Time to get questions answered...
For a minute I thought he wasn't going to answer me directly. His storm-violet eyes started to turn away; then they closed, reopened, looked back down at me.
"Erik Medon, this is one of the great uncertainties. Your precise fate… lies beyond any prophecy. The prophecy, in fact, ends at the moment you confront our true enemies. And as I have already told you, even the path to that confrontation is fraught with uncertainty. Die you may, and that well before we have reached even a chance for victory. Or you may fail in some less dramatic but no less final manner." He held up a hand as I was about to speak. "But I know that you mean to ask about the ultimate end of this adventure, and to that I can say… you may well die then."
He reached down beside his throne and lifted up a little pink stuffed bear with a crank protruding from its side. The crank began to turn of its own accord, and the little head turned jerkily and one paw came up. "Hail, Erik Medon!" the Pink Bear said in a high-pitched, semi-mechanical voice.
"Hail, Pink Bear." I kept my expression grave, though I did have a momentary impulse to giggle; the poor thing looked so absurd. "My condolences on your losses."
"My thanks." The Pink Bear moved with clumsy dignity from the arm of the throne to the Rainbow Lord and took a seat on one massive knee, gazing down at me from button eyes that still, somehow, seemed alive. "My condolences on what you are to suffer."
"Don't," I said. "I've already had two lifelong dreams granted."
"Tell him of the ending," said Iris Mirabilis firmly. "He desires to know what will be, if past all the perils set between now and the end he has travelled."
"As the Lord desires," the Pink Bear said quietly; he then turned to me and spoke, in childish verse appropriate to a stuffed prophet:
Now he comes to the end, few his friends, alone
Held by words and chains before the Warlock's throne.
Sorely wounded shall he be, and then his fate be known;
If struck through the heart and silent,
unable he to call
then Ozma's power sealed forever
and darkness shall rule all;
Bathed in his heart's blood but still with voice
Ozma's name he calls;
Her power lifts him up, burns his soul away
But in those final moments he may win the day.
It was silent in the throne room for several moments as I assimilated all of that. "Okay, that could have been better for me, I guess. I'm not sure what all of it means – par for the course with a prophecy, I guess. Either way it sounds like I die." I tried to say it lightly. It was, after all, a set of verses, and I didn't have the capacity to see it as my final doom quite yet – though it might sink in later. "What's the bit about Ozma's power burning away my soul? Any idea?"
The Rainbow Lord gently set the Bear back down and stood; his pacing showed that he didn't find this discussion much more pleasant than I did. "More than an idea, Erik Medon. It is possible – if you permit it, given that you are a true mortal – for a Faerie ruler such as Ozma, or myself for that matter, to place our power, our very essence of self, within you and allow you to use it.
"But since you are, in fact, mortal, and we are beings of spirit, your soul must be the channel and director of that spirit. It takes a tremendous effort of will to do this, for it will be very painful – although, at the same time, it would be as the Bear says uplifting, transcendant. The passage of such pure spiritual power through a mortal soul wears it away swiftly."
I nodded slowly. "Like… channeling hot water through a pipe of ice. The pipe can handle it, can even handle a LOT of it… for a little while. But eventually it's going to go to pieces. So I die either way."
"Not necessarily." Iris stopped and dropped to one knee, gazing at me earnestly. "Princess Ozma's powers are vast, and if you can defeat your opponents swiftly enough, she may be able to return to her true self and heal you."
"But she's … sealed away. What's the bit about my calling her name?"
The Rainbow Lord looked even more grim. "I have spent many years in this research – perilous research, for merely delving into certain things could have warned Ugu and Amanita of what I sought – and I believe that these verses speak of a dark ritual which takes advantage of a true mortal's nature. Performed correctly, they would be able to simultaneously break the seal on Ozma while shattering her basic connection to Oz."
"And that would mean," I said, guessing, "that they would have permanent access to Oz' power – and she'd just be another sacrifice or slave for them at that point."
"Precisely so," he affirmed. "All such great rituals require some form of sacrifice – of a mortal or of a faerie of some considerable power. No power is attained without price, no change in the Great Order permitted without great effort. A true Mortal's blood is of great significance, as you might guess, as significant in its own way as that of a Faerie such as Ozma. But all such rituals are also very delicate things."
"And so if I, the object of the sacrifice, call out to her, I'd… what? Bind her to me, in a way?"
"Give her the opportunity to escape into you, if you allowed it, and allow you to use her power against her enemies in ways she simply cannot, while still being defended in great part by the nature of your mortality."
