant clown, Mander. We’re looking at a god. Bullets aren’t going to kill it.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Someone has summoned a minor but extremely destructive deity.” Explained Armitage, “A trickster god. Its present course indicates that it’s pretty angry with the United States government.”
“Oh my…” Mander began, but his words trailed off. Oh my what? He thought, God? The word felt wrong in this context, as he watched the clown tear through a gas station on the screen. Flames erupted everywhere, exploding into a fireball that filled the screen. Seconds ticked by, and Mr. Punch emerged, unharmed, completely intact.
“Has the President been evacuated?” Asked Armitage.
“Yes, sir,” answered Mander as the cell phone in his pocket vibrated. He pulled out the phone and listened intently before speaking, “Sir! The planes are moments away. They’ll saturate the streets.”
Armitage calculated the odds that the approaching jets would actually affect the giant killer puppet. They were practically zero. It would be a good show, but the cost to the United States government should Mr. Punch actually destroy one of the jets would be too high, even for Armitage. The CIA Director frowned. He waved dismissively at Mander. “Call off the jets. We’ll just be wasting missiles. Contact Ambassador Jinjur at the Oz Embassy.”
Mander wasted no time in issuing Armitage’s command into his cell phone. Armitage dismissed Mander with another wave of his hand, and the young agent backed out of the room, shutting the door to the office behind him. Armitage watched the television screen impassively as Mr. Punch swung his mighty staff and walloped a car through the third floor of an evacuated office building.
Armitage stared into the darkness that surrounded him. “If you want to make an omelet, you got to break some eggs.”
From the shadows came a woman’s laugh.
Over one hundred years ago, when Dorothy was barely seven years old, a terrible storm had lifted her farmhouse, with Dorothy inside it, through an inter-dimensional portal and dropped it into the magical Land of Oz. At that time, the Land was divided into four parts, with good witches controlling the North and South of Oz, and evil witches controlling the East and West. Dorothy was not the kind of girl to look for trouble, but it came to her anyway as her house landed on and crushed the Wicked Witch of the East. The witch had been hated by the people she ruled over, a curious race on average no taller than the young Dorothy who called themselves Munchkins. Considered a hero, Dorothy took the silver slippers, powerful magic items, from the feet of the dead witch and went off in search of a Wizard who could show her the way home.
Except for her little dog Toto, Dorothy was alone in a strange land. The responsibility she felt for her pet forced Dorothy to put on a brave face. Guided by the advice of the Good Witch of the North, Dorothy made her way down the yellow brick road, but soon night approached and darkness began to creep around the lonely, frightened girl. She stayed on the Yellow Brick Road, but was feeling ever more isolated and helpless.
In need of a friend she found one, a living scarecrow hanging in the cornfield of a Munchkin farmer. The Scarecrow was dressed in simple unmended farmer’s clothing, boots with mouse holes in them, wrinkled gloves and a slouchy hat. His head was a burlap bag with a bright, happy face painted on it.
“Good day,” said the Scarecrow, suddenly alive.
“Did you speak?” asked Dorothy, surprised.
“Certainly,” answered the Scarecrow, “how do you do?”
“I’m pretty well, thank you,” replied Dorothy, but she did not truly feel it. “How do you do?”
“I’m not feeling well,” said the Scarecrow, echoing Dorothy’s inner feelings. With a reassuring smile he added, “For it is very tedious being perched up here night and day to scare away crows.”
Now Dorothy’s loneliness was nearly forgotten. “Can’t you get down?” she asked.
“No, for this pole is stuck up my back. If you will please take away the pole I shall be greatly obliged to you.”
Eager to help, Dorothy put aside her fear and helped the Scarecrow down from the pole. Learning that Dorothy was on a quest, the Scarecrow adopted a quest of his own: a search for brains.
Years later, of course, Dorothy realized that scarecrows, even in Oz, do not spontaneously come to life. Indeed, throughout the long history of agriculture in Oz, the living Scarecrow was a unique being. Dorothy was wearing the silver slippers when she found herself in great need of a friend, and in staring at the happy, painted face of a scarecrow she somehow activated their mysterious power. The Scarecrow had been brought to life, and would forever be Dorothy’s friend.
Nick Chopper piloted the helicopter through a hole in space that separated Oz from Earth. It had been opened by the power of Dorothy’s wish-belt. Now in Earth-space, hovering near the Washington Monument, Nick checked the helicopter’s readouts and controls, got his bearings, and then made for the scene of Mr. Punch’s rampage. Dorothy needed hard Intel on the threat, and was about to ask, but the Scarecrow had already opened a specially made laptop computer and was poking the extra large keyboard with his clumsy, straw filled fingers.
