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One Hundred Words about The Outer Zone

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Title: No place like home…

Challenge: Challenge 01: Emerald

 

Because two Witches dead and all those battles fought still hadn’t made her adopted land safe, Dorothy waited. This was all she had left of Ozma, the last Fae Queen of Oz, who had been friend and more...

Purgatory looked a lot like Kansas. She would have to wait until she passed on the little shard in her hand. Through it she could see the young woman who walked a path she knew all too well. The men with her had souls that looked so much like theirs.

Scarecrow…Lion…Nick…

She clutched the emerald and thought not of Kansas, but home.

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"But the Wizard gave you nothing at all!" Ambrose protested. "He turned out to be nothing more than a humbug!"

The painted face broke out in an amused smile. "That's one lesson you can take away, I suppose." Sitting stiffly in the chair and adjusting his straw, the old Scarecrow asked, "But what else?"

The teenager thought hard before answering. "That everyone already had what they went looking for."

"Even if you forget your own name, apprentice, remember this. Whatever you seek? Look in your mind first and heart second. Failing those, the Old Road's not a bad walk."

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It was supposed to be a series of roads linking all of Oz, the idea of Alva the Foolish, advisor to (and alleged lover of) Ozma the Scarcely Beloved. She levied ridiculously high taxes to build it, but only the roads through Munchkin Country were fully completed, with aborted trails into Gillikin and Quadling Countries.

After Dorothy Gale's famous journey, it became a common pilgrimage of tourists to retrace the route of their heroine.

Now, it has fallen into ruin, only a handful of yellow bricks remain as neglect and vandals have stripped it as they did the Emerald City.

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After traveling across a seemingly endless desert, the sight of a lake almost made a religious man out of him. He'd been gulping water when he looked up and realized he wasn't alone.



Dark hair and a dancer's build, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen was bathing ten feet away.



Before he could do anything, two big guys snatched his arms. Now, the green costumes he didn't recognize, but cops and bouncers trying to kick his tail was a universal constant.



“What do we do with him, Your Highness?”



Highness?!



Well, he thought ruefully. This definitely isn't Nebraska.

 

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Wyatt Cain looked down at the badge in his hand, then up at the white-haired man in disbelief.

“No, Patrolman Cain. It's yours. You've earned it.”

Blue eyes narrowed skeptically. “Begging your pardon, sir, but the thief got away.”

“And you stopped to help a critically sick old beggar instead of pursuing the theft of five platinums.”

Wyatt scowled. How did the Mystic Man know, unless...”It was a test?”

“Lad,” the Mystic Man said. “You don't become a Tin Man if you're heartless. One becomes a Tin Man if they have a heart big enough for the whole Outer Zone.”

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“Are you certain it’s safe, my Queen?”

Ozma Galinda smiled. “Ambrose, dear, you may not be my family by blood, but you are in every other way.”

The infant was placed in his arms. Ambrose never thought of himself as fond of children, and his own preferences pretty much ruled out fatherhood. Yet, something sparked when the baby gazed up at him with trusting azure eyes.

“Hello, Princess,” he said gently. “I am Ambrose, a...friend of your mother’s.”

Princess Dorothy grasped Ambrose’s finger with her tiny hand and cooed.

He couldn’t help a laugh.  “I’m pleased to meet you, too.”

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“I saw the taint of magic that was left. It is Kumbricia – Mother of all Witches. I thought the cave was only a legend.” She sat heavily in the chair, drained. “She has one of our daughters and murdered the second.”



Ahamo's blood froze. “DG is dead?”



“She was. And in the process of giving her life again, it took much of my own power.”



“Then how are we going to stop her?”



Galinda looked up. “We can't. Only Dorothy can, now. With her power and mine, augmented by Lurline's Emerald.”



“She's a baby still,” Ahamo protested. “She won't be able to -”



“You must take her to your Side while I stay and fight her best I can. When she is older, when she is ready, then she can return and destroy the Witch.”



