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Age of Bronze

The Salt Sorcerer of Oz
By Eric Shanower
Excerpt from Oz-story #4

"Funny smell hereabouts," murmured Kabumpo, the elegant elephant of Oz, as he travelled through the forest, his large body swaying from side to side. He raised his long trunk into the air and sniffed again. "Rotten eggs or something."

Suddenly the sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy dimmed.

"EEEEEE-YOWCH!" screamed Kabumpo, springing into the air as a hot rain, stinking sharply of sulfur, drenched him. Its odor choked him. His eyes teared so that he could hardly see, but he dodged among the trees, flattening underbrush as he tried to escape the hot downpour.

All at once the rain stopped. With a terrific sigh of relief Kabumpo sank to his knees. The forest around him steamed. He peered defiantly between branches into a cloudless sky.

"What a crazy shower that was," Kabumpo groaned. "And just my luck, too. My cloak is ruined! At least it's only my fifth-best cloak. The purple velvet won't show much damage, but the silver tassels will never flutter the same again."

He recalled fondly the clean snap of his freshly laundered cloak as he had set off that morning down Sun Top Mountain after a delightful month spent visiting his friends Pompa and Peg Amy.

Now he flung his trunk over one massive shoulder to draw off the sodden cloak, but he gagged on the sulfurous odor that clung to the velvet. With a sigh he stood, only to face a new problem. In his mad dash to escape the rain, he had become lost in the forest.

"Seems to me that elephants are too big to get lost, but here I am, wherever here is. First thing to do is find some fresh water -- a stream or brook, even a puddle -- to wash this awful stink off. I certainly can't go home to Pumperdink smelling like this. But of course, as soon as I'm clean, it'll probably rain some- thing worse."

Choosing a direction at random, Kabumpo started out. The forest floor squished beneath his huge feet. Leaves dripped hot water down his neck.

Suddenly, an unseen force clamped onto his body and dragged him backward. Kabumpo trumpeted in surprise, and dug in with his toenails, but it was no use. It was as if a giant, invisible hand was drawing him through the forest. He flung his trunk around a tree, but with an awful rip, the tree tore up by the roots. Helpless to stop himself, he careened along the forest floor, banging into trees, and wondering where this strange journey was taking him.

The trees he now slid past sprouted bright yellow parasols instead of leaves, but Kabumpo had only a moment to register surprise before he was drawn swiftly into a clearing. His backside slammed into something hard, and his strange trip was over.

A sharp cry of delight startled Kabumpo. Dancing toward him came a strange, bent old man composed of a hard, white substance that glittered in the sunlight. His long beard was an explosion of stiff, white points. Over his shoulders flowed a hooded robe of navy blue studded with white geometric shapes. On his feet he wore red rubber boots. He danced nearer, crying happily, "It worked! It worked!"

Kabumpo snorted. "Pray tell, sir," he said with as much sarcasm as he could muster, "who is responsible for my present position?"

"Oh, how clever of me to turn Clank into a magic magnet!" The man clasped white hands together and looked Kabumpo up and down, white eyes nearly popping in appreciation. "How large! How wrinkled! I'd never suspect such a curiosity as this would be the solution to my problem."

Kabumpo lashed his trunk in anger. "I believe you are sadly mistaken. I am Kabumpo, the elegant elephant of Oz, not a solution. Release me at once. At once, do you hear?!"

"Certainly, certainly -- you can't help me while you're stuck to Clank." The man drew a small white container from the folds of his robe and walked behind Kabumpo who craned his neck to watch. The man sprinkled a shower of white grains over the unseen object that held Kabumpo. The elephant pulled free.

"Good-bye! May we never meet again!" said Kabumpo. He stalked toward the forest, then hesitated. Which way was Pumperdink?

"Wait! Wait!" cried the man. "If you leave, I'll just have to draw you back." He held the white container poised to shake.

