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The Blood of Oz

Started by Ren, Sep 18, 2022, 06:51 PM

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Ren

Here's one I'm currently working on...




 




The Blood of Oz


It will become interactive once I reach the point I'm at!




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Ren

#1
The unnatural wind slowly settled, and the dust began to die down.  Dorothy groaned as she rolled over and sat up, rubbing her head and various bruised portions of her anatomy.

"Well, that was a first," she said.  And then: "Ow."  Removing a twig that had lodged itself in her cleavage, she brushed her hair back and looked around.

"What the...?"  The place, wherever it was, was surely nowhere near the small farm she had just left.  "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."  She gasped.  "Toto!  Where are you boy?"

Struggling to her feet, she staggered to one side, lurching against one of the strange trees nearby.  The trunk felt strangely smooth, and the bark was a chocolate brown, like something from a child's painting.  In fact the whole place had a weird, surreal quality to it.  The grass, which was perfectly level, was greener than green, and the hills on the horizon had a "Lollipop land" look about them.  Closer to where she was standing, a bright yellow, almost luminous, road wound off towards a huddle of small, gaily coloured buildings.  To the left the road was blocked by a wooden house, one with a more familiar, Kansas-like, appearance.  Sitting in front of it was a familiar shape.

"Toto!  Come on boy!"  The giant wolfhound bounded over at her command, and she put her arms around his neck and vigorously stroked his fur.  "Good boy!  Good boy," she repeated.

Holding on to her dog, she took another look around the strange landscape.  "Where the hell are we?"  Her hand went to her jeans pocket, only to find it empty.  "Damn, I've dropped my phone."  Scanning the ground nearby failed to reveal the device.

"That's bloody annoying," she muttered.

She widened her search, spiralling out from her initial position.  Only when she moved nearer the house did she spot something, a bright red something, sticking out from under the building.  Toto padding alongside her, she went over for a closer look.

"Oh dear me."  Up close the splash of colour turned out to be a pair of - fairly cool looking - boots.  They were still being worn, but the owner, or most of her at least, was under the house.  A dark red puddle was congealing around the knees.

"That's pretty fucked up," Dorothy said, but even so, stepped forward and examined the shoes more closely.  There was something about them, something that...

A growl from Toto distracted her.

"What is it boy?" she asked, looking over to where the dog was facing, hackles raised. "Ah, company."

Marching along the road, presumably from the collection of huts, a small group of figures was slowly advancing upon her position.  Small was the operative word.  None of them seemed to be taller than waist height.

They were a sorry looking lot too, she saw, as they edged closer, dressed in drab rags and ragged tunics.  An elderly midget at the front seemed to be the leader. He wrapped in a faded blue robe of slightly higher quality than the rest.

"Who are you lot then?" Dorothy asked, deciding to take the initiative.

"Pardon Mistress?"  The leader spoke, looking puzzled at her question.

"Who are you?" she asked again.

"We're, er, the villagers," he replied, as if it should have been obvious.  Maybe it should have been.  "Is... is that your house?"

"It might be," she said, hedging her bets.  The owner of the fancy boots could have been a friend of theirs, plus who knew what the regulations were about parking houses in the middle of the local highway?

"And... the bitch?" the dwarf asked.

"Actually, Toto's a boy dog."  She put her hand on the animal's head.

"No, no, I mean the Wicked Bitch of the West."  He gestured at squashed and booted.

"Oh.  Her."  Dorothy crossed her arms.  "She's dead.  The bitch is dead."

There was a moment of silence, and then the group exploded in a great bout of cheering and dancing.  Obviously the deceased hadn't been very popular.

She raised an eyebrow as the celebrations continued, the midgets whirling around, hugging and kissing each other. Suddenly, the old man stopped and turned towards the house.

"The boots!" he said, and started forward, only to stop dead as he realised Dorothy was standing between himself and the house.

"What about the boots?" she asked, not moving.

"Er...  nothing.  Nothing at all," the man replied, glancing down quickly at the protruding legs, and then back up at her, a guilty look upon his face.

Dorothy took a step backwards and took another quick look at the footwear. As before, some undefinable quality seemed to pull at her. Glancing at the assembled crowd, who were now avidly watching her every move, she squatted down and started to untie the laces of one, keeping an eye on the midgets all the while.

The leader opened his mouth to say something, then stopped, then made half a step forward before changing his mind again.  As Dorothy pulled the boot off, he seemed to collapse in on himself.  "They're magic," he said, watching her inspect them.

"Magic?"  The boots were certainly clean, though there were a few scuff marks and signs of general use that all footwear eventually picked  up.

"Yes."  A slight pause, then: "They say they'll fit anyone who wears them."

"They?" asked Dorothy, comparing the boot next to her own shoe.  It was quite a bit larger.  The dead bitch had had fairly big feet it seemed.

The man shrugged, still captivated by the shoe.  "You know... they do."

"Oh, them."

"And they convey protection to the wearer too," another, younger, midget in yellow shorts piped up.

"Obviously not from falling houses," Dorothy remarked.  She made a decision and sat down on the lowest step of the porch, shucking off one her own shoes.

There was a collective intake of breath from the watching crowd as she pulled the salvaged boot on, and tied the laces up.
Somehow, it seemed to fit perfectly.

"It's certainly very comfortable," she commented, after a few moments of lopsided walking up and down.

The little people watched her dejectedly as she quickly donned the other one.  "Yes, definitely very comfortable, and good instep support too.  I could almost believe they were magic."

"They are," said the leader.

"Of course they are," Dorothy replied.  "Now, who can tell me where I am, exactly?"  She flashed her best sunny smile at them.

"This is the West," the leader informed her. "She," he pointed at the now bootless corpse, "was the ruler here.  She was the Wicked Bitch of the West."

"Catchy title."  Dorothy eyed the legs and wondered if there was a charge of Death by House somewhere in her future. They'd have to catch her first.  "So, west of where?"

"Oz of course."  The man frowned.

Dorothy patted Toto's head and grimaced. "How far is it to Kansas from here then?"

"Kanvas?" Now the midget looked puzzled.

"Kansas," she repeated, speaking slowly.

"Never heard of it."

"What country is this then?"  Dorothy did a slow three hundred and sixty degree turn, taking in the strange scenery.  The bulbous yellow sun was sinking lower in the deep blue sky.

"1 told you, Oz!  West Oz." The midget shared a glance with  his neighbour.

"Australia?"

"Oz!  Orasamus Zelarabunia."


"Orasa...?"  Dorothy cocked an eyebrow.

"Which is why everyone just call it Oz.  Which everyone knows."  The man folded his arms.  "Oz."

"Fine, don't tell me then."  Dorothy scowled and pulled her long black coat a little tighter around her.  It was getting chilly. "Do you have a hotel in your village?"

"What's a hotel?"

"You're taking the piss right?"  Dorothy was getting annoyed. "You know, a place to stay for the night?"

"Nowhere big enough for you," the man replied.

"About that," she said.  "Why are you all litt... midg... dwarv... vertically challenged?"

"From where I'm standing I'm average height," the leader retorted.  "You're the freakish giant."

"Fair enough."  Dorothy nodded.  "So, no hotels."

"Why don't you just stay in your flying house?"  He gestured at the building behind her.

"Falling house," Dorothy corrected, but under her breath.  She had no idea whose house it was, in truth, though she wasn't going to tell them that.  It had likely been swept up in the freak tornado that had caught her. She shrugged.  "May as well I guess."

Toto at her heels, and with the midget villagers looking on, she climbed the steps and pushed at the front door, which was hanging ajar.

The interior was totally normal, Kansas normal anyway, not wherever she currently was normal.  The building and furnishings didn't seem to be affected by their transportation at all, as if being ripped from the foundations and being dumped god-knows-where wasn't really worth getting shaken up about.

