Upper Crust

By

Albert J. Manachino

One of the peculiarities of the Screaming Hollow is that few of the established rules seem to apply. For instance, mirages are supposed to recede as you approach. Here they fairly pursue us - old Bravo and I. Moreover, they smell like cheap booze. We encountered one with glacier-sized ice cubes and a Maraschino Cherry in it large enough to mow down a regiment of ten-pins.

The impertinent thing remained perfectly stationary until we were almost upon it and it moved only after I ventured a lance thrust at the cherry. Then it fell sullenly behind us and hounded our footsteps like a homeless dog. (No pun intended.) They emit alcoholic fumes and the fumes are enough to intoxicate.

One sees strange things as one travels along the Frog's Neck Road. A hot natural geyser gushed alcohol fully a hundred feet into the air. The area around its base was littered with fallen sparrows. A witch who had carelessly flown into the geyser staggered in aimless circles.

Triangular fins broke the surface of the meadows on either side of the Frog's Neck and kept pace with us for many miles. The fins tore up grasses and flowers like hungry plows. occasionally, a tail broke surface to angrily lash the underbrush. These are the fabled lawn sharks. Vicious beggars I'd hate to think of what would happen to us were we to venture off the road. Thank heavens I am armored from head to feet.

I noticed that the lawn sharks seemed to fear the mirages. Whenever our follower strayed off the road, they fled like frightened sardines.

The witch ceased staggering long enough to pick up her broom. "Hey you," she called. "Get me outta here!"

She was too drunk to fly, of course. I didn't care for her tone. Scarcely the proper way to address a knight. Still, we must be charitable toward the inebriated. Two hundred feet of shark infested meadow separated us. I pointed at the fins, an amused smile played about my lips.

"Oh, for pete's sake! You're a knight and you're supposed to rescue maidens in distress."

"Madam, Miss, whatever the case may be. That ruling does not apply to witches. Everyone knows that female witches are born without hymen so you scarcely qualify as a maiden."

I heard a sound, as of someone grinding teeth. She shouted, "You must be that jackass, Salvatore St. George. Just wait till I get at you." The yelling must have hurt. She grimaced and held her head. My witch had a hangover.

I returned the shout. "I do not fear the machinations of the devil or witches, young lady. I am pure at heart."

In her condition, she could barely stand, much less negotiate the distance between us or work havoc upon me with her spells. Lawn sharks are notoriously impartial as to what they ingest.

She placed two fingers in her mouth and vented a whistle loud enough to shatter a carboy. Then she grimaced hideously and held her head in agony. Serves her right.

The mirage abandoned us and hastened across the meadow like a well-trained retriever. Panic stricken lawn sharks scattered right and left in its path.

She lifted her skirt much too high for public delicacy, staggered into the mirage and made her way to us in its protection.

"Some knight!" she sneered on gaining the Frog Neck's Road. She wrung alcohol out of her skirt.

I ignored her sarcasm. She was not a traditional witch though she dressed like one. Neither her nose or chin were hooked and no warts marred her features. She was young and beautiful.

"Where are your warts?" I demanded.

"They fell out when I ran into the geyser, stupid."

I could almost read her thoughts. If I weren't mounted and armored, she'd give me a good swift kick in the shins. She seethed and finally settled for, "How about a ride into town?"

"Very well," I acceded, "if you deport yourself with the proper decorum.."

She agreed. "It's a deal. I promise to restrain my hands."

I blushed furiously, as befitting a modest and pious knight. The young lady certainly was no lady. I assisted her to a place behind me. Gently I nudged old Bravo and he resumed his leisurely "Clip-clop," The mirage continued to accompany us.

Two approaching figures resolved themselves into fellow knights. My heart leapt joyously for they were the first civilized people I'd encountered since entering the Screaming Hollow. I recognized them as Sirs Toadwren and Scratchly.

"Hail!" I cried as we drew abreast, and raised my lance in a comradely salutation.

Neither returned the salute. I heard Toadwren mutter, "I say, Scratchly, is that a witch young St. George is consorting with?"

"I believe you're right, Toad."

They averted their eyes as we passed. Scratchly remarked sotto voce "That cad! That bounder!"

"Now, now, Scratch it isn't the first time a man has turned native." They dwindled into the distance.

