Continuing on -- Our Heroine has a job ahead of her. A big one.
They're close now.
She was astounded by the speed. Over cloudscape and through brilliant ways of the sky she had met few that were her equal and none her master; even her own father could not match her in fleetness of foot across the skies.
But these were no natural beings, not even in the sense that she, a princess of Faerie, could be considered natural. Forged from spirits of dark power and bound in chains of Faerie magic, constrained to the will of others, they were living aspects of wild storm – alive, yes, thinking, yes, but not creatures that were ever meant to be. Father had his Storm Legions, trained warriors of the heavens, and so they made their Tempests.
Despite the peril, she laughed joyously. At last I'm doing something. The waiting is over!
The clouds were valleys and hills, dark-tinted with hints of storm and rain, white with touches of sun, and she danced along them, pretending she did not see the blue-black flickers of motion in the deepest shadows, the sparking crackles of hidden lightning. They were closing in, hoping to cut her off.
As she rounded a great white-blue crested cliff-face of smoke and dreams, two Tempests flowed from within the cloud's depths, moving on tendrils of sickly green-tinged black, the hue of tornado and destruction. "Halt –"
Instead of pausing or slowing, she gave a great leap forward, springing high, the lowering rays of the evening sun catching her fair hair and making it flame like molten gold. The Tempests were caught unprepared, not expecting her to act so decisively and dangerously, and she landed fully six feet on the other side of them and danced onward, laughing. "I halt not until I reach my destination, you poor bound stormcloud-spirits, and I have no time to play tag with you today!"
Three more leapt from a slow-curling arc of white above her, slashing with crackling lightning and jagged-edged talons of night-dark mystic cloud. More serious now, but still wearing a half-pitying, half-mocking smile, Polychrome whirled aside, turned, bent like a willow; lightning missed, cursed talons caught only air, and she dealt the nearest a gentle slap that somehow unbalanced it, sent it reeling into its fellows, gave her an opening.
I have to make it to the proper point. She had to watch now, for the time was growing very near. She repeated the words of the prophecy to herself again:
Where three cloud-castles stand and face the sun
There the Rainbow Princess ends her run;
Cloud-wall ahead, dark storms behind
At last the fated place you'll find.
Down the Rainbow all is changed, there is no familiar ground;
Only when your name is spoken shall you turn yourself around
And when you see the speaker know your hero has been found.
It had been a job memorizing the prophecy; especially since the Little Bear would sometimes reword things when repeating it, saying that the future itself could shift. She also suspected that there were parts her father had never told her. She just hoped she remembered it all correctly now; the future of everything might depend on her getting all of the words exactly right.
Focus on what I'm doing now! she reminded herself as she barely evaded two more Tempests; there were a dozen behind her now, trying to close the distance, and failing – but not failing nearly so easily as she had hoped. There are many steps to victory, Father always said, but you can only take one step at a time, and anyone trying to take more will only trip over her own feet.
A crackling bolt of lightning hooked just past her ear, cutting a strand of her hair, leaving it to flutter through the cloud to the ground below. Black-tendriled octopus shapes loomed through the mist ahead; she ran up the side of the billowing clouds to her left, bounced down and literally danced her way over the Tempests' stunned heads before they could react. She laughed again, the exhilaration of risk and of hope combining in a heady brew like the finest Cloudwine.
Before her clouds blazed brilliantly, reflecting the light of the setting sun… There!
Just to her left, she could see three mighty thunderheads in a perfect row, triple towers throwing back the light of the sun that, as she altered her course, was directly behind her – perfect conditions for a Rainbow. "And there surely are dark storms behind," she muttered.
A clear space, wisps of cirrus trailing gossamer bridges; she paused in her flight, sent a shockwave of Faerie power across, the bridges shattering behind her, Tempests plunging downward; they would recover, but they had lost precious time. Not all of them, though…
Now the cloud-walls loomed up like the bulwark of the world, so she would need to crane her neck to see the top, and the Tempests were coming faster. "Father!" she called. "Father, now!"
