Officer Serena Goodwind of the Emerald City Police Force approached the door to the Royal Prison of Oz. It had been three days since the city had been evacuated by order of Ozma due to warnings she had received of an attack. Little was known of the particulars, but thus far the empty streets and sparkling green facades of the vacated buildings had yielded nothing but quiet during those three days. Neither Serena nor any of her fellow officers in the skeletal ECPF detachment, (who were charged only with alerting reinforcements if needed and keeping mischief-makers out of the city until the evacuation was lifted), had witnessed so much as a single unusual occurrence during their rounds.
Though dressed in her riding gear, Serena had been on foot patrol that evening near the city's front walls. A distant, low hum had caught her attention. No sooner had it started then it stopped only to begin again a few minutes later. She'd attempted to locate a fellow officer, but as they were a modest detachment and spread throughout the city, she hadn't seen any of her comrades in hours. So she had investigated the odd noise herself. It had led her to the prison, seeming to come from somewhere inside of it.
Now she pushed open the front door and entered the circular main room of Oz's only prison, currently void of prisoners as always. Moonlight pouring through the domed roof of painted glass washed the room in a lucent rainbow of color. Yet Serena reached her hand along the wall near the front doorframe, and threw the thick black switch to the electric chandelier to provide better light.
"If there is anyone else here, know that I am an officer of the Emerald City Police Force. I must ask you to please identify yourself."
Serena approached one of the many mirror top dressers in the main room. She'd been taught that in the presence of magic, mirrors often behaved in strange ways. So she stooped her tall frame to check her reflection. It obeyed her fully. Long green hair, face, hands, colors, shapes, all as they should be. No magic present. The rumbling continued, however and seemed to come from a wooden door on the end of the room opposite the front door. Serena walked towards it.
When she opened this door she saw a short hallway. On either side of the hallway was a single door. A window to the outside sat at the end of this hallway. She had never been here before.
"If there are mischief-makers present, know that I am a police officer," she called to the hallway. "The Emerald City is evacuated by order of Ozma. Please understand that your presence here is a crime."
The words caught in her mouth. Just warning someone they were committing a crime felt out of place, as there was never any crime in the Emerald City or as far as she knew, anywhere in Oz. Was she about to make only the second known arrest in the history of the land?
The rumbling, which had continued unabated for the last few minutes ceased. Serena stepped into the hallway, and tried to open the door on the left. Locked. Doors in the prison were never locked, so far as she had been told.
A flash from behind her. She turned around. A purple light was pulsating through the cracks between the door and the doorframe on the opposite side of the hallway. The light increased to such intensity that she was forced to shield her eyes with her arm. This light did not belong there, and it made her nervous. With her other arm, Serena Goodwind, for the first time ever, drew her baton.
"This is Officer Goodwind of the Emerald City Police Force," she called to the door. "I'm afraid I must place you under arrest for trespassing. At this time, you must reveal yourself. Otherwise I will have to come retrieve you."
The only reply was a return of the rumble that had brought her to the prison in the first place. She swallowed her heart, and heaved a deep sigh.
"I must now enter the room," she said. Squinting into the light she made out just enough of the doorknob to reach for and turn it.
At once the feeling of solid ground underneath her feet vanished, and she felt herself being pulled into this room by intense winds. In an effort to prevent this, she had just managed to clamp onto the doorknob as soon as the door had flung inward. It was the only thing keeping her out of the room now, her body rippling about involuntarily like a flag in a storm.
Her other hand had slammed against the doorframe in the initial violent wind gust and knocked her baton away. She attempted to move this now free hand towards the doorknob in hopes of improving her grip on same. This proved difficult, as the force of the wind had pinned her arm to her side.
All of this she experienced blind. For while the purple light had gone out as soon as the door had flung open, the sheer force of the wind burned her eyes, and she had to keep them shut.
This wind forced its way into her lungs, overwhelming her at times as she tried to exhale it, all the while attempting to stave off light-headedness.
She wrenched her free arm away from her side, but in the wind it came back and slapped against her own face with enough force to sting her lower lip. She felt a small amount of blood trickle down her chin. The doorknob meanwhile slid further out of her grasp, her aching wrist numbing her ability to grab it any tighter.
Her free hand at last reached the doorknob, allowing her to hold on with both hands. Every arm muscle was burning as she tried to pull her body towards the door and back into the little hallway. Yet it didn't matter. Her exhausted muscles gave way and she lost her grip on the doorknob.
Had she been at all able to draw a deep enough breath through the gale, she would have screamed. As it stood however, she had no choice but to submit to the swirling, dizzying freefall in silence.
In a matter of moments however, Serena made out that she was no longer in freefall, but sliding down a steep incline of some sort that had somehow appeared under her.
She attempted to stop her descent by digging the heels of her boots into this incline, but it didn't work. Whatever the surface was, it was quite cold and smooth, but not ice because it was dry. The winds died down and when she was at last able to open her eyes she saw only blackness and fog all around her.
