Well, he's passed one test...
He did it. He DID it! For a moment, Polychrome was so filled with joy that she could do nothing but dance in the darkness, the song in her heart echoed by the Music of the Spheres, trying to give to her dance the ascending glory and defiant, mortal pride and courage that glorious City represented. She laughed, and saw his face looking up at her as she floated lightly in the air, and for a moment, she wondered at what she saw there; he seemed transfigured by her own joy, his blue eyes exultant yet wide and filled with something she could not quite recognize, something that made her miss a step, stumble subtly, an uneven movement that a mortal might not notice, but that was the clumsiest motion she had made in centuries.
But there is still so far to go, she reminded herself, and took hold of her joy. It was still there – at long last, they could at least begin, the hope was not gone – but they had to move, and move swiftly. She extended her hand. "Dance with me, Erik."
He stared at her and blushed. "Um… Dance? I wish I could, but me dancing with you would be like trying to get a hippopotamus to do acrobatics with a dragonfly – the hippo would look ridiculous and the dragonfly might get squashed by accident."
She laughed and took his hand. "Oh, I am sure you are not quite that bad, Erik, even if you have never danced in all your life. And really, it's necessary."
He took her hand gingerly, as though afraid to break her, and she extended her fingers, gripped tightly. "I am not a porcelain doll, Erik Medon, nor a dragonfly to be crushed easily. Now follow the motions."
He's definitely never danced as I know it, she thought, as he tried to follow her steps. But he does have some sense of rhythm, not entirely unschooled in musical beats…
Erik seemed to finally recognize the movements, at least in essence,following the music as it followed her. Not perfect, not nearly so graceful as even one of the Storm Guards, but not so bad as she had feared or he had implied. "So… this is necessary?"
She smiled at his puzzled expression. "Very necessary. You see, only by dancing our way through the sky will we be able to reach my Father's realm. He cannot send another of his Bows here to the mortal realm, not so soon after the last; there are many reasons for that. But I have my own magic that – if you allow it, if you are part of it – can bring us where we need to go."
"Dance through the sky?" he repeated incredulously, eyes still fixed upon hers as they had been ever since he took her hand. "Poly, really, there's just no way that could happen. Not with me, two left feet and all."
She giggled and swept one hand outward. "But Erik… you already are doing it."
He glanced down and gasped, stopping for a moment, forcing her to continue to dance around him. Beneath them a ghostly, circular rainbow light rippled like a spectral dance floor, but beneath that lay air, hundreds, thousands of feet of air, sparkling lights like faerie itself dusting the land below. She laughed aloud at the wonder in his face, and again as she saw neither fear nor denial but a blaze of joy like the dawn in his face. "We're flying!"
"Air-walking, dancing in the clouds, yes, even flying, Erik, that we are, on and within that which is my middle name, as long as you have the heart to see it with wonder as I hear in your voice."
"Within… the glory," he said, wonderingly. "Polychrome Glory…" His eyes met hers again for a bright needle-sharp moment, and then he seized her hand and led her in a dance, a crude dance but one of energy and sincerity that she cheerfully threw herself into wholeheartedly. "Oh, Polychrome, you… you have no idea. To fly among the clouds… this is one of my dreams. Since I can remember!"
His joy was contagious and echoed her hope, and she saw the glory following his feet as it followed her own, resonating between them as though he had, somehow, always known. Erik glanced ahead and his own smile broadened. "Can we dance to the top of that tower, Lady Polychrome? Will I be able to make it that far?"
In the sliver of moonlight and the approaching deep rose of dawn, a mighty thunderhead loomed in the distance, a silvered mountain of misted rubies. "That far and farther, Erik, for beyond that a thousand miles and ten lies the castle of my Father – a thousand miles, and closer than a few heartbeats."
He said nothing, but his eyes shone, and for a moment she saw how he must have looked ten, twenty, perhaps even thirty years before, sharp gaze filled with wonder and a happiness unadulterated by any doubt or fear.
But as they climbed the misty billows, leaping from one height to the next in a dreamlike series of leaps, she saw a flicker of light to one side, far away. Dim and small, but the violet-against-darkness was unmistakeable. A Tempest.
"Erik… we must keep our eyes open. Remember what I said about my journey here."