Stepping over a child's toy, she wondered where the owners were.  Probably in a storm cellar, wondering where the draught was coming from.

Flicking the light switch did nothing, unsurprisingly, so she wandered through the abandoned abode in the ever encroaching gloom until she came to the rear door.  The midget leader had followed her in, looking around at the decor, eyes wide, keeping a respectable distance from Toto all the while.

"What kind of place is this?" he said, as she wandered in to the house's small kitchen.

"Some poor working-class family's I'd say," she said, pointing at a photo of a young couple with a child.

"Where are they then?" he pursued.  "Did you kill them too?"

"They were probably just not in," she replied, frowning at the casual implication of mass murder.  Pulling on the fridge door revealed a number of edible items.  The interior was still cool.

"Ice magic!" the midget exclaimed, touching a shelf with his finger.
"Electricity," she countered, helping herself to some cheese, a bowl of salad and a coke.  "Here, have a drink."  She passed the can to him, taking another for herself.

Whilst he worked out how to open it, she managed to locate some dog food, which she opened and dolled out to Toto before going back to her salad.

"Nectar!" the dwarf said, finally figuring out the ring pull and taking a sip, followed by another, longer drink.

"It's mostly sugar."  Dorothy sat herself at the breakfast bar and looked out of the window.  Most of the little people were still outside, huddled together as they waited for their leader to return.  It was almost totally dark now, and the absence of artificial light was noticeable.

She took another bite of tomato and frowned.  The night sky was ablaze with stars, far more dense than she's ever seen before.
"Where's the nearest town?" she asked.

The dwarf leader, still clutching his can, rubbed his beard for a moment before answering.  "I'm not well travelled," he said, "but Mechar is apparently a day or so down the road," he waved a hand, "though I've never been there, and Reflection isn't too far, so I've heard. Otherwise I only know of the city."

"The city?

"The Emerald city of course."  Again, he frowned at her ignorance.  "It's where they have all the emeralds."

"Of course it is," she said.  "Talking of names, what do they call you?"  She took a swig of soda.

"Me?  I'm Chubby.  What?  What's wrong?"  Dorothy had just sprayed a mouthful of fizzy drink over the table.

"Nothing, nothing," she said, mopping her mouth.  "That's a lovely name, er... I have a cousin called Chubby actually.  Very nice person.  Very nice."  She nodded and took a bite of cheese.

"I think I should tell the others to go back to the village," Chubby said after a few minutes of watching her eat.  She nodded, but said nothing in return, and then watched as he waddled out of the house, still holding the can of coke.

Toto, who had settled himself down on the sofa after eating his meal, wandered over and put his giant head upon her knee.  Sighing, she split the remaining cheese in half and gave one piece to him, whilst stuffing the rest into her mouth.

"Well, boy, wherever we are, it looks like we're on our own. Maybe we should turn in for the night."

The dog whined in reply, and then turned his head towards the door.  Dorothy followed his gaze, and saw Chubby re-enter the room.

"What will you do mistress?" he asked.

"I'm going to get some sleep," she replied, standing up and brushing crumbs off her lap.

"Oh."  The midget stood there for a moment, seeming uncertain. "And what about tomorrow?"

"I think I'll head over to this Emerald place that everyone's talking about."

"Oh," he said again.  "What about the house then?"

"When I go, you ca..."  She paused as a train of thought wound its way through her mind.  "...look after it for me," she concluded.
"Look after it?"  Chubby's eyes widened.

"You know, keep it clean, dust the shelves and so on."  She waved a hand in royal fashion.

"Thank-you mistress!" he cried.  "Thank-you, thank-you!"

"Think nothing of it."  Dorothy raised an eyebrow.

"I'll put my cousin, Lumpy, in charge of the task, whilst we travel to the city.

"You want to come with me?" she asked. "Why?"

"It would be rude to do anything else mistress, you must have an escort.

"Well, if you insist I guess," she said.  "but you'll have to keep up with me."

"I'm very fit for my age mistress."

"Okay then.  And it's Dorothy, not mistress."

"Yes mistress."

Dorothy took a deep breath and, shaking her head, wandered off towards the bedroom she'd previously discovered.  At the door she turned to Chubby, who had followed her.  "You can find your own place to sleep," she said.  "I suggest the sofa."

Chubby went bright red and nodded frantically.  "Of course mistress! Good night to you.  I'll see you in the morning."  So saying, he retreated back towards the living room.

Nudging Toto in before her, Dorothy entered the bedroom and closed the door firmly.  After a moments thought, she wedged a chair under the handle.  A minute later she changed her mind and removed the chair and replaced it, with some difficulty, with a large, heavy, chest of drawers.  That task complete, she checked the window making sure it was secure, and then used the en-suite bathroom, taking care to use as little water left in the tank as possible.

Her ablutions finished, she stripped off in the, by now, very dark room, and fell into the bed.  Toto climbed up beside her.

Within minutes she was fast asleep.
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Ren

#2
Despite her fears, Dorothy awoke from a restful and undisturbed slumber.  Toto was already awake, standing by the door looking back at her.

"Oh, very well then.  Just a minute boy."  She slid out of bed, dressed, clipped on her equipment, and pulled on the so-called magic boots.  Only when she felt sufficiently ready did she push the drawers out of the way, peer through the door to ensure she wasn't about to be ambushed, and allow the dog to trot out.  She followed him, wondering what the day held.

A loud rasping noise turned out to be Chubby, fast asleep on the sofa.  The dwarf woke abruptly, and with much spluttering when Dorothy scavenged some cereal and milk from the kitchen.

"Good sleep Chubs?" she enquired, spooning some rice-crispiness into her mouth.

Chubby rubbed his eyes and smacked his lips before answering.  "Truly mistress," he said, "Never before have I encountered such a luxurious sleeping mat.  This must me the abode of a king, or someone of the highest social order."

"1 doubt it.  Here."  Dorothy pushed a bowl of cereal towards him, "The most important meal of the day, allegedly."

The midget wandered over and peered cautiously at the contents. "Why does it make that sound?" he asked.  "Oh,I must make toilet."  So saying, he rushed outside.

Dorothy shrugged, and finished her breakfast before putting the bowl in the sink, out of habit.

Chubby eventually returned and picked up his bowl. Watched by Dorothy, he spooned down the food, cautiously at first, and then more enthusiastically, milk dribbling down his beard in the process.

"So, how far away is this fabled Emerald city?" she asked eventually.

Swallowing hurriedly, Chubby pointed out of the window with his spoon.  "It lies at the end of the road," he informed her.  "As do all roads."

"All roads eh?" she mused. "Sounds familiar somehow.  How far is it?"
"A goodly distance is all I know," Chubby replied. "Through some dark and dire lands mistress.  The journey will be fraught with danger."  He chewed reflectively on another mouthful of cereal. "I shall return to the village to gather supplies and weapons."

"Weapons?" Dorothy asked. "ls there no law and order in here then?"

"Yes, of course there is," he replied.  "The Bitch sets and enforces the laws."  He looked at her, and her new shoes, pointedly for a moment. "Travel is... was discouraged, and so remains highly dangerous.  We'll be lucky to survive the day."  With that happy comment, he jammed one last spoonful of breakfast into his mouth, stood up, and waddled out of the door, leaving Dorothy wondering exactly what she'd fallen into.

By the time Chubby returned, Dorothy had done some supply gathering of her own, packing as much food as she could find into a backpack that had been in a cupboard.  She'd also salvaged a number of other items, including a large torch.

"Are you ready mistress?" the midget leader asked.

Eyeing him up and down, she nodded.  "Yes, though not as much as you apparently."