In the most casual manner her slide slowed down and then stopped. Flat ground was beneath her feet again. She turned around to look towards the incline, but didn't find it there. Only more fog.
She brushed a lock of hair out of her face and called into the misty oblivion.
"Hello? Emerald City Police Force. Is anyone there?"
She walked into this strange void. For the longest time she saw nothing, but then at last another figure limped out of the fog towards her.
"Are you injured," she called out to the figure. "I am officer Serena Goodwind of the Emerald City Police Force. Can I be of assistance?"
As she approached she saw it was a man.
"Sir," she said as the two met up. "Are you all right?"
He made no answer, but his gaze searched the fog around him for a moment until his eyes fell on hers as he passed. He tilted his head to the side, and watched her a moment as he walked, before he turned to face forward again.
"Sir," Serena repeated, moving to follow. But the sound of squealing distracted her. Five children came running out of the fog after the limping man.
"Papa," they cried. "Papa."
These children were distressed. What had this place done to them? Before she could speak to them they blew past her towards the man with the limp who now broke into a run himself, away from the children. The whole family vanished into the fog. Serena began to go after the group, when something ran into her midsection. She looked down. It was an adult female Munchkin.
"I apologize," Serena began. The Munchkin woman clutched something tightly in both hands, and when she looked up into Serena's face she spoke in a disconcerting hiss.
"Mine," the Munchkin said. "I'll not share it."
Before Serena could ask her anything the Munchkin tore off into the fog. Serena turned to watch her, and now noticed dozens of people. Some sitting, some walking. A few running. She saw what appeared to be the faint outline of a building a ways off.
Nobody was behaving like a citizen of Oz, let alone of the Emerald City. There was pain here. And sadness. Weeping and whispered conversations filled the air. The only laughter was the sinister cackle of apparent mischief-makers in the distance.
"Citizens," she called out. "I am Officer Serena Goodwind of the Emerald City Police Force. What has happened?"
Some of the shadowy figures had turned to her for a moment as she spoke, only to turn away when she stopped speaking. A few continued to look at her, but took no action. A handful that were sitting stood up and walked away.
Nobody, however approached her. So she began to make her way through the crowd.
As she walked through the mass of people toward the distant building, the faintest outlines of a street came into focus, though the fog never relented. Everywhere unpleasant or distraught-looking people stood, sat, or lay down. Every attempt Serena made to engage them failed.
A small brick façade appeared in front of her after a time. A few people that paid her no mind were leaning against the wall of the building.
"Is this your home?" she asked one of the citizens nearby.
"I have no home," he whispered. Then he walked off. A cryptic reply, Serena thought, but he had at least appeared to hear and understand her as nobody else here had.
She stepped inside the building.
"I am an Emerald City Police Officer," she called out. "I'm here to help. Is anyone here?"
She heard a low roar coming from the top of a nearby flight of stairs. She approached the stairs and called up again. The roar was repeated, only louder. It was the roar of a lion. She rushed up the stairs into another dark, empty, fog-drenched room. In the far corner was a sad looking lion with a medal around his neck.
"Cowardly Lion," she exclaimed, relieved at last to recognize someone here, and someone of importance and influence at that. "I'm glad to see you. What is this place? Is Ozma here?"
"Stop," the Cowardly Lion whined. "Leave."
Though by his appearance Serena knew it to be no other than the Cowardly Lion of Oz, trusted advisor to Ozma, his voice was unrecognizable to her.
"Lion," she asked, "What is wrong? What is this place? What happened to all those people?"
He squealed, "Go away."
"But you must help me," Serena said, "All of those citizens out there, they are in distress."
She stepped towards him and the Cowardly Lion let out a roar so menacing she took a step backwards.
"Can I help?" she managed to ask. The Cowardly Lion was on his feet now, approaching her, bearing all of his huge teeth. She felt the heat of his breath from across the room. She pressed herself against the back wall of the room near the top of the stairs. She glanced down them then back to the Cowardly Lion, who was now crouching.
"I'm sorry to have disturbed you," she offered. "I'll not do so again."
Her trained eye detected in the Cowardly Lion's hind leg a brief and slight tightening of muscle. On the instant she turned and leapt head first down the short flight of stairs just as the Lion pounced with a roar and slammed into the wall where she had been standing. One of his claws just grazed her leg as she dived.
She tumbled down the steps, her head and limbs smacking against them in several places. She felt blood run down her forehead as she came to a stop. She shook her head clear in just enough time to look up and find the Lion staring down upon her from the top of the steps.
She jumped to her feet and ran out the door as fast as bruised legs and the dizziness of her knocked-about head would allow. She ran until she tripped over something and found herself at the bottom of a small ravine she hadn't noticed before.
