Later, I was just about to call camp for the night when ahead of us a figure stepped out onto the yellow brick road. Despite the dusk of evening I recognized the silhouette instantly.
And I knew firsthand how slow that fucker was, so he didn’t get this far ahead of us without some help. As the realization hit me full force that shit was about to go down two things happened.
First, the cool veil of the Ice Princess slipped over my vision, bringing everything into sharp focus as my battle instincts came on line.
Second, that tattoo on my shoulder, those fucking Ruby Slippers started to burn.
The first wave of the true storm had arrived at last.
The Rainbows End: Don’t You Find? (Carry On The Grudge)
I stopped Colbert with a gentle tug on his mane and slid down onto the yellow brick road. I calmly checked my weapon and then turned to Hammerby. “Ready?” He nodded, axe at the ready. I looked at Toto and she was not only sporting her usual dagger but a gleeful expression that told me she was ready to put it on the line. I walked up beside Colbert.
“I smell magic,” he said to me softly, his large body tensed and ready to face whatever was coming. The Lion, Lafayette, came up beside me. He looked grim.
“You ready for this?”
“I’m more scared of you than whatever might be out there,” he said glancing over at me. He was hardly shaking at all.
“That just proves you aren’t as dumb as I thought you were,” I told him, setting my hand on his head for moment in reassurance. He purred a little, despite his nervousness. I knew I had been hard on him, but it had done what I needed it to do. He would fight for us now, come what may. I took a moment to thank the Corp for my experience there. It might not be enough, but then again, it be just what this rag tag bunch needed.
“I’ll take point,” I said to my crew and started toward Compton on foot, weapon holstered, but at the ready. I was ice cold, except for that tattoo, it was on fire. I expected any minute for it to get so hot that it became a distraction, but it held steady and instead of a distraction it felt like it was a warm blanket of protection around me.
My crew followed, back just a little, with Hammerby at the rear to make sure no one came up behind us. I wondered as I scanned the surrounding area of he had seen battle before. I had never thought to ask.
I would remember to ask when this was over.
I was that certain that we would all right.
When I reached Compton I stopped three or four yards in front of him and waited. There was an explosion between us and out of large puff of green smoke that smelled of sulfur stepped a beautiful woman with long red hair. She was dressed in a tight black dress that drug the ground behind her. The front was cut in a V that went almost to her belly button. I’d have bet my next paycheck she was wearing heels under that get up.
She needed Sixta to talk to her about the groomin’ standard. The thought made me smile, the red head thought I was smiling at her, because she smiled back. Dumb as stump, too, I thought. Sixta would love this fucking bitch.
“Sgt. Susan Stackhouse, of Louisiana, I believe?” she asked in a velvety voice.
“And you would be?”
“Sophie Ann Leclerq, but around these parts they call me the Wicked Witch of the East.” She inclined her head to me, her eyes never leaving mine. I held my position.
Marines didn’t give a fuck about détente.
I was ready to get down to business. My finger was itching for the trigger.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you at last, Susan.” At least one of us thought so.
“I sent Compton to bring you to me, and well, as you know, he failed in his mission. So, I came for you myself. The Wizard would like to talk to you.” I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t ask because I didn’t really give a fuck.
One of us was dying here, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be me. Apparently, she had yet to get the memo. Maybe she was too dumb to read?
When it happened it happened fast.
She jerked her right arm, a look of triumph on her evil face. I was reaching for my gun when I felt the heat in my tattoo spike, driving down to my bones, still not hurting, but I definitely knew it was there.
The intensity of the sensation broke my reach for my weapon but it also seemed to break her efforts to do whatever she had been trying to do. She hesitated, her face a mask of wonder that I had not been affected by her magic.
She conjured a fireball and hurled it at me. I felt my tattoo dig into me again, but this time I was ready.
Her fireball deflected harmlessly from the invisible shield that seemed to be around me. I raised my other eyebrow, just as surprised as she was. For just a moment I saw Dish smiling at me in the tattoo parlor and wondered just what the fuck her had done to me?
Then, as I had done since I got here, I just decided to roll with it.
It was then that Compton spoke for the first time. “Madame, you were told she bears the mark.” The Witch’s expression changed for a moment she looked scared and then she thought of another tactic and her face changed to one of triumph.
“She might indeed bear the Ruby Slippers but her companions do not!”
She conjured another fireball, and I knew what came next. I heard Hammerby call out behind me, and then I prayed that Dish had really known what the fuck he was doing. I extended my arms and willed the protection of his fucked up little tat to protect the others as well.
The Witch threw the fireball at Colbert and Toto. The fire of my brand went deep inside me this time, pressing into all my bones, pulling on some force inside me that I could not see and could not hope to measure.
It felt so fucking incredible that I hoped it never stopped, even though I instinctively knew that if it didn’t it would be the end of me.
And I was absolutely at peace with that thought.
The fireball was deflected, this time bouncing with the force at which it was hurled, flying back and landing squarely on Compton who made my dreams come true by bursting into flames.
Hammerby came up beside me as Compton screamed and fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Sophie looked back at me, her face a mask of wonder and rage and then her eyes fell on Hammerby.
“No! No! It’s not possible! You can’t be-“
I silenced her with a bullet to the brain.
I wasn’t sure it would work, and if so much had not been happening, Compton dying on the ground screaming beside her, Hammerby shocking her with his appearance, she likely would have deflected or disappeared as Claudine had done, but she was very distracted.
And a moment later she was very dead.