The little man now carried his own backpack, although perhaps that word didn't do it justice, as the enormous pile of gear on his pack probably weighed more than he did. He was leaning on a walking stick, and was almost bent double under the mass of his equipment.

"I see you've decided to take the kitchen sink too," Dorothy said.  "Are you sure you'll be able to carry all that?"

"No problem mistress," Chubby beamed back.

Shrugging - it wasn't her problem - Dorothy put a red booted foot forward.

"Very well then, let's follow the yellow brick road," she said.
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Ren

#3
Outside was fresh and sunny, and Dorothy, Toto and her small companion followed the road as it meandered gently through pleasant fields,  full of some sort of tall greeny-yellow crop that rippled in the breeze.  The sun drifted up through a primary blue sky, dotted with clouds too fluffy to believe.  It all seemed very peaceful and innocent, and she said as much.

"Oh well mistress," Chubby explained.  "This is still within the town limits.  Besides, this crop is for the city, and under the watchful eye of the Bitch and her minions." He paused, eyeing her boots again.  "At least, it was.  I suppose..." he tailed off, thinking unaccustomed thoughts no doubt.

"What will happen now she's dead?" Dorothy asked, watching Toto gambling through the long grass by the side of the road.

The midget scratched his head. "I'm not sure, but someone will probably notice at some point, and then... well, I suppose there will have to be a replacement appointed."  He shrugged.  "1 don't think it's ever happened before."

Dorothy raised an eyebrow.  "Never?"

"Not in my lifetime, no."

"In any case, it's all very nice.  I don't see what you were worried about."

"Oh, there's plenty of rough terrain ahead mistress," he assured her.  "Outside of the town limits, and the protected zone, with many a strange and twisted creature patiently waiting to waylay the innocent traveller."  He patted his sturdy walking stick.  "It's a good job you have me along to protect you."

"Mmm," Dorothy replied. She slipped one hand into her long coat for a moment, for reassurance.

They carried on, and soon the pleasant fields and greenery became monotonous. Extending as far as the eye could see, over flat or very gently rolling slopes.  The sun rose higher, and it became warmer too, though not unpleasantly so, and despite the apparently well maintained road, they encountered no other travellers.  There was the odd bird, tweeting from within the hedge that ran alongside their path, and once she thought she saw what could have been a rabbit, but other than that the only living things were her, Toto and Chubby.  It began to get on her nerves.

Despite her earlier worries, Chubby seemed to have no problem keeping up, striding steadily along under his massive backpack, and it was Dorothy who suggested a rest first.

Chubby looked around carefully, and then nodded. "1 think we're still in the safe zone, a small break could be a good idea," he said.
"Think?" Dorothy scanned the area afresh.  She'd spent the last half hour or so mulling all the recent, very odd, events over, and hadn't been paying much attention to the scenery.  Now she looked more closely, she saw that the still-unidentified crops were still prevalent, but they looked a little less uniform, a little more unkept.  For the first time clusters of dark trees could be seen here and there, squatting in groups, somehow looking like they were loitering with intent.

"You sit here," Chubby indicated an ancient, fallen tree trunk on the side of the road.  "I'll scout ahead a little more, see what's around the next bend."  He gestured ahead, where the road wound around into an area obscured by foliage.

"Very well then."  Dorothy slipped off her backpack and rummaged around for a chocolate bar she'd liberated from the fallen house. Chubby took off his own giant pack and set it down next to her.

"I'll be back," he stated, in an unconscious Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation, before marching off down the road.

"What a helpful chap," she said to herself.  "I must remember to thank him."  Perching on her seat, Dorothy munched on the slightly melted chocolate.

She'd just finished the last of her snack, and was wondering about local littering laws, when the little man came racing back around the corner at, what was for him, high speed.

"Run mistress!" he shouted in breathless tones.  "Run!  It will..." He stopped trying to shout and concentrated on increasing his speed.
Dorothy stood up as another form came into view, moving in strange, bounding gait, far faster than Chubby's.  It looked a little like a cross between a lanky zombie and a dishevelled hobo, dressed in rags as it was. What appeared to be small branches protruded from under its garb.

Toto was standing by her now, a low growl emanating from the large dog.

"Hold boy," she commanded, standing her ground and taking a grip of his collar.

"Run..." Chubby called out again, just as the zombie-hobo thing made a massive leap, landing squarely on the little man's back, ramming him into the stone bricks of the road.  Before Dorothy could react, it bent low and took a giant bite out of the midget's neck, sending blood and gore everywhere.  Chubby gave a last strangled cry, and went limp.

"Hey!" Dorothy cried. "That was my friend!"

The creature looked up, seemingly noticing her for the first time.  Its pasty face was splattered crimson, and flesh hung from wicked, oversized jaws.

With a growl, it leaped off the corpse of the dwarf and bounded towards her.

Dorothy waited only a moment before pulling out her Glock and shooting it in the leg.
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Ren

The beast instantly folded, collapsing on the yellow bricks and clutching at his injured thigh.

"Owowowow!" it cried.  "What did you do that for?  Aahhh, it hurts."  It rolled back and forth, gasping for air.

Dorothy walked slowly and cautiously over to the wailing figure, one hand still on Toto's collar, and stood just out of reach, her gun aimed steadily at its head.

"Give me one good reason I shouldn't end you right now," she said.

"What did I do?" it gasped, looking up at her with large, bloodshot, eyes.  Now she was closer, she could see its skin was the texture of hessian sacking, and straw and sticks protruded from under the ragged hat and rough clothes it was garbed in.  The hands and feet were uncovered though, and resembled animated branches, terminating in sharp, wicked looking claws.

"What did you do to..." it stopped dead as it spotted the red boots she was wearing.

The change was instantaneous.  It stopped holding its leg and rolled over, lying fully prostrate before her, outstretched in supplication.

"Mistress!" it wailed, seemingly in more distress now that merely having been shot in the leg.  "I'm so sorry!  I didn't realise who you were!   Please don't smite me!  I'll behave."  It crawled forward and, before Dorothy could stop it, started licking one of her boots with an uncomfortably large, pointed, tongue.

"Stop that!" she demanded, stepping back.  "Look what you did to my little friend there."  She gestured at the prone figure of Chubby, now lying in an ever expanding pool of blood, a dramatic red punctuation mark on the shining yellow of the road.

"I'm sorry I killed your servant mistress.  I'll replace him myself.  Please have mercy!"

"Mmm," Dorothy said, tapping her foot.  An action that seemed to have the same effect on the creature as someone banging on a large bomb with a spanner.  It began to shake violently, and she stepped back another pace.  "Who are you anyway?  What are you?

"I'm one of your guardian scarecrows mistress," it replied. Slowly clambering to its feet.  Dorothy noticed the leg wound no longer seemed to bother it.

"Guarding what?"

It looked puzzled.  "Your crops of course mistress.  What else would a scarecrow guard?  Why don't you know this?  Aren't you the Wicked Bitch?"

"I'm new to the position," she replied, deciding to play along for the time being.  "Why are you out of the field?  Why are you not at your post?"  She added a bit of anger to her voice, going on the offensive.

For a second she wondered if it was going to work, and she tensed, ready for violence to ensure.  The scarecrow looked at her a moment longer, but then slumped.  "I'm sorry mistress," it said, sinking back down, to sit cross-legged on the ground.  "I've been... looking for something."  It fiddled with the bullet hole, moulding straw, sticks and what appeared to be mud to repair the damage to the wound.

"Looking for what?" Dorothy sat back down on her tree trunk and folder her arms, though she kept the gun in her hand.  Toto lay back down next to her, still watching the scarecrow.

"It's a bit embarrassing," it replied.

"I don't mind."

The scarecrow sighed.  "Well mistress, when I was made, and fantastic job by the way, you, or your predecessor, must have been having a great day that day, I really can't complain about the body."  It waved a large hand about.  "I mean, I've led the rankings for most kills on crop thieves, two seasons running now."