The witch was furious. A whistle around her neck bounced angrily against what was perhaps an overly developed bosom. She aimed her broom at the receding knights, her finger sought a trigger.

"I'll blast them with a bolt of lightning."

I sighed. "No, young lady. We must learn to keep our emotions under control as befitting civilized people."

She begged, "Just one tiny little blast before they're out of range..."

I refused again. "They're armored against witch spells, anyway."

Disappointment expressed Itself in a rather attractive moue. Silence descended upon us. Finally I asked, "What IS your name?"

"Grrr...! Those pigs! Those self-righteous, vacant minded nincompoops! Oh! How I hate them! I'm Esmeralda - call me Ez."

"I'm delighted to have made your acquaintanceship, Ez." I was sorry for the girl. Toadwren and Scratchly did treat her shabbily. "My name is..."

"I know who you are," she said coldly.

That seemed to exhaust that as a topic for conversation. There was more silence. Old Bravo continued to "Clip-clop! Clip clop!" After half an hour, the silence was unendurable. I asked, "Are you really a witch?"

Her broom was shouldered in the way a farmer might carry a hoe, or an infantryman a rifle...

"No, I'm a door-to-door saleslady." She indicated the broom with a jerk of her free thumb. "This is my sample case."

"Why are you so pretty? Witches aren't pretty."

She assumed a woe-begone expression. "You know how it goes. Every seventh daughter is born deformed in our family. Tradition and all that." She sniffled, "I was such an ugly baby. My family kept hoping I'd grow out of it but I never did."

I protested. "But you aren't ugly, you're very beautiful."

"That's because you're using a reverse standard. To witches, I'm insufferably ugly. All my sisters had such beautiful warts, I never had any."

Old Bravo continued his leisurely pace, there was no need to guide him. Ez dug a handful of jelly beans out of some pocket and flipped them expertly into her mouth.

"Seven daughters? I can't believe that."

"There were two more after me. Mom liked babies."

"She certainly must have. How did your father feel about all this?"

"Dad liked weimaraner but mom never had any. He died broken hearted."

Despite her promise, both arms were now around my waist. "To keep from falling off," she reassured me. "You weren't considerate enough to provide straps for passengers to cling to."

Her broom trailed us, riderless over the mirage. I changed the subject.

"Do you know this country well?"

"Uh huh."

"What's the name of the next town?"

"Wet Babylon."

"Wet Babylon? You must be joking. Is there a Dry Babylon?"

To my surprise:

"Uh huh. They've been at war for generations. This road is barricaded where the towns meet."

"That is against the law. The Frog's Nook Road was built to facilitate commerce and communications..."

"This road was built to line your Uncle Archer's pockets with graft."

I felt decidedly uncomfortable. Uncle Archer's reputation preceded him in the most unexpected places. An awkward pause went by. "Tell me about the war. War is a knight's forte."

"What's there to tell?"

"Do they slaughter each other by the hundreds?" Ez abandoned her place behind me and rode by my side on her broom. An unwarranted assumption of equality.

"It's not that kind of war. More an ideological sort of a thing. The Drys have blue noses and they wear blue clothing. They assemble in bands composed mostly of trumpets, bass drums and tambourines and play salvation music, and preach salvation at the border when the wind is right and they're sure they can be heard in Wet Babylon."

I fumed. "It's absolutely barbarous. Against the rules of civilized warfare."

Ez continued. "The Wets fight back by sending Bourbon fogs against them to befuddle their senses. Every once in a while, a Wet sees the error of his ways and is converted to Dryism. Whereupon there is great rejoicing to Dry Babylon and the convert is baptized in coffee and doughnuts. Occasionally, a Dry becomes a Wet. The celebration is held in the town saloons with free beer and pretzels."

"You're joking."

"No, I'm not. I've been converted back and forth thirty-one times."

"Perfidious!"

"No. I just happen to like coffee and doughnuts and beer and pretzels."

"Who is winning?"

"I think the Drys are slightly ahead thanks to Commando Nation. She leads a group of ax swinging Amazons behind the enemy lines to smash up beer barrels and saloons."

"Fascinating warfare but no opportunity for a knight to attain glory."

"Thanks be to the great creator."

"Which side are you on?

"Neither. I sell arms to both."

"Contemptible!"

"Two weeks ago I was almost intercepted running a cargo of clarinets to the Drys."

"It would have served you right to have been caught."