Now that made sense, in this weird mystical way. I'd be sort of null-magic powered armor for her spirit to wear. "And if I finished it quickly enough, there might be enough of her left to be able to fix the damage done to me?"
"That is my belief, yes." His gaze was steady when he said that, so I thought he meant it; he wasn't just trying to give me a forlorn hope.
"But if I push it too much, I'd burn myself out – destroy my soul." A paraphrase of Disney's Aladdin zipped through my mind: "Phenomenal cosmic power… itty-bitty circuit breaker."
Iris Mirabilis looked at me sympathetically. "And along the way you will have to gain some idea of how you actually might wield this power. As you cannot wield magic in any other way, nor – in fact – allow yourself to be the subject of much significant magic without imperiling your protection – you will have to use her power with instinct and whatever insight you will have gained in your travels, for no one shall be able to train you."
Of course. I'll have to travel through numberless perils just to get to the point where someone stabs me through the heart, and then if I can manage to choke out the right word, use a Faerie Princess' power – that I don't know how to wield – to defeat two centuries-old, trained, super-powerful mages and all their minions, and do it really fast, but without burning myself up to a cinder. Piece of cake, really.
But I remembered Polychrome, and realized it didn't matter. I was, like they said in Babylon 5, their "last, best hope". I looked up. "Okay, Milord. But we're getting a long way ahead of ourselves. What's our actual next step? What can you tell me of the prophecies that come BEFORE that?"
"You accept all these risks?"
I chuckled, even though part of me did feel a cold touch of fear. "How the hell could I even explain it to you, Rainbow Lord? Maybe, being immortal, it's really hard for you to understand what it's like to know, every day, every week, every year, is bringing you closer and closer to the day you won't open up your eyes ever again. I don't believe… well, I DIDN'T believe… in any gods or afterlife, though I might have to reconsider that now. But the cold fact is that most of us live out our lives of a few decades – seventy, eighty, maybe a hundred or so years tops – and see almost none of our dreams come true. We make do. We settle for the best we can get. We dream and fantasize, and then go back to reality.
"So now Polychrome appears to me out of a rainbow, tells me I may be the key to rescuing Oz, takes me dancing through the clouds, and brings me here, to the Fortress of the Rainbow. And you say that I MIGHT die when it comes to the end, to a final throwdown with villains as black as any I've ever read about?" I couldn't help but laugh again. "I will die living a dream that most of us won't ever even conceive. So yes, I accept them, happily and cheerfully and with a right will, sir!"
He stood and echoed my laugh with his own. "Well said, mortal. Well said. Very well, then, know that all the prophecy says for these moments is that the hero must be prepared to face the perils of his journey. How that preparation should proceed has been left to me." His smile now had a hard edge to it. "Unused I think you are to effort, a stranger to real discipline, and you will face many adversaries before the end. Time for you to be properly trained, I think."
It didn't take a genius to guess what he meant by that."Oh, great. Boot camp."
"Your idiom is a bit obscure, but I believe you have grasped precisely my meaning. It is not seemly for the prophesied Hero to rely on my daughter for protection in his journey, and in fact she will not always be able to accompany you." He clapped his hands together, and the far doors opened instantly.
In strode a tall figure, perhaps seven feet high, armored in gray-blue steel like a metal lizard's scale's. The warrior's frame was truly heroic, proportionately even more massive than the Rainbow Lord's, and over his shoulder the hilt of a mighty two-handed blade. "My Lord?"
Iris Mirabilis looked slightly surprised, as though he had expected someone else."Precisely who I was going to send for. Nimbus Thunderstroke, Captain of my Storm Legions, Erik Medon, mortal of the Prophecy. It is my wish that you make of him a warrior at least capable of defending himself in emergency."
Nimbus' face was hard and scarred, clearly a veteran of many battles. He looked me up and down, then grabbed one of my hands, looked at it, shook his head. "A tall order, My Lord."
Mirabilis laughed. "But not beyond your capacity, I think. He is a true Mortal, so remember this in your training."
"As my Lord wishes." He turned and bowed to the Rainbow Lord; I did the same. "Follow me, Erik Medon."
I did, suspecting that the Rainbow Lord was grinning behind my back as we left.
"So, Captain Thunderstroke –"
"Hah!" His laugh was as abrupt as his last name. "Nimbus, please. Or 'sir' when I'm training you. But if the Rainbow Lord has decreed that I, personally, train you, we are equals. Say on, then."
I grinned back at him. I was probably going to hate this guy at times during our training, but I kinda liked him already. "How much do you know about the Prophecy? Is there anything I can't talk about with you?"