The Cowardly Lion appeared over the crest of the ravine, and looked down at her, releasing another roar.
"Have you gone mad," she called to him.
Two intense, thick beams of red light hit the Cowardly Lion right in the face, and he attempted to swat them away, roaring as he did so. The lights began to blink. The Lion seemed agitated, and Serena dared not take her eyes off him yet. But who was rescuing her?
A low whistling noise emanated from the same source as the lights. The Lion covered his ears with two paws, shook his head and bolted away into the blackness. The lights faded and the whistle ceased. The only noises now where her own panting, and a mechanical whirling sound from behind her. With effort she got to her knees and turned around.
Looking up at the other side of the ravine, Serena saw the outline of a round body. It was low to the ground on stubby, coiled legs. Skinny, angular arms. A perfectly rounded sphere of a head on a stick-thin neck topped the entity. Two eyes glowed in the same color red light as that which had scared off the Cowardly Lion. She was looking at a mechanical man.
"Greetings Officer," the machine intoned with clockwork precision. "Are you injured?"
"Just some scratches," she told her rescuer. "Tik-Tok, is that you?"
"It is not," the mechanical man said, reaching a thin, metallic arm towards Serena. "Give me your hand and I will assist you."
Serena reached up and took the offered robotic hand. Though small, its grip was sufficient to hold her weight, and help pull her out of the ravine.
She saw a mechanical man very much like the one-man Army of Oz. But this one was made of black metal, as opposed to Tik-Tok's copper. Also, the trunk of this second robot, though round, appeared somewhat smaller than Oz's other mechanical man.
"Allow me to introduce myself," he said. "I am called Click."
"It is nice to meet you," she said, "But I thought Tik-Tok was the only such man in all of Oz."
"He is not, though by design most in Oz believe so," Click explained. "Because this place is a secret, and it is my duty to keep it in order when I can, my existence must also be a secret. So our makers, Smith and Tinker, claimed Tik-Tok was one of a kind."
"Then what is this place?" Serena asked, relieved to be having intelligible conversation.
Click blinked once before answering.
"First, if you would be so kind as to identify yourself."
"I am Officer Serena Goodwind of the Emerald City Police Force," she said, feeling with each passing moment that such a position meant less and less in this place.
"Well, Officer Goodwind," Click replied. "We are in the Realm of Dark Thoughts. How did you get here?"
"Through a door in the prison," she said. "I was investigating a strange noise."
"Strange noise," Click repeated. "The dark thoughts must be getting stronger."
"Dark thoughts?" Serena asked. "What sort of dark thoughts do you mean?"
"You recall, do you not, the only person ever sent to the royal prison of Oz?"
"Of course," she said. Every police officer was aware of that story. "Ojo the Lucky. He picked a six leaf clover to practice magic, against Ozma's law that nobody was to do so."
"Correct," Click said. "Now tell me, Officer, why would someone commit a crime?"
This she knew from her training as well.
"Ozma tells us that someone breaks a law because they are afraid, or because they are not strong. The prison is designed to make them strong so they will never commit another crime."
"And Ojo has never committed another crime," Click said. "Nor has anyone in Oz, before or since his arrest."
"I know," Serena said, anxious for answers. "But what has this to do with where we are?"
"When someone in Oz is afraid, or weak, or tempted into wrong doing, their thoughts are siphoned to this enchanted place to be kept until they vanish or until they are no longer a danger to the person thinking them."
"So it wasn't the Lion who attacked me, but his dark thoughts," Serena concluded.
"Correct," Click said. "The real Cowardly Lion evacuated the Emerald City as everyone else did three days ago."
"You know about the evacuation?" Serena asked. "Even here?"
"I do," Click answered. "Glinda, the Good Witch is in regular contact with me. She may come and go here as she pleases, as she possesses no negative thoughts of any kind, and has no likeness here. And as I am not alive, I have none either."
"But who created this place?" Serena asked, peering into the fog all around her.
"Not even Glinda or Ozma know that," he explained. "It has been a secret part of the royal prison of Oz for ages, though not as well guarded until I was created."
A man stumbled out of the fog, with another man close behind. The first man turned around and threw a punch at the second, hitting him square in the head.
"Halt, please," Serena shouted, instinct and reflex taking over. As well as shock; she had never witnessed violence between people before.
"No, Officer," Click said. "You mustn't proceed here as you would in the Emerald City. As with any negative thought, most of the time fighting them will only make them stronger."
"Then what is to be done?" Serena asked, becoming frustrated.
"Oz is free of crime because a form it is permitted to transpire here," Click said. "Most of these shadows will vanish on their own when their thinkers feel better."
"But if these are just thoughts," Serena objected, pointing to the scratch the Lion had made on her leg, "How can they hurt me?"
"Some thoughts are stronger than others, he said. "And while most of them are harmless if left alone, all of them have been getting stronger since the evacuation. Plus, you are the only flesh and blood person here. No doubt that explains your vulnerability."