It was odd; for a moment, she could have sworn that his face lit up more as he realized the implications. But it might have been her imagination, for his expression became grim almost instantly. "You saw something?" He glanced around, eyes scanning the area.
"Only one, and far away. It may not have seen us yet. And they would be scattered far and wide now, knowing that I may travel far from my landing spot ere I return. But I am afraid we need be on our guard. You… are not a fighter, I could see, and I will have to defend you if they catch us."
His jaw set, his mouth opened as if to argue; but, despite the pride she saw in his face, she also saw him force it down. "I… guess you would."
That was not easy for him. He probably thinks of me as a fragile mortal girl. "But I'd rather we not have to worry about that." She led the dance, off to the side of the thunderhead, now reaching the crest. "The sun will rise soon, and while they can function in daylight, their senses will be dulled and – with luck – we shall be able to evade their notice." She tooks stock of the situation, the distance they must travel, what songs and steps she might take to find the shorter path between the mortal and faerie worlds, nodded. "Just promise me – no matter what you think is the proper or right course – that you will do as I say if the time comes."
Reluctantly, he nodded. "All… all right."
She stood still for a moment, looking to the East; the bright line of sky abruptly brightened and a single beam of sunshine speared out, illuminating them and warming her, casting their shadows like arrows into the vast Western distance. "Then," she said, with a sharp smile and hearing the music echo her resolve, "let's go!"
We leapt from cloud to cloud, the white mists undefined at close range, yet giving springily underfoot like deep, deep turf, little puffs of mist following every step. If I die right now, I'll die happy, I found myself thinking. It was clichéd, it was corny, but it was true. I'd met Polychrome, I'd actually found a way to show her beauty, and I'd flown and danced through the clouds themselves.
But I wouldn't die a success, and the problem wouldn't be solved, so I hoped that dying wasn't in the cards for a while yet. The warning of danger and that sharp, perilous smile Polychrome had flashed me added an edge of excitement that was almost too much to bear. Part of me had wanted to hear that there was danger… even though I was very far indeed from being ready to face anything. It was a little galling to recognize that I'd have to depend on Polychrome to defend me, though.
I knew my eyes weren't nearly as good as Poly's, but having had good reason to learn to sense movement and oddities in a background – both as an amateur astronomer and as one who had, in his past, been frequently bullied – I was pretty good at noticing things that might pass others by, at least when I was paying attention. I was paying attention now, and a tiny flicker of motion caught my eye.
A single glance in that direction and her face hardened, suddenly more Valkyrie than fairy. "Yes. We run now, Erik. Do not let go, do not falter."
The dark shape was terribly small in the distance, yet somehow it had the same eerie implication of deadly power of a tornado; in the sunlight I could see the same green-black color that was unmistakeable to anyone who'd ever seen such clouds.
But there was no time to look back now, because Polychrome was pulling me along, forcing me to run, run as I hadn't in years. I had mastered long walks, gained some endurance that way, but effort-triggered asthma was not something that encouraged distance running.
I ran, though, holding Polychrome's hand as her power helped turn my heavy mortal steps to inhuman bounds, clearing a hundred yards, two hundred at a step, sprinting at a speed to rival a jet, yet leaving hardly a wake behind us. It was a terrifying but exhilarating experience, and in some ways I wished it could go on forever.
But my lungs were not cooperating. The air was not nearly so cold around Polychrome as it should have been, nor so thin, but my air passages were closing themselves off. I heard the thin, shrieking whistle in my chest, felt the pressure. My ribs began to ache and I stumbled, almost falling, forced myself to continue, but now my thighs and calves were beginning to protest, pain of fatigue starting to radiate through them, stiffening my legs and throwing my stride off. "P…Poly…" I gasped, but my voice was a thin whisper and the wind of our passage tore the word away, cast it backwards.
Then I staggered again, tripped, reflexively reaching out. But Poly had already begun the next leap, and as she did, the rainbow glory that surrounded her passed out from beneath me.
A shockwave of deadly cold washed over my body and my ears screamed and popped as pressure equalized, explosive decompression at 35,000 feet. For a moment even the strangled ache in my chest was forgotten in the ice-bladed agony of that moment.