Now it was Kabumpo's turn to cry "Wait! Wait!" He turned to stop the man, then spotted what he'd been drawn to. It was a figure of smooth gray metal, taller than the man. Heavy joints held plate-like arms and legs to its rectangular body. A slab of metal joined cleverly between the shoulders served as a head. Formations on its face suggested eyes, nose and mouth. "What is that?" Kabumpo asked in wonder.

"It's Clank," said the man. "He's my servant, the best magic I ever performed. He doesn't say much, but he's obedient and useful. I turned him into a magnet to attract the solution to my problem -- and Clank drew you here. Clank, say hello to Kabumpo, the elegant elephant of Oz."

The right hand of the metal figure reached out and squeezed the end of Kabumpo's trunk. Kabumpo howled in pain. "Hello," said Clank in a deep monotone. He released the trunk.

"Quite a grip," gasped Kabumpo, trying to ignore the throbbing in his trunk.

"He has to be strong to work in the salt mines," said the white man. "Salt, you see, is the main ingredient in my type of magic."

"What type is that?" asked Kabumpo.

"Salt magic," said the man. "But never mind. You must get busy solving my problem."

Kabumpo eyed the man scornfully. "What makes you think I have time to go around solving other people's problems, Mr. -- what is your name, anyway?"

"My name is Aa," said the man.

Kabumpo waited. "Well, go ahead, tell me your name," he said.

"My name is Aa," said the man again.

"Can't you remember your name?" asked Kabumpo, annoyed.

"My name is Aa! Aa!" The man waved his arms in frustration.

Kabumpo frowned. "Why do you keep saying 'Ah -- Ah -- '?"

"Aa is my name!" cried the man, clapping his hands to his forehead.

"Ah?"

"Aa! Big 'A' -- little 'a' -- Aa!"

"Oh!" Kabumpo shook his head and chuckled. "That's your name -- Aa."

"Yes," said the man. "My name has a long and distinguished history. You'll find it at the beginning of every alphabet book. I'm the one and only Salt Sorcerer of Oz. Since I live in this secluded spot I'm not widely known, yet here I'll stay. It suits me perfectly. I can concentrate without interruption on developing my salt magic. And the rainfall here is next to nothing. I can't abide rain since I'm made of salt. At the touch of water I start to dissolve, so you can imagine the calamity when last week it started to rain every day. And what rain!"

"Hot rain with a smell of sulfur?" asked Kabumpo.

"So you've encountered it, too," said Aa. "I'm not a rain expert -- I avoid it at all costs -- but isn't such a rain unusual?"

"Very," said Kabumpo with a groan. "Look what it did to my cloak."

"Look what it did to me!" said Aa. He pulled off his left boot to show a malformed stub of a foot. "When the rain started last week, I was caught outside. I ran to my house, but my feet, in running over the wet ground, began to dissolve. They've grown back a little and eventually they'll be back to normal, but I now wear red rubber boots and a thick robe to keep safe."

Kabumpo was shocked to his elegant core. "If you were caught in the rain long enough, you'd be completely washed away!"

"Exactly," said Aa. "That's my greatest fear. I turned the trees around my clearing into parasol trees in case of emergencies, but I've been too frightened to venture very far from home. The rains don't last long, but they arrive with no warning, and increasing frequency. That's the problem I brought you here to solve."

"I'm to prevent the rain from harming you?" said Kabumpo.

"No, no," said Aa. "You must stop it altogether."

Kabumpo found the idea of stopping rain ridiculous, but the Salt Sorcerer seemed convinced of Kabumpo's ability. The elephant possessed a generous nature and hated to see anyone in distress, so he resigned himself to helping Aa. Besides, if he tried to leave, Aa would merely drag him back again.

Fearing that another rain was due any moment, Aa withdrew into his tiny, domed cottage at one side of the clearing. Clank followed and silently set about preparing the Salt Sorcerer's dinner. While Kabumpo talked to Aa through a front window, the hot, sulfurous rain indeed began once more, forcing Kabumpo to huddle beneath a parasol tree until the rain stopped.