A blaze of light appeared and grew before her, a mighty bridge of seven colors forming in midair, with a second slightly dimmer but no less spectacular arch above, a bridge that Polychrome danced onto mere inches ahead of the Tempests,; but no creation of dark magic could set foot on the Rainbow, and the Tempests knew it all too well; with screeches and howls of frustration and rage like hurricanes at a window, the dark and twisted beings faded away, returning to the clouds and, Polychrome knew, eventually to their Master and Mistress in Oz.
But let's not think on that, she told herself. We're going to rescue them soon! Her feet knew the curve of the Bow as well as they knew the clouds of home, and she danced her way down the Rainbow. Things do look different… great jumbles of buildings like I've never seen… so many houses… streets… what's all those things moving on them?
There wasn't much time to study it, though, for her descent was fast, down the Rainbow nearly as fast as a stone might fall, to come to rest on a hard, black surface, a strange, exciting odor lingering in the air.
She landed in the middle of a ring of people, already staring even before she arrived. Of course. For them, the rainbow recedes ever away, can never be caught. It's been… centuries? … since the last time Father's Rainbow came to rest with one end fully in the mortal world. Ever since Faerie truly began to separate itself.
It was a bit of a jolt to realize how long it had been. She remembered that day well – the day her father had been told that the mortal and faerie worlds would separate for some unknown time. She herself had been younger – young enough to still have sisters that were more babies than girls, and as mortals counted time that would be a long time indeed.
The Rainbow lifted up and faded, only moments after her foot touched the black surface, and the murmur of the surrounding people increased. She looked back eagerly. Which one of these would recognize her? They all look so… strange.
It was a warm summer's eve – though it still felt a bit brisk to Polychrome when she wasn't moving – but even so, some of the women were positively indecent! Exposing the entirety of their legs and arms wasn't enough, it seemed – they even had exposed their midriffs! And the men were not dressed that much differently. Shorts like those worn by boys, loose shirts… but no, not all of them were at all the same. She saw a couple of young women who had hair of a color that would have made more sense for Faerie, not for the mortal world. Another … man? woman?… was dressed so oddly, and wearing such makeup that Polychrome couldn't even decide which he or she was. And black lipstick?
She also noticed that – however much things might have changed – there were some things that hadn't. Many of the men in the circle were looking at her in a way she always thought of as "hungry". It was sometimes annoying, sometimes useful… but one difference was the openness of the gazes. Gentlemen tried to conceal it – the Wizard, for instance, had been so subtle about it that it had taken some time before she was sure he even noticed. This was much more direct… and unsettling.
A somewhat more … normal looking man, wearing what appeared to be work pants with boots and a checkered shirt, stepped forward. "Excuse me… miss… did I just see what I think I saw?" His eyes only occasionally met her own, being busy surveying the rest of her.
She laughed. "Not being in your mind, sir, I have no idea what you think you saw, so I cannot say." The laugh chimed around the huge black expanse, which was filled with peculiar brightly colored metallic shapes – carriages of some sort, she realized, as she saw some of them moving in and out of the black expanse. A quick glance showed that the black lot, covered with regular lines of a bright yellow, was in the center of a U-shape of buildings – storefronts, she decided. Some kind of a market area.
"She came down out of the sky with the rainbow!" someone else said, and that seemed to break a dam; suddenly all of the people surrounding her were talking, a babel of voices that was filled with words she couldn't recognize, many disbelieving, some overjoyed, some hostile, and a few in tones she did not like at all: "…impossible, the rainbow can't…" "…saw it, you can't deny it, a visitation…" "…like me a piece of that…" "… hey, who you shoving?…"
The ring of faces began to contract around her, and for the first time she felt a twinge of… well, not fear exactly, but concern. The crowd had grown, they surrounded her five deep, six, more, and she wasn't sure she could clear all of them in one leap. And she had no idea where to go now that she was here; none of this was familiar in the least. She thought she was somewhere on the eastern coast of the country Dorothy called America, but she wasn't even sure of that.
