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  • Writer's pictureRhiannon Bird

Poisonous Heart

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

**Just for some context this story appeared in an anthology which imagines that in the wizard of Oz Dorothy and her friends (Scarecrow, Lion and Tinman) have taken over the emerald city. They are reigning as tyrants and the order of Arcana are trying to overthrow her. They are even starting to enlist outside help.**

Angus held out the boxing gloves between his thumb and forefinger as far away from his body as he could hold them. He looked from them to his Dad and back. “You can’t be serious.”

“It’ll be fun.” Dad said excitedly.

“Yeah last time you said that I got this.” Angus pointed to his cheek and the tiny scar that ran down it. That had been from Dad’s fishing adventure which ended with a hook in his cheek.

Dad gave Angus a sheepish look, “That was an accident.”

“And before that it was the white water rafting.” This time Angus pointed to a scratch that ran up his forearm.

“This’ll be fun I promise.”

Angus shook his head. Him and his Dad had, up until a few years ago been almost spitting images of each other. Wiry frames, brown wavy hair, dark eyes and glasses. Now his father had started to go bald and had acquired a potbelly. Not soon after the torrent of new obsessions, a new one every few weeks. Whenever Angus visited Kansas he got dragged along to whatever the said activity was.

“I don’t know.” Angus could already see his nose being broken on this endeavor.

Dad was practically rocking on his feet, “There’s a class this afternoon.”

“Oh.” Angus couldn’t keep the unenthused tone out of his voice. “I actually have a meeting tonight.”

“You do? Aren’t you on holiday?”

Angus nodded, the words had left his mouth before he’d thought them through. “I got a call a while back. The reception was pretty bad but they were inviting me out to Kansas, said they had a special job for me. I thought I’d hear them out.” None of which was a lie, though he hoped they would be okay if he just dropped by. He would never move back to Kansas but it was worth it to get out of boxing with his father.

“But you love your job and the,” Dad waved a hand searching for the word then gave up and finished lamely, “plants.”

Angus flashed him a smile, he’d always tried hard to keep up with everything that Angus was doing but it had never been his forte. Angus had always appreciated him trying. “My toxicology study, is very close to my heart. But it can’t hurt to hear what they have to say.” He shrugged.

“Right you are. Maybe the university will hear about this and give you a bonus so that you stay with them.”

He really didn’t know what he was talking about, not that it bothered Angus so he just said “Exactly.”

Angus tried to hand him back the gloves and Dad shook his head saying, “Keep them, I’ll sign us up for the Friday class.”

Angus opened his mouth then snapped it shut, he was too excited for Angus to shoot him down. Instead he conceded, “Sounds good Dad.”

“I’ll send you the details inside the DM.”

“Okay.” Angus said laughing. He headed outside into the heat and raced over to his little beat up hatchback. It was a compact little green thing with a broken radio, an engine that clicked loudly when it ran and an air con unit that still managed to run. It had been affectionally named the Bug, and Angus had owned it for years despite his Dad’s best efforts to convince him to get a new car.

Once he was inside with the air con blasting, he threw the boxing gloves on the back seat and gave his Dad a wave before pulling away.

The so-called Order of Arcana where not far from his Dad’s old farmhouse. Whoever this origination where he hadn’t been able to find anything online about them, just a few offices and a headquarters located right in the middle of nowhere. There hadn’t even been a website to direct him on what kind of research they did. Heading in with no prep was making him sweat despite the cool air inside the Bug, though he wasn’t about to make himself a liar.

He drove for another thirty minutes before he came to a small wooden sign, that was so loose on its hinges it pointed directly to the ground. Angus nudged the Bug off the main road onto a harsher dirt one. It led to one of the smallest wooden shacks that Angus had ever seen, with a landing strip to the side. There was also a solitary bench outside, that someone was sitting on.

The Bug let out a last click as Angus pulled to a stop and turned off the engine. The man on the bench looked mildly interested but not all around surprised and he pinned Angus with sharp blue eyes that contrasted his black hair and olive completion. For a moment Angus considered not leaving the Bug at all. It would be easy enough to throw it in reverse and high tail it out of there. Something in his gut told him that’s exactly what he should do, instead he threw open the door and stepped out into the heat before he could talk himself out of it.