"Congratulations," she said, dryly.  "However...?"

It looked crestfallen again. "Well, it's just that, well, the other scarecrows always make fun of me.  They say l"m stupid, that I didn't have a brain installed."

"A brain?"

"Yes mistress.  Although, again, the rest of the body... great job."  It looked at her with a worried expression, like a puppy who"d just done naughty on the carpet.

Dorothy took a deep breath.  Nothing in her experience, and she had travelled widely and done many things, had prepared her for this sort of encounter.  Still, she seemed to have the upper hand for the moment, and the thing wasn't actively trying to kill her; always a bonus.  Plus she wondered if bullets would actually stop it, if it decided to attack her.  She suspected the leg wound wasn't as bad as it had made out.  Maybe it had been luring her closer, which showed a certain amount of cunning intelligence, despite the complaints about lack of brain.  All in all, she decided, she needed to react in the right way.  Showing weakness, she suspected, would quickly result in violence.  She considered her options.  Leaving it behind might be safer.  On the other hand, a guide who knew the lay of the land, and could act as a bodyguard, would be useful.  She'd just have to balance the fine line.

"Okay then," she said, making a decision.   "I'm still angry about you killing my servant, but I can see you meant well, guarding the crops and all that.  So I'm going to let you off with a warning."  The scarecrows expression changed to one of cautious relief.

"However, I will be taking you off crop-guarding duties for now.  You shall accompany me, replacing my little chum, whom you broke.  Understand?"

"Oh yes mistress, thank you mistress!"  It bowed deeply, still in a sitting position.

"And if you do a good job, we'll see about the whole brain thing.  No promises though!"

"You are all powerful and magnanimous oh, wise Bitch!"  It bowed again.

"Er, yes.  I think we'll stick with mistress for now," Dorothy said.  "Now, move Chubby off the road and pick up that pack.  It's time to move on."

~ * ~

Without further ado, Scarecrow dragged Chubby's body off the road and rolled it into the shrubbery running alongside.  The effort left a large bloody, dark gash that would certainly have caused Dorothy some moments of trepidation had she come across it herself.

Seemingly unconcerned with this bloody task, the creature skipped lightly back to Chubby's enormous backpack and, in an unconsciously impressive demonstration of strength, swung it over one shoulder as if it weighed no more than Dorothy's own small pack.

"Let's go then," said Dorothy, as he looked over at her, waiting for further orders.  She sheathed her weapon, consciously deciding to show that she wasn't afraid of the thing.

"Where are we going your eminence?" it asked, as they set out at a brisk pace.

"Not that you need to know," she replied, warming on to her role as queen bitch, "but I've decided to visit the city."

The reaction to this news was not all that she could have hoped for.  Scarecrow stopped in his tracks and looked at her with wide eyes.
"Mistress!" it said. "What about the Wizard?"

"What about him?" she replied, not stopping.  It scurried to catch up, strolling on the opposite side to her from Toto with an almost jolly gait.

"1 thought that he had decreed that the city was off-limits to you.  He said he'd drop you in seawater, whatever that is, if you came back."

"Well," replied Dorothy, mulling over this new and unwelcome information, 'that was probably for my predecessor.  I'm sure he'll be happy to see me."

"Yes your glory-ness," the scarecrow replied, but the look on it's face suggested he thought otherwise.

"What's your name anyway?"  Dorothy asked him. "1 can't go on calling you Scarecrow all the time."

"I was never given a name mistress," it replied.

"Fine.  I shall call you Crow.  It's easier to say."

"Thank you, oh all powerful one."  Crow mulled its new name over.  "Crow," it said.  "Crow, Crow, Crow.  Yes, I think I like it."

"Happy to hear it," Dorothy said.  She glanced up at the sun, which had passed its zenith, and was beginning its slide back down towards the horizon.  "ls there a town anywhere ahead where we can stay tonight?" she asked.

"Mechar is somewhere ahead," Crow replied. "I'm not sure how far away though, I've never been there. It's not within my patrol zone."

Dorothy nodded.  "Well, we'll see then."  The path wound over some low hills ahead, heading into some lurking grey clouds, making the whole scene look more like a Dracula movie than the lollipop land she'd been travelling through so far.  Oh well, she thought.  Chubby, may he rest in peace in his ditch, did say that it wouldn't be plain sailing.  At least Crow is a more formidable bodyguard.  She glanced at the creature that was loping with long, tireless, strides next to her.  Assuming he doesn't gut me in my sleep of course.
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Ren

The hills ahead were further away than they looked, and, as the sun began to near the horizon, they were still some distance away.  They'd have to camp.

"Keep an eye out for some shelter for the night," she told her companion, who hadn't said a word all afternoon.  Dorothy hadn't encouraged it, on the grounds she didn't want to raise any suspicion about the whole "evil bitch" thing.

"Yes, mistress," was the reply.

In the end it was Dorothy that spotted the orchard, near an outcropping of sandy coloured rocks.  It was as much shelter as they'd seen all afternoon.  They were no longer travelling through fields of crops, the land to either side had been rough grassland, with the odd withered tree here and there.

"Scoot over there will you?" she asked Crow, gesturing at the area.  "Make sure it's all clear.  I don't want any unexpected company."

"Yes mistress!" repeated the scarecrow, with as much animation as she'd see all afternoon.  Dumping Chubby's backpack, it bounded off towards the trees, and was almost immediately lost to view in the growing gloom of the late afternoon.

Shaking her head, Dorothy heaved the abandoned luggage onto her shoulder - it really was very heavy - and trudged after it, Toto padding quietly besides her.  Over the course of the afternoon, the dog had pretty much reconciled itself to the presence of the scarecrow, and now simply ignored the creature.

As she approached the trees, she loosened her coat, giving easy access to her pistol.

"Scout boy," she ordered Toto, who immediately bounded off to one side.  This place, and she still didn't have a clue where she was, had already proven to be dangerous.  She was taking nothing for granted.

Carefully putting the backpack down, she moved cautiously through the undergrowth, along the tree line.  Apart from the odd rustle from Toto's passage, nothing moved, and she wondered where Crow had disappeared to.

Arriving at the rock face, which was quite a lot higher than it looked from the road, she edged along cautiously. And stopped.  There was Crow, standing in a small clearing with a rock overhang, making it a perfect camping site.

She paused for a moment, watching the creature, wondering what it was doing.  It would certainly be hard to spot in a less obvious environment, remaining as absolutely still as it was.

After another minute of waiting, in which nothing at all happened, Dorothy decided to act.  Straightening her back, she strode out of the shadows, moving confidently forward into the clearing.
The scarecrow turned slowly to face her, swivelling around smoothly to watch her progress, as Toto appeared on the other side of the camp site.

Stopping in front of the creature, Dorothy made a show of looking around.

"Seems a good enough spot to camp," she announced.  She waved a hand.  "Go and fetch the backpack, I left it near the road, and then collect some wood for a fire."

"Yes mistress."  It leapt off back the way she'd come.
"Great," she sighed, and sat on a conveniently placed fallen tree trunk.  Toto trotted over and slumped down next to her.

In no time at all, Crow was back. It dumped the backpack in front of her, and then bounded off again, presumably to collect some wood.

Opening the bag, Dorothy rummaged through poor dead Chubby's luggage.  There were some brown paper bags at the top, which, upon closer examination, contained a variety of foodstuffs suitable for cooking or eating cold.  A more detailed examination produced several chunks of rather rank smelling meat of some kind out of one. After a moment of consideration, she gave that to Toto, who set about it with enthusiasm.  Meanwhile, she munched on a circle of flat bread as she waited for her sticky companion, and looked up at the sky, which was now dark enough to show stars.