“I can't leave you alone, Galinda. Not while -”



“I cannot protect you, my love.”



“Then,” Ahamo shuddered. “Say I was responsible for DG's death. Banish me. I'll take her and run.”



Tears leaked from her violet eyes.“No one besides us must know that she lives. Not even Ambrose.”



The sleeping child on the bed clung to life despite the magic attack, unaware of her destiny.



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A council of Sorcerers, tribal shamans from the Vinkus, even the Chieftain of the Viewers. They tried everything and failed.

The only thing left was to run.

He had no magic that could counteract the Mother of All Witches, and would only prove her most tempting target. He clutched the Compass of Heart's Desire to his chest and raced through the hedge labyrinth to his hot air balloon, the angry shouts of guards not far behind.

Let them think he fled to Nebraska, let them think he abandoned Galinda in her hour of need.

Most of all, let this work...

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Zero laughed, arms outstretched, as he twirled around. “What do you think? Snazzy, huh?”

Cain leaned against the wall. “Didn't take much to buy you, did it?”

“I thought we were partners,” Zero said, disappointed. He put his hands on Cain's shoulders. “Friends.”

Cain sighed. “I took an oath, and I can't break it as easily as you.”

“An oath created by a Slipper to honor a lumberjack. Come on.” His voice dropped. “What about Adora and Jeb? Azkedellia's the winning side, Wyatt. Don't be on the losing one.”

Cain pushed Zero away. “Our conversation – and friendship – is over, Zero.” 

 

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Raynz was probably the only guy in Oz more twisted than the Sorceress. That's why Zero dreaded it when ordered to the lab. Next to the tank containing what was left of someone's brain was a massive metal...



“What's that thing?”



The alchemist looked up. “Tin mostly, but with some alchemical alloys woven in. Put a man in a normal Iron Maiden, and he dies quickly. Put him in this beauty, and he'll be alive, aware, and frozen up tighter than Nick Chopper in a rainstorm.”



Zero couldn't help a grin. Already, he was picturing Wyatt Cain locked in it.

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The leaves fell...

His son spit out a tooth and kept trying to fight.

Snow covered the ground.

The futile shrieks of his wife vibrated the metal walls.

The grass grew tall and green.

Zero was still laughing.

The cabin roof was covered in moss and rot.

The recording kept playing.

The whole point of it was to break his will, make him wish to die.

He wouldn't let the Suit break him. He would let it grind him to sand, let it turn his heart to cold iron.

But like hell he would let that smirking bastard kill him.

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Galinda's prison was spartan, but tolerable. The only one who came to visit was that horrid Witch wearing the face of her elder daughter, but there was obviously something of Azkedellia left if she hadn't just murdered her outright.

Sitting outside the hovel that passed for her shelter, she gazed up into a false sky. Had she had done the right thing by her daughters? Her people? So many had paid with their lives.

She could do nothing more. All she could manage was to wait, hope, and doubt.

Galinda ruefully admitted to herself that this was crueler than death.

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She sneaked out to the Millers' abandoned farm. Like usual, Jimmy's car radio was cranked up so loud the ground shook, kids gathered around the booze. DG and Aaron would be looking for Gulch – if they weren't screwing.

His hand was on her breast and the radio started to get louder. Her heart raced, but not with excitement…

Just emptiness.

It wasn't enough to make her forget anymore.

She snatched Aaron's wrist. ”I'm sorry, but I...I don't love you.”

“Baby, love's got nothing -”

She stood up and marched towards her bike, racing away into the night, her eyes stinging.

 

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She didn't belong but never knew why.

She hung with them – but she was never one of them.

Sneaking in through the fire ladder up to her bedroom, and pulling it behind her, she looked at the documents on the nightstand; her GED, a job application to the Hilltop, and registration forms for the Community College.

DG pulled out the lockbox under her bed. So long, she looked to fill that hollow place in her heart, chase away the dreams and that feeling.

She flushed the pills and booze.

I'll never find home.