Aa ate his dinner of salt-water taffy with great relish. Kabumpo tried a piece, but didn't like it, so Aa, using salt magic, transformed some pebbles into five bushels of bran muffins. Kabumpo found them delicious, though heavily salted. A leaf still damp from the rain became a tub of lemonade, but Kabumpo found it too salty to drink.

"We'll start out at sunrise," said Aa as Kabumpo finished the last twelve muffins at one gulp.

Kabumpo licked his lips. "We?" he said. "You're coming along?"

"Of course," said Aa. "I want to make sure you stop the rain. It would be tiresome to have to keep dragging you back here. And my supply of salt magic may come in handy. Clank will come, too, to carry the umbrella." Aa pointed toward the setting sun. "The rain comes from that direction. We'll head that way to see what we can find."

Kabumpo, deep in thought over the improbable task ahead, watched the sun sink from sight. Then he curled up beneath a large parasol tree to sleep. Intervals of rain awakened him during the night, but the parasols dripped water on him only slightly.

Just after sunrise they set out westward. Aa had picked a yellow parasol and with a sprinkling of magic salt transformed it into a sturdy umbrella large enough to shelter all three travellers from the rain. Clank held the umbrella steadily in his iron grip. Aa's robe, lined with china salt shakers full of magic salts, clicked gently when he moved. With his two riders safely perched on his broad back, Kabumpo strode through the forest, foraging leaves for breakfast.

Twice they were rained on, but the huge umbrella that rode just above the treetops prevented the rain from reaching them.

About mid-morning they reached a river which Kabumpo waded across while Aa screamed in terror. On the far bank Kabumpo set his riders down, then plunged back in.

"Just what I needed," he said, squirting himself with the cool water, "a bath."

Kabumpo rinsed his cloak and inspected it regretfully. It would never be the same, but he wrung it out and draped it over his back, forcing Aa to walk alongside while it dried.

Before mid-afternoon it rained three more times. "You must stop the rain soon, Kabumpo," said Aa. "The more it rains, the greater chance I will meet with a dreadful accident."

"Well, it's stopping now, thank goodness," said Kabumpo, snorting to rid his trunk of the sulfurous odor. "This stink will force me to -- what's that sound?"

A hoarse bawling echoed through the forest.

"Never mind," said Aa. "We need to find the source of the rain."

"It sounds like someone in distress," said Kabumpo. He ignored Aa's protests and head- ed toward the sound.

They emerged from the forest at the foot of a rocky hill. In front of a cave sat a bear of a bright, grass-green hue, crying loudly. The bear had obviously been caught in the downpour because its fur was drenched. So boisterous was its crying that it didn't notice the travellers until Kabumpo asked, "Did the rain burn you?"

The green bear opened its eyes. They were a lovely shade of emerald, but looked as if they had seen a life of hardship. "I'm not burned," answered the bear, "although it's practically a miracle, the rain is so hot. I keep getting caught in the dreadful stuff."

"Why don't you take refuge in the cave?" asked Kabumpo.

"I could," said the bear. "It's my very own cave, although it's so rocky and uncomfortable. But once I'm caught in the rain, there doesn't seem much point in taking refuge."

"Humph," snorted Kabumpo. "That's silly! But if you don't like the rain and you don't like the cave, why don't you go somewhere else?"

"What a cruel fate," said the bear with a groan, "a homeless wanderer on the face of the earth."

"That's not what I meant -- " began Kabumpo, but Aa interrupted.

"Don't worry, you won't have to put up with the rain much longer," said the Salt Sorcerer. "Kabumpo, here, is going to stop it."

The bear looked up hopefully. Then it sighed sadly and shrugged. "You can try to stop the rain," it said, "but I don't believe the Geyser Gremlins will let you."

"Nonsense," snapped Aa, but Kabumpo's curiosity was aroused. "Geyser Gremlins? Who are they?"