“It’s Mr. Punch,” said the Scarecrow, “the puppet character.”
A low rumbling voice came from the back of the helicopter. It was a tight fit for a 700-pound lion. “Hrrm. Interesting. Haven’t seen one of those in while.”
Dorothy looked into the backseat at her friend the Scarecrow, trying to gauge how he was feeling, but his painted on face was dark and clumsily scrawled, and his emotions were unreadable. He wore a leather jacket, and expensive boots. He was hardened, sad, and seemingly lost. Much had happened in the last century since she and the Scarecrow had met. Dorothy could not be with her friend without feeling some guilt at his plight, and it was pushing them apart…
In his search for brains the Scarecrow had hit the jackpot. The Wizard, eventually true to his word, loaded the strange creature with intelligence. The Scarecrow became the smartest being on two worlds. Everything he experienced he remembered with perfect clarity. He could recall any fact and remember any incident no matter how trivial. Sometimes the Scarecrow could recall an event so completely that he felt as though he were reliving it. Over his century of life he had memorized entire libraries full of facts. In the course of his adventures he had seen and done things that both terrified and amazed. The Scarecrow cherished his memories, good and bad, save for one. There was a single memory in his head he would have gladly given up, if such a thing were possible for him.
Years ago, in the Land of Oz, a country filled with unique beings and amazing creatures, the Scarecrow, despite his popularity and status as a hero, felt alone. Then he met another unique individual, a patchwork girl named Scraps. With button eyes and black yarn hair and skin created from bits of assorted fabric, she was the most beautiful girl the Scarecrow had ever seen. The boy who had helped create Scraps had overloaded her with brains, so she was almost as intelligent as the Scarecrow and much more creative. It was to Scraps that the Scarecrow safeguarded his secret name, the name he called himself but no one else knew. She was his companion, the love of his life…
And every time he thought of her he would relive the horror of her death in perfect, excruciating detail.
Dorothy knew that the only thing that kept her friend from endlessly brooding on his lost love was mystery and adventure. She smiled when she heard the slightest trace of excitement in the Scarecrow’s voice as he explained Mr. Punch. “Mr. Punch is a powerful figure. He’s the embodiment of the Trickster, and when summoned to Earth he has all the powers of a god.”
Nick Chopper, the Tin Man, had a voice that sounded like a speaker dropped to the bottom of a metal bucket, as though it were coming from somewhere far away. “So what’s the plan?”
The Scarecrow succinctly outlined the means by which Mr. Punch could be bested. Nick did not like what he heard.
Nick piloted the helicopter to a street parallel to the one Mr. Punch rampaged on. The helicopter landed and Dorothy, Nick and the Lion all exited the vehicle. The three friends waited as the rotating propellers of the helicopter slowed down enough for the Scarecrow to safely exit the craft. Such a strong wind might have a terrible effect on the Scarecrow, maybe even blow him into little pieces, and Dorothy did not have time to put him together again. She needed him now. In the distance Dorothy could hear the sounds of battle.
Nick could hear it too. “Things sound bad.”
The Lion bristled, stalking back and forth and swishing his tail.
As the propeller came to rest the Scarecrow joined his friends outside the helicopter. “We need to know what play was being performed, so we need to find the puppeteer.” Scarecrow looked at the Lion meaningfully. “He should be injured, having recently lost his hand. We need someone who can track and hunt…”
“I get it.” Said Lion, “You could be more subtle. Give me ten minutes, I’ll find him.” The Lion bounded off, backtracking away from the sounds of carnage.
The Scarecrow turned his attention to the Tin Man. “Nick, you and Dorothy have to try and contain this thing until I can feed Dorothy the counterspell.”
“You want me to try and stop an avatar of the Trickster God?” Asked Nick, “There’s nothing on the planet that will slow it down.”
“Try and distract it, or amuse it.” Suggested the Scarecrow.
“You could sing to it, or dance,” suggested Dorothy as she shut her eyes and her wish-belt glowed. Her head grew several sizes bigger, and her clothing transformed into robes. Her eyes bulged out and her nose grew long and crooked. Her hair became long, dark and uncombed. She looked like a female Mr. Punch. Dorothy was now the spitting image of Mr. Punch’s mythical wife, Judy. Her hands had become large and clumsy looking, and she held a comically oversized rolling pin.