We passed a road marker proclaiming, "You are now entering Wet Babylon."

Ez remarked, "It used to be called 'Bottletown' until some civic group decided to jazz up the culture angle."

"Bottletown? How decidedly odd. Why?"

We swung around a bend in the Frog's Neck. The suburb of Wet Babylon was an eye-opener. A giant boiler reached into the sky. Scalding springs hissed and boiled beneath it with volcanic fury. The boiler trembled and made noises like a percolating coffee pot. From time-to-time, the sides bulged till a safety valve vented in an ear-splitting roar.

An aqueduct carried fresh water into the intake side of the boiler. Miles of coiled copper mains looped and twisted against the sky. Steam escaped and rose heavenwards in alcoholic clouds.

On the opposing side of the boiler, an escalator fed grains and yeast into the metallic gargantua. Fortunately, a breeze carried most of the vapors away from us. The windward side of the boiler was a desert denuded of plant and animal life. We traveled onward.

"We'll be passing the Great Booze lake. That's where the mirages are born."

"Born?" I said.

"Certainly. They're alive and intelligent. Probably more so than you are."

Which was a scarcely veiled insult but I could bide my time. The Frog's Neck came within a hundred feet of the Great Booze Lake. The fantastic copper coils terminated in a spout directly above the water. A drop formed on the end of the spout, quivered slightly, and fell into the lake.

"Congratulations," Ez said. "You've just witnessed a birth."

Ripples radiated outward from the center. A blue film formed on the water. Gradually, it drifted to one side of the lake and seeped ashore. A mirage had been born. I glanced behind us, catching our own mirage in the act of desertion. It receded to the newcomer, maraschino cherry and all.

"It looks like an elopement," I said. "I'm going to miss him.."

"Him? The cherry would be indicative of a female."

I blushed again. Ez was decidedly of a Rabelaisian turn of mind.

"How do they make those things like the ice and the ch... whatever?"

"They're very imitative and capable of generating colors and smells. Our friend must have been exposed to a bartender's guide."

"Absolutely fascinating! Do the Drys have mirages?"

"No. They're extremely... how would you say it? Bleak... narrow in their outlook. They hurl burning brands at the mirages and explode them. No sense to it. All they have to do is open a cookbook in front of the mirages and they will assume the appearances of plates of soup or toast... almost any flat object. I think they'll still smell like booze though. Seems to be their favorite scent."

The town was a genuine shock. Buildings were shaped like bottles of different sizes and shapes. Colors ran riot. Wet Babylonians lay in various stages of stupification in every conceivable public place.

Ez flew on ahead and guided us to the best inn in town. It was shaped like a cider jug and bore the legend "Lil' Brown" on its sign. Ez gave me her most winsome smile. "How about buying a gal breakfast?"

"A noble idea."

"Eggs and fidstones?"

"The sky is the limit. How do they cook without fire?" For I determined fire would be hazardous indeed In Wet Babylon.

"Over scalding hot water springs just like at the boiler."

Esmeralda was known to our not completely sober proprietor. He indicated that she would not be served unless she had what is vulgarly referred to as "wherewithal".

She complained. "How about my commission for steering guests here?"

"The lady is my guest," I told him.

He gave in reluctantly. "Very well, Mi'Lord."

Ez eagerly perused the menu at our table. "Try some of their candlesoup and chow ming. It's delicious."

I declined. "Chow ming sounds rather sinister. I assumed an expression of sternness. "What do you do with your ill-gotten gains?"

"You know how it is, easy come, easy go."

"The wages of sin," I reminded her.

"Bear bitter fruit," she finished.

Her sins evidently did not weigh heavily upon her and she fell to with a hearty appetite. She was right, the candle soup she'd ordered for me despite my refusal was excellent.

By way of dinner talk, I asked, "What evil deeds are you contemplating now?"

"That would be telling." Her cleavage was remarkably bold for a witch. Whatever lay beneath the shabby dress was completely unrestrained. For a while, I forgot the soup to watch the whistle she wore around her neck jiggle, bounce, jiggle.

"One thing; I've never done," she said, "is to turn children into gingerbread."

"Conscience?"

She gave me a long searching look. "I wish I knew what you looked like beneath all that metal."

I had not removed my helmet. The soup was spooned through a port in the mouthpiece.