Serena looked around again and shook her head.
"How do I leave, then?" she asked him.
"Unfortunately, you cannot return the way you came in," Click said. "To leave you must reach the other side of the prison hallway, and in this place, that is some distance."
"Will you help me?"
"Such is my duty. Though given that you are the first flesh and blood person to be here, I am not altogether certain of what the dangers might be. My thought coil will have to remain tightly wound for this one."
To her surprise Click extended the length of his own arm, and reached it around behind him to wind one of three keys on his back.
"You can wind yourself," she said. "Tik-Tok can't do that."
"A necessary function when one is alone and on duty all of the time. Come officer, we must not linger."
She followed Click throughout the undefined, foggy landscape, passing scores of sad, angry, desperate looking shadows everywhere.
Click would occasionally shine his light beams at certain packs of the shadows, and they would disperse. Some would even fade away on the spot.
"Does doing that harm the person having the thoughts?" she asked him.
"It does not," Click told her. "The thinker is unaware of me, and anything that happens here, but if any of these thoughts become too strong, they could escape this place, and live fully in the mind of their creators. Then, there would be much crime for you and your colleagues to battle."
Serena shuddered at the thought of those she had seen in this realm having influence over the actions of the citizens of Oz.
They walked for what seemed hours. Once or twice Click took her gently by the arm to prevent her from interfering in what would be crimes in the Emerald City. It seemed so unnatural to her to let such things happen. Even here.
After traveling up hill for a bit, Click stopped to wind his action gears, and Serena sat on the ground, eager to rest.
"I envy you at times, Click," she confessed, rubbing her back. "No pain. Nothing but the turning of a key when you are tired."
"It is rare that I see actual human beings," he said, "Yet when I do, I have heard such wishes before. As though being like myself would solve the problems a person has. I have no emotion, but it has always seemed to me…"
A metallic clang echoed through the place, and several nearby thought shadows ran off in all directions. Click toppled forward, and Serena had to roll out of the way to prevent from being crushed by him. She had only just reacted to this when a figure appeared over Click. Another mechanical man?
The attacker raised an ax over his head. Not a mechanical man, but a Tin Man.
The ax came down within inches of her foot, and she used the split-second it was lodged in the ground to get to her feet and turn to face the shadow. She grabbed for her own missing weapon and when left empty-handed stood in a slight crouch, trying to judge what to do next.
Click was on the ground, rolling about. His mechanical arms wheezed and hissed in an attempt to right the rest of his body. Tik-Tok could never right himself in such a position, and it appeared to her Click also had a hard time of it.
Click turned his head 180 degrees.
"Do not attack, Officer. You must run. I will distract him."
Click's light beams couldn't reach the Tin Man, however, due to the angle of his lying on the ground. The Tin Man raised the ax over Click.
Serena screamed and ran headlong into the Tin Man. Another loud clang and piercing pain as her shoulder met with the metal torso. It dented slightly, and set the ax-wielding shadow off-balance. He tumbled backward, Serena on top of him.
With both arms she grabbed the ax, pressing it with all of her strength into the ground. Her arms, still sore from grabbing the doorknob, strained against the Tin Man's arm as he lifted both Serena and the ax off of the ground.
With some effort the Tin Man got to his knees. Serena put all of her weight onto the handle of the ax while avoiding the blade. With a jump she dropped all of her weight onto the handle and dislodged it from the attacker's hand. She fell with the ax to the ground. The Tin Man bent down to reach for it. She dove for it herself.
Ax in hand, Serena got to her knees and swung it with all of her strength. It struck the Tin Man in the right leg, which came skittering across the ground. He let out a scream and stumbled forward onto the ground with a reverberating bang. She turned to see Click, (who had righted himself by now) flash his lights at the fallen woodsman at such speed that it made her dizzy to watch. Brighter now than before, Click's flashes illuminated the entire area, and several other nearby shadows ran off.
After another minute the Tin Man, still screaming, shone brightly for a moment and then flashed out of existence. The ax in Serena's hand did likewise, and all was quiet again. She got to her feet and approached Click as she tried to catch her breath.
"I never even saw him coming," she said. "I know I shouldn't have attacked, but I didn't know what else to do."
"The dark thoughts are getting stronger and more clever by the hour," Click answered. "There must be great fear among the Emerald City population now."
A scraping noise interrupted Click. Serena steeled herself for yet another attack, but she found Click was the source of the noise. She was horrified to discover a large gash in his back, with several gears and other pieces sticking out of it. She gasped.
"Click, you're hurt," she said, looking at the gash.
"Incorrect," he said, "I can feel no pain, so I am not hurt. I am however damaged. My action coils are not functional. When my action wears down, I will not be able to wind it back up."
"Can we fix you?"