Nick regarded Dorothy with concern. Nick’s voice, from deep within his hollow chest said, “This plan is too dangerous. It’s crazy!”
“Nick,” came a voice that was Dorothy’s but sounded shrill and on the verge of insanity, “this is the only plan we’ve got.” Dorothy’s Judy-face contorted into a maniacal grin with yellow misshapen teeth. She looked repulsive.
Nick frowned as best his burnished metal face would allow. He knew arguing with Dorothy was hopeless. She was the bravest person he had ever met, and the truest friend one could hope for. He would never let her face danger alone, no matter how crazy her plans were. Nick’s metallic body twisted and guns popped out from panels deftly crafted into his body. Targeting computer readouts appeared in front of his eyes. Built into Nick’s tin plated body was weaponry equal to a small tank.
Dorothy, as Judy, rushed towards the sounds of battle, her puppet robes flowing dramatically behind her. Even if she had not heard the reassuring, clanking sound of Nick’s metal feet stomping the road beside her, she would have known he was there.
On their journey through Oz one hundred years ago Dorothy and the Scarecrow wandered down the yellow brick road for miles before coming to a place to rest. They heard a sound from deep within the woods, and left the relative safety of the yellow bricks to investigate. In a small depression, within a copse of trees, they found a man, entirely constructed of metal, plated in tin and completely hollow; a creature of magic. Nearby Dorothy found an oilcan and oiled the Tin Man’s joints, allowing him to speak and move once again.
Now free of his terrible, rusted prison, the Tin Man told Dorothy and the Scarecrow his terrible story. Once the Tin Man had been a man of flesh and blood named Nicholas Chopper, a woodsman. This man had run afoul of the Wicked Witch of the East, and she had cursed him and enchanted his axe. The next day, while out chopping wood Nick’s axe flew from his hands, swung in the air, and lopped off Nick’s arm.
Nick talked of the event in a casual, off hand way, and it was years before Dorothy fully understood how terrible this event was. Severely wounded, bleeding and unconscious, Nick would have died but for the appearance of a passing stranger who also happened to be a Tinsmith.
The Tinsmith made Nick a new arm of tin to replace the one he lost. As good as new, Nick resumed his work a few days later, only to have the axe once again fly from his hands and chop away his other arm. Over the next weeks both legs followed. Each time the Tinsmith replaced the severed part, and each time Nick was restored to a semblance of health. Then Nick lost his torso, and finally, his head. Again the Tinsmith did his work. With nothing more for Nick to lose, the force of the Wicked Witch’s spell was spent, at the cost of Nicholas Chopper’s humanity.
Weeping for what he had lost, and wandering alone through the forests of Oz, Nicholas had eventually rusted in place, alone and forgotten. He watched as the sun rose and felt it set behind him. The rains came and went, and slowly trees grew up around him, stretching to touch the sky.
The brave little girl and her strange Scarecrow friend touched something within the Tin Man. He had thought his humanity long gone. Dorothy told Nicholas of her quest, and the Scarecrow explained how he had adopted a quest of his own. Nicholas vowed that Dorothy would no longer walk unprotected through her adventures, and silently dedicated his axe to her service. He has fought by her side ever since.
Side by side Nick and Dorothy ran through the streets of Washington DC. Nick was no longer constructed of mere tin; he was now made of sterner stuff. Nearly impervious woven titanium mesh made up most of his body. Nigh unshatterable reinforced porcelain made his joints. His previously hollow body was now packed with advanced weaponry and specialized equipment. His head was filled with state-of-the-art sensory apparatus. Nick Chopper was a war machine, a human tank, and the most powerful weapon on two worlds.
Of course, all that power would be meaningless or worse, dangerous, without the gift Nick had received from the Wizard. He had received a heart, a token of his humanity that connected him to the world. Nicholas Chopper would never again be human, but he would never forget what it meant to be a man. His heart became a symbol of his responsibilities: to Dorothy, the amazing little girl who had saved him; to Oz, the country of his birth; and to humanity, in all its varied forms and shapes.
Nick and Dorothy rounded a corner and surprised a group of retreating soldiers. The soldiers reacted to Dorothy, still in the appearance of an oversized Judy puppet, with fear. Dorothy raised her hands in an attempt to calm the soldiers, but to no avail.
“It’s another one!” screamed a young soldier, raising his rifle to shoot. The other soldiers followed suit.
“No wait!” said Nick, stepping between Dorothy and the soldiers.
