Time to continue the training...
Three blows hammered against my sword, trying to deflect it from its path, and just about succeeding; instead of smashing directly into the Storm Legionnaire currently trying to take my head off, the massive blade glanced off his scaled mail. Even so, the impact was enough to send him spinning away like a pinball.
Two more figures were streaking in from both sides, and this guy had delayed me just a split-second too long. I knew that dodging was out of the question, even with the practice I'd gotten in the past couple of weeks, so I whipped my blade around in a circular, flat arc; its six-foot length combined with my arm length forced the two Faerie warriors to pull up more than nine feet short, their own swords nowhere near long enough to reach me unless they wanted to try timing their rush to be faster than my swing.
I caught the sound of a third set of footsteps, but they were still a little farther off – and something slammed me between my shoulderblades, sending a spike of pain through my spine despite my thick padded armor. Bastard's using a polearm! I have to remember they can make up for reach in a dozen ways!
I tried to recover, but the jolt had distracted me, and the two swordsmen had closed the distance. I was forced to drop my sword and surrender, or they'd have beaten me black and blue in seconds.
"Stop!" Nimbus commanded, and the others immediately brought their weapons to guard position. The massive commander strode forward, shaking his head. "Five exchanges, FIVE, and you're already down? And only two of my men downed in the process? You may be facing a legion on your own, and this is the best you can do, with all your formidable capabilities? Do you want to fail?"
"It's been two goddamn weeks! What the hell do you expect?" I was standing despite the pain, which I happened to feel was something of an achievement; I wasn't used to people beating on me yet. "You've been training these people for years!"
He snorted. "Yes, years, but none of them are capable of picking up my other men and throwing them aside like dolls, or breaking weapons or armor in their bare hands. You have talent, mortal. I've seen you measure an opponent, judge an opening. You're not altogether terrible in your ability to learn the handling of a blade, and you've become a passable swordsman for so short a time, and I'd expect you to be doing much better by now. I'm not sure what it is that's stopping you, but we'll have to find a way to get you past it." He shook his head dolefully. "If only Cirrus were here, perhaps he'd know where we're going wrong."
He'd mentioned that name before; Cirrus had been his right-hand man, second in command, tactical advisor, and – most importantly for our current issues – had been in charge of training new recruits for something like five hundred years. Cirrus had gone missing – on a patrol to watch the borders of the Rainbow Lord's domain – around the time I'd arrived. Not surprising with the stepped-up activity of the opposition, but a serious blow to Nimbus' ability to lead the Legion while also training a clueless mortal… not to mention the loss of his best friend, if the way he spoke about Cirrus was any clue.
I wanted to argue with Nimbus about his pretty harsh assessment of how well I was NOT doing, but I had to admit that in his position I'd pobably be saying the same thing. If your recruit's effectively superhuman, he shouldn't NEED to be nearly as well trained as the others to start kicking their asses. Besides, I was feeling a little ache in my chest and felt more inclined to save my breath for whatever he was about. Or maybe for buying time. "Look, something's been bothering me about this super-strength of mine. It doesn't seem… well, consistent."
He looked at me sharply. "How do you mean?"
"Well… If I'm as much stronger than you as I seemed that one time, and as it seems when I hit these guys, well, I didn't even bark my knuckles on your armor. So… your swords and such shouldn't be able to cut me, and your swings should feel something like a toddler beating on me with a padded pole – that is, not even very noticeable. But that jab I just took HURT and it felt like someone pretty beefy hitting me, too. Okay, maybe not as beefy as I'd have expected before, but it sure wasn't a toddler. And those weights you've had me lifting and walking around in don't seem to be much heavier than the ones your soldiers practice with – lighter, in a lot of cases. Plus if I was really that much stronger, Polychrome herself shouldn't have been able to lift much more than a teacup, but she seems strong enough to lift at least as much as I'd expect a girl her size to handle – maybe more. So none of this makes sense."
"Ha!" He grinned. "You are correct, Erik Medon. It is a more complex matter than simple increase of strength. In essence, your mortal nature reacts against the power of Faerie, or causes Faerie to react strongly against your presence – but this is driven by the focus of your soul.
"Now, when you strike against one of us, your soul is directing your blow, focusing the … anti-power, if you will, of your nature against your target, negating our strength and pushing us away from that which is the antithesis of our power. Except when you perform a powerful and conscious block of an attack, however, your nature is not so strongly directed in your defense, and thus you feel our blows much more as you would feel those of your own kind."
I nodded slowly. "Okay… so I could break a Faerie door down or something without much trouble, but if a Faerie roof fell on me without warning, it could squash me pretty much as easily as it would you?"
"A good general statement, yes." He straightened. "Enough talking, however. You've got a long way to go before you can be the hero."
In his tone, I heard the unspoken if. Parts of the other pieces of the Prophecy that Iris Mirabilis had been slowly feeding to me passed through my mind… struck through the heart and silent… Across the sky and sea, wisdom he shall seek; That which he sought shall he refuse, and by rejecting wisdom gains he strength… burns his soul away…
It was always that last verse that kept coming back to haunt me. I picked up my sword again and began running through exercises, but I was still worrying at the dozens of lines of cryptic verse, and always returning to the endgame. Even though both the Lord of Rainbows and Nimbus Thunderstroke had agreed that it didn't necessarily mean I would have to die – that Ozma's power could save me – it was pretty clear that death was very much in the cards. And if using her power was going to burn my soul, that meant that there wouldn't be any of me left to go to the afterlife I was just now suspecting might really exist.