"Not here. Glinda must remove me from the Realm for repairs. Unfortunately, I will not be able to accompany you further. You must leave me and proceed on your own. I will instruct you."
"I can't," she protested. "If I leave you here, you'll die."
"Incorrect," Click said again. "I am not alive, and therefore I cannot die."
"Destroyed then," Serena countered.
"It is unlikely," he told her. "The shadows are getting stronger, but not in an attempt to destroy me. Rather in an attempt to conquer their thinkers. They shall pay me little mind as they pass. You must go, so you may inform Glinda and Ozma of what is happening here."
She looked out into the fog. Still the cries, the whispers, the darkness all around her.
"What do I do?" she asked.
"When I point my arm, walk straight in that direction until the fog behaves differently," he said. "It is not the way I would have chosen to go, but all others are too complicated to explain. And a word of warning, Officer."
She leaned in closer to Click to hear him.
"The scariest obstacles lie ahead. Because you are flesh and blood I do not know exactly what will happen, but you must be brave and smart to get past them. It is always worse near the exit."
She nodded at him, unsure if anything could have been worse than the encounter with the darker thoughts of the Tin Man.
"I have just enough action left to point," Click said. "Please wind up my speech and thought coils before you go."
Serena reached behind him and wound both keys as tight as she could, hoping it would be enough until she could send help.
"All wound up," she said.
"Good. You must walk in this direction."
Click's arm creaked a bit as he pointed it, with an extended index finger, off to his right. A hissing sound alerted Serena that his action coils had run down.
"I can no longer move, but you must do so, and quickly," he said. "Good luck to you, Officer Goodwind."
"Thank you," she said. "For everything." She hesitated a moment. It felt like leaving an injured comrade. "Goodbye, Click."
"Goodbye, Officer," he replied.
He looked like an odd sculpture pointing off into oblivion. She turned away from him and set off.
During her walk she saw much of the same. Unpleasant shadows of the citizens of Oz. Yet after a time the fog did change, as Click said it would. It got thicker, and swirled around faster.
The shadows themselves also seemed to change. As she began walking up a steep hill they began to look at her more intently as she passed than they used to. Still none of them followed her or tried to speak to her. She preferred it that way.
As the ground at last began to flatten out someone bumped into her, knocking her off balance. Her heart raced as she prepared for yet another confrontation, but the figure ran past her. Then she saw other shadows nearby break into a run in the same direction, each pointing off into the distance.
It had to mean something, and they were running in the direction she was headed anyway. So Serena also broke into a run to follow the growing crowd.
After a few minutes a new sound emerged from the distant swirling mist; it was a muffled roar that would ebb and flow. It got louder as she followed the crowd of shadows and soon she made out that the noise was a crowd. A large, cheering crowd that as of yet she couldn't see. It became clear that all of the shadows around her were rushing to join it.
Just ahead of her several shadows had congregated. She approached them and saw they were standing at the edge of a large valley, down into which Serena peered. Below, stretching for some distance in all directions was the crowd she had heard. There were thousands of them, surrounded by several bonfires.
All were facing a large stone platform in the distance. It was long, black, and elevated above the crowd by about 20 feet. There was a large podium carved into it near its center. Draped over this podium was a blue banner with the golden letters "O-Z" interlaced in the middle of it. Two large torches burned on either side of the podium.
Behind this on the platform, three gigantic banners. Two exactly like the one on the podium, but the one in the middle featured a likeness of Ozma unlike any Serena had ever seen. In it Ozma stood with a clenched fist raised into the air, and a spear in the other hand, her mouth pursed close. The eyes were narrowed. The representation's hair was cut much shorter than the real Ozma had ever worn hers.
Below the banner, shouting and pounding on the podium was an actual Ozma that looked very much like the poster. Serena was more unnerved by this than anything she had yet seen in the Realm of Dark Thoughts.
"Mercy leads to weakness," Ozma cried, her voice echoing through the valley. "Weakness leads to death. Show no mercy to the weak, and prevail."
The crowd exploded into approval of this horrible statement. The disturbing doppelganger of Oz's merciful, loving leader held her arms up and called for quiet. In less than a second the crowd stopped cheering.
"Find the weak. Find the different. Find the curious, and crush them. For me. For you, and for Oz!"
An even louder eruption of praise from the crowd, and soon they broke into a chant.
"For Oz! For Oz! For Oz! For Oz!"
The very ground seemed to shake under Serena's feet to the rhythm of the refrain. Drums from somewhere picked up the cadence, and at once the whole heartbeat of the Realm of Dark Thoughts seemed to emanate from that single nightmare of a valley.
Someone grabbed her arm and spun her around. An elderly woman with long white hair down to her hips.
"Who are you," she said. "A spy?"
Before Serena could react, shouts of "spy" tore through the crowd with such haste that in mere moments the chanting descended into threats and accusations. Serena turned to run and slammed into a tall man who grabbed her by the shoulders. She tried to squirm out of his grip but he was too strong.