One of the soldiers, too frazzled by recent events, and overcome with panic, squeezed the trigger of his rifle, firing a bullet. The bullet bounced off Nick’s cylindrical body.
Nick grabbed the barrel of the gun and jerked it from the soldier’s hands. “She’s here to stop that thing.” Said Nick, “It’s a disguise.”
The soldier nodded as if he understood, but Nick guessed that he, like the rest of his unit, were simply too terrified to think straight. At the sound of a crash from far up the street the soldiers reacted like scared rabbits, broke, and ran.
Together Nick and Dorothy wound their way through the abandoned vehicles and found a place to observe Mr. Punch, shimmying through the streets without a care in the world. He was swinging his bat with a bored nonchalance. Mr. Punch gave the appearance of being disappointed with the sameness of this world, but he brightened considerably when Nick left Dorothy in hiding and stepped out before him.
As the giant puppet considered the tin man, Dorothy watched from the shadows, waiting for the Scarecrow to give her the counterspell.
“What ho little man?” said Mr. Punch, regarding Nick’s silver exterior, “Are you a knight?”
Nick remembered what the Scarecrow had told him: Distract Mr. Punch, amuse him. Buy some time. He tried to sound more cheery than he felt. “I am a knight, good sir,” said Nick, “a dancing knight!”
Mr. Punch drew back slightly, intrigued. Nick clanked forward on his metal feet, and Mr. Punch pulled back slightly, in mock fear.
Nick knew that the puppet, actually an incarnation of an ancient Trickster God, was merely play-acting. As Nick danced the creature watched in faux fascination that would last exactly as long as Mr. Punch felt the scene of interest. When Punch became bored, the game was over.
Nick clanked his boots on the ground and cocked his elbows akimbo, dancing gamely without music. Nick tried to gauge how amused Mr. Punch was. The Puppet’s facial expressions did not so much move as they were nuanced by shadows and body language, so he was hard to read. Without a clear indication of Mr. Punch’s mood, Nick would have to rely on his reflexes when things started to go sour.
From her hiding place Dorothy observed Nick, and watched as Mr. Punch raised his head and looked around, as if wanting to share his confusion about the dancing knight with someone else. There was no one around, of course, Mr. Punch had either smashed or scared everyone away. He turned first one eye then the second back towards Nick and his dancing. From her hidden vantage point Dorothy looked up the street and could see that the puppet monster had slowly but inextricably made his way in the direction of the White House, less than two miles away. If Dorothy could not stop Mr. Punch, the puppet’s rampage would surely destroy this most hallowed shrine of American government, and from there, perhaps the world.
The streets of Washington DC were awash with the dead and the wounded. The debris from hundreds of smashed cars and buildings littered the street. Emergency response teams tended to the fires and the wounded, and a police presence bolstered by the National Guard attempted to keep looting to a minimum. Through the chaos and uncertainty no one paid much attention to Lion as he bounded through the streets, his muscles rippling beneath sleek, tan fur. Occasionally Lion was given startled or fearful looks, but mostly he was seen and then ignored, as though the appearance of a lion, after so much panic and destruction, was the most natural thing in the world.
Lion was King of the Beasts, supreme monarch of the Animal Kingdom in Oz, and feared by most of the creatures of Earth. Yet here he was in the streets of Washington, once again performing the duties of a common hunting dog for a woman who would not even make a good meal for him. Lion would have it no other way.
His name, of course, was not Lion. He had a name spoken only by the animals of Oz but this was the name Dorothy knew him by and he was proud to bear it. Pride, so important to a lion in so many ways, was not something Lion always knew. More than a century ago, when he was barely more than a cub, comfortable among the women of the pride, his father took sudden notice of him. Lion was big for his age and in the natural order of things he would supplant his father as ruler when he decided to challenge for domination. He had no intention of doing so; he was content to be a child of the pride for quite some time to come, yet his father, more crafty and political than strong and brave, decided to challenge his son early, while the boy was still young and uncertain.
Lion was expected to fight for the leadership of the pride with his father, and against his will he found himself encircled by the pride, as they gathered to watch the battle. Lion looked into his father’s eyes and saw the calculation and power there. Instinctively Lion knew he was no match for his father. As his father stretched lazily in preparation for combat, Lion ran. In one quick jump Lion leapt over the females of the pride and bounded into the woods of Oz. He ran and ran, and did not look back. Tears blurred his eyes. His chest felt small and tight. From far away came the victorious roar of his father, and the derisive, mocking laughter of the pride.