"Nothing is there so vital to our defense that the Rainbow Lord would have failed to tell me, and yet have told you, when you would be unable to fully comprehend it." He said this with a simple, matter-of-fact tone. While I could see he was a man very proud of his skill and position, there was no ego in that statement. And it made sense; if this guy was the head of his defenses, the Rainbow Lord had BETTER trust him.
"Okay, got it." I said. "So when we were talking, he said my nature as a true Mortal wasn't just a neat advantage, but was necessary." I associated the way Iris Mirabilis had said that word with the way that Mentor of Arisia would have used it. "What did he mean by that?"
"You cut to the heart of the matter. Let us hope you are so swift with weapons as well." Nimbus rubbed his hand through his already-wild (though short) dark-violet hair. "You are familiar with Oz through the distorted retellings in your world, yes?"
"Very familiar. And I'm quite aware that there were a lot of … liberties taken with the reality."
He grunted. "Even so." We turned down a cross-corridor, and I was struck anew by the sheer size of the place. This palace couldn't be less than a mile, a mile and a half, across. Maybe a lot more. The translucent blue-prismatic crystal of the walls was like marble mined from some petrified ocean, and stretched on forever, it seemed. "The first and most obvious answer is that your adversaries are both mighty magicians indeed, and all of their greatest weapons are things of fell enchantment and dark faerie power. As a True Mortal, you can stand before them with a greater hope of victory than any others among us, perhaps even than the Rainbow Lord himself, perhaps even than the Above." At the last word he raised his head, nodding upward. "But there is a far more specific reason. Many things in the books were, as you say, not precisely what was written. The Deadly Desert was and is, however, quite real, as was the enchantment enacted by Glinda the High Sorceress to seal off Oz from the mortal world.
"The Usurpers Ugu and Amanita have taken control of that barrier and transformed it. The shield about Oz now excludes all but the most minute traces of Faerie power, save that which they permit to travel through; their spies and agents, in other words." I nodded to show that I understood. "A being such as yourself can pass through that barrier when none of us may do so."
"You are not telling me that I have to go charging into an enemy-occupied Oz all by myself?"
He laughed. I wasn't sure I liked the laugh. "We will leave that discussion for later, mortal. For here," he shoved open a huge portal, "we are."
The room inside was roughly the size of Iris' throneroom, but instead of a dramatic seat of power, this was an indoor drilling field, a dojo on steroids; hundreds of men with the same undefinably exotic air that surrounded Nimbus (and was much stronger around Polychrome and her father) were practicing – swinging swords, maces, blocking with shields, ducking, parrying, leaping in impossibly high arcs to evade and returning to ground to cut and jab and lunge. "This is the palace guard?"
"A small number of them, yes. Understand that for a ruler such as Iris Mirabilis, the security of the castle and his people is the security of the entire realm. One could call us his army and be just as accurate. Ten thousand and more do I command… and," he fixed me with a heavy stare, "all ten thousand will I commit to the war if need be and if my Lord orders it. And no choice will we have in this, if you fail."
"Sure, sure, load me up with the responsibility." I tried to sound casual. At his sudden glare, I swallowed. "Sorry."
He sighed and looked regretful. "My apologies. Perhaps you do not realize just how long it has been, that we have been preparing and waiting. It wears on us just as it would on you, my friend."
"I did get the idea that time went by a lot faster here than back home."
"As you measure time, it was nigh on fifty years ago that Oz fell. Here, it was three centuries and more agone."
Six to one time ratio. Well, that has some advantages for me. Still…! "You've been just waiting around for three hundred years for this prophecy to come due? They've had that long to lock it all down? Jesus, man, is it really that hopeless without me?"
He gave a bitter laugh as he led me into an alcove about as large as a ballroom. "It strikes me as improbable as well, Erik Medon, but yes, it is exactly that hopeless.
"Oz is the center, the very core of Faerie. That power is in the hands of beings who understand how to wield it and who have chosen to do so in a manner directly contrary to its normal nature. Not only does this affect all of us in one way or another, it is something virtually impossible for us, alone, to combat. As well lead your people's armies against the Sun. Assembled all together, the other Faerie realms might, possibly, equal the forces that the Warlock and the Yookoohoo command. But even leaving aside how difficult it would be to convince all of those squabbling little realms to unite against such a foe, the barrier they have made from Glinda's is an absolute and impenetrable defense, through which only one thing can pass."
"A true Mortal who is, by his nature, completely unaffected by magic, howsoever powerful." I finished.