"No, it isn't conscience. Do you know how much trouble it is to turn the little brats into gingerbread? No? I thought not. The hours spent preparing herbs and spices. The time wasted in incantations. The loss of sleep and colds contracted dancing naked beneath the moon. The endless meditations and supplications to the dark powers... and for what? Do you know how cheap gingerbread is? It just isn't worth it."

Esmeralda was impossible.

"Two rooms upstairs," I told the proprietor.

Immediately she was outraged. "That'll cost twice as much. The beds are large enough to accommodate us comfortably."

I remained firm. "Two rooms," I reiterated, "One upstairs and one downstairs."

She complained. "C'mon, give a lady a treat. I want to see what you look like."

"I never remove my armor," I told her.

"Never? How do you bathe? I know; your servants pour soapy water into your armor and shake you up and down like a cocktail."

She could be irksome when she felt like it - which appeared to be all the time. Hoping she still had at least a residual hangover from her encounter with the alcohol geyser, I seized her whistle and blew a furious blast on it. Nothing. The whistle wouldn't whistle.

Her reaction astonished me. She called me almost every noun in the dictionary but did not physically assail me. She realized that armored as I was, it would be purposeless. Esmeralda lapsed into a sullen silence. She came out of it when I ascended the stairs. Her good-night sally was, "I hope the worms crawl into your         and come out of your navel."

I wanted news of the war. It must be ended and the Frog's Neck Road reopened. But, I could obtain that from our landlord, or anyone relatively sober. I ascertained Old Bravo had been properly stabled and fed.

The inn seemed to be astir. A servant came scurrying down the stairs. He whispered excitedly to the proprietor. The inn-keeper was immediately sober. Both men raced back up the stairs.

Minutes later, they returned. The inn keeper bowed before our table, ''M'Lord, I would speak with thee if thou pleasest." Servants were frantically closing doors and shutters.

"By all means." The air was rent by the clamor of bells. I looked in time to see the last of the Wet Babylonians hurry into convenient bottles. A bar fell into place and we were shut off from the world... Or, at least, the rest of Wet Babylon.

"We maintain an observation post in the cork of this building, Your Lordship," he said by way of a preamble. "It is always manned by a lookout equipped with a telescope."

"A raiding party from the Dry Babylonians?" I said, thinking of Commando Nation.

"No, M'Lord, not a party."

I rose. Instructing Ez to remain at the table, I followed him up the stairs to the observation post. The sentinel offered me his telescope.

The instrument was a mounted one and the lens brought into sharp focus what appeared to be a low, red cloud undulating in our direction. A sweep of the town through the lenses showed it to be deserted.

"They've all sought shelter, Your Lordship."

"What is it, Landlord?"

"Some invention of the Drys perhaps. I don't know. I don't think anyone does."

I looked again through the telescope. "It appears to be a mirage, though airborne."

"It is not a mirage, Sire. It is material and has the capability of ascending and descending. moreover, it smells like stale cheese."

"Is it harmful?"

"Devastating! It can settle like a wet blanket and send out yellow tendrils to search for victims." The cloud was fairly close now.

The telescope showed a yellow mottling against the red coloring. A brown rim encircled the entire thing.

"We'd best go downstairs now, Sire," the landlord advised. The look-out had already left.

The proprietor paused long enough to push a bar into place against a heavy door and then followed me downstairs. "It's getting heavier, Your Lordship. Some of the buildings may not be able to withstand the weight. We've begun work on underground shelters."

"You could be in trouble if it settled over the ventilators," I pointed out.

"What's going on?" Ez wanted to know.

Briefly, I explained.

"Is it here yet?"

"No, but it will be shortly."

She seized her broom and before anyone could stop her had opened the door and darted outside. Astride the broom, she vanished like a rocket. Oh well! It was purposeless for her to be entrapped also. No one else possessed her speed so further breakouts were not attempted. The door was refastened.

The inn creaked as the thing settled on it. I asked, "Is there any place I can observe from?"

"There is a port on the second floor but medoubts that you will see anything. It shuts out all the light,"

He was right.

"What do you call it?"

"We refer to it as the 'Giant Pizza', Your Lordship."

Its appearance made this name an obvious choice. "Where does it come from?"

"We don't know, Sire. The uninhabited areas of the valley are extensive. The natural conclusion is that it is a war development of the Drys. But, I am doubtful. Such intelligence as has been gathered seems to eliminate them as perpetrators."

