Mission To Oz
Part Three: The Cowardly Lion
It was dark when they left T'Pol's cottage, but after some fierce negotiation between her and Archer she had agreed to provide lanterns for the three of them so they could continue their journey without delay. By now Archer was certain that whatever it was that was going on it certainly wasn't any ordinary dream and he'd have to play along with it and meet the illustrious Wizard Called Phlox if he was ever going to get back to the normalcy of being on Enterprise.
He had to admit, if only to himself, that he wasn't enjoying their trip through the dark forest though. The lanterns were a help but illuminated very little as the trees grew denser and blocked out what little moonlight there was. Archer held Porthos close, cuddled to his chest as Trip bounded cheerily ahead, unheeding of the dangers and T'Pol hogged the largest, brightest lantern.
With so little to look at, Archer found his sense of hearing sharpened; every creak of a branch in the breeze became a portent of something large and scary coming for them. His own breathing seemed unfeasibly loud and ragged; their footsteps dull and thunderous.
"Hey, guys stop a moment, I hear somethin'!"
Instantly Archer and T'Pol stopped, Archer also holding his breath to keep silent. It took a few moments, but he heard it. Trip was right, there was a noise and it sounded like someone crying. "I hear it."
"I have been aware of the noise for some time. It's coming from directly ahead of us."
"Why didn't you say anything," Archer demanded.
T'Pol replied calmly, "It is irrelevant to our journey. The noise is not threatening."
"Someone could be hurt. Come on, Cap'n, we gotta go help."
Archer chased after the younger man as he launched onward into the darkness, his lantern bobbing wildly as he went, casting eerie shadows. The snuffling noises of someone sobbing got louder until a figure could be seen hunched at the side of the road.
At the same time as the travellers saw the figure, the figure saw them and shuffled back on his bottom into the shadows.
"Don't you come any closer!" a frightened British voice, thick with tears called out of the darkness. "I'm not afraid of you, you know. I'm... I'm... armed and... and... dangerous." There was a vaguely revolting sound of someone blowing their nose, and a few small whimpers. "I'll tear you all to pieces if you come any closer. I will. Honest."
Archer glanced at his two companions. Trip looked confused but was clearly not going to move a step further, for once waiting for Archer to decide how to proceed. T'Pol was managing to look bored without noticeably changing her expression.
"Er, Malcolm, is that you?"
"I didn't tell you my name, how do you know who I am? Answer me, or I'll... come out there and... then you'll be sorry," he finished rather limply.
"Lucky guess? Look, none of us are going to hurt you. Why don't you come out and we can all introduce ourselves...?"
"Yeah, come on out and say hi, you big 'fraidy cat!"
"Trip, I don't think that's helping," muttered Archer.
There was an indignant sniffle from beyond the tree line. "I am not a 'fraidy cat."
"You are cowering and crying, it is a logical assumption that you are indeed scared. If you wish to disprove this theory you will show yourself."
"Come on out, Malcolm," Archer tried again, gentling his voice to sound as unthreatening as possible. "We're all friends here."
"We are not."
"T'Pol, shush up, will ya?"
"Okay," the voice from the dark said, "But stand back, and no sudden movements, alright? Or... I'll have to attack you. And that would be... bad."
There was a brief moment filled with nothing but scuffing, rustling noises and then the figure of Malcolm Reed appeared in the lamplight. Like Archer's other companions, Reed looked like himself but for his clothing. He wore a very smart and well-pressed shiny blue military uniform, only a little dirtied from sitting on the ground, and looked like quite the model officer - if you ignored the puffy eyes and snotty nose.
"You are a soldier in the army of the Dilithium City?" T'Pol asked dubiously.
"Yes, I am. And I'm big and I'm tough, and I could kill you all with a look." He narrowed his eyes and squinted viciously at them.
Trip burst out laughing.
"How dare you mock an officer of His Wonderfulness's army! I should arrest you for treason!" Although Reed made absolutely no move to do any such thing.
"Hold on," Archer said, stepping between the two men and wincing as Reed automatically shied away from him. "You're part of The Wizard's army? You know where he is?"
"Of course I do. The Wizard lives in the centre of the Dilithium City at the end of the yellow brick road. Everyone knows that!"
"I didn't," said Trip, leaning around the side of the captain.
"Then you're an idiot," Reed rejoined.
"Yup. Gonna ask The Wizard for some smarts. T'Pol's gettin' a heart and the cap'n and his doggy want to go home."
"Captain?" Reed squeaked, rearing back further. "We're being invaded! Oh dear, now I really do have to-"
"Kill me? Really, you don't. I'm not invading, I just want to end this madness and get back to my ship." Archer sighed. It had been a very long, very strange day. "Is the Dilithium City close?"
Reed considered this, cleary relieved to change the subject. "It's pretty close, I suppose. We were just outside the city walls when we were attacked and that was at sundown, and then I ran, um, I marched here."
"Attacked?" Archer queried.
"Oh, it was dreadful. Winged monkeys. Enormous, vicious brutes they were; minions of The Wicked Witch of the West. We had intel from Munchkin Town that The Wicked Witch of the East had been assassinated and we were sent on a mission to retrieve the Ruby Boots for His Wonderfulness. The monkeys were no doubt dispatched to stop us." He shuddered. "They are truly horrid, you know."
"So you ran away," asked T'Pol.
"My dear lady, it was a tactical retreat."
"Surely if it were a retreat you would have headed back to the city and not out to the forest?" she countered.
Reed blushed. "It was a fraught situation. You have no idea."
"Never mind that. We have a more pressing concern." Archer adjusted his hold on Porthos so that he could point down to the boots he was wearing. "These monkey things are going to be after me soon enough."
Three sets of eyes stared fixedly on the Ruby Boots.
"That is your problem, not mine."
"Good grief, we're all going to die!"
"They're real pretty though. Shiny."
Archer fought down the urge to scream. As usual he'd have to take control of the situation, the captain always having to do everything. Although he fancied that Porthos at least looked sympathetic.
"We need to get to the city as soon as possible. Give Phlox-"
"The Wonderful Wizard Called Phlox," all three corrected him.
"Whatever. I give him the boots, then The Wicked Witch is his problem, right?"
"Er," Reed started, looking uncomfortable, "I don't think I'll be joining you, actually. I don't think I'm going to be welcome in the city anymore. My retreat wasn't exactly what you'd call sanctioned protocol."
"If he's as wonderful as his publicity people say, I'm sure The Wizard would forgive you," said Archer.
"Perhaps, if you showed appropriate contrition, The Wizard would give you some courage, so you don't feel the need to 'retreat' in future."
"You really think so?" Reed smiled. "That would be awfully nice." He coughed. "Not that I need it though."
They all politely declined to comment.
"Right, let's go." But barely had Archer gone two metres when the sky seemed to fall on them. The air filled with the slapping sound of gigantic wings and the cackling of monkeys laughing. He felt powerful fingers grab at his shoulders, pinching painfully as he was lifted bodily above the yellow brick road. He struggled to get Porthos tucked inside of his uniform as he thrashed wildly in the monster's grip, but all that did was anger the beast. He felt a fist slam into his face and passed out to the sound of his friends screaming.