"Kill her," someone shouted.
"Bring her to me," Ozma called from the podium. At once Serena was dragged through the jeering crowd towards the platform. When she reached the staging area, she was deposited onto it. She tried to control her breathing and show no fear, though that was proving more of a struggle with each moment.
She got to her feet and faced the podium where Ozma stood. The leader was looking right at her, a slight grin on her face. She approached Serena in slow, graceful steps. Without breaking eye contact with Serena she raised her left arm towards the cacophonous crowd. At once the valley was silent.
By now Ozma was within inches of Serena. Much shorter than she, the shadow looked up into her face and whispered.
"You are flesh."
Serena caught her breath. Even Ozma's dark thoughts were far wiser than most.
"Release me," she told the shadow.
"You are not bound," Ozma said, gesturing toward the crowd. "Walk through them, if you dare. Though we have gained strength over the last few days, and as you have learned," Ozma glided her hand over one of the scratches on Serena's face, "flesh is quite vulnerable here."
Serena wrenched her head away from Ozma's hand. Thousands of hisses from the watchful crowd reached her, but again a raised hand from Ozma silenced them.
"Or," said Ozma with a smile, "We can help one another."
"Help you with what?" Serena asked. "You're just a thought in the real Ozma's mind."
"For now," Ozma conceded. "Yet soon I will be able to overcome the real Ozma."
"I'd need a co-ruler, Officer," Ozma said. "It could be you. They don't have to hate you. I could make them live to please you. Or die for you."
Ozma's hand gently guided Serena's face towards the assembled crowd. Thousands of faces, staring right at the two of them, waiting to be told what to do. Waiting to be led. Instructed.
Heat rose up Serena's back and into her face. Her hands, somewhat numb now, clenched into fists as she looked down to the floor of the stage. She slapped Ozma's arm away.
"No," she told Ozma, whose smile remained.
"Very well," Ozma told her. "Then die."
Ozma shoved her in the chest, and Serena felt herself hurling through the air away from the stage, landing on top of several screaming shadows. The crowd was once again a cacophony of shouts, hisses, and threats.
"Kill the spy," was a common refrain as hands began to pull at her hair, and feet began to kick at her. Pain invaded every section of her body. She could feel even more blood pouring down her face as another anonymous hand struck her. Yet she feared defending herself might make the shadows even stronger as it had with the Tin Man.
Someone tripped her from behind and she fell backwards onto the ground. Scores of dark, angry faces looked down at her as the shadows closed in. They were practically on top of her when one of them opened a long overcoat to reveal a glowing dot of color that shone an intense light beam into the crowd. The shadows retreated somewhat, gasping at the light as they did so.
The figure, whose face was covered by a bandana, offered a hand to Serena.
"We don't have much time," shouted a female voice from behind the bandana. "Follow me."
Serena's first instinct was to trust nobody from this crowd, but considering the alternative of being trampled to death she opted to take her chances. She grabbed the masked figure's hand, and let herself be pulled through the mob. Her rescuer moved the intense beam of light back and forth keeping the screaming crowd at bay all the while.
After several minutes of darting every which way avoiding others, the crowd began to thin. It eventually dwindled away into a few indifferent figures dispersed throughout the fog-no different than the rest of the realm had been to her before she stumbled upon the rally.
Her rescuer now led her to a campfire. Several others were present just on the outskirts of its light. One lay on the ground. Two stood with their backs to her. None of their faces were visible.
"You're safe now," said the masked rescuer, releasing her hand. "They don't tend to follow anyone for long."
"Thank you," Serena said. And while she was relieved to be safe, she was concerned that she had been pulled off course, and was unsure how to get herself back on the proper track without Click's aid. "But is there anyway to get back to that valley without being spotted? I must return."
"When the time is right," said her rescuer. "But before you do, you need to be more prepared. Sit, please." The figure gestured toward a boulder near the fire.
Serena, overcome by exhaustion, aches and confusion availed herself of the offered seat. For several minutes nobody said anything. As her mind began to clear and she caught her breath once more, Serena wondered about the clarity with which her rescuer was speaking to her. If Click was correct, her rescuer must be the thoughts of someone powerful.
"You'll rest here, and clear your mind," the rescuer said. "Then you will go back. All of us will go back."
"All of whom?" Serena asked, looking around the camp. "Who are you?"
"Friends," said another voice. It was the one laying on the ground. A large hat covered the face of this one.
Someone started weeping in the darkness beyond the campfire. Her rescuer turned toward the sound briefly, and then back to Serena.
"Ease her anguish," her rescuer said. "It needn't be this way."
Serena disliked this more and more with every passing moment, and she eased herself back into a standing position.
"I am obliged to you for saving me," she said while taking a step back away from the fire. "But it is most important that I be on my way now."