As he approached the man on the bench didn’t move, instead just studying him. Up closer, Angus could see just a few stray hairs that where starting to turn gray.

Angus cleared his throat and tried to keep his hands still at his side, “Afternoon.”

“Angus Walter.” He apprised him with a smile, his eyes shining with knowledge. “PhD in the toxicology of exotic plants, research that you continue today at Harvard. Very accomplished for a man of only twenty-five.”

“Oh- I- Thank you, I guess.”

“I didn’t think you’d come.” This time he rose as he spoke. “Gage Lyman, it’s nice to meet you.” He held out a hand.

Cautiously Angus took it. The act of shaking hands had always eluded him. He either spent the whole time worrying that his hand was too sweating or internally cringing at the awkwardness of it all. Yet there was something about the confidence that Gage shook his hand that made him momentarily forget that, especially considering the heat which meant both of their hands where already covered in sweat.

“This is the Order of Arcana headquarters?” Angus gestured to the tiny building; it was barely even twice the size of Bug.

“It gets the job done.”

“Speaking of jobs, what exactly is it that you do here?”

Gage grinned at him, “First I need you to come inside with me.”

Angus sent a look back at the Bug and the Air con inside, then towards the uninsulated falling apart shack. “Okay.” He forced out and followed Gage inside.

The inside was much the same as the outside, dust everywhere and rusted metal littered the floor. An dead battle ground of tetanus possibilities. Angus had been so focused on where he was putting his feet that he didn’t pay attention to the table in the middle of the room.

Gage stood on the other side of the table and swept his hand over the top of it. “Identify the plants.”

Angus stared in shock at the three specimens on the table. This had to be a joke. The dodgiest place he’d ever been and now Gage wanted to test him. “You’re serious?”

Gage just blinked back at him expectantly.

Angus sighed and pushed up his glasses. He bent over to inspect the plants, he had to be sure. “This one is Cicuta maculata, this one is Nicotiana tabacum and this one is tricky.” He pointed to the one in the middle. “I’m not that well versed in non-toxic plants from Australia but it could be Asplenium australasicum.”

A slow smile spread over Gage’s face, “I knew you were brilliant, just had to make sure.”

Angus tapped his head, “Photographic memory.”

“Now about that ‘job’ I have for you.” He used air quotes around the word job. “It really isn’t your style but I think you’d be surprised.”

“Look as flattered as I am, I do really enjoy my research and I don’t think you have anything to offer me that will make me leave that behind.”

Gage smiled wickedly and ignored him, “Me and my, you can call them colleges of a kind, have a small problem with a tyrant. We intend to bring her entire system down.”

Angus narrowed his eyes and shuffled back, turning slightly towards the door, “I don’t see what that has to do with me.”

“We need a plant expert. One with a particular skill set, of the toxic variety.”

Angus was starting to sweat all over. “I really need to get back to my Dad.”

“All you have to do is use the knowledge jam packed in that head of yours to make a very lethal dose of poison.”

“That you’ll use to kill someone?” All the breath seemed to have rushed out of his body and his voice had jumped to octaves. “I’m a plant toxicologist not an assassin.”

Gage shrugged and kicked open a trap door at his feet, “A little late to back out now, the storms coming in.” He disappeared into the darkness and slammed the trap door shut.

The wood panelling around him rattled from a burst of wind. Angus raced out through the door, shock this racing through his system. Outside his eyes boggled. Coming straight towards him was a massive tornado.

Without a second thought he was racing towards the Bug. He threw open the door and dived inside. He threw it into reverse and pushed his foot to the floor. Dust flew up from the wheels and his eyes didn’t leave the hulking monster of wind. It was gaining on him.

The bug couldn’t move any faster, its little needle wavered with effort. “Shit.” His knuckles tightened on the steering wheel. “Shit, shit, shit.” He chanted.