"When did this thing... this pizza, first appear?"

"About six months ago, Your Lordship. It wasn't as large then. Perhaps only fifty feet across."

It was much larger than fifty feet now. "What does it feed on?"

"Organic matter. People, animals, fish, plants... sometimes it hovers, sending down tentacles. Anything the tentacles touch sticks to them and is drawn up. Sometimes the tentacles lap over the edge of the pizza. Sometimes holes appear in the center of the thing for them to descend through.

The weight on the inn seemed to lessen. Light reappeared in the port. I looked out. "It's rising." I saw an amazing spectacle.

Ez was hurling what appeared to be stones at the pizza. I could discern the throwing motions but not what she threw. She flitted always barely ahead of it on her broom. The pizza lumbered after her. I stepped aside so that the innkeeper could look.

"She's a heroine!" He shouted enthusiastically. "Nothing is too good for her. Everything will be on the house when she returns." Ez would like to hear that. "If she returns," I reminded him. "Is the pizza very fast?"

"No, not fast, Sire. But anything that size doesn't have to be fast. A tentacle thrown out ahead of it..."

We ran to the door. Ez and the monster were very high. A tiny speck continued to badger the aerial pizza and then flee the pursuing tentacles. The odour of stale cheese was overpowering.

The landlord praised her. "That girl is wonderful even if she is a witch."

Windows went up and people loudly cheered Ez. The pizza continued to pursue her. They vanished into the clouds. I returned to the observation post and searched through the telescope. There was nothing to see.

Evening was a dreary affair. I soaked in the tub and pondered what course to take. A war over ideological differences was being conducted... had been conducted, apparently for months. True, there were few if any physical casualties but the Frog's Neck Road was closed to commerce. It had been finished only a few years ago.

Or, was it finished? Perhaps in some desolate uninhabited region, it was still being constructed, onward to anywhere. Or nowhere. you could never tell about Uncle Archer. In any event, there was no alternate route and the lawn sharks precluded travelers from detouring around the road barrier.

My eyes wandered about the room seeking a solution. I inspected my newly shined armor with dissatisfaction. The danger having ended, the Wets reverted to their alcoholically induced torpor. My armor gleamed brilliantly in spots but other places barely had been touched. Too, as a Christian knight, I scarcely was pleased when the innkeeper, whose name I discovered to be John Barleycorn, invited me to evening services.

"To give thanks for our deliverance from the latest attack, Your Lordship." It developed that they worshipped Barbados, the Rum Demon. I will leave it to your imagination as to how the services were conducted.

Where was the pizza's lair? Then there was that incredible girl, Esmeralda. Was she safe? Where was she? The chances were excellent that she was at this moment cadging a meal from some local inn. Ez struck me as being extremely durable. I was sure she was more than a match for the pizza.

A dreadful commotion ensued downstairs, snapping me out of my reveries. There were cries of alarm and sounds of smashing wood and breaking glass. A full scale drunken brawl was in progress, no doubt. If It became too annoying, I would venture down and put an end to it but the very intensity of the sounds indicated the battle would be of short duration.

My door flew open and slammed against the wall. An enormous female stood framed in the doorway brandishing an axe.

She demanded fiercely, "Where do you hide your drink?"

I stood and bowed. "Commando Nation, I presume?"

Her mouth flew open and she stammered, "Oh! Oh! Oh! My goodness!" She turned and fled.

A smaller figure entered and a familiar voice inquired, "Excuse me, Sir, I am looking for Sir Salvatore St. George."

I could not conceal my delight. "Ez!" I shouted. "I'm St. George."

She emitted a "Whoop!" and then, "Well! Well! Well! So there was a man in that tin can after all." She averted her face and fluttered her very long dark lashes in simulation of offended modesty.

Ez had finally seen me sans armor. Awareness overcame me and I hastily sat in the water.

"Why Sallie, you're as red as a beet." She seized my towels and night clothes and placed them beyond my reach. "Now I have you in my power."

"You certainly do."

"You know, Sal, you're a remarkably good looking man. No! don't deny it. I've seen indisputable evidence that you are a man. Now if only you were human."

"The discovery was a shock to your big friend."

"Old Commando is a good sort but not quite as uninhibited as I am... I played a dirty trick on her when I told her that I thought this was a liquor storeroom. Aren't you glad to see me?"