"The Geyser Gremlins live on top of Cork Mountain," said the bear. "They release the rain."

Aa perked up. "What?" he demanded. "Do you know where the rain comes from?"

"I do." The bear rolled its eyes mournfully. "Every day the Geyser Gremlins release water from the hot, sulfurous springs that bubble beneath Cork Mountain. In the past the water flowed away without bothering anyone, but now it sprays out over a wide area."

As if to confirm the bear's words, the rain began again. The umbrella sheltered Kabumpo, Aa, and Clank, but the bear quickly became drenched. Tears flowed from its eyes, mingling with the hot raindrops.

"Come get under the umbrella," Kabumpo urged the bear.

"No point," said the bear. "I'm already wet."

"Where is Cork Mountain?" demanded Aa.

"Just over there." The bear waved a paw vaguely westward. "I could show you the way. It'll be dark soon, so I'll stumble around somewhat, but I'm sure I'd eventually lead you to Cork Mountain."

The travellers agreed to let the bear guide them, but they decided to wait until morning before setting out. The bear, whose name was Fardels, offered them its cave for the night. Despite what Fardels had led them to expect, the cave was comfortably lined with soft mosses. The entrance proved a tight fit for Kabumpo, but once inside there was room for all of them.

"If you'd like privacy," said Fardels, "I will sleep outside. I can stand the rain for one night."

"Nonsense," said Aa, "there's plenty of room in here."

The bear was reluctant, but finally gave in. Clank, who didn't sleep, stood silently all night just within the cave's mouth.

 

In the morning Fardels led them in the direction of Cork Mountain. As they travelled, the hot, sulfurous showers increased in frequency. Fardels declined to take refuge beneath the umbrella while it rained, on the grounds it would delay their journey, yet refused Aa's offer to transform a bush into an umbrella for the bear to carry.

"I'm used to being rained on," insisted Fardels. The others gave up trying to help.

Late morning found them descending into a wide, shallow valley. In the center of the valley Cork Mountain loomed. The mountain was shaped like an immense cork set on end. It had vertical sides and a flat top that appeared bare.

Presently Aa asked, "What is that cloud forming around the base of Cork Mountain?"

"That's no cloud, it's rain," said Fardels. "We're close enough now to see it start."

As the travellers watched, what appeared to be a cloud rose from the base of the mountain and spread outward like a haze to cover the sky. A patter of raindrops hit the umbrella, followed immediately by the familiar deluge. When it ended, Cork Mountain stood starkly against the clear sky.

Kabumpo gaped. "I'm supposed to stop that?"

"Impossible," said Fardels. "Give up now."

"No," said Aa. "Kabumpo can do it and Kabumpo will!"

So they continued on, drawing ever nearer Cork Mountain. By mid-afternoon it towered above them.

"What are those?" asked Kabumpo.

Climbing headfirst down the vertical face of Cork Mountain were dozens of golden-brown creatures with spidery arms and legs. They each seemed perhaps a yard tall, covered with thick, leathery skin. Their grinning mouths, pointed noses, and glaring eyes lent them an air of menace, heightened by the fright-wig patches of fur sprouting from their heads and necks. Each carried a long, metal bar.

"Geyser Gremlins!" said Fardels.

The Geyser Gremlins reached the base of Cork Mountain and encircled it. In unison they shoved their bars under boulders that ringed the mountain, and levered the boulders upward. With a blast of steam and a smell of sulfur, a wall of boiling water burst from beneath the boulders.

The water completely overshot Kabumpo and his companions, but the heat and the odor were so oppressive that Kabumpo and Fardels quailed.

"No! No!" cried Aa, pounding Kabumpo's back. "Don't stand here quaking! Stop them!"

Kabumpo thundered forward. As the water died away the Gremlins dropped the boulders into place. They sprang monkeylike onto the mountainside and, clinging with clawlike fingers and toes, scampered up its face.