Hammerby to a step toward Compton, but I put my hand on his arm stopping him. He had proven to be too difficult to interrogate, and he seemed to have some pretty nasty allies, better to let him die now and save me a match, because there was no turning back from that road.
One way or another that fucker was dead.
I turned back to my companions. Toto looked triumphant, Colbert, too. Lafayette looked more scared of me than ever. Hammerby, well Hammerby just looked sad.
Some soldiers took it that way, believing that the cost of victory was too high.
I was not one of those. Not right now anyway.
I was still fucking high from the sensation of that tattoo protecting everyone and elated to have defeated Compton and the Witch who had come to take me from the course I had chosen.
I wanted to sing, and dance and celebrate.
And then, it passed. My legs grew weak, my vision started to go blacker than the night we now found ourselves in. “Hammerby…” I whispered and then I felt myself fall into the soft black of unconsciousness.
I opened my eyes to see two very blue, very worried eyes staring down at me. “Hammerby?” I whispered and tried to sit up.
“No!” Toto said firmly, stepping around Hammerby to look down at me sternly. “You stay down!” She pointed her little finger at me to emphasize her point. I fell back, quite sure from the way I was feeling right now that she could kick my ass.
“What happened?” She passed me a cup of water.
“You collapsed,” Hammerby said, clearly still very worried.
“After you killed the Wicked Witch of the East and saved us from a giant fireball,” Lafayette said, coming to sit down on the other side of me, curling his tail around his feet fastidiously. “If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it. That bitch has been the scourge of the East since I was a cub, and you just BAM! Took her right out!”
It was coming back to me.
“You’re ok? I looked at him, then Hammerby and then Toto. “Colbert?”
“Here, Majesty, still intact and able to change color with the best of them!” His head came down over Hammerby’s shoulder to look at me intently with his horsy stare. “You however, Majesty, clearly need to rest.” I sighed in relief. I had brought my troops through and not lost one.
It was all I could hope for in this mess.
It was more than I could hope for in this mess.
“How did you do it, Sookie?” Hammerby had a look of wonder on his face that made me blush.
“It’s what they brought me here to do,” I said deflecting. “I vowed to lead in place of The Great King Eric, and that is all I am doing.
“Great King Eric?” Hammerby asked. I looked at him. What the hell?
“Yeah, the King that The Wizard and his Witches deposed, murdered and stole a country from. Ring a bell?”
“He shook his head, his face scrunched up as he tried to figure out what I was talking about. I glanced around, wondering if I had just made the whole fucking thing up while I sat in a rubber room somewhere, but the looks of shock on my companion’s faces reassured me that at least they knew what I was talking about.
After a few moments he looked at me, realization dawning on his face. “This Great King, you cared for him, Sookie?” I could see it then in his face, the connection of my tossing and turning and what had happened the other night and why I was here and what I was doing and why I was doing it was written all over his face.
Funny he thought he didn’t have a heart, cause by the look on his face I had accidentally just broken it.
“Hammerby,” I started, reaching a hand out to him but he rose smoothly his face becoming hard as the rest of him.
“I’ll take watch,” he said before walking away. He was squeaking. He hadn’t oiled his joints yet. Guess he had been too busy worrying about me. I sighed and laid back down.
I wanted to go after him, but they weren’t going to let me up yet without me having a fit, and I didn’t have the strength for that right now. I didn’t know what to say anyway. Somehow I was sure that me pointing out that ache he was feeling right now proved that what he had said was bullshit would only make it worse.
For some reason, some strange reason, I was drawn to Hammerby. He felt like someone I could trust, and he certainly proven himself to be that. He made me feel…I didn’t have the words. What had happened between us the other night was the most intimacy I had shared with anyone since Phuket, since Eric.
But I still loved Eric, even if he was an oath breaking liar, I still loved him.
Hammerby was…well…Hammerby was not Eric. He was a great Hammerby but…my Eric…that night…his touch…I felt….
God, I am so tired.
I curled up and pulled my blanket over my head. A few minutes later I heard the others wander off to take their own spots for the night. I fell into a fitful sleep later and dreamed.
He pulled me into his arms and whispered in my ear.
I didn’t break my promise. I am with you still, Sookie. I have always been with you. I will always be with you.
I tried to push back but he held me fast and kept whispering, the sound going in and out like a speaker with a loose wire.
…and that’s how I knew, and then I saw the mark. I was told I would find you and I looked for so long…so…long….
…and then I found you, Sookie. I am with you. I am always with you…
No! You lied! You let them kill you! How could you do that? How could you leave me, fucker?
I pushed back then, wanting to look him in the eye so he could see what he had done to me. When I pulled back I found myself looking into the blue eyes of Hammerby, the Tin Man.
I’m still with you, Sookie.
I sat up, covered in sweat and shaking and panting, not with desire but with terror and on the verge of some big epiphany. I brushed my sweat soaked hair back from my face and took a deep breath.
“Bad dreams?” someone said from next to me on the ground. I jumped and turned. He was sitting cross legged beside me, his hands folded in his lap. My mind started racing, I had no idea what they had done with my gun when they tucked me in for the night.
My tattoo started burning again, and that was enough to tell me that I was going to wish I had that Beretta before this was over.
“Oh, come now,” he said, with a familiar southern accent, a twinkle in his eyes that I could see clearly even in the dim firelight. “There’s no need to abandon our manners now is there?”
I looked at him.
Were all the bad guys here stone fucking crazy?
“Allow me to introduce us. You are Sgt. Susan Stackhouse and I am Russell Edgington. Being new to these parts you might know me as The Wizard of Oz.”