"I am delighted to see you and I mean it. I can't understand it, I've never been delighted to see a witch before. How did you fall in with Commando Nation?"

"After luring the pizza away, I stopped off in Dry Babylon to bum tea and crumpets. I'm well known there."

"I well believe it."

"Old Commando was assembling her raiding party and I joined for gossip and company. Would you like me to scrub your back?"

"I imagine it would be purposeless of me to ask you to step out of the room while I toweled and dressed?"

"Absolutely purposeless. I love to watch you turn red and squirm. You embarrass so easily."

I sighed. "Well, in that case, you may scrub my back. But, mind you, no where else. How did Commando and her party get around the barricade that is set up on the Frog's Neck Road?"

"What a knight! Scaling ladders, of course."

"I like confirmation of what I suspect. You may scrub a little lower."

"Sal, you're a positive libertine I'll bet there isn't a girl within twenty miles that's safe from your attentions." She scrubbed with good cheer and commendable vigor. "The Drys are abandoning ideological warfare and readying a full-scale armed invasion." I stood bolt upright. "Sal! Shame on you! I think you're an exhibitionist. Have you ever been run in for flashing?"

I sat. "Never! Hinged armor is impractical as it loses structural strength. What's this about a full-scale armed invasion?"

"The Drys are under the impression the pizza is something developed by the Wets for their war. It's cost them heavily in casualties and property damages, most of Dry Babylon has been leveled. Their buildings aren't as stress resistant as glass bottle construction."

"Haven't you told them that the Wets are being attacked too?"

"After thirty-one conversions, there's a slight credibility gap. Besides, being sober hard-headed people, it's impossible to convince them that one and one don't add up to two. They aren't at war with anyone else, you know. Stand and let me dry you." I stood. "Hmmm! You've shed your maidenly modesty suspiciously quick. Can I call you 'Georgie'? Sal sounds so much as if you were going to say 'salad'. It's not a fit name for a fighting man."

"What? Oh! My humblest apologies." Seizing the towel I wrapped it around my middle and stepped out of the tub. "You mean actual warfare? Where people get killed?"

"And the women raped," she added with ghoulish relish. "But why should you care? You're a knight and above all this."

"Do you know how hard tax payers are to come by? You mean sword and fire and not trumpets and drums?"

"Fire anyway. They've trained a number of the Great Suprenzi eels."

" Excuse me, I thought I heard you say 'Suprenzi eels'."

"I forgot you're a stranger to our valley... even though you own it. Yes, Suprenzi eels. They're descendants of the hundred foot eels who inhabited this valley before the ocean drained out. They adapted themselves to an existence on land and later mated with the local centipedes. Now they literally are one hundred foot eels."

"Cavalry charge?" I visualized a platoon of men mounted on each eel.

"Uh huh! The Suprenzis later mated with the fire breathing dragons; they're notoriously immoral. You know what fire means in Wet Babylon.

"I'm afraid so. A massive explosion. They'll probably blow themselves up at the same time."

"Are you going to lead the Wets into battle?"

"No, resistance against those animated flame throwers would be suicidal. I'll have to warn the Wets to get out with their hides intact."

"There might be a chance if you can force the battle before they reach this town."

"Not in the condition that I imagine most of the Wet soldiers are in."

"Aren't you at least going to put up a token resistance for the sake of honor and glory?"

"No. The Wets and the Drys are both my subjects." I stepped behind a screen to dress. Uselessly as it were; Ez followed me.

"Big front!" she exclaimed. "Bold knight! All hot air! Blah! You're as big a windbag and a phony as the rest. When the danger is over, you'll come out and brag about your great deeds."

"Someone has to brag," I protested. "How do you think history is made?"

"Well, what are you going to do - anything?"

"Yes. Something I've wanted to do for a while... I took Ez in my arms and gave her a long lingering kiss.

She stepped back, one hand to her face in disbelief. It took a full minute for the shock to dissipate.

"Why, Georgie, what's come over you? Is this the way for a modest and pious knight to behave?"

"I will be the better for it after having been subjected to temptation. The devil's schemes to test us, you know."

"The what, Oh!" She hauled off and kicked me in a shin.

Meteors flew before my eyes.

"I deserved that, I acted like a cad."

"A cad! Why you...!" She kicked me in the other shin. "I resent anyone who thinks the less of himself for having kissed me."