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She was on closing shift, and the only customer was a lone trucker nursing his fifth cup of coffee. DG wiped her brow, glad Carter wasn't breathing down her neck. Wringing out a bar towel, she started wiping down the kitchen counters.

As she worked, her thoughts drifted to the fantasy landscapes she filled her sketchbooks with. Little round houses of deep blue, factory towns in fields of heather, vast golden grasslands, a city with a facade of grass green...

The downside to the daydreams was opening her eyes. She'd be back in Kansas.

Nights like this were the worst.

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DeMilo paced the floor. “I got a business to run here, Murray. What do you mean my truck -”

The mechanic wiped his hands on a rag. “Your truck needs extensive engine work, and that front axle's about to go. I'll have her good as new for five-hundred plats.”

“Five hundred?” The beady little man's eyes almost bugged out of their sockets. “You sure? Isn't there some kind of deal...?”

“You hired me to fix the truck, Mister DeMilo, and you can have the repairs done right or done cheap.”

DeMilo looked at his purse and sighed. “I'll take cheap.”

 

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Raw and his pack had been ambushed by humans in the long, black coats. Put in chains, they were tortured by an ugly little man with a shock stick, cold machines jammed into their heads and forcing their Sight from them.

Near the Papay fields, the others decided to fight and escape. Raw didn't want to. The humans had weapons. There were more of them.

When the shooting began, Raw fell and feigned death.

The others fought.
The others died.

He lay beneath their stiffening bodies until the suns set and the humans were gone. Now, he was truly alone.

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Hank and Em were known to be eccentric, and DG gained a reputation as a troublemaker. Even so, the residents of the town were picking through the remains of what had been the Gale farm. Even the staff of the Hilltop rolled up their sleeves for the grim task.

 

Floating away on the wind, unnoticed, was a child's drawing. It was so old and worn that there was a crackle effect through the layers of crayon. In it, a sun-yellow road led to a crudely-drawn city of grass-green. In red crayon, a child's scribble read only “Home.”

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Being surrounded by painted, heavily-armed Munchkins probably wasn't a good start to the day, but few of his days started well, anyway.

“Identify yourself!” The Munchkin warrior shouted. “Tell us what you were doing sneaking about our camp!”

“My name is...” As he was about to speak, there was that sharp pain in his skull. Oh, damn, not another synapse misfire! “As for what I was doing near your camp?” He wracked what remained of his mind and came up short. “I can't remember that, either.”

The head ankle-biter ordered his men, “String him up until he does.”

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As the insane midgets kept grilling her, DG looked down at the wrecked lumber that used to belong to her house. After exhausting every variant of “I don't know,” her mind started to shut out the questions. Absurdly, the thought popped into her head that she wouldn't be able to return her library book.

Of course, her life had to start looking like Arthur Dent's. Wake up to find the house getting demolished, get sucked up into God-knows-what. She was waiting for her captors to start in with bad poetry.

Looks like all I'm missing is a towel....

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Escaping from their brightly-painted captors, the pair ducked under a machine at the edge of the camp, huddling under the mass of blades, ropes, and clockwork. The whole contraption was painted electric blue marred with bright red blotches.

Certain the patrol had passed them, Glitch and DG darted out into the woods.


“What is that thing, anyway?” DG asked


“Oh, that? It's a-” His dark eyes went inward. “Oh, that? It's a-”


“It's what, Glitch?”


“I forget,” he said. “But it's what those ankle-biters were going to use on you.”


DG shuddered, realizing those red stains weren't paint.

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They had not put chains on his wrists or ankles. Why did these humans snatch him from the death he had earned?

Raw felt the female approach, touch his arm. Assaulted by her presence, he growled and snatched her wrist. Perhaps she would be afraid.

When he looked in the female's heart, he saw much he could not understand. She was not afraid of him, her soul so dazzling to his Sight that he almost flinched away. The reason why he did not was that he saw underneath her good cheer, down into the hollow loneliness that mirrored his own.