The car lifted off the ground and the word around him became a grey with the sound of roaring all around him. He tucked his head between his knees and closed his eyes, hoping that it would all be over soon. But it didn’t come, his stomach flipped endlessly, and his head spun right on with the wind.

Then it all stopped. The car jolted and it went quiet.

Angus spilt out onto the ground pressing his face against the solid surface and sucking in big gulps of air. Two pairs of feet moved into his vision. They belonged two what looked like a shorter stocker Elsa and a taller leaner Kevin heart. Angus jumped up and tried to regain his own dignity.

“You’re late.” Elsa said dryly.

Angus opened his mouth then closed it again.

“You may need to be a little clearer.” Kevin whispered to her.

Her mouth formed a tighter line as she apprised him. “Gage gave told you of your mission?”

“The poisoning.”

She gave a quick nod.

“I’m not- I can’t.” his eyes caught on something behind her. “Is that Jasminum sambac? That’s a south Asian plant.” He spun taking in the variety of plants from all over the world. “Where am I?” he breathed.

She tilted her head to the side, “Welcome to Oz.”

Angus rubbed his eyes. “So this tyrant Dorothy is who your trying to kill?”

“And her guard.”

“Toto, a lion, a scarecrow and a tinman?”

Kevin nodded, “Yep. Though technically the tinman is called Nick Chopper, nasty one he is.”

Elsa sat over with her back against a tree, her annoyance evident on her face while Kevin patiently explained everything to Angus.

“And you guys? Who are you?”

“We are part of the Order of Arcana.”

Angus pushed up his glasses and leaned his head back against the Bug. “What’s your name?”

Elsa stood from her spot, “Our names are not important. We need you to make a toxin, fast acting.”

“I don’t study poisons to kill people, I save people. Is there no one else that can do this?” He ran a hand through his hair and let out a frustrated sigh.

Kevin shrugged, “No one willing to go against Dorothy.”

She glared. “We need one that doesn’t have a cure.”

“I’m not doing it.” The words came out weaker than he’d intended.

She crossed her arms, “You will if you want to go home.”

Angus froze. His bones felt like lead and there was a roaring in his ears. “I have to kill someone to get back.”

“Technically, I will be doing the poisoning. All you have to do is make the poison.” She had a very matter the fact way of talking that was hard to argue with.

“I can’t be stuck here.” He searched for the words to convince her, before he finished lamely, “I have a boxing class on Friday.”

She stared at him intensely, he couldn’t hold the gaze.

“Fine I’ll do it.”

She returned to her tree and kept her gaze trained on him.

“I guess she wants me to do this right now then.” He whispered to Kevin.

Kevin shrugged and sent a long look Elsa’s way, “She has a lot riding on this and time running out.”

Angus sighed and gazed around at the array of plants. It truly was an amazing sight, how these all managed to grow in such harmony, it shouldn’t be possible. Then again, being sent to another land through a tornado also shouldn’t be possible. He stood, “It shouldn’t take me more than a few hours.”

Kevin gave him a big grin and walked over to sit by Elsa, the two talking in low hushed voices. He tried in vain to hear what they were whispering about as he worked to collect different specimens around the clearing.

Elsa rose to her feet quick as lightning. “We need to go.”

Angus stared at her his arms full of a variety of plants. “Right now?”

“Yes now, there’s a long walk ahead of us.”

He glanced back at the Bug. “We could use the car.”

They both blinked at him. Angus tried to point at the Bug, though the arm full of plants made that more difficult then it should have been. “The contraptions you came here in?” Elsa ventured.

“Yes.” His glasses had slipped down to the very front of his nose and he couldn’t push them back up. “It will be much faster.”

“How?” Kevin asked.

“Because driving is better then walking.” They just stared at him uncomprehendingly. He didn’t even know where to begin to explain what a car was. “Just trust me, I’ll show you.” Angus walked over to the Bug and managed to get the door open with an uncomfortable crouching twist. He threw the plants onto the passenger seat and pushed his glasses up. “Jump in the back.” It was interesting watching the two of them cautiously approaching the back of the car. He almost reached back to open the door from the inside before they did it themselves.