I had to exercise superhuman will to keep from crying out.

Hastily I donned my armor before Ez found another place to kick.

"Why are you putting that on?"

"Someone has to confront the Drys and put an end to this nonsense."

"Alone? You'll be roasted like a chop in an oven."

"Why should anyone accompany me - there's only one invasion."

"Oh! You egotistical nitwit! I suppose you think they're going to melt away at your mere presence."

"It would be nice but I won't be alone. I'll have help."

"From who?"

"From Him!" I raised my eyes heavenward.

"From Him? You stupid ass! YOU..." Here words failed her.

I finished armoring and picked up my battle ax. Ez threw herself in front of me, her conical hat was askew. She seized her broom. "I'm going with you."

"You are not! I have my reputation to think of. I can't afford to be seen publicly consorting with a witch."

Ez flared like an alcohol fire. Furiously she shook her fist at me. "You're trying to make me mad - you're trying to make me lose my temper. It's not going to work! It's not going to work! It's not going to work."

Resolve weakened and she unleashed a savage kick at my shins. She screamed and seized her toe. Ez performed a one-legged dance about the room crying maledictions at the top of her voice. The shin armor alone had proven worth the cost of the entire suit.

I said, "I'm going to stop the invasion. Look for your whistle, you probably dropped it on the floor."

She stopped, her toe forgotten. A hand flew up in search. "It's gone!" Then the hand disappeared inside her bodice. "It's not here!" Frantically, she hobbled around the room peering under furniture and in corners.

I stepped into the hall and barricaded the door. Beckoning to a servant, I handed him a gold piece. "This door is not to be opened under any circumstances. Not until I return or until you hear of my untimely passing. Do you understand?" For emphasis I pantomimed a man being hung.

He gulped. "I understand, Your Lordship."

I could still hear her banging on the door and cursing me as I left the inn on Old Bravo. What to do with her if I returned?

Confining her in a convent would be the logical solution but she'd probably have the nuns swearing like troopers within a month.

In town I made a brief announcement. The Wet Babylonians began an exodus which rivaled that of rats abandoning a sinking ship. Then I turned Old Bravo toward the Frog's Neck Road.

The pennant, bearing the escutcheon of the House of St. George snapped bravely on the end of my lance. Once on the Frog's Neck, I inserted two fingers in my mouth and tried a whistle in imitation of the one Ez had emitted at the foot of the alcohol geyser. No mirages swarmed to my side. Evidently, only witches had the capability of summoning them.

If the Drys had not already passed around the barrier, I could have used a mirage to make a detour with. As it was, I'd have to wait for them on this side. What next? I examined the whistle I'd removed from Ez while kissing her. There seemed to be nothing to distinguish it from any other whistle I'd ever seen. I placed it between my lips and blew. Nothing. It needed time, of course.

Lawn sharks continued to roil the meadows on both sides of the road. Apparently they never slept. The moon was so bright I could distinguish every flower, every blade of grass that I passed. The Drys did not seem to ever have heard of the element of surprise in warfare. Or, with their overwhelming firepower, decided to dispense with it. I could hear the horns blaring and the drums beating long before I sighted them. They were undoubtedly on this side of the barricade.

When they came in sight, I could see flames as the Great Suprenzis opened and closed their mouths. The Salvation bands were mounted on their backs, from which I inferred that the eels were tone deaf or simply deaf.

An angry voice intruded on my musings "You no-good! You deceiving! You conniving virgin... you..!" Ez blocked the road astride her broom. I wondered how long it would take her to think of the window.

"You forgot 'nincompoop'" I said.

"You nincompoop! What did you do with my whistle?"

"It's in a safe place."

"Do you know what you've done?"

I tried to nod but the helmet defeated me. "I think I do."

The Suprenzi eels drew to a halt less than a dozen feet away. "Surrender in the name of Dry Babylon!"

A breeze unfurled my pennant. The House of St. George unveiled itself to their commanding officer. He stepped down from his eel and approached us, his voice no longer quite so commanding.

"Your Lordship, my humblest apologies... we didn't..."

I cut him off. "I'm well aware of it."

A darkness fell over us, the pizza was descending. It's area was so great as to almost block out the moon. The dry soldiers began to panic.