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The Queen never had any respect for what needed to be done. Azkedellia knew what it took to keep Oz in order. That’s why Tarrent switched sides early on.

Strapped down tight, Tarrent now regretted it. They’d marched into Milltown that morning. His men were dead. He was next.

“What part of ‘No Humans Allowed’ did you not understand?” Vue’s voice was too much like a preacher’s.

“You gonna kill me?”

“No, just make you one of us…”

Vue pulled out a heart of tik-tok, beating obscenely in his metal claw.

Tarrent’s last memory was the sound of a buzzsaw.

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“There won't be a rescue, Princess. Mobats probably made lunch out of that zipperhead. As for Cain? Well, too bad you didn't see me shoot him dead.”

The door clanged shut behind Zero.

DG didn't want give her bitch of a sister more weapons against her, but the tears came anyway. Jagged sobs shook her body.

When she realized that her “parents” were robots, she only felt numb. She had known Glitch and Cain for just four days. Why did it hurt so much? 

Because, she realized. I already loved them, and it's more real than anything I can remember.



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Raw’s pack had been set upon by Men in long coats, and he fled the hopeless battle only to feel his pack’s death. The loneliness would have killed him – should have killed him. He sought the papay. A painful death fit his shame.

When the humans came, he ran with them. When they said they would go after the Witch, he stayed because he did not expect to survive.

They did more than survive!

The female’s green, the sad one’s blue, the cheerful one’s yellow, and his own blood-red - four hearts as one.

Human, yes, but still his pack.

 

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Kraiss was captain of the garrison down in the Realm, but his penchant for gambling kept him forever on The Seeker's payroll.


“What is that thing?” The Seeker asked, pointing to the slip of paper.


Kraiss passed it over. “Fugitives. Ones she wants bad.”


He studied the four faces. It figured Ambrose would be smart enough to survive. The other two males – a human and a Viewer – weren't anyone he knew about.


At first, he didn't recognize the young woman, but when he realized she had his jaw and Galinda's dark hair, his heart soared and his blood ran cold.

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You have to have heart.

That's what his father said. Unfortunately, Jeb wasn't much good for listening. And no one was going to know. While most of his men and his father were celebrating with the Queen, Jeb took the fastest horse and the needed supplies, riding back to the old camp.

Zero was looking catatonic by now – just like how Mother was towards the end. Father didn't know, but Jeb's heart stopped when his mother's did.

He pulled out the welding torch and started at the hinges, the metal fusing together.

“Father might forgive you, but I never will.”

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Popsicle taught her how to fix engines, how to fish, how to whistle, and how to ride a motorcycle. Momster taught her how to cook without burning the house down, helped her with her schoolwork, and tried (with mixed success) to keep her out of trouble.

When they admitted the truth, DG hadn't had time to process it. Now, she had all the time in the world.

They were her parents, now they resembled broken dolls. Two piles of inert gears, wires, synthetic skin, and circuitry reminded her that her old life was not only a lie, but gone forever.

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The whole thing felt like a bad trip. How else to explain a guy with a zippered skull, one who looked like a miniature Wookiee, and the man you pulled from the Tin Suit? Better, your parents turn out to be robots, your great grandmother was some kind of hero, and your older sister is the demon-possessed tyrant of a land you barely recall...

But it was over. The eclipse passed. Oz was safe.

She hugged her family and embraced true friends as the suns shined on her face.

I'm home.

For the first time, her heart felt whole.

 

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DG kicked the stone on the garden path. “I don't understand how we could have gone from Earth to here without some kind of...”

Ahamo grinned. “You're over-thinking it, baby girl.”

“Hey, Earth hasn't sent manned missions to any planetary bodies in my lifetime. So just how did we get from the middle of America to here?”

“Well, keep in mind that the reality we came from isn't as stable as it looks. All kinds of things fall through the cracks of reality to end up here.”

“Like what?”

Just then, a lone sock drifted down from the sky.