The weeping got louder, and the one with the hat spoke again.
"We can help you get there. And to anywhere else you want to go, Serena."
"I only wish to go home," Serena said. "And how do you know what my name is? Who are you?"
The woman with the hat reached for it and pulled it away from her face as she sat up, leaning into the firelight. Serena gasped as she saw her own face looking back at her in the orange glow. She stumbled backward from it. Her rescuer spoke again now.
"You see? That is why we helped you."
Her rescuer removed her bandana, revealing yet another perfect copy of Serena's face.
Before Serena could react, the two figures with their backs to the fire turned and revealed that they also were versions of Serena. The weeping continued.
A wind gust, the first she remembered since she arrived, blew through the fog and died down. Serena sprang back from the camp and raised her arms.
"Get back," she hollered. "All of you."
"How could we possibly hurt you," the rescuer whispered. "We are a part of you. No more able to separate our well-being from your well-being than your hand can remove itself from your arm."
The woman with the hat stood up. She and the other Serenas around the campfire took a step forward. The weeping from the darkness turned into a wail.
"That's close enough," Serena warned them. "You're only thoughts. Dark thoughts." When they continued to walk towards her she took more steps backwards.
"That is a great misunderstanding," said her rescuer. "We aren't dark, and we want to prove that to all of Oz. We only want to help. Everyone."
"That is what you want, isn't it Serena?" asked the one with the hat. "Isn't that what we all want? We helped you, now you can help us. Just join us, and know how peaceful life can be. So quiet. So much better when you are powerful than when you are weak."
Serena spun around and began to run, but tripped over something that screamed. On the ground she looked up at a crumpled figure in rags. This, it seemed, was the source of all of the weeping. Though the face was obscured somewhat by the figure's hands, it was clear that this too was a representation of herself.
Serena staggered to her feet and sprinted away from the camp. She flew past other shadows standing in various places around her. Unlike before they all seemed to be watching her every step.
She didn't dare look behind her as she ran. She just ran. Her lungs burning, her wounds aching, blood running down her face from multiple cuts. She felt herself climbing a hill again, and collapsed from exhaustion at the top of it. Gazing down the hill she found the horrible rally grounds again.
"Click," she called out in desperation. "Help me."
He did not appear, but the thousands of people in the rally turned around in unison at looked up at her. Serena felt the blood drain from her face. She was convinced that she would now be stomped to death.
Only nobody in the crowd moved or made any noise. Thousands of shadows stood in silence looking up at her. She stumbled in an attempt to get to her feet, and failed at first. As she lay on the ground the large poster behind the podium caught her eye. It was no longer a picture of Ozma. It was a picture of her. In fact she now realized every single face in the large crowd was now her own. She got up to run away, and bumped into her rescuer.
"Help us," the shadow said. "Please. Don't leave us here."
"Help us," a chorus of voices called from behind her. The crowd at the rally began to chant the simple phrase, in a quiet, unified voice.
"Help us…help us…help us…help us."
Serena bolted past her rescuer. She then took off away from the crowd as fast as she could. But as she ran she encountered more shadows of herself standing in various places.
"We can bring peace," one of them called to her as she passed.
"Oz can be ours," shouted another from a distance. "Help us so we can help you."
Serena had little strength left at this point. Her injuries were throbbing now, her heart racing as fast as her mind, and her muscles were approaching numbness at this point from all of the running she had done that night. She could not keep it up much longer, yet she still had no idea how to get out.
At the top of another hill, her knees buckled. She fell forward and began tumbling down the steep incline through the fog towards more of the unknown. She was moving too fast to stop herself, and was certain that as she flopped and bounced her way down the hill she was collecting even more bruises. She didn't care now. When at last she did hit the bottom of the hill and skidded several feet along the ground to a stop, she didn't bother moving. She just lay there, looking up into the non-existent sky.
She remained that way for she didn't know how long. 15 minutes? 20? Did time even matter here? Did anything matter here? To her all that could matter now was laying there in the fog. She wanted to never move or think again as long as she lived.
Then from far off she heard a faint noise.
"Help us…help us…help us."
With each refrain, the plea got louder and louder. She managed to turn her head up towards the top of the incline. In the distance through the fog she made them out. A long, jagged line of small, gray figures shifting their way down the hill towards her, step by step.
For a time she just watched them growing more distinct with each casual step they took, their pathetic chant growing louder. After a few moments the ground percussed against her back in time with the determined steps of a thousand dark Serenas.
She understood now that she would never again see the Emerald City, her family or her friends. That was because she would rather be beaten to death by this mob then to become one with them. She didn't care what Click had advised; she was going to fight them with everything she had. Whatever happened then would happen. But she would not be afraid anymore. She'd had her fill of being afraid of them.
She closed her eyes and braced herself with a deep breath before forcing her battered body first into a sitting position, and then once more onto her feet. Like a foal she swerved uneasily on her legs at first, but righted herself.