"…angel would have wings, wouldn't she?…" "…care what she is, she's hot…" "…people all sound crazy, and what the hell is she dressed in? Ought to call…"
Across the black lot she saw one of the carriages slow and turn in the direction of the crowd; her eyesight, closer to that of an eagle in some ways than of mere mortals, could make out the word Police on the side. I'm not sure I want to speak to their officials; do they even believe in faerie any more?
And then, from behind her, an incredulous voice said, "Polychrome?"
It was a warm, deep baritone voice; she liked it immediately, and her heart seemed to leap within her. At last!
A smile broadening on her face, she turned to see the speaker.
I snapped the computer case shut and locked down the screws. "All set."
"Thanks, Erik." Lisa said with a tired smile. "You didn't have to –"
"No, I didn't, but it wasn't a big deal and you need that thing running tomorrow. Don't we finish the next big volume for State Legal this week?"
"Yes, you're right. But –"
"No buts." I was actually exhausted myself – repairing three machines that had chosen to, as an English acquaintance of mine used to say, go "tits up" all at once was a pain in the butt. And not, technically, my job, though at Pinebush Publishing I sort of got all the technical jobs that weren't technically mine, whenever I was around. But the exhaustion probably contributed to my being honest. "You're some of the few people I managed to keep from offending at one point or another, so it's worth it."
Lisa blinked at me in surprise. She was a very pretty, very tall young woman – 30, which I suppose wouldn't be young for some, but was for me – with hazel eyes and short brown-blond hair. "You've muttered things like that a couple of times before, Erik, but I honestly can't understand why. You've almost never said anything offensive in all the years you've been here."
I sighed and sat down. "Maybe offended isn't the right word for a lot of it. But…" I glanced at her, purse in her hand. "Do you really want to hear the answer, or do you want to get home?"
"Is it really that long?"
"That's a rather personal question, sir!" I said in a Monty Python voice, and she gave a rather unladylike snorting chuckle in response. "There's the Reader's Digest version, I guess. When I came here I had just started… growing up. Yeah, I know, I was 30 and now I'm on the far side of 45. Only relationship I'd had for any length of time had blown up just a bit before. I had about twenty years of being a rebellious angsty teenager before I decided to reach my 20s, so I actually never figured out what the hell I wanted to do with my life – so I didn't do anything." I didn't want to go into the details – it would sound like self-pitying whining. Probably would be self-pitying whining. Might even be already.
"You? Angsty? Erik, I've known you since I started working here six years ago and one thing I admire about you is that I didn't think angst and you even knew each other."
"Okay," I amended, "Not usually angsty, at least not where other people could see it. But interested more in having fun – of the pretty quiet geeky kind – than doing Serious Work, and…" I shook my head. "Ahhhh, never mind. I wouldn't have said anything about it if I wasn't so tired. I don't want to complain about my life; for everything bad, I've ended up with at least as much good. And what's the point of stewing over it anyway? If you don't believe in things basically working out, you'd have a pretty bleak life, I'd think. I don't understand people who walk around thinking 'the world is a dark and lonely place', to quote something you won't know."
Lisa shook her head. "You're right, I don't, but at least let me tell you that whatever anyone else thought you should've done, everyone here is damn glad you ended up working here."
"An opinion I intend to keep earning by doing the work I can do whenever I'm around. Now get going. I'll lock up."
"All right. Will you be in tomorrow?"
"I don't think you'll need me as long as these little monsters stay fixed. See you on Friday."
She waved as she left; I grinned back and then went to wash up.
The conversation had stirred up some of my old, rare regrets. Well, no, not rare, but rarely indulged. I generally didn't see the point in regretting things that were past, or at least of agonizing over them. Changing the past wasn't possible, and so going back over what I should have said, or not have said, or done, was… well, like picking a scab off. There might be some strange fascination in it, but in the end you were just hurting yourself and interfering with the healing process.