Kabumpo stretched out his trunk and grabbed one Geyser Gremlin who was not as quick as his fellows. Without pause the Gremlin shoved his metal bar between Kabumpo's trunk and his own body. He pried the trunk away. Quick as a wink the Gremlin shot from Kabumpo's grasp and darted up the mountainside out of reach.

Kabumpo frowned up indignantly at the retreating Geyser Gremlin. His trunk felt as if it had been stretched out of shape. He stuck it into his mouth to suck. After several minutes of contemplation, Kabumpo removed his trunk and lifted Aa and Clank from his back. "I want to examine those boulders at the base of the mountain," he explained to Aa, "and I don't want you in the way of any sudden explosion of water."

Kabumpo poked and pushed at the boulders fruitlessly. He placed his forehead against one and pushed with all his prodigious weight. The boulder would not shift even slightly.

Fardels sighed. "I told you it was impossible." The green bear eyed the Salt Sorcerer. "You'll have to come wander the wide earth with me."

"I won't be pushed out of my home," said Aa firmly.

"Hummm-kerumph," snorted Kabumpo. "I suspect some sort of mysterious magic to this business. And if there's one thing I don't like monkeying with, it's mysterious magic."

"It only means trouble," agreed Fardels.

"Nonsense!" said Aa.

Clank's unblinking eyes stared up toward the summit of Cork Mountain. "To stop rain, must stop Gremlins," said Clank. "Gremlins on mountain top. Must reach mountain top."

"The mountain top?" said Kabumpo. "You can't expect me to climb a vertical wall!"

Aa was pleased. "That's a long speech for Clank, but a wise one. Kabumpo, prepare to ascend Cork Mountain."

Before Kabumpo could protest, the Salt Sorcerer directed Clank to set the giant umbrella upside-down next to the mountain wall. Then Aa climbed over the side of the umbrella and slid down its inner curve to the central stem. Clank followed Aa.

"What do you think you're doing?" asked Kabumpo, puzzled.

"Isn't it obvious?" said Aa. "By virtue of my magic, this umbrella will carry us to the top of Cork Mountain. Climb in."

Kabumpo eyed the umbrella skeptically. It had served them well so far, but would it carry his weight to such a height?

"Don't worry," said Aa. "I'll give it an extra dose of magic salt."

Kabumpo turned to Fardels. "Will you join us on this crazy ride, or flee while you're still in one piece?"

"I would rather turn back," said the bear, "but you might need me again. Of course, if the umbrella gives out halfway up the mountain and we're dashed to bits, it won't matter."

"Hurry if you're coming," called Aa. "The umbrella must cross the trajectory of the water, so we must start the ascent before the Geyser Gremlins return."

Kabumpo followed Fardels into the umbrella, taking care to step as far into it as possible so that he would not flip the others out. As they settled into the center, Aa withdrew a salt shaker from the folds of his robe. He muttered cryptic phrases and shook generous amounts of magic salt around the interior. The salt dissolved into the tough fabric of the umbrella.

With a jerk, the umbrella shot upward at a dizzying speed. Aa tumbled to the floor. The salt shaker flew from his hand, scattering clouds of magic salt.

Kabumpo, splayed out by the force of the ascent, watched the side of Cork Mountain flash past. "Can't you slow this thing down?" he called, but Aa was too busy struggling for his loose salt shaker. It rolled and bounced away as if it were alive.

"I knew we'd never make it," cried Fardels, pointing upward. "Look!"

Over the edge of the mountaintop poured a mass of Geyser Gremlins armed with their long, metal bars. Kabumpo was sure the Gremlins meant to attack, but they flashed by down the mountainside on their way to make it rain.

Aa screamed and pointed toward the rapidly approaching mountain top. Kabumpo realized their danger -- in another moment the umbrella would shoot past the mountaintop and carry its passengers into space!


Continued in Oz-story #4
Copyright © 1998 Eric Shanower. All rights reserved.

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