"Help us…help us…help us…help us."
She turned away from them and jogged some ways into the fog putting distance between her and the descending crowd. She then turned back to face them. Her head swam in a dizzying soup of injury and fatigue. She stood there, letting the mob inch its way down the hill and onto the flat ground. Her rescuer was near the front of the pack of doppelgangers.
When the front of the mob was only 20 or so yards away, Serena called out to them:
"I am Officer Serena Goodwind of the Emerald City Police Force. I am here to assist you. Now tell me," she now yelled, "What seems to be the trouble here?"
Serena burned hidden reserves of strength by charging headlong into the mob. She made for her rescuer, who like the rest of the crowd stopped as she ran towards them. At last minute Serena turned her shoulder and slammed it into her rescuer, who grunted as she flew backwards into the crowd, knocking over several other Serenas in her wake.
Using the momentum, the real Serena turned right away and rammed another shadow with her opposite shoulder, sending that one into the crowd as well. She continued to attack nearby shadows, and the now silent group closed in around her.
She didn't let up on her assault. Without discrimination or plan Serena flailed her arms, fists, knees, legs, and even the top of her head into the shadows that surrounded her. Over and over she pummeled them. Their resistance was not as pronounced as Ozma's crowd had been.
After falling one of them with an elbow to the face she noticed a small orb of white light twinkle into existence just in front of her. She pushed her way towards it, and another appeared just over her right shoulder. Then another, and another. In fact, the more she pressed on against the shadows the more of the orbs appeared.
Soon the orbs blended together in a bath of white light. In a few moments she found herself standing alone in this white light.
Wind again. A whipping, gusting wind blew into her. It pushed her back a few steps, but she stayed on her feet. She didn't know where she was, but she walked into the wind. As she did so a door came into view. The way out perhaps?
Every step required effort against the wind. But she kept looking at the door through squinted eyes. Wounds bled, muscles tore, lungs burned, yet nothing could keep Serena from that door now.
When at last she reached the doorknob she fell to her knees. She turned the knob and leaned the weight of her body against the door. As soon as it opened the violent wind changed direction and blew her through the doorway. She slammed up against a wall and crumpled to the ground. She saw the door swing slowly and then close with a soft click.
She was back in the hallway in the Royal Prison of Oz.
She wanted nothing more than to just lie there. Even her mind was exhausted. As the first rays of dawn snuck into the hallway window she acquiesced to the sleep that was enveloping her.
When she woke up she was no longer in the hallway. Rather she was in the small police infirmary. She had no recollection of how she got there. She winced as she sat up in her bed, muscles in many parts of her body objecting to their usage.
"Look who woke up," a voice called from the other side of the small room. Serena eased her face towards the voice. In the doorway stood Melvin Merriweather, a fellow police officer, and the doctor of their detachment. "You were quite a sight this morning, Serena. The others will be pleased to see you up. We've all been waiting to hear what happened."
"Melvin," she said, blinking. "How long have I been asleep?"
Melvin pulled a pocket watch from his uniform jacket and popped it open.
"About 11 hours or so. I bet you'd love some food."
"No, thank you Melvin. I need to contact Glinda. Now."
"Glinda," Melvin squeaked. "What on earth did you see?"
"A long story Melvin, but time is important. Please."
Melvin tore out of the room and soon returned with their superior. The captain listened to her explanation that she was conducting an investigation. He was not happy when she would yield no further details. After much huffing and puffing he arranged contact with Glinda through a crystal ball.
"It's only for emergencies though," he huffed. "Glinda won't like this."
"Believe me," Serena replied, "This qualifies, Captain."
Glinda has listened to her story, and promised her she would rescue Click. Glinda also promised to spread more good cheer throughout the citizens during their exile, in hopes of starving their dark thoughts. It must have succeeded, as there were no further reports of rumbling or strange lights from the prison.
Five days after her ordeal, Serena was well enough to return to duty on the very day the population returned to the city. The rumored attack had not come.
"Remember to walk, citizens," she called out to a group of children who were trying to squeeze through the throng of people reentering the city. "Be safe for now until the streets clear. Then you can play in them."
The children obeyed and slowed down to a respectable walk.
"Oh, children are such a delight, are they not," Melvin, said as he watched them pass by. (He was on patrol with her today.) "Not a negative thought in their heads. But then does anyone in Oz ever have a negative thought, Serena?"
Serena looked over at her fellow officer, and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"We all do, Melvin," she said. "Sometimes you can ignore them, and sometimes you have to face them. But here in Oz, they don't have to control us, now do they?"
She patted his shoulder and faced the moving crowd again.
An older man with many boxes tripped and fell nearby. Serena knelt down and began picking up the boxes for him.
"Hello. I'm Officer Goodwind of the Emerald City Police Force. Can I be of assistance?"