They were totally different to anything she'd ever seen before, crowding the heavens with a mass of light, almost as much as the missing moon would provide.  It was a breathtaking sight, and she was so entranced by it she didn't notice the scarecrow return until it, noisily, dropped a load of tree parts nearby.

"Good job," she said, tearing her eyes away from the stars.  "Can you build a campfire?"

Despite his fearsome appearance, Crow managed to somehow look bashful.  "Mistress, please, I would rather not.  Fire doesn't agree with me.  I am made of wood and straw you know."

"Oh.  Yes."  Dorothy stood creakily up.  "Very well.  It's been a while since I did this.  Good to practice."

With Crow and Toto looking on, she built up a small campfire, using a central pit that had obviously served this purpose before.  It took a little while, but when finished, she sat back on her haunches and nodded in a satisfied manner.

"That should do it," she said, more to herself than her audience.  Fishing out a lighter that she'd stolen from the fallen house, she flicked the wheel and lit it.  Immediately the scarecrow jumped back, audibly gasping.

"Powerful fire magic," it gasped.

"Oh, yes," said Dorothy, carefully attempting to light the fire.  "Just one of my many dangerous powers," she added as an afterthought.
It took a bit of doing, and several false starts, but eventually, with a lot of puffing, she managed to get a small, and then larger, blaze going.  Crow retreated into the shadows as the flames grew higher, whilst, satisfied, Dorothy sat back on her log next to Toto and held her hands out to the fire.

"There you go," she said, pleased with her efforts.  Tired of having it standing about and watching her actions, she ordered the scarecrow to go and patrol.  That done, she dragged Chubby's backpack closer and rummaged through the contents again, until she found a cunningly sealed metal pot, full of something that looked, in the gloom, like baked beans.  A quick sniff revealed a not-too terrible smell, so she spent a frustrating half hour arranging a makeshift rig to hang the pot over the flames.

After several collapses of her apparatus, she finally managed to get it stable, only to discover she didn't have a spoon or fork to stir with.

"Bloody hell," she scowled, and dug back into Chubby's pack until she found a strip of thin metal that could, with a little care, be used as a makeshift spoon.  After about ten minutes, using her coat to protect her hands, she took the pot off the fire and put it on the trunk next to her.  That prepared, she opened up the last can of cola taken from the Bitch-flattening house, and leaned back to enjoy her drink and bean-things, which tasted a little like spicy banana.

"Odd, but not unpleasant," she muttered, finishing off the pot and taking a final swig of her drink.  She poured the rest of the can into the pot and put it on the floor for Toto to lap up. I'll have to get some water from somewhere, she thought.

Full for the moment, she pulled out a small and slightly grubby blanket from the backpack and spread it on the ground in front of the log.

"Okay then," she said, as she slid down and arranged herself before the fire.  slipping one of her pistols out of the holster, she put it close to hand and pulled her coat tight around her, hugging the dog with one arm.

Tired as she was from the strange days march, full of spicy-banana beans and comfortable in front of her nicely crackling fire, it didn't take long for her to nod off.
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Ren

A snap of breaking twig brought her to her senses with a sudden start.  She grabbed her gun and looked around, blinking in the dark and trying to ascertain what had made the noise.

"Was that you Crow?" she asked, in a low voice. Toto was still lying next to her, so it wasn't him.

"No."  Crow was invisible in the night, but was obviously not too far away.

"Well, find out what it was then," she snapped back. Wriggling about on the suddenly hard ground, she tried to regain some of her lost comfort.  The fire had died down, and was now just embers, but she couldn't be bothered to add more fuel to it.  Instead, she hummed herself a lullaby, tapping her feet together in time.

She was just starting to doze off again when she began to realise that her feet were suddenly rather warm.  She glanced down and found a dull glow coming off her new boots.

"Er..." she said, as the heat increased.

Toto whined and took several steps back, looking accusingly at her.
"Mistress?" came Crow's enquiring voice from out of the dark.

"It's nothing," she said, wondering if she was going to spontaneously combust. The heat was now travelling up her legs and she considered the option of panicking.

"Mistress?  Did I do anything to anger you?" Crow's voice had a definitely worried quality to it now, a feeling Dorothy was beginning to share, though for other reasons.

The heat continued to spread up through her body, and intensified as it ran down her arms.  In desperation, she flung her hands out in front of her.  A brilliant sphere of energy erupted from her fingers and flew forward, crashing into her dying fire and erupting in a ball of flame.

Toto barked.

"Oh," Dorothy exclaimed, understanding the dog's reaction.  The heat had gone, as had the warm feeling.  The fire, on the other hand, was now burning away merrily again.

"Mistress!" The scarecrow's voice was wobbly with terror now.  "You truly are the Wicked Bitch!"

Trying to hide her shaking, Dorothy attempted to pull herself together.

"Yes, well," she said.  "The fire was a bit low."  She sniffed.  "Now, I thought you were on patrol?"

"At once Mistress!" the scarecrow replied, followed by the sounds of feet rapidly retreating.

Still quivering, Dorothy took stock.  It seemed that the talk of "magic" boots had more than a whiff of accuracy after all.
The implications were, as the strange stars in the night sky indicated, that she was no longer in the world she knew.

This was going to take some getting her head around.

~ * ~

The morning sun awoke Dorothy, the light shining down upon her recumbent form, up besides the warm body of Toto.

Stretching and yawning, she lay there, on her lumpy makeshift bed, blinking in the warm illumination and wondering if she'd dreamt the last day and a half.

"Hello Mistress!" The cheerful voice of her killer scarecrow companion put paid to that theory.  "I've taken the liberty of catching breakfast for you!"

She sat up and rubbed her eyes, looking up at the manic expression of Crow, who was waving two small rabbit corpses about.  Blood splattered over his rags as he gave them a little shake, and grinned at her in a manner that would have made small children, and possibly some adults too, wet themselves in terror.

"Congratulations," Dorothy said.  "That is the most gruesome awakening I've ever had."  She staggered to her feet, allowing Toto to get up and pad off into the undergrowth.  "Still," she added, "good job.  I don't suppose you know how to gut and skin them do you?"

The scarecrow looked at her blankly.

"Never mind, put them down there and I'll see what I can do."  She made a face.  "Once I've visited the little girl's room of course."   Dorothy staggered off into the orchard to find a place to make toilet.

Ablutions done, she returned to the camp.  The scarecrow was standing in its usual motionless manner in the centre of the clearing. Toto was sitting nearby, looking longingly at the rabbits.

"Is there any water about here?" she asked Crow.

The scarecrow slowly uncurled a finger and pointed off to the side.  "There's a stream a little way off that way Mistress," it replied.

"Good."  Dorothy returned to Chubby's backpack and rooted through it once more, searching for a container she could use for water.  In the daylight she found several items she'd missed the night before, including two canteens, one small and metal, the other larger and made of some kind of canvas material.  The canvas one was half full of, rather smelly, water, whilst the small metal one contained something much stronger.

"Woo," she said, eyes watering.  "That I'll take charge of."  She tucked it into her coat, and then, taking the canvas container and bean pot from the previous night, started to head off in the direction the scarecrow had indicated.  A thought crossed her mind and she stopped again. "Go and find some more firewood please," she asked the creature, waving at the orchard.

"At once Mistress," it replied, and bounded off into the woodland.

Sighing, Dorothy carried on, Toto bounding about around her, enjoying the countryside.  The area near the campsite was uneven, covered with springy green grass.  Several rabbits popped their heads up and watched her curiously as she walked on.  Relatives of her potential breakfast no doubt.  Toto took great delight in chasing after them, though he failed to catch any.

After about five minutes, just as Dorothy was beginning to wonder if she'd missed what she was looking for somehow, she heard a burbling of water. Sure enough, almost invisible until she nearly walked into it, a narrow stream tinkled through the grass.