I shouted, "Hold fast. Anyone who deserts will be hanged." Sweeping Ez out of the way, I spurred Old Bravo toward the eels. No one questioned my assumption of command. I motioned with my lance. "Wait until it descends very low."

The pizza sent out an exploratory tentacle. I pointed, "Give it a blast."

The soldier I directed turned the head of his eel toward the tentacle. He yanked on a lanyard attached to its nose. The eel opened its mouth and a stream of flame played across the road neatly severing the tentacle. It threshed like a dying python and convulsed off the road into the meadow. Immediately it vanished underground in the mouth of a lawn shark.

Surprised and possibly in pain, the pizza reacted by withdrawing the stump of the tentacle. It descended a few more yards in search of its tormentor.

"Get their heads up," I shouted to the eel captains.

The two or three minutes seemed like centuries. The odor of the wounded pizza was cloying. The stench it emitted seemed to be a barometer of its excitement.

"Now!" I yelled.

Flames spurted from a dozen mouths. Great gaps appeared in the aerial monstrosity. A yellow ichor rained from its wounds. Mortally stricken, It lurched frantically and crashed Into the meadow, bubbling like a giant cauldron.

A lawn shark tore a bite out of the rim. Another leapt high out of the turf and landed in the middle of the pizza. It clapped its edges together like a closing fist. We could see the frenzied movements of the shark as it threshed futiley Inside the great crust. Other sharks swarmed to the attack.

The pizza was dying. It groped a tentacle across the road. A watchful eel captain flamed it into a crisp. More sharks arrived. Their appetites were unbelievable.

"They'll be hungry again a few minutes after they've finished," one of the captains remarked.

He was right. The last fragment disappeared beneath the soil, disputed by two sharks. They continued to mill expectantly.

I asked, "What was it?"

"I don't know, Your Lordship. Something on the order of the mirages I suspect, but solid."

"Do you think these things are being produced by some great oven?"

The commander did not know. "It's possible but it's the only one I've heard of. Perhaps there is a counterpart to the great distillery of the Wets. I just don't know." He shrugged. "But now, thanks to you, we can march on Wet Babylon without casualties."

"There will be no march. Tear down the barrier and return to your homes. It is not to be re-erected." They had dismantled it in part to cross into Wet territory.

The commander opened his mouth to protest. His face blanched as he looked at me. "Y... yes, Your Lordship." He averted his eyes.

I looked around; Ez had vanished.

The material comprising the barricade was hurled into the meadow. I remained long enough to ascertain my order was obeyed to the letter. When the last fragment was disposed of and the last Dry departed, I nudged Old Bravo and we passed over the spot where formerly it had stood. I declined an invitation from the commander to coffee and doughnuts.

Ez knew how and where the pizza was created. Probably she was its creator. Certainly she was its master. I examined the whistle again. It was, I guessed, similar to those which emitted a supersonic call the kind heard by animals but inaudible to humans.

She controlled the monster with it, of course. I had accidently summoned the pizza in that moment of pique when I had blown the whistle. In the same way Ez led her pet away from us. Her actions weren't quiet as heroic as we had imagined them to be. She'd been too far away for any of us to see what she was doing but that is what must have happened. I crushed the whistle and hurled it into the meadow.

Our meeting by the geyser was not accidental, of that I am sure. Nor had she been drunk. No one can flip jellybeans into their mouth astride a horse unless they were in perfect command. Perhaps some day I will encounter her again and she'd be much harder to overcome. She will not underestimate me a second time.

What were her objectives? Personal gain - what else! Ez would have had both towns at her mercy in another raid or two. She'd have demonstrated her ability to control the monster before both town mayors and they'd have been happy to pay tribute to her. To her credit. I didn't think she was greedy for material goods or ambitious for power. She wanted three square meals a day - when she wanted them. Not when she could find them. Ez probably also wanted a cozy room at night and a warm dry corner to prop her broom in. Not unreasonable desires but her approach toward obtaining them had resulted in deaths and property damages.

"Ah well!" I thought, I admitted that I missed her. She was the most exciting woman I'd ever met. What would she have been like as mistress of my castle? I shuddered; etiquette and protocol would take a frightful beating.

I pushed these thoughts aside. "Perhaps some day! But for now, onward Old Bravo! Onward to greater adventure and glory."

The End

Copyright 2003 Albert J Manachino

(Story courtesy of John M. Peters, john@the-borderland.co.uk, Archive)

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