"Exactly." He gestured to the lefthand wall; I saw, arranged in glittering, expectant ranks, dozens upon dozens of weapons: gladius-like shortswords, daggers, spears, clubs, staves, titanic two-handed swords, barbed nets, tridents, crescent-shaped blades like sickles, katana-like longswords, and more exotic offerings. "Choose a weapon, mortal. We'll test your instincts first before we begin the training in earnest."
"Just be careful not to kill me in your testing. As Iris pointed out, I'm not immune to sharp pointy things in my gut."
He gave another snort of laughter as I surveyed the wall of death-dealing implements, and drew his own weapon, something like a green-blue claymore; he leaned on it as he waited.
He's a lot bigger than me, clearly one hell of a lot stronger if he's using something THAT size. I'm never going to beat him, but I need to play to what strengths I've got. I finally selected a long, twin-edged rapier. I've done a little swordwork with things like this, and it's fast. My only chance to even look halfway good is to use speed – stick and move and stick again, and not in any way, shape, or form try to match him one to one.
I took a breath and turned to him. "I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
A tiny smile curled one corner of his mouth. He brought his huge sword up in a salute and then stood there, waiting.
"Yeah, I figured you'd wait." I circled slowly, watching him turn easily in place. A fast lunge in, then retreat immediately.
I did several feints, trying to make it difficult to know when I was committing to the attack. He did unlimber his sword from the salute, watching my movements narrowly.
I gathered myself as if to commit, then pulled back, then did the real lunge forward. Extend and –
A baseball bat wielded by Hercules took me in the side of my head, spinning me sideways and sending me skidding prone on the floor, the useless rapier skittering away from my hand.
"Are you all right?" I looked up blearily to see Nimbus' huge hand extended.
I forced myself to grasp it and tried to grin. "Sure, never better."
"I saw your line of thinking. You noted our differential in height, my weapon choice, and so on. You elected to try to match my strength with speed and guile. A logical strategy."
Without warning, he suddenly bellowed, "AND COMPLETELY WRONG!"
Those words, shouted loudly enough to make my ears ring, certainly helped clear my head. "What? What other strategy WAS there, short of running away and hoping I could find a hole you wouldn't fit through?"
He grinned coldly. "Hit me, mortal."
"Hit me. Here." He pointed to the center of his armored breastplate.
"You want me to break my hand? I –"
"I said hit me, you idiotic overweight soft-gutted pathetic excuse for a hero! Or aren't you able to follow even a simple command?"
I didn't see the point, but I set my jaw, drew my fist back, and punched.
There was a crunch and for an instant I was sure I'd broken my knuckles. But to my utter astonishment, Nimbus Thunderstroke literally flew backwards from the force of my blow, tumbling end over end as though he'd been hit by a truck, fetching up with an audible thud against the far wall. What the hell…?
He coughed, a pain-wracked sound, and slowly came to his hands and knees, then forced himself to stand. As he did, I saw that his gray-blue armor was cracked where I'd struck it, the metal scales crushed like eggshell. "Well… struck, Erik Medon. And yet I think you pulled that punch."
I did. A lot. I don't like hitting people, and even with practice, well… I didn't want to hurt my hand, either…
"What the hell's going on? I can't hit like that. No one can –" I suddenly stopped, mouth half-open, as understanding began to break through.
He smiled painfully. "I see you may begin to understand, Erik."
"It's… that difference in our basic natures again." I said slowly. "I'm… mostly material. Solid matter. You're… a being of spirit, with just a moderate connection to the solid world. So if I'm resisting you instead of going along… it's like, what, I'm made of steel or something?"
A nod. "Close enough, though not so alike that my swords will not cut you. And so – though your logic was perfectly reasonable – it led you to precisely the wrong conclusion." He pulled a vial from his belt and drank. I could see the color return to his face, and he straightened. "Alas that my mail will not be so easily mended. Now, can you tell me the other side of your new realization?"
I thought a moment. "Even someone your size will be faster than me. Less real mass but more mystical power, you'll be very quick. I didn't even see you move that sword."
"Partly that is your lack of training and mortal age. Some of that we can overcome with training and practice. But again you have the essence correct. So your proper strategy against us is –"
I suddenly burst out laughing. "To act as though I'm something more the size of Iris Mirabilis – you can outmove me, but all I need to do is hit most of you ONCE and you don't get up."
"Exactly so." He smiled at my incredulity. "A man of your… condition obviously never would have expected to need to use such tactics." The smile suddenly turned predatory. "Which means that we will need to work much harder to make you able to properly take advantage of this."
And NOW it's time to go to work!