It's about time to check in on our Villains...
He looked up from the stone he was polishing as the Tempest swirled into the room. "You bring news?"
The bound storm-spirit bowed low before Ugu, and in a thin shrieking voice reported its observations. As he listened, Ugu felt his face tightening, already thin lips thinning. And so it has begun. Once the Tempest had concluded, he nodded and waved it away. "Call the others back; I will have new orders for you soon enough."
Carefully he placed his tools back in their places; with the strength of a Herkus who had long since assimilated the strength of the mystical zosozo which was the sole province of that hidden group of people, he lifted the three-ton statue he was working on and carried it back to its sheltered niche. Assured that all was neat and clean in his workshop, he left, locking the door with a gesture. "Lady Amanita," he said to apparently empty air, "we have something to discuss."
Her light and warm voice replied immediately. "But of course, my King. I will attend you in the throne room immediately."
Ugu mounted the steps to the great black throne – with its second green throne, slightly lower. He could not quite restrain an acid smile at that. Some would take that to indicate that he was the true ruler, and he suspected that Amanita intended him to view it that was, as well. But he knew that despite his magic being pivotal to their recovery and success, her powers were at least the equal of his own, and she was in some ways far more dangerous.
As the beautiful green-haired woman, eyes sparkling and seeming warm and inviting, appeared in the throne – where a moment before had been fluttering a harmless-looking green butterfly – one aspect of that danger was reinforced. Ugu may have been a hermit in his first war against Oz, but that hadn't been because he was unaware of certain attractions; and when the former Mrs. Yoop had chosen her new appearance and name, she had made clear that she had very intimate ways to show her gratitude at finally being freed from her prior humiliating shape. Ugu had even allowed himself, for a short time, to believe that she might actually have fallen in love with him. But he had watched people as a sour-tempered Dove for … hundreds of years? He saw her glances in moments out of the corner of his eye, heard what his own spies reported of her behavior and words. Her enthusiasm was for power, and control. Now that she had been forced from her comfortable self-contained retreat, the former desire for isolation had been replaced with a demand for mastery – one as matter-of-factly absolute as her prior assertion of dominance over her home.
So while he still occasionally enjoyed the pleasure of her company, he had to admit it also held the additional thrill of danger – because he was unsure, every time, whether she had some additional plans for his vulnerability. Which was why, in moments he could be assured of privacy, he made his own preparations. She had gathered an array of forces of her own, he knew – and while he had his own advantages, a Yookoohoo with the incredibly honed control that Amanita Verdant (nee Yoop) wielded was a hideously dangerous opponent.
Which was, of course, why the first thing he had done upon acquiring access to his magical tools was to manufacture a charm that prevented any except himself from performing any transformation on him.
"My Lord." Amanita bowed her head prettily. "What news is this that has you looking so serious?"
"It is time you recalled your spies, My Lady Amanita," he said, gazing down at the map of Oz and the surrounding countries. "We need all that they have gathered, and we need it now."
Her green eyebrows quirked upwards. "Oh my. That sounds so… grim, Ugu dear. What has happened?"
"The Lord of Rainbows sent out his daughter but a day or so past."
"And? The dear girl travels far and wide, and has avoided our little realm." She knew, obviously, that only one of Iris Mirabilis' daughters would be referred to simply as "his daughter".
"And she travelled to the mortal world, directly to the mortal world, and left the Rainbow there."
All playfulness vanished and she shot to her feet, eyes narrow and cold. "Oh, she did, did she? And has she returned?"
"She has, my Queen. And bringing with her another – a mortal, I would presume." Ugu was pleased he had managed to surprise her. Often he would call her in with news, only to find that one of her own myriad of spies (in equally many forms) had already given it to her. "Given the reports that Polychrome had indeed rescued that accursed Pink Bear, and the rumors your spies had garnered of a Prophecy, I think we now need the full story. Immediately."
She nodded sharply. "It will be a loss; it took much to insert a spy undetected into the palace, which is why I have never contacted him until now. But by now he must have at least some of the Prophecy, and with luck all of it. I will recall him and the others." She gave vent to a curse of such ancient power that one of the green plants she had set in the window nearby spontaneously blackened. "The fools! Did they think we would not know? They think to move against us, now, after we have had all this time to prepare – your marvelous armies, my own Faerie Bindings for power, and all Oz now resigned to our control? Better they had tried earlier – the result would have been the same, but at least they would have made a credible try of it."
Ugu shook his head. "Do not make the mistake of believing that the Lord of Seven Hues is a fool, Amanita. Even I may be a fool in my own way, but not all others are so stupid as you would make them. If he has chosen to wait, and to act only now, then I assure you he has waited for excellent reasons and has a plan."
