They had the book.
It is an old book, not leather-bound, but covered with that stiff, almost cloth-like material that had a crosshatch kind of texture. The pages were yellowed and irregularly trimmed, some of them were loose just tucked in, others had been loose once, but had since been taped or glued into place.
There are five of them.
One is a woman who was the only person in the world who could read the book. She'd been a princess whose father had hired them to bring the book to him. When she'd heard he planned to reward their efforts with a knife in the back, she'd run off to warn them and had, due to time and experience and adventure and multiple reciprocal life savings, become part of the team.
There is a woman with tattoos on her face who'd always been a fighter from a land where fighting was frowned upon, and so joined for the thrill. She stood a good foot and a half taller than the tallest man in the group (and most men on average) and, when the odd drunken or stupid stranger with a death wish made comments, she'd look them over casually and say,
"I've killed people taller than you."
-and the comments would stop.
There is a man who was short-- barely up to the shoulders of most other men-- who had bright red hair, bright green eyes, a beard that looked scruffy even when it was cut short, and a knack for throwing fire. He didn't say where he was from aside from "the mountains," and if the group ever noticed that, sometimes, when he was upset, green scales would appear around the edges of his eyes and on his knuckles, or that occasionally when he slept and dreamt, smoke trickled out of his nostrils and his nails turned to claws, they're too polite to mention.
There is a man who is good with languages, even ones nobody speaks anymore, and is handy with a knife. He used to be a librarian, and though they occasionally make fun of him for it, they still show him respect. He doesn't let them know how grateful he is to be there.
The last is the man who knows things. They don't know how he knows things, but he does. He is old. Not decrepitly so, but old enough that he's got a bit of a stoop, and the top of his head is completely bald. They don't know where he came from or why he's there, but they don't need to know. He's never steered them wrong, and though they're curious, they know a person's past is their own.
They walk along a path at the edge of a cliff. Below them is a river lined thickly with green, leafy plants of unknown species. It is a long drop-- a hundred feet if it's an inch, and probably a lot more than that. The cliff and river are an oddity; the land around them is flat, grassy plains, with no mountains in sight. The canyon is narrow and cuts through the land like a wound, and it doesn't seem as though it should have any business being there. The sun shines brightly above, though the air on the plains is cool. The air from the canyon, however, is hot and humid and difficult to breath.
"Like a rainforest," said the man who knows things. "Terrible. It's not the heat, it's the humidity."
Before anyone can answer, a gust of hot wind blows out of the canyon. The ground shakes, and they all stumble. None of them fall, but in the jolt the book slips from the librarian's fingers. It goes tumbling over the edge of the cliff. They can do nothing but watch as it falls and falls and falls down into the canyon below, missing the plants and landing straight into the river.
They cannot lose the book. Even as they watch it hit the water with a barely perceptible splash and then vanish from sight, they know they cannot lose the book.
The fire-thrower is the first one to jump, perhaps, the man who knows things thinks, because he has taken flying leaps like this before once upon a time. The woman with tattoos around her eyes and around her neck jumps after with a scream. It's not a scream of fear, but a wordless scream of "why the hell not?"
The formerly misplaced, but now very well placed, princess follows suit, but her scream is one of fear. The former librarian flops forward, off the side of the cliff.
"You idiots!" shouts the man who knows things. He kicks a nearby rock in impotent frustration, then follows the others off the side.
They all splash into the river.
It doesn't hurt. The man who knows things knows that, from the height they were at, the water should've been hard as concrete. It should've snapped their necks and broken ever bone in their bodies. Instead, they fall in as though it has been only a few inches away rather than hundreds of feet. But there is something wrong with the water. They cannot swim upwards, they are only dragged downwards. They try and try to reach the surface, but something has turned everything around, and they soon realize that by trying to go upwards, they are going downwards. So they turn and swim in the other direction.
They break the surface of the water with gasps and find that, while this place, too, is vibrant and green, it's also full of flowers. Instead of being a wild river between two cliffs, it's now a wide, calm river in the flatlands. The sides are neatly paved with pink-red brick. Every few dozen feet, there are steps someone had thoughtfully put in. periodically, in the middle of the water, there are bricked in miniature islands with flowering trees in the middle. Everything is bright and colored in pastel shades. It looks like a sugar-spun painting.
They stand. The water is shallow. It only goes up to their waists, now, and it's comfortably warm, heated by the now-shining sun. Somewhere music is playing.
"Where are we?" asks the woman with tattoos on her face. The tattoos move curiously, swirling into the shapes of question marks.
They all turn to look at the man who knows things.
He stares at the pastel world, aghast. "No!" he says.
"What?" they ask.
The red-headed man spies the book floating ahead. He grins and swims over and picks it up.
"Got it," he says, lifting it over his head. It's waterlogged, but still perfectly legible, though nobody but the princess can read what it says.
The music gets louder, gets closer, and before they know what's happened, they are surrounded by singing, dancing people, of all shapes and sizes- some going up only to the knees- all dressed in ridiculous pastel clothing.
"No!" shouts the man who knows things. "No, no, no! Stop it! Stop this nonsense immediately!"
"What's wrong?" the group asks him.
"The singing! I hate this stupid place."
"Do they sing a lot?" asks the former librarian.