I locked up the offices and went out to my car. Which didn't help, because it used to be my father's car, which remeinded me of the whole conversation again. My dad had died not too disappointed in me – at least he'd seen I had a stable job and a reasonable chance at living out my life on my own – but my mom hadn't seen enough to know that I'd started to turn things around before she'd died – during a routine examination. My brother was married, had kids, a real career, and I hadn't really managed to do anything of significance even on the family scale, despite having been the genius of the family. Not even a steady girlfriend. Or these days not even an unsteady one; all the female possibilities in my small circle of friends had already paired up, and I had no experience of how to look – and a general, gut-level aversion to LOOKING, in that sense.
"Oh, bah. Cut this crap out," I said out loud to myself as I pulled out of the parking lot onto the Washington Avenue Extension and turned right. "You did finally get your own life, and a job you like, which is more than a lot of people manage. You don't have to work all that much because you've got a big cushion you inherited – which even fewer people have."
I managed a smile, which stopped feeling pasted on as I noticed the magnificent view dead ahead of me: three immense thunderheads towering over Albany. I love storms, always have, and these looked like they might be delivering a doozy to the Capital Region.
And, I continued to myself, you may not ever have achieved your pipe dream of being a writer, but you still give people some fun through your imagination as a gamer. Which, again, is more than a lot of people manage.
A part of me would always feel I was a failure, I knew, but I wasn't going to let that part dominate. I had a decent life, and it was stupid and nonproductive – and ultimately self-destructive – to insist to myself that I should have Done Something Special. Especially since THAT part of me wouldn't even be satisfied if I'd done everything my parents had hoped for; no, that part of me was the part that never finished growing up and wanted to change the world in the kind of way that simply didn't happen.
"There isn't any magic in the real world." I reminded myself, and then with a sudden grin, corrected myself. "Except that."
"That" was one of the most magnificent rainbows I had ever seen, now looming over the city in the almost-setting summer sunshine slanting in over my shoulders. Rainbows were pure magic to me, whispering in my mind of the Bifrost Bridge and Hermes on his messenger duties, of promises of gods and leprechauns and other things, some very near to my heart. And this was an amazing rainbow, fairly blazing against the dark undersides of the clouds beyond, a second, nearly as intense bow paralleling it, a hint of a third visible at points. One end looked as though it came down in Watervliet, the other much nearer, not far from the side of I-90 – somewhere around Westgate Plaza. I drove homeward towards that brilliant arch, pretending that I would be driving under it.
Then I almost drove off the road as I realized the rainbow was getting closer.
Impossible, I thought to myself, staring even as I forced myself back into one of the driving lanes. If the rain got more intense, it might make a rainbow look like it was getting closer for a few moments… but look at that thing!
The mighty rainbow's arch now rose so high that I had to crane my neck to see it – while constantly glancing back down to make sure I didn't hit anyone – and the colors were so strong and real that they obscured even the brilliant white of the thunderclouds' tops behind them. It's impossible, but I'm seeing it.
And I found myself passing under the rainbow, one end disappearing in trees to the left, the other coming down not half a mile off… My God, it is in Westgate!
I took the Everett Road exit at a dangerously high speed considering the wet pavement, but the little Subaru only skidded a bit. More dangerous were the other gawkers. Most people might not understand why the rainbow can't get closer, but most people do know it can't happen, and there were quite a few people following this same route to find out what was going on.
The end of the bow was off to the right now, huge as the Golden Gate Bridge and awesome as Niagara Falls, stretching up into the infinite sky. I was at Central Avenue, turning, but now the bow was fading. "No, no, no, no, NO!" I shouted hopelessly, as I saw it lifting, dwindling, disappearing, gone. I was at the entrance to the Plaza, but the rainbow had disappeared, leaving everything once more dull and ordinary and the same.