At his quiet rebuke, she glanced at him with momentary fury in the poison-green eyes. But the fury vanished back under the cloak of her control, and she nodded unwillingly. "I… I suppose you are right."
"I am right, Amanita. We both made the same mistakes before. It would be very well for us both to remember that. We need each other's power, and we need each other to keep us both from making those mistakes again."
She stared at him unreadably for a moment, and then suddenly stepped up and kissed his cheek. "You are right, as you say. I should remember that." For a moment, he thought she actually meant it. She certainly could not forget centuries as a Green Monkey. "Now I will go to the Great Binding and send out the call through the Spirits."
"Indeed. Go then, and tell me as soon as they return."
He watched her go, and shuddered as the door closed behind her. The Great Binding was the thing that most frightened him about Amanita Verdant; her greatest triumph, source of her power… and an abomination that even he found distasteful. When they had laid their plans, they knew they needed more power, to arrange certain events to occur in sequence very swiftly after they made their first detectable moves. Amanita had sought out certain other enemies of Oz, including the most powerful dark faeries of all, the Phanfasms. Deprived of much of their memories in the climactic end of their attempt to invade Oz (and not so simply as the mortal books had depicted it), the Phanfasms had no real knowledge of who they had been, though they were no less powerful than before. They were mischevious, sometimes cruel children in their minds, and Amanita's beauty and words had captivated them. She had whispered pieces of the truth to them, awakened vague memories and rage, and they had sworn to assist her at the proper moment. She had even promised that this time they need not even march to battle.
And – as she always did – she had kept her promise. As Ugu cast the spell which was intended to bring down the Curse of Stone on their enemies, they had known great and powerful defenses would resist such a direct strike. Amanita called the Phanfasms in to "assist in the ritual", lending their power to the enchantment.
But the pentacle and runic circles she had inscribed had been a trap, something even Ugu had not fully recognized. With the First and Foremost, leader of the Phanfasms, in the center, and all the mass of his people gathered within, focused on a task of malice and destruction… she had enacted a terrifying transformation, a combination of ritual magic and Yookoohoo power that bound the very essences of the dark faeries into a swirling vortex of power, filled with hate and rage and dismay, that she could draw upon. So far, she had used scarcely any of that mass of power which, as far as Ugu was concerned, was the closest thing in faerie to the power of Hell.
He closed his eyes, then shrugged. As long as there was an external enemy, he needed her – and she would be focused outside, not inside.
And it was not as though he, Ugu the Unbowed, did not have his own reserves. When he no longer needed Amanita, there were ways to remove her. Perhaps even taking that tempting abomination for himself.
He smiled, and turned back towards the hall to his workshop.
She tried to turn away, but the light surrounded her. Not the bright and piercing warmth of the sun, the green-white of deep forest illuminance, the rosy color of castle lamps or pale white of the moon. It was the sick blazing actinic hue of daylight to one suffering a headache, the color of burning steel. There was nowhere to turn, no escape from the roiling unrelieved soundless conflagration of stabbing brilliance.
She tried to cry out, but she had no voice, she had no mouth, she had no self. There was only the terrible light and behind it the sense of loss, of failure. The pain of the people who counted on her, who looked to her in times of trouble, who needed her. Something monstrous had happened, but she was barely able to be aware of that fact, scarcely capable of realizing with molasses-slow thought that she, too, was caught in a trap, a web of deceit and diabolical purpose whose nature was all too clear, now that she could do nothing whatsoever.
And the light continued, searing into her. It was the light of prison, the light of torment, the light…
…the light of enslavement. Even as she thought it, she could feel it now, her own connection with the world being reversed, flowing from her, through her, at the will of another. She could not fight it; the binding was complete. Only something so utterly opposed to her enslavers that it lay completely beyond their knowledge or understanding could possible break that binding… and it would then, of course, be something that could have no knowledge of how to do such a thing.
And the light burned on and on, wearing her away, ever thinner, yet never quite able to vanish, never able to die or be destroyed. She would have wept, had she tears or eyes to cry them. Despair was foreign to her kind, but she recognized that in the end even she would fall to it, with no help or hope remaining for her people, her land, and herself. Already she could feel it, an aching emptiness that, once fully opened, could never be filled again.
And then there was a single point of dark. So faint, so distant, but it was there, a negation of fever-brightness and hateful brilliance.
And without lips or face, still she smiled, because the name of the color of dark was hope.