The water looked pure and fresh, and it was certainly cold, as she found out when she took a handful of it.  Toto bounded over and, before she could stop him, started lapping away at it.

"Oh well, it's probably fine," she muttered to herself.  She gave her face a quick wash and then took a cautious, very small sip.  It seemed to be quite acceptable, so she emptied the canteen of the old water, and refilled it.  Then she washed out the pot and filled that too.

By the time she'd returned to the camp, Crow had accumulated a small mountain of firewood and was, once again, standing immobile in the centre of the clearing.

Deciding not to try the fireball approach, Dorothy coaxed the campfire back to life using her lighter, and soon had a merry blaze going, over which she put the pot of water.  That set up, she dug around her backpack and pulled out a tin of precious coffee she'd liberated from the house.  Possibly the only coffee in... well, wherever she was.

"Shouldn't we be off Mistress?" the scarecrow asked, looking at the rising sun.

"I'm not going anywhere until I've had a coffee," Dorothy retorted.
Crow nodded and wandered off a few steps, before reverting to his usual motionless state.

As the water slowly came to the boil, Dorothy sorted through Chubby's backpack, making a mental inventory.  She transferred an item or two to her rucksack, and set aside a metal cup and a short and rather wicked looking knife that was in a side pocket.

That done, she poured a satisfactory coffee out, using the by-now boiling water, and turned her attention to the rabbits.
This isn't going to be pretty, she muttered.  Still, it had to be done.

Taking the knife, she set about attempting to gut and skin the creatures.  The first one she made such a mess of, she donated it to Toto, hoping that he would be okay eating the raw meat.  He certainly seemed to enjoy it, though it was rather a gruesome event.

The second attempt at butchering went better, and she ended up with a pile of rabbit meat chunks, which she put on the fire, using a flat stone as a kind of grill.

"Now we're living off the land," she announced, speaking to the world in general.

It took about another half hour before the meat was done to her satisfaction.  She ate some of it and wrapped some of the rest in some brown paper and put it in her rucksack, along with the cup, coffee and pot.

Finally, she packed away the rest of the items and scuffed dirt over the fire, putting it out.

"Ready then," she said.  "Grab the pack Crow, and let's get moving."

Obediently, the scarecrow hefted Chubby's still heavy bag, and walked alongside her as the small group made its way back on to the road.  They turned towards the low hills, which still seemed to be coated with a low, grey mist.

"Hope that's not heavy rain," she muttered. Possibly the only thing that Chubby hadn't packed was an umbrella.
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Ren






The morning passed by without incident.  At first Dorothy's legs complained about the renewed effort, especially as the road started to climb upwards, towards and into the low hills, but she soon loosened up and began to enjoy the stroll.

Whilst they walked, she wondered again about this strange place.  Wherever she was, she had to accept that it wasn't Earth, it may not even be the same universe, considering the fact that she was walking along next to a person made of sticks and straw, and her boots seemed to have the ability to generate fireballs.

How had she managed to end up here?  Her memory was hazy.  The last thing she remembered was trying to get to her car through a massive storm that had seemingly come from nowhere.  Then she was waking up in lollipop land, or Oz, as they called it.

More importantly, how was she going to get back?  She had money owed to her from the hit she'd finished.  She'd put in a considerable amount of time and effort tracking down the targets, and it had been a risky job too.  Could the client have arranged this somehow?
   Maybe she was simply hallucinating, perhaps her body was really lying on some cold cellar floor somewhere, tied up and drugged.

Shaking her head, she coughed slightly, and realised that the haze she'd seen from a distance and thought to be clouds, was actually smog. 

"You have pollution here?" she asked.  "How very progressive."

"It's Mechar mistress," Crow volunteered.  For the first time the creature seemed unsure of itself.

"It seems to be quite polluted."
 
"Yes, it's the machine city."
 
"Sounds fascinating," Dorothy said.  "Come on.  What are you waiting for?"

"I'm not really comfortable in cities mistress," the scarecrow replied.  "I'm a country being."

"You'll be fine, you're with me," he said. 

"As you say mistress," Crow replied, although rather miserably.

Tutting at the weirdness of it all, Dorothy put her best, red-booted, foot forward.  Perhaps the city would have a restaurant, maybe even a hotel.  Certainly they must have more information.

~*~

The fields of crops, a constant since setting off, had been dwindling as they'd walked, and now they vanished entirely, to be replaced by lightly forested land, covered in unkept, sprawling plant-life, most of which was unfamiliar to her. 

As the smog increased, the first buildings appeared on the side of the road.  They were odd, uneven, things, made of an assortment of materials, apparently scavenged from a scrapyard.  She stopped in front of a low, single story affair that had been constructed from what looked suspiciously like corrugated iron sheets. The door was wood, patched with metal bands.  The single window was small, dirty and slightly cracked.  It was also slightly lopsided.

"Mmm," she said, and carried on.

As she walked on, the buildings became more frequent, and more elaborate.  Some rose three or four stories in height, with more than a few seemingly defying the laws of gravity, they were so twisted and bent. 

"I guess there aren't many earthquakes here," she commented.  Crow didn't reply.  It was walking close behind her now, as if it wanted to try not to be seen, which was always going to be a hard task for a creature more than two metres tall.

As they laboured uphill, the air quality became so bad that Dorothy had to stop and pull out some cloth from her pack.  She wrapped it around her face as a makeshift mask. 

"Not sure how effective it will be," she muttered to herself.  "But can't really hurt."

After another few minutes of walking along the trail, which had now widened to become quite a respectable sized road, she frowned.

"Where is everyone?" she asked Crow. 

"Probably working mistress," it replied.

"All of them?  Odd."

"I heard they are very regimented here," Crow added.  "It's nearly midday, maybe we'll see them when they break for lunch, I believe they do that."

"Okay," Dorothy said.  She started looking out for somewhere to stop and rest.  So far all the buildings seemed to be residential, although the smog was now so bad it was hard to see.  Her eyes were beginning to water, and she wondered if it might be a good idea not to hang around too long.  Goodness knows what noxious fumes she was inhaling.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud, low, moaning sound, a little like an air raid siren.

Immediately, several of the doors to a large building nearby burst open, to reveal a stream of residents.

"Oh, a machine city!" she gasped, stopping dead.

The denizens of the place were an assortment of sizes, shapes and colours.  They were also, without exception, robots.

Some strolled along on flexible, tentacle-like legs, numbering from one to a dozen, whilst others trundled on wheels.  She saw one that seemed to be a wheel.  Their sizes varied from that of a large rat, up to some towering thing that Dorothy dodged to one side to avoid, in case it trod on her.

"Mistress, I don't like this place," Crow complained, trying to duck down behind her.

"It's fine," Dorothy snapped, as the metal crowd rushed by.  "I'm sure they're just as scared of us as we... you are of them."

"Excuse me?"

Dorothy swivelled around to see a relatively human shaped robot, albeit rather a boxy one, speaking to her.  The face had two black square sensors for eyes, and a grill for a mouth.  An antenna sprouted out from the top of its head.

A golden star in the middle of its torso was the only interruption in an otherwise plain casing.

"Oh, hello there," she said. 

"Please present your ID and permit of travel," her new friend said, holding out a rather wicked looking claw.

"What? Do you not know who I am?" Dorothy, lacking any sort of permit, and only having her driving licence on her, which she doubted would be acceptable here, decided to do what she usually did, and go on the offensive.

"You are in Mechar, it doesn't matter who you are."

"I beg to differ."  She scowled and glanced down at her boots meaningfully.

The being leaned over slightly, to look down at her boots.  "I see," it said, after a moment.

"So, if you could direct me to the nearest restaurant, one suitable for organic beings, we'll be on our way, and you can be on yours."