Lion then wandered the forests of Oz, avoiding other animals out of shame and a newfound sense of cowardice. As the days passed, his shame gave way to hunger, which took his cowardice to a new level. He began to hunt only the smallest and most defenseless creatures, and eventually even took to eating carrion, which left him weakened and sickly.
When Lion smelled a human female and an unfamiliar animal near the yellow road, his stomach growled with anticipation. He approached stealthily, crawling on his belly like a snake. Peering from the wooded covering he saw a little girl in a blue-checkered dress accompanied by a man of straw and a man of tin. With the girl was a tiny creature, a dog, as Lion later learned, named Toto. It would be an easy matter to quickly knock aside the straw and tin protectors and swallow the girl and the yapping dog.
Lion was so hungry.
With a leap and a roar Lion was among the travelers, trampling the straw man beneath his great weight and knocking the hollow tin man aside with a swipe of his claws. Lion moved towards the small yapping dog. A thing too stupid to know its place on the food chain, it held its ground and barked in defense of the girl. Lion’s belly roared in anticipation. The little creature barked uselessly as Lion moved to swallow the thing whole, an appetizer for the main course: the little girl in the checkered blue dress.
Lion expected the girl to be screaming and running away but, but to his surprise she was moving towards him, putting herself between the small animal and certain death. The look in her eyes was fiercer than anything Lion had seen in his short, vicious life, and it froze him in place. His emotions twisted inside him, and his arrogance became cold, uncomprehending fear. The girl’s small hand was moving and it slapped the Lion on his nose, startling him, stopping him cold.
“Don’t you dare to bite Toto!” she yelled, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, a big beast like you, to bite a poor little dog!”
“I didn’t bite him,” said Lion, weakly, looking away from the girl’s eyes as they judged him. The eyes bored into him, and found him wanting.
“No, but you tried to,” said the little girl in the blue checkered dress. “You are nothing but a big coward.”
The great Lion hung his head in shame, but the girl was not done with him yet. She had seen him. Seen through him and past him, and judged him to be the lowest of the low. He felt then that he should crawl away and die, forgotten and alone. He wanted to leave, but she bade him to stay. She was on a quest, she and her friends, and she asked him to help her, protect her, and in return she would help him find courage. Lion knew that he was not worthy to travel in her company, but also knew that he could not refuse this girl.
Dorothy was true to her word. She led the Lion to glory. She led him past his cowardice and towards the light of bravery and leadership. From that moment on Lion followed Dorothy without reservation, without embarrassment, regret, or fear; and when Dorothy went home, Lion returned to his pride, and took his rightful place as King of the Beasts. No other lion dared get in his way.
And that, thought Lion, as he bounded through the streets of Washington, is what cowardice and fear lead to. Fear leads to hunger leads to evil. That day on the Yellow Brick Road was the last day the lion would let fear rule his actions or his mind.
A voice in the Lion’s ear brought him fully back to the present. A close observer would perhaps have noticed the small device nestled in his ear canal, a communication device that linked him directly back to Scarecrow, at the helicopter landing site.
“I have a profile of the man you’re looking for,” said the Scarecrow, “mid twenties, white male. Not athletic, but fit. He probably wears glasses, he’s a frustrated actor, and shy.”
“How do you do that?” asked the Lion, smelling the air, tracing the path of destruction back to its origin.
“I run probabilities and make educated guesses,” replied the straw man, “also, remember that this guy’s recently lost his left hand. I expect that he’ll seek medical help, and he should be close to where ever this Mr. Punch started his rampage.”
Lion approached a police line of ambulances and rescue vehicles. “At least I’m ahead of you there,” he said.
Wounded were scattered about the street, and rescuers were loading those most in need onto the short supply of ambulances on hand. Several people watched nervously as Lion moved among them, his large size and scary claws mitigated somewhat by the intelligence in his eyes. Some even knew who he was. After all, he and his friends were famous on two worlds.
Lion wanted less attention, so concentrated on a spell Dorothy had taught him years ago. He hated this spell and what it did to him, but it was a useful thing, to be able to pass as human. As he concentrated his feline form seemed to shrink and compact, and he found himself staggering back on two legs, as the transformation was complete. He now had the appearance of an attractive man in his mid thirties. The people watching gasped. He was completely naked.
“What?” said Lion as a police officer approached him, “You never saw a lion turn into a naked man before?”
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copyright Steve Ahlquist 2011
Illustrations copyright David Lee Ingersoll 2011
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