“This is strange.” Kevin said sliding into one seat.

Elsa followed a sour look on her face.

Angus turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life. The sound that had always been meek compared to his friends but the sound made the two of them jump. Angus grinned, this may be a strange land but being inside the Bug was almost homely. He clicked into drive, “Where are we going?”

Elsa pointed slightly dazed, “That way.”

He pressed softly on the accelerator and the car lurched forward.

Elsa yelped and Kevin sucked in a surprised breath.

“Pretty cool right?” Angus asked looking in the mirror at them.

Elsa gripped the seat under her, her face unsteady, “What sorcery is this?”

Meanwhile Kevin had slid over against to door to press his face against the window and watch the colours meandering by. “Fascinating.”

Angus grinned, “This is science.”

They drove until they got to a particularly steep hill which Elsa requested, he stop at, the emerald city was over the rise and they would be spotted approaching in the Bug. It was good timing as the fuel light had just come on, considering how amazed they where at his talents Angus was not about the ruin that façade.

Elsa stepped shakily out of the car, “I don’t like science.” She mumbled to Angus as she walked past.

“She appreciates this.” Kevin came up beside him.

Angus shook his head, “Doesn’t look like it.” She was doubled over one hand against a tree. It would be a miracle if she didn’t throw up.

“The faster we get her into the city the better.”

Angus gathered up his plants from the passenger seat. “This Dorothy is that bad huh?”

“Yeah.” His voice dropped lower, “Worse for some.”

Angus tried to form the words as he looked over at Elsa but they wouldn’t take form.

Kevin’s voice dropped impossibly lower and he leaned closer to Angus. “Dorothy has her sister. The last we heard she was alive but that was a few days ago now.” He shuddered, “Who knows if she’s okay now.”

“Oh,” was all Angus could manage.

Kevin nodded at the plants. “Get the poison done before night fall.”

Angus studied his collection. In his head he ran over every pro and con for each. None of them quite right. Some took too long to kill others or too low chance of death. He surveyed the area. The plants here were different from where they had started though also all plants that would never be in the same region together. Over near the still sickly Elsa was a bush with redish star shaped leaves. Ricinus communis. If the castor beans are ingested they where highly poisonousness. There was no cure and they would be dead by 48 hours, potentially less if the mixture was concentrated enough.

After he’d found the plant to use it didn’t take long to make the poison. There was enough random bits and pieces in the boot of the Bug to for him to find a container to transfer the crushed caster beans. He filled the container with as much as it could hold. The more that they ate, the faster they would die. Angus held up the plastic container and stared at it. His mind was racing. This still seemed insane, and so very illegal. Though he didn’t quite know how this place ran, everything from back home was still ingrained in him.

“Are you done?” Elsa asked, heading towards him. She looked much better then she had earlier and was back to her cool exterior.

As she padded towards him a giant bird swooped down from the sky and scooped her off her feet. Angus squeaked in surprise and dived into the Bug slamming the door. As he stared up at the scene he realized that it was not in fact a bird but what looked like a monkey with wings. Elsa was yelling up at it and pulling out something that flashed silver. The monkey screeched down at her and then let go before her knife could make contact. She fell back to the ground and hit hard. The crack sound reverberated down Angus’s spine and made him shiver. The sound that fell from Elsa’s mouth was pure pain, he cradled her ankle as Kevin rushed over to check it.

Angus sheepishly clambered out of the car and hurried over to join him, not before scanning the sky for any strange creatures with wings. “Looks like a broken ankle.”

Kevin grunted in agreement. He was already busy at work wrapping it up, he used a few sticks to keep the ankle in place as Elsa moaned in pain.

Angus pulled a few leaves off a nearby bush and offered them to her. “This will help with the pain.” She didn’t argue or question him, just bit down on them swallowing quickly.

When Kevin was done wrapping it he moved her over and into the Bug despite her protests. From the scowl on her face Angus was willing to barter that the pain was starting to dim. She still had heavy breathing as she gestured to the container still gripped in his hands. “You done?”