No, wait, not quite. There was a ring of people gathered in the middle of the parking lot – I couldn't even imagine what it must have been like to be standing around the rainbow's end – and…
I skidded the car to a stop, sitting across two spaces diagonally, and practically leaped out. There was something or someone in the middle of that circle. I couldn't make it out, but…
"Excuse me… sorry… Let me through!" I muttered as I bulled my way into the ring of spectators, which seemed to be at least seven or eight people deep by now. Whoever it was – it was a person – they were not very big… moving around a lot, rhythmically, almost dancing –
No. It can't be.
I felt a terrible chill of awe and joy, and terror that I might be utterly insane, that only grew worse as I drove through the crowd, now not even hearing the protests around me, drawn forward. It simply wasn't possible…
But there was a flash of violet-blue eyes as she spun, laughing, answering some question, a face seen in that moment of such beauty that I could not even imagine words to describe it, golden hair drifting like rays of sunshine around a gauzy-veiled body I didn't dare look at, hair bound only by a simple black cap, and delicate feet dancing, moving, following a phantom music that seemed in turn to follow her own motions.
I slowed and stopped at the edge of the crowd, unable to approach closer for fear that to approach would shatter the impossibility into the dull awakening moments of morning. But the feelings could not be restrained, and I heard myself speak, my voice strained with wonder, and awe, and a pure incredulous joy:
I saw a radiant smile dawning on her face as she turned towards me. Then her gaze reached me, and the smile… faltered. It did not… quite… go away, but it was clear that she'd been expecting someone, and that someone wasn't me. Well, big surprise there. Of course she wasn't expecting some slightly-overpadded over-the-hill Oz fanboy.
The real question – assuming that I wasn't dreaming or totally nuts – was what the hell she was doing here at all. I couldn't remember any instance of Polychrome showing up outside of Faerie at all.
She took a step forward, towards me, and even though the fading of the smile had thrown a little cold water on my original dizzying elation, just that motion brought a lot of it back. "Sir? Do you … know me?"
"As surely as I know Dorothy and Ozma and Button-Bright, Lady Polychrome," I answered, feeling that some faux-formality would at least allow me to keep from babbling like a loon.
Her lovely brow wrinkled — just a touch – as though she were thinking, trying to work something out. Then her face smoothed out, and I caught a tiny movement of her shoulders, a shrug. "Then I must speak with you, sir. Might I know your name?"
The crowd was starting to look at me, too. Oh-oh. And there's a cop getting out of his car to see what's going on.
"In a moment – for now, I think we need to go somewhere quieter!" I prayed she'd understand.
Fortunately, her quick gaze showed she was already thinking along those lines. "Surely, sir."
Suddenly her hand was in mine; I felt my heart stop as it prepared to leap out of my chest, but then I forgot that as I found myself leaping for real, carried by a spectacular jump that cleared most of the crowd. I landed slightly off and stumbled, but recovered. I realized she was just going to run, and pulled back; given how easily she'd seemed to lift and carry me, I was startled by how suddenly she jolted to a halt, as though I'd been stopping a toddler. "Not that way – here!"
She blinked at the car – Of course, she probably never saw one in her entire life – but when she saw me yank open the door on my side, she simply nodded and leapt to the other side, pulling the door open and sliding into the passenger seat in a single fluid motion like a leaf settling to the ground. Thank god I cleaned the car this weekend. It's still kinda messy, but at least there's room in the passenger seat.
I started the engine and put the car in gear. The crowd had started to follow but none of them seemed inclined to get in the way, and the cop was just running around the side of the crowd…
I pulled out fast, heading for the main exit. For once, I was lucky with this light; it was pure green, and I went straight through. I could get into a maze of streets in that direction pretty quick, and this wasn't something I wanted to explain to anyone. I heard Polychrome give a delighted laugh as we accelerated, apparently enjoying the novel sensation of a self-propelled vehicle. Glancing in the rearview, I could see that there were no cars following me.
With the immediate crisis over, it finally began to sink in. What the hell have I just gotten involved with?
Yes, that would be a good question.