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At the push of a button, the lever slid down, releasing a ball. It rolled down the chute to fall into a bucket. The bucket dropped down the pulley, knocking a measuring cup of grounds into a sieve, tripping a latch, and lighting a gas burner. Above the burner was a little kettle. Just when the water was the perfect temperature, it poured over the grounds, through the sieve, and into the cup.

Cain took the cup and sniffed it before taking a cautious sip.

“Well?” Glitch asked his skeptical friend.

“You're right. This is the best coffee I've had.”

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Cain decided he'd rather face a horde of Papay than what was downstairs. Cursing, he fussed with the details of his dress uniform.

“Cain, you okay?”


He almost didn't recognize D.G. with her hair done up and wearing a formal gown.


“Not really.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Your mother's knighting me. I'm going to make a jackass of myself.”


“You'll make as good a knight as I do a princess. As long as we stick together, we're probably safe.”


Cain didn't know how she managed it, but his nervousness seemed to vanish as he took her arm

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“Oh, Ambrose,” Galinda said, horror in her violet eyes. “I'm so sorry.”


“For what?” His synapses were still misfiring badly, and his marbles would never work the same again.


She gestured to the center part of her gray hair. “A zippered skull is the mark of a criminal. Surely, the surgeon could...”


Trying to think was like attempting to leash a cat, but somehow he managed it. “I asked the surgeon to leave it.”


“Why?”


He touched the metal teeth that split his crown. “The Witch spent a lot of time rewriting history. I won't allow her a last victory.”

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There were always limits – limited money, limited ammunition, limited supplies, legal limits on everything from tobacco to noise, a limited amount of time...and after dealing with the worst Oz could offer, his heart was limited as well.

His companions didn't seem to understand the concept of limits. Glitch kept running off at the mouth. DG cheerfully ignored her personal safety. Raw would look right into his soul. The three of them broke almost every limit he had.

His life has fewer limits these days, especially when it comes to his heart. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

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A lantern burned through the night, and cool air blew through the open window.

The feeling of warmth and wind against his skin was more precious than emeralds. In his nightmares, he was always alone and cold.

The Unnamed was supposed to have a plan for everyone, the scales tipped to justice in the end. He thought his fate was to uphold justice, and to be a good husband and father.

It didn’t turn out that way. Zero saw to that.

Groggy, he held the Princess a little closer. The cold was gone, but not the guilt.

Forgive me, Adora....

 

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I barely qualify as a Conjurer, but I can certainly teach the basics. Some fancy papers got me a job as “Tutor” to the Queen's girls. I thought I was smart, but it turned out that Advisor of hers was smarter.



So, I got jailed by the Queen as a spy. Azkedellia wasn't inclined to let me out, either. At least DG is still the trusting sort, and that damn Ambrose can't even tie his shoes anymore.



When this is over, I'm headed back to the Nome Kingdom, Whatever the King wants to punish me with can't be any worse.

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How many days had she languished in her prison, praying he had not abandoned her?


How many nights did he sleep in his hovel, totally convinced he would never again see her violet eyes?

Now, she wore a fine gown and an emerald pendant in the shape of a teardrop rested between her breasts. A shave and a fine suit could not hide his rogue's charm. They clasped hands, smiled, and felt young again.

Their exile was over.

The priestess beamed with pride. “We are gathered here today to renew the vows of Empress Ozma Galinda and Ahamo the Seeker...”

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It had been Oz's darkest hour. Witches ruled the East and West, the Wizard led a fanatical inquisition, and it seemed that the land was doomed to tyranny and darkness.

In that darkest hour, four heroes emerged – Dorothy Gale, Scarecrow, Nick Chopper, and Lion. The stories about their deeds blur the line between history and myth.

A century later, Oz was in peril again.

And once again, four heroes emerged – Ambrose of Ev, Wyatt Cain, Raw, and Dorothy Gale the Second.

Now, these new heroes, the Heroes of the Eclipse? Well, their story has only begun. The rest is yet untold.