“Oh, yes.”

“We have to go now.” She tried to stand but Kevin pushed her back down.

“You are in no shape to even walk let alone take down Dorothy.” Kevin reasoned.

Her scowl deepened, “I can do this.”

He put up his hands in surrender and stepped back. “Fine.”

She managed to stand, but as soon as she tried to put any weight on the broken ankle she practically folded in on herself in a yell. Kevin wrestled her back into the car.

“You didn’t tell me about the flying monkey’s.”

She glanced at him and waved a hand, “Pests.”

“Pests?” he said incuriously. “One just broke your ankle, it’s a little more then a pest.”

“There are so many things in Oz, do you want me to tell you everything?”

“No.” Angus placed his poison container on the seat next to her. “I just want you to send me home.”

“You can’t go home yet.” Kevin said as he rummaged through his bag.


He seemed to find what he was looking for and handed over a piece of paper to Angus then handed him the container as well.

Angus’s eyes flicked over the beginning of the paper and he blanched, “No.” He pushed back the paper at Kevin. “I make the poison not use it. I can’t kill anyone.”

“You have to.” Kevin pushed it back.

“You do it.”

Elsa scoffed, “Have you heard him walk he can’t sneak up on a deaf man.”

“This isn’t sneaking this is undercover work.” He glanced down at the letter again.

Elsa sighed, he could hear how much she wanted to be the one doing this instead of convincing him to. “The letter will get you in the gate. But once you’re in the guardian of the gate will no doubt tell one of the queen’s guard about the entrance to the city. It won’t take them long to find out that it is a fake. So as soon as you’re in you have to hide and sneak into the palace.”

He held out the container and paper in front him as if they where radioactive. “I am not doing that.”

Elsa gave him a cold smile. “If you want to go home you will.”

Angus had his hands stuffed deep in his pocket and sweat crawled down his spine almost as cold as the night air. Getting in the gate had been easy at least easier than he thought it would be. The guardian had let him in and then scurried off into the night. Angus wasn't sure how long it would take for someone to come looking for him. He headed straight towards the city centre weaving his way through as many houses as possible, keeping off the main street Elsa and Kevin have insisted that he would find his way.

The palace of Oz stood tall in the middle of the city and was easy enough to find from anywhere in the city, he made sure to take as many detours as possible in case he was being followed. His coat pocket was weighted down by the container of poison which still made his stomach churn he tried to smother those thoughts by focusing on getting back to his dad

The feeling of eyes on his back made him change direction again. He didn't really have a plan for once he got inside the palace, Elsa and Kevin had said to go to the kitchens which hopefully wouldn’t take long.

A cool voice carried across the night, “And where do you think you're going?” It came from a man leaning against a building half covered in shadow. His eyes glowed almost as silver as the axe at his side and just as deadly. It painted a haunting picture.

“I was just…. I,” Angus started the contents of the letter had fallen straight out of his head, “I'm visiting a relative.” he said quietly and quickened his pace.

The man trailed behind him in no particular rush “Who? I know every single person in the city so who exactly are you here to see?”

Angus's throat went dry he didn't have the capacity for this, he was made for studying plants, that was all he knew. He couldn’t think on his feet, it was why he avoided lying at all costs. He blurted “I'm going to the Palace,”

The man cocked and eyebrow “Why?”

That was another good question. It suddenly felt hard to breath. His mind flew to Elsa and Kevin on the outside of the city waiting patiently for him to return. Their mission that had become his even though he didn’t know their real names. The people that had promised to send him home after he made them poison, and yet here he was still not home instead doing another one of their errands. Who knew if they even could send him home. The thought boiled through his veins. “There’s a threat on Dorothy's life, a plan to kill her and her guards.”

The man smiled it was slow deliberate and cruel. “You do? Follow me.” He walked off down the street heading straight for the palace, the axe swung at his side.

Angus gripped his container of poison tightly as he followed. This was his best way into the castle. The walk was short without the detours he’d been taking.

“Who are you?” Angus asked ready for the unambiguous answer.