"This city is not a safe place for squashies," the metallic being said.  "Even Bitches."

Dorothy took a deep breath of the polluted air, and immediately regretted it, her makeshift mask wasn't very good.  She'd probably just given herself throat cancer.

"Listen, unless you want to end up as scrap, do what I ask."  She folded her arms and glared up at it, using all the skills acquired from many years of staring down large, dangerous men who thought it amusing to be threatened by a slim female.  Still, if this thing called her bluff, she could be in trouble.  It was doubtful that Crow would be much help against beings with armour for skin.

"The squashy area is along the main thoroughfare," it said, after several heart stopping moments of tension. "Down that way and then the second right."  It gestured with its claw.  "Please note this official warning though:  The Mechar authorities will not get involved if there is any damage sustained during your visit."

"Sure."  Dorothy replied, as calmly as she could, whilst simultaneously letting out a mental sigh of relief. She turned to face the direction indicated.  "Come on Crow, Toto," she said, and strode off down the street, which was still busy with various robots, although they were far now more dispersed.
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Ren

It took a while, the smog didn't make the search any easier, but eventually Dorothy stumbled across a building with a sign over the large double doors.  The sign said Squashy Inn in glowing neon letters. 

"Subtle," she said.  "Come on."

They climbed the two wooden steps up to the doors, and pushed at them.  The doors swung open, old-west style.

Into what appeared to be an old-west cowboy bar, with a few notable exceptions.

The most notable was that the majority of the population inside, despite the sign, were obviously robotic.  As they entered, the inhabitants of the place, as one, stopped what they were doing and turned to glare at them.  It was almost like they had walked into a movie.  Even the piano, which was playing itself she noticed, stopped playing as the doors swung back and forth, slowly closing behind them.

It certainly had the atmosphere down pat.  The rickety tables scattered around the room were mostly empty.  One, to the right, was full, with four humanoid bots playing what appeared to be some sort of card game. 

Another table, to the left, was occupied by two ancient looking droids, nursing glasses of dark black liquid. 

A long bar ran along the back wall, with a tall robot sporting half a dozen tentacle arms standing behind it.  It was wearing an apron.
Finally, and possibly most notably, sitting at table all by himself, was an actual human male. 

After the short, traditional, pause, the music started up again, and the denizens of the bar turned back around and carried on with whatever they were doing.

All except the other squashy, who stood up, eyes wide.

"You're human!" he exclaimed.

"Last I checked," Dorothy replied.

She looked the man up and down.  It was obvious he'd seen better days.  His clothes were one step up from rags, and his skin was an unhealthy pale yellow colour, no doubt from the atmosphere in the current locale.  What hair he had was white and straggly.  She put his age around fifty.

"I... I never thought I'd see another real human again!"  The newcomer was nearly weeping as he staggered forward, arms wide. 
Toto barked, but it was Crow that stepped in front of Dorothy, and the man reversed course quickly, scrambling back. 

"Leave the Bitch alone," the scarecrow snarled.

Dorothy rolled her eyes.

"I... I wasn't going to hurt her," the man stammered.  "I... it's just..."

"It's okay Crow," Dorothy intervened.  "I can handle him."

"Yes mistress."  The scarecrow gave one last snarl at the man, and stepped back.

"Hey, I'm Dorothy.  New here, obviously.  Who are you?"
 
"B... Blake," he stammered, still with one eye on Crow.  "Blake Cordroy.  Please, come, sit.  Allow me to purchase a beverage for you, they do a half decent ale here, which is about the only thing I'd recommend drinking if you don't wish to poison yourself."  He didn't wait for her response, but waved at the tentacled robot behind the bar.  "An ale for my new friend here Bob," he said.

"Bob?"  Dorothy slid into a chair opposite him.  Toto lay down next to her, whilst Crow took up position behind.

"Yeah, he's the owner.  Bit of a squashy sympathiser."  Blake tapped his nose and winked, which meant nothing at all to Dorothy.

"Okay then.  Tell me Blake, what's the deal with this whole place?"

"The bar?"

"No, Oz.  This whole land.  I'm going to take a wild stab and say we're not on Earth any more.  You are from Earth, aren't you?"

"Oh, yes.  I was born in South Africa, but grew up in England.  I moved to the States for work when I was older.  I assume that's where you are from, judging by your accent."

"I've travelled widely," Dorothy said, non-committally.  "Although not as widely as..." she gestured around her.

"Ah yes.  No, from everything I've seen, we're nowhere near Earth.  I really don't know where we are in relation to it even, although my theory is some alternate dimension.  I've seen things here that simply shouldn't be possible with the laws of our universe."

"I hear you," Dorothy said.  "Oh, thank you."  This was in response to a glass of pale liquid being placed in front of her by means of one of Bob's tentacles, which had snaked out across the room.

"Were you in a plane crash too?" Blake asked, as Dorothy took a caution sip of her drink.

"Plane crash?"

"I mean, how did you get here?  I was on a short haul flight to Texas when we hit a storm.  The plane crash landed in some rough fields.  I managed to get out, along with maybe a dozen others."

"And where are these others now?"  Dorothy took another drink of her ale.  It wasn't half bad, she concluded.

Blake shrugged.  "At least four of them are dead for sure.  Not sure where the rest are.  Maybe dead too.  We slowly parted company over the years."

"Years?  You've been here years?"

"Yes, I'm guessing about ten, but I've lost track of time entirely.  This place doesn't have seasons, at least this area doesn't."
"You've never travelled?"

"Not really.  I've always had a bit of a bad leg.  The crash wasn't far from the city, and the robots came out to see what was going on. We convinced them the plane was ours, what was left of it, and managed to trade the parts for, well, shelter and a few basic provisions.  Then we decided that we should split up into groups, four of them in the end, and go and explore in different directions, report back regularly and get a lay of the land, with one of us staying behind to act as a kind of central hub.  That's me.  Well, it was.  I've not seen any of them for at least two years now, as far as I can figure anyway."

"So you have information about the surrounding area then?" Dorothy leaned forward.  This could be a stroke of luck!

He shrugged.  "Some.  Although, like I said, it's a bit old now, could be out of date."

Dorothy took another swig of her drink, the taste of which was growing on her, and waved a hand.  "Terrain doesn't tend to move much, in my experience.  How far is the Emerald city?"

"You want to go The City?" Blake asked.

"I need to find a way home, and I figure that's the place I'm going to find answers, if I can find answers anywhere."

"It's a dangerous place," Blake shook his head.  "Those companions that died?  They went there.  And when I say they died, they were killed.  By all accounts, the leader there, and he's called The Wizard, is not too friendly."

"Mmm."  Dorothy finished her drink off as she assimilated this information, and then looked at her empty glass.  "What do they use for money here?" she asked.

"Oh, here, let me get you another.  They have these coins they mint themselves.  I've had a good run lately, so I can stand to buy you another few."  He waved at Bob again, and held two fingers up.

"And what do you do to earn your keep?" Dorothy asked.

"It's going to sound stupid," he said, draining his own drink, "but I started of by telling stories.  Still do from time to time."

"Stories?"

"Yes, the robots seem to enjoy them, they like to pick my brains for ideas, to make new machines, and improve the ones they have.  Hearing my stories gives them a different perspective.  Other than that, I go out and scavenge, or hunt game, which I sell.  Bob here buys some of the game to make food for his visitors.  I also tend a patch of land a bit out of the city, where I grow a few things, some of which is what makes the booze."

"Very industrious."  Dorothy scratched her chin.  "So, you..."

Her line of questioning was interrupted by the doors opening again.  Dorothy looked around, to see a large, blocky, black coloured robot stride in.  Behind him, two smaller and thinner robots, all silver, stood. 