And then I had something even worse to worry about, as I plummeted like a stone into the clouds below.
Ice crystals tore like microscopic claws of miniature demons over my face, and I screwed my eyes shut to keep the wind from possibly freezing my eyeballs solid. 35,000 feet… terminal velocity maybe 120mph… reached that or close to it by now… about 7 miles… I've got three, three and a half minutes before I hit. Ouch.
An apocalyptic blue-white flash and a BOOM like the shattering of a mountain let me know that I might have a LOT less than that. Or more, if I got into an updraft. I was buffeted by turbulent winds and freezing rain soaked me. I was wheezing and shivering and the only reason I wasn't screaming is that I couldn't spare the breath.
I've still got my inhaler on me. Got to wait until it's warmer, though… can't suck this stuff in deep… too cold. I might be dead a couple minutes later, but if anyone could save me, I sure didn't want to suffocate to death afterwards.
A blast of warmer air, a splatter of rain that was probably still cold, but felt like a warm shower after that last bit. It was pitch black… but no, wait, something light… which direction? I'm going towards it, so it's down. Oh boy, get ready…
The gray-black mist thinned, lightened, and suddenly I burst out into clear air, the thunderhead still rumbling above me, wrinkled carpet of the earth below. Already I was very far from home, I could tell; none of the geography looked familiar, and I'd done quite a number of airplane flights over the years. A minute or so left…
I pulled out the inhaler, took a shot. It was a feeble first try, but the tightness began to loosen. I waited a few seconds, spreading myself as wide as possible on the winds… Not that this will help much… even if I hit water from this altitude it'll splatter me like concrete, even if I slow myself to a mere 90 miles per hour or so… Another puff on the inhaler, and that – plus all the adrenalin from the fall – seemed to finally force my lungs to give up on the suicide attempt. I felt air rushing back into me, my brain clearing, as the details of the ground began to resolve, showing that I had only a few thousand more feet to go…
And then I saw a spark of rainbow light above me, dropping from the cloud like a diving hawk. It plummeted towards me, closing the distance… but I was still falling. I glanced down, saw the Earth rushing closer with terrifying speed, looked up, and I could see Polychrome now, a look of grim determination on the beautiful face, drawing nearer, nearer, reaching out…
And our hands touched.
Instantly I stopped, enveloped by warm air and standing on rainbow glory. I looked down.
Polychrome had caught me with about two hundred feet left to go.
I looked at her, trying to smile, while my legs shook from the reaction to near-death, seeing her own pale face mirroring my own. "Cut it… a… a little fine there, didn't you?"
For a minute I thought she was going to slap me, but suddenly she giggled. "You… you don't ever do that again!"
"Believe me, I didn't plan on it. But I can't keep running like that for long; I stop breathing." I was glancing around now, looking for a speck the color of gangrene and storm.
She looked concerned. "Are you …"
"All right… for now. But what about our pursuers?"
She gave a shaky laugh. "Your… unexpected maneuver, Erik, probably surprised them more even than it did me. And I did not use my power to pursue at first, merely dropped, so they had not a trace to follow. I hope… I hope that we have lost them, at least for now. Can you walk, at least?"
"I can. Maybe even jog a bit."
She watched me with concern, but led us upward, away, back into the sky. By the time we reached the heights again, the stormclouds were gone, and fluffy cumulus floated in every direction. "Well," I said finally, "against that background I think I could see one of those things a long way away."
"And I could see them even farther, and there are none to be seen." She gave the first real, relaxed smile she'd given for hours, and that ethereal music rolled out again.
"What is that?" I asked.
"I keep hearing music."
She laughed, and that helped loosen the tightness remaining in my chest and body, just hearing her laugh again. "The Music of the Spheres! It follows all the Faerie in one way or another. 'Tis the song of the world we inhabit, the spirits and powers that are associated with all Faerie and, perhaps, those above us as well."
We landed atop another cloud and saw more stretching before us, a curious formation of one cloud higher than another, almost like steps. "Something had to lay the foundations of the world, chart the direction of the winds, place the stars in their courses. Some even say my Father is descended of these. He might be. I have never asked. But call them the Great Spirits, the Powers, the Gods, what you will, I do not doubt they exist."