The man said him a cool stare, cold and calculated “Nick.”

Nick, the name sparked something in his brain but Angus couldn’t quite catch it. “Okay Nick. Are you taking me to see Dorothy?”

“It’s the middle of the night.”

“Oh right, of course. Can I talk to her in the morning? Is there a room to stay?” Angus was finally starting to feel some level of control. If he had a room then after Nick left he could sneak out and find the kitchens. They wouldn’t even know he’d left until the morning.

Nick said nothing.

The palace was huge they went through so many doors Angus stop trying to take note. If he found the kitchens it would be trial and error to find a way out.

Nick's axe seemed even more dangerous here, it seemed to thrive in the darkness. Angus broke the growing silence, “Should I come back to in the morning?”

Nick smiled again the cool grace still draped over him, “Do you know who I am?”

Angus gulped, there were many celebrities back at home that he didn't know but here it was a full scale Civil War. The kind of thing where everyone knows the major players. “Of course,” His voice shook as he spoke.

Nick just swung the axe back and forth with the precision that came from doing practicing numerous times “Before when I was made of tin, I lost my heart. Losing a human beating heart it’s difficult to explain to what that does to a person. It’s a vital organ that we are not built to live without, there is reason why.” There was something in his cool disposition that was threaded with malicious intent.

They passed a slightly ajar door inside and he caught sight of the kitchens. Angus slowed his step hoping to drop behind Nick without him noticing.

The malicious tone flowed like a melody from his lips, “It's something so fundamental that you're missing. I didn't know quite how to get it back, so I followed Dorothy. Once we got here deprived of our goals and Dorothy littered the streets with bodies I realized something. The human heart is not something to be given it must be taken.” he paused one hand on his chest. “I wouldn't get my heart back even once the curse was broken. My chest has been hollow for too long. So I’ve had to resort to other means to try and fill it.”

He spun and light glinted in his eyes, more dangerous than the axe. The axe whipped through the air with more intention then before a calculated movement. Angus stumbled back the look in Nicks eyes swirled with deranged anger.

Angus ran through the kitchen door shutting it behind him and pulling a shelf in front of it. The door wouldn't hold for long.

Sitting on one the bench was a pot of what look like some sort of oats. He pulled off the lid of the container and mixed in the poison, anyone that had this would die.

Then as if it was a hurricane coming in for reckoning the door slammed open. Nicks laugh rang through it. Angus dove around the bench

“You think you can hide from me?” he sneered, the whistle of the axe hissed through the air. “Show yourself.” The cool demeanor slipped, giving away to something more wild and ferocious, something much less controlled. “I'll find you.” he yelled, there was a clatter across the floor. Angus snuck a look around the end of the bench, the pot was overturned a pile of oats spilt across the floor. He crawled on his hands and knees parallel to the bench. The door was still open from Nick coming in. Angus bounced up onto his toes hands still on the floor, his position like an athlete at the start of a race.

The door was seven paces away.

He made it six.

Nick's hand grabbed onto his shirt and yanked him backwards violently. Angus’s head slammed against the side of the bench. Blood burst from the back of his head and started to mat in his hair. He instantly felt dizzy. Angus clutched at the back of his head trying to stem the flow. Nick pulled him out through the doorway and Angus didn’t have the capacity to stop him. They moved deeper into the palace, leaving a trail of blood from his head.

They soon arrived at a dark room with one small window, that illuminated the space. Nick dropped him next to the door and locked it. Angus squinted, somewhere along the way to this room he’d lost his glasses. Nick was rummaging for something that sounded like glass. His eyes drifted to the rest of the room; it was lined with shelves. Shelves upon shelves of jars, all of them containing some dark slumped shapes. Angus squinted his blurred eyes and gasped, “You collect hearts?”

Nick walked over and placed an empty jar next to him. “None of them kept beating once I took them.” He gave him a crooked smile, “Maybe yours finally will.”

Angus couldn't even comprehend it, his vision was edging with black and all he could think was I have a boxing class on Friday.

First published by Iron Faerie Publishing in Emerald City

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