"All the flipping time! Hey, you!" he shouts to a group of nearby munchkins. He strides to the ends of the river with as much dignity as he can muster. "Stop singing."
They laugh, apparently unused to seeing someone so angry and finding it funny.
"I mean it-"
A few dancing people laugh and grab him, dragging him out of the water and into their celebration.
"Unhand me immediately!"
The rest of the group climb onto shore and try pull him away from the dancers, only to get sucked into the chaos themselves. People spin them and push them and drag them until, when the crowd finally disperses, they are left on a bricked pavilion with the river nowhere in sight. The ground is patterned like a swirl, with one yellow stripe and one red one.
The man who knows things checks the pockets of his long black robe. "Bastards!" he says. "They took my wallet!"
The others check themselves. They, too, are missing their wallets and cash.
"I hate this place," says the man who knows things. He examines the roads leading from the spiral pavilion. "Okay. I don't know what version of Oz this is," he says, as though it makes sense. "Doesn't look like the books, more like the musical. Not the one focusing on that green lass, though I guess it could be. Certainly doesn't look like her book; not enough desolation and depression. Way too sunny."
He sees their confused expressions. "Sorry. But the point is, I've got an idea where we are, even if the details are muggy. We just need to follow the road and, hopefully, that'll get us outta here. you still got the book? yeah? Good. let's go."
He walks off. They start walking, too. He stops.
"Where are you going?" he says.
They all blink and look. Without noticing it or knowing why, they were all heading down the road with yellow bricks.
"Not that one," he says. "Nothing down there but heartache and more musical numbers. Come one, this way." He starts off down the road with red bricks. They shrug it off and follow him.
"Where does this road lead?" asks the princess-turned-adventurer.
"Well, depending on which where we are, it'll either lead to Quadling Country, which is just as ridiculous as the rest of this place, the edge of the world, or Nowhere, since it's not meant to exist."
"And if it's Nowhere?"
"That's our best shot. We get to Nowhere, and then try to find the middle. You can go anywhere from the middle of Nowhere."
"And if it's not nowhere?"
He scowled at the prospect. "Then that means we have to walk all the way back, follow that yellow one, go on some silly adventure and be sung at by ninnies before finally getting home through some as-of-yet unknown means that we had with us the whole time. And I really hope that isn't the case, because I don't know about you, but I'd rather get home now, rather than later."
The road doesn't last long. The farther they get from the start, the rougher the terrain becomes. Plants are less flowery and more bristly, with thorns and spines and unwelcoming jagged leaves. Weeds start springing up between bricks, and the bricks themselves become uneven and rough, as though they were laid improperly. Farther on, they start going missing, with the occasional empty place in the road. Farther on from that, there is a transition where slowly but surely there are more bricks missing than present.
The air grows thin. The group breathes harder, some of them wheezing audibly. Their movements become more sluggish. The only exceptions are the princess and the man with the red hair; those two are used to higher altitudes.
The man who knows things stops walking. He hunches over, holding himself up with his hands on his knees. "Hang a mo," he wheezes. "Just lemme catch my breath..."
The others stop, but before they can voice their concern, the road stirs.
The bricks rattle and hop and roll back towards the way the group had come, as though trying to run away. A lot of things happen at once. The librarian tries to grab a brick and stop it, but the brick drags him along the ground. Without thinking, the princess dives after him, trying to stop the two. The brick ignores the added weight and pulls the both of them along.
The red-haired man pounces on a brick as well, eyes gleaming. He lands on the brick with all the grace of a cat. Both hands and feet on top of it, and for a second is looks as though he's got it, but then it suddenly shoots upwards, throwing him off balance and sending him toppling backwards.
The woman with the tattoos stabs one brick with a knife whose blade hums when she draws it. The knife cuts through the brick as though it were butter instead of stone, and the two halves of brick roll away with their fellows.
"Stop it, you ninnies!" The man who knows things has found his breath. "Let the damn things go!"
The librarian gratefully lets go of the brick, and it rolls away, leaving him and the princess in the dust. The group grumbles and gather themselves up.
"Now what?" The tattooed woman says.
The old man who knows things looks around. "Guess this is good a place as any." He holds his hand out to the side without looking. "Book."
The red-haired man hands it to him.
The man who knows things opens the book. he cannot read the script-- the words twist and swim, constantly changing shapes-- but he flips through the pages until he comes across one with a picture he recognizes. He gives the book to the princess and says, "Read that as loud as you can."
The princess does as she's asked and starts reading the words that, to her, look clear as day. The group tries to hear what she is saying, but they hear nothing. To them, it looks as though she is just mouthing the words.
In front of the group, the air rips open. A tear in the universe manifests, and through it they can see the plains from which they came. The man who knows things smiles, relieved.
"Alright, crew," he says to the others, pointing to the portal. "Everybody out. You can stop reading that now, it won't go away."
The princess closes the book. She and the librarian go first; he tries to insist she go, but she grabs his hand and drags him through with her. Then the red-haired man hops in. The woman with tattoos goes next. last is the old man who knows things. He gives the world around him one last look and says,
And he's through with the rest of them. A few minutes after they've left, the rip stitches itself back together, and there's nothing left to show they had ever been there.