He gazed tensely at the smoke and dust before him. The detonation had been even greater than he had expected, a blast that had cracked the nearest columns and left a choking cloud obscuring the area of impact entirely. Have I ended it even as it began? Or…
A figure was becoming visible. The smoke suddenly cleared, and his gaze was caught and held by ice-blue eyes, filled with anger and shock, staring furiously from a salt-white face. The glare from those eyes was of startling intensity, and Iris Mirabilis found himself momentarily siezed by an impulse to step back, even as a great tide of relief washed through him. He remembered how he had brought down the lightnings; fear had galvanized the smaller figure, but instead of fleeing, this Erik Medon had merely thrown up one hand to protect his face, the rest of his body poised in stubborn, unyielding resistance. "Before destruction he will stand unbowed…"
"Well done," he said as the last of the smoke dissipated. "Faced by danger, you do not turn your back upon it, showing that for you fear is weakness. You stand, you face that which would destroy you."
The mortal was breathing hard, but the glare – while slightly lessened – was not withdrawn. "You hit me with a goddamned lightning ball just to find out if I run or not? This was just some stupid special-effect test?" The man's voice, raised in anger, was surprisingly powerful; no match for the Rainbow Lord's own, but nonetheless sending resonant echoes of outrage chasing themselves around the throne room.
Iris shook his head. "Vastly more than that, mortal man, and vastly more important, important enough that I had no choice but to risk ending our hope in the moment it arrived. Look you down."
Now the anger in the face changed, yielding to astonishment and shock as the blond man realized that he stood on a narrow pinnacle of marble, barely wider than his own body, in the center of a still-smoldering crater sixty feet wide and reaching nearly ten feet in depth. "W… what the hell?"
The Rainbow Lord gestured; iridescent light coalesced in the hole, solidified to marble, leaving no trace of the devastation save the smell of scorched stone and the scarred columns on either side. "Come, Erik Medon. Sit with me,and I will explain. And in that explanation, I hope, you will come to understand that my actions were necessary."
He caused a chair to appear near the throne, and seated himself on the throne as his guest – still clearly shaky from the sudden attack – lowered himself into the newly-formed seat.
"Okay," Erik said finally, "Explain."
"I have no doubt my daughter explained to you that it was our expectation that the hero she sought must be a mortal. But there is mortal, and then there is mortal."
The blond head, with its somewhat receding hair, nodded. "Yes. She mentioned that most of the so-called mortals in Oz had at least some small amount of fairy blood, which was why they could end up finding their way here."
Iris nodded. "Precisely. Moreover, those which appear mortal here in the realms of Faerie are themselves descended of such mixed blood. They are perhaps not possessed, for the most part, of any of the powers of the more pure of blood, but the key part is that the existence of that blood makes it possible for them to connect with the realms of faerie… and for the power of faerie to connect to them."
The mortal's understanding was swift; he saw the blue eyes flick back to the place where the crater had been, the brows draw close, then raise. "But one of truly pure mortal blood…" he began, slowly.
"I see you have the essence of it. Your mortal blood denies you any chance to have found Oz through the random events that brought others here. But it also denies faerie power any chance to affect you without your direct and willing cooperation." Iris gazed outward as he continued. "Mortals live in the world of the physical, of the solid. The essence of your soul is there purely as the structure of life, the necessary spark that differentiates you from the base materials of which you are made. Contrariwise, the Faerie are beings of energy, of spirit, with a far slighter connection to the world of mundane matter."
"So what you're saying is that you faerie types can't hurt me."
He laughed. "Do not make that mistake, my would-be hero. We cannot hurt you with magic – we cannot impress the pure will of our souls and powers on you. But I assure you, a hard-driven blade wielded by my hand, or that of any warrior of Oz or other faerie realm, will kill you as surely as if it were wielded by mortal hands. You are not invulnerable, merely protected from certain forces in a way that no faerie can be."
Erik Medon nodded. "I understand. Still, that's a pretty big advantage."
"A necessary one, in fact."
The Rainbow Lord leaned forward. "Understand me well, Erik Medon. You have passed the tests of prophecy, and now we step beyond the point where another might be chosen. If you cannot do what must be done… we shall fail, or at least be forced into a long and bitter war whose effects shall recoil upon the mortal world as well.
"Yet the prophecies of the Bear give neither you, nor I, certain paths to victory. Today I will tell you what I may – and what I must. But it will be still up to you to make the right choices. Some actions are clear. Some are not." He sighed, and for a moment he could not keep the worry from his face. "And the best of paths will still not be easy."
He looked down, to see the blue eyes meeting his with a surprising understanding. The mortal's mouth quirked upwards in a sad smile, and he spoke.
"I'm going to die, aren't I?"
Let's go straight for the difficult questions, shall we?