I chewed on that as we hopped from one cloud to the next. I suppose that wasn't the sort of thing Baum would even want to have touched with a forty-foot pole, especially not in the late 1800s. It did give a deeper level to what was happening, and I wondered how these… gods… might be, or get, involved in the current events.
Wind buoyed us up, the Spheres sang, and we rose higher and higher. And finally, leaping once more to another cloud through a level of even higher mists, I beheld…
"… The Fortress of Rainbow." Polychrome spoke with dramatic flair and a deep pride as she gestured upward.
The clouds here were steps, there was no more mistaking it, as they became more and more immense oblong risers, great stairs a hundred feet high and just as broad, reaching to a Brobdingnagian edifice that made the words fortress or castle utterly inadequate – a mighty palace with invulnerable walls of polished gray-crystal stormcloud, tumbled rose-quartz mists made solid rising as pinnacles, azure crenelations defining the tops of amethyst keep towers within, bridges of gossamer-white fog joining each to the next, and a shimmering aura of all colors shining out from behind it.
I stared at it for many minutes, speechless as we rose higher and came closer to the Fortress of Rainbow. "If you live here, Lady Polychrome," I said finally, "I can only say that you did our poor mortal city far too much honor, for nothing save your own beauty have I ever seen to compare to that."
Was it my imagination, or did she actually blush for an instant? "You are far too kind, but I am sure my father will be pleased to hear your words."
I was going to meet the Lord of the Rainbow. "And when will I have the pleasure of saying these words to him myself?"
We stepped down on what felt and looked like polished marble, and the great golden gates swung wide. "In a few minutes only, Erik. For I am to bring you before him at the very moment I arrive, and even now I can see a runner going before us, telling Father that I am coming."
I wasn't sure I was quite ready for this. I didn't even know what to expect from this meeting. I was damn sure I wasn't what he was going to be expecting.
I tried to not look like I was gawking as I was led through the streets towards the Palace that lay ahead. The last thing I needed was to be overawed. I managed to achieve this but only by doing something which – in retrospect – might have been more dangerous: looking almost entirely at Polychrome. And once more her beauty captured me so completely that I really, truly did not notice most of what we passed, did not become aware that we had entered the castle until a great thunderous clang echoed through my consciousness and I looked up, to see two massive portals swinging open before us.
"My Father!" Polychrome called eagerly. "I have returned!"
Seated at the far end of a pillared hall so immense that I was sure I could have flown the Goodyear Blimp down it without touching the pillars on either side, looking down from a throne that must itself have been twenty feet high, was the Lord of Rainbows. In the violet-stormy eyes and in something of the set of the jaw I could see that Polychrome was his true daughter, but the heroic frame, muscled like a Greek Titan, the iridescent armor, the white hair falling around a face chiseled and resolute and with a single scar across one cheek, these were entirely unlike the Daughter of the Rainbow. I knew I was looking not merely on a King, but on some being of vast and dangerous power; I could feel it crackling in the air around us.
He rose and bowed. "Indeed you have, Polychrome, first of Daughters. And … this… is the Hero?"
She laughed. "So it must be, for every prophecy to now he has fulfilled."
He looked grave and – no surprise – doubtful. But he bowed again to me, and said, "Then I give you welcome. Iris Mirabilis, Lord of the Rainbow, Master of the Seven Hues, greets you."
I gave my own best bow. "I thank you for the welcome, Lord. I, Erik Medon, mortal man and little else, greet you."
A slight smile acknowledged my own lack of titles. "It is well. Daughter, leave us."
He gave her a stern look, and Polychrome sighed and bowed. "As you will." As she turned, she whispered in my ear, "Don't let him scare you. He's really the kindest of fathers."
That's reassuring. We both waited until the massive throne-room doors had closed behind her. Then I turned back to Iris Mirabilis. "My Lord, I –"
The immense Lord of Rainbows had drawn himself to his full height – which was a lot larger than anything human-shaped had any business being – and a swirl of crackling blue-white electricity was forming about his hand.
"Whoa, now, hold on –"
"Stand fast, mortal! For now the truth shall be known – in life or in your death!"
And a blazing sphere of living thunderbolts smashed down on me.
You know, I could think of a better way to say hello.