"Shit," Blake said. 

"Shit?"  Dorothy raised an eyebrow.

"It's Bank," he replied.
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Ren

Dorothy made a face.

"It's, basically, the local crime boss here.  It's..."  he stopped, as the large robot clumped over to them.

"So, Blake, who are your new friends?" it grated.

"We're just passing through, seeing our chum," Dorothy replied, standing up, turning and facing the bot, which was about three times her height.  She loosened her jacket and touched her heels together.  A warm feeling began to flow up her legs.  "And who might you be?"

"They call me Bank," the large machine replied.  "If you are travellers, then you need to pay a toll."  It loomed over her, menacingly.

Toto growled, but Dorothy held his collar

"Stand back robo..." Crow slid in front of Dorothy, but was cut off by Bank, who brought a metallic limb around and backhanded him as if the tall scarecrow was nothing more than a fly.  Crow was catapulted across the room, smacking into the far wall, which he slid down, ending up a crumpled pile of sticks on the floor.

"Hey!  That's my friend!" Dorothy snarled.

"Listen, Bank we can surely work something out."  Blake stepped in.  "She's only just arrived in town..."

"Makes no difference," Bank grinded.  "Payment, now."  It held the same massive, metal, hand out that had just swatted Crow.

"You're making me angry," Dorothy snarled.  "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

"Don't give a fuck," Bank said.  He made a gesture to his minions, who so far had remained silent.  "Break her arms."

"Bank!  I..."  Blake took a step forward, but Bank simply swatted him as he'd done Crow.  Blake, being human, left a trail of blood as he was thrown across the room.

Dorothy saw red. 

"Now you've pissed me off." 
 
She didn't even bother with her guns, but threw both her arms out in front of her.  The heat from her boots travelled through her body and exploded in a white hot beam of fire, which hit Bank in the chest area, burning a hole clean through the robot and throwing it backwards. 

"Fuck you!" screamed Dorothy, bringing her aim around to Bank's two minions, cutting them in half with her energy.  The bots melted under her assault.

She stopped, panting hard, feeling suddenly weak, to the realisation that the inn was now on fire, and there were three half melted droids on the ground.  Crow was slowly standing up, but poor old Blake was a shattered mess on the floor.  Even so, she ran over, on rather wobbly legs, and knelt down beside him, putting two fingers on his neck, searching for a pulse.

"Mistress?"  Crow loomed over her.

"He's gone."

"I am sorry I failed you mistress.  Please don't kill me."

Breathing hard, Dorothy pulled herself upright and dusted herself off, fending off Toto, who was trying to lick her face.  "It's not your fault Crow.  You tried your best.  Sometimes a Bitch just has to do the work herself.  Woo.  I need a sit down."

She staggered over to a nearby chair, slumped into it, and looked around.  Bob had rushed over to the fire and was busy hosing it down with some kind of foam that emerged from the end of one of his tentacles.  The flames were rapidly succumbing under his assault.

"Are you all right?" she asked Crow, who was looking rather dishevelled.

"I am mistress, I will recover fully once I can gather some more sticks."  He shook an arm, dislodging several broken twigs.

"Very well."  Dorothy looked back down at the remains of the unfortunate Blake, and pursed her lips.  The bodies were piling up around her, it seemed.  An idea struck, and she pulled herself off her chair and knelt back down, to frisk his corpse, pulling out a rather wrinkled envelope and a small cloth purse, which jangled when she shook it. 

"Hey," a new voice shouted.

Quickly pocketing Blake's belongings, she managed to stand back up and turned to face the newcomer.

It was the robot with the star on again, the one that had questioned her before.

"What are you doing?" it demanded.  "Did you do this?" in gestured at the three melted robots and the charred wall, now dripping with Bob's flame retardant.

"It was self-defence, they murdered poor Blake over there, and assaulted my companion here."  She gestured at Crow.  "Then they tried to attack me.  I had no choice."

"You will have to come in for questioning," it responded.  "There may be charges, or fines."

"Oh, I don't think so.  You said: 'The Mechar authorities will not get involved if there is any damage sustained during your visit,' didn't you?" She made air quotes. 

"We meant to you."

"Even so, you didn't say that.  I assumed robots could be taken at their word.  Don't tell me that's not true."

The machine stood silently and hummed to itself for a few seconds. 
"You are correct.  We cannot contradict our statement from earlier.  However, we can declare you a danger to robot-kind and require you to leave the Mechar city limits at once."

"Oh come on!  I've only just arrived."

"Even so.  You are required to be out of the city by nightfall."

"Fine."  Dorothy crossed her arms and pouted.  "I will try my best, but as I don't know my way around, I can't absolutely guarantee I will be, especially as I don't know where the city limits are.  Is that okay?"

More humming.  "Yes," it said, finally. "We will supply a guide to assist you.  Wait here until it arrives."

"As long as it doesn't take too long, if I need to be on my way."

"It won't."  With that, the robot turned and trundled out of the inn. 
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Ren

It was quickly replaced by the form of Bob, which, she now saw, moved by means of a single large wheel under his torso.

"How will you pay for the damages?" it asked.

Dorothy snarled, the weariness she had been feeling before was growing, and she wasn't sure how much longer she could keep standing.  "How about, you can have the bodies of my chums here, for parts."  She gestured at the three inactive robots lying on the floor, still smoking from the damage she'd inflicted.

"Maybe they aren't yours to give?" Bob replied.  "They are in my inn."

"How about I fight them for you?"  She held a hand up, although this was a total bluff.  Apparently such powerful use of the boot magic was really draining, something she would have to be aware of.

Bob did what sounded suspiciously like a sigh, but then a green light flashed.  "As you say.  But you must leave."

"I'm waiting for my guide," she countered, sitting down again, and trying not to look like she was going to collapse.

"When your guide comes, you must leave." 

"Fine."

The deal done, Bob turned away and, wrapping tentacles around the destroyed robots, dragged them off to a door in the rear wall.
"Oh fuck me."  Dorothy slumped forward on the table.  Toto whined, and put his head on her lap.

"Are you okay mistress?" Crow asked.

"I need to rest, maybe eat something."  She looked up.  "Do you think Blake had a room here?  It is an inn after all.  Let's go and look."  She forced herself upright and, grabbing hold of Crow for support, she staggered over to a door set to the rear of the left wall.  A notice over the mantle read: "Residents Only", which she ignored. 
Through the door was a set of stairs, which she balked at.  Her legs were really wobbling now, and her vision was swimming.

"Help me get up these stairs please Crow," she asked.  She didn't want the scarecrow to know how weak she was, but there was no way she'd make it otherwise.

The request didn't seem to raise any suspicions though.  "Of course mistress," the creature said, and practically carried her up to the next floor.  Toto following behind.

There were four doors in a long corridor.  The first one was a crude bathroom.  The next two she tried were unlocked, and led to cramped, empty rooms, both furnished with a small table, a chair and a bed.
The final one was locked.  She looked at it, and then at Crow.  "Open."

The scarecrow pushed at the handle and, with a splintering sound, the door opened.

"Thanks." 

Dorothy and Toto wandered into what could only be Blake's room.  Charts and notes filled the walls, but right now she was too exhausted to even care.  "Stand outside and guard the door please," she asked the scarecrow.  "Don't let anyone in, but you can knock if the robot guide arrives."
 
"Yes mistress."  Obediently it closed the door.

Dorothy slumped onto the bed and frantically rummaged in her backpack, pulling out some of the rabbit she'd saved from the camp.  She stuffed it into her mouth, giving Toto a piece too.  After a few minutes of energetic munching, the meat was gone.  She sighed and lay back on the bunk. 

"Just a few minutes to..."  She was asleep before the end of the sentence.

>>>
Sorry, just a short one there.  More soon.
<<<<
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