"Enough, you idiot!" Nimbus' voice broke through my reverie. "You've gone off again into your night-damned contemplations and your practice isn't even worth the sweat of my worst recruit's brow! Time for some real work! We'll do the dragging weights this time, all the way around the arena, five times!"
Oh, what I wouldn't give for the power of Montage…
"A True Mortal! That little conniving snip of a Faerie and her father have brought over a True Mortal!" The sky darkened above the Gray Castle as Queen Amanita clenched her fist and muttered a phrase in a language so dark that even Ugu winced. He could understand Amanita's fear; as a Giantess in her origin, she was vastly more bound to Faerie than even he, for the Herkus were mostly mortal, merely using a magical supplement to gain their supernal strength.
But that was not the only thing driving her current anger. "And read this – THIS! A Prophecy of our defeat!" She whipped out a black blade and drew back her arm for a strike that would have taken the head from the armored figure cowering before her.
Ugu caught her wrist and held it effortlessly, concealing his own trepidation as Amanita's rage transferred itself to him. "Unhand me, you second-rate sorcerer, or –"
"Peace, Queen Amanita. You allow your anger and, yes, fear, to blind you to the advantages of our position."
Her other hand had been curling in preparation for casting a transformation – which would have revealed his own protections and possibly precipitated a final conflict that he was very loath to pursue – when his words penetrated. The icy green eyes thawed slightly and she tilted her head in curiosity; he slowly loosed his grip and watched as she sheathed the three-foot ebony blade. "Advantages, my lord? If you see any advantages to their gaining an ally who can ignore even the mightiest sorceries, I am astounded and filled with curiosity, for it seems to me that this is a disaster."
"Indeed, it could be. But first, let us not punish our best servants for bringing us news we would rather not hear. Instead let us reward Cirrus Dawnglory for his long and perilous service."
The bowed figure raised his head cautiously. "Thank you, your Majesty. Though I no longer have need of that name."
"As you will; yet you took his name and identity three centuries agone, and in many ways you have become him." Ugu had spent many years studying his people – the enslaved of Oz, the collaborators, the elemental spirits forged from his magic and Amanita's and the souls of particular natives of the Four Countries and the City. He had gained much understanding of the thoughts and feelings behind their actions – enough that he would on occasion privately admit to himself that it was his lack of such understanding which had led to his original defeat, in an almost inevitable manner. Amanita, he suspected, was incapable of such understanding in any but the most superficial and mechanical manner. This might – he hoped – prove one of his advantages, in the end.
He applied this knowledge carefully now. "I am sure that it was not easy to return to us with all you have brought."
The eyes that met his were wary, fearful, and he could see the shift of glance towards the expectant green-haired Queen. "H…how do you mean, your Majesty?"
"It would be a great wonder, Cirrus, if you could pass centuries at the side of a man so capable and loyal, live in a realm of such beauty, speak words of comfort and advice and friendship, and not have part of the lie become truth. Indeed, I would doubt you could have succeeded in your mission if your entire time in Iris' realm were naught but pure deception."
Amanita's eyes narrowed and her hand twitched again towards her black sword, but his hand stilled her. Part of her still remembers it was I who freed her. For now.
After a moment, the false Cirrus nodded. "I… I did like him, Majesty. It… pained me to betray him in the end."
"I know it felt like a betrayal, Cirrus. Yet you entered there under our orders, following the imperatives of our kingdom. His own Cirrus did not betray him, but died fighting to the last – a noble death." He kept his face solemn and respectful. "You, then, have carried out a terrible and perilous mission for your true sovereigns, despite many temptations. Even Nimbus would understand this difference. You have done well. We will have much need of your counsel in the months ahead; go, rest. Refresh yourself. We shall send for you later."
Clearly amazed at his good fortune, the false Cirrus – once merely one of the twisted Tempests he had forged from a Gillikin soul – rose, bowed, and departed.
Once the doors had closed and they were alone, Amanita turned a slit-eyed gaze to him. "If you ever interfere with me like that again, I will seriously consider… re-negotiating our bargain, King Ugu. Now explain to me these so-called advantages."
He prevented himself from either an acid retort or a too-condescending smile. He was coming to realize that Amanita was more volatile and possibly even less sane than he had previously believed. I am tied to her, perhaps by destiny… and I had best be cautious until I have found a way to sever those ties. "The advantages are three, my Queen. Of primary and most overwhelming importance is that – unless our plans have gone terribly awry – not even Iris Mirabilis himself suspects that Cirrus Dawnglory has been an impostor, a creature of ours since almost the day that Oz fell. Had any suspicions of him existed, they would have acted long before now. And the attack and destruction of his patrol was complete; none survived to report back that Cirrus had turned on them, and no other Faerie were within any possible range of perception.
"Thus, what we have learned from him is our secret and ours alone."
She nodded, slowly. "But a minor advantage unless there is much more gained from this knowledge."
"And there is." He smiled coldly. "We have the Prophecy – which prophesies our possible defeat, but also victory, and they do not know this. Can you not see how well this is for us?"
Whether as the isolated Mrs. Yoop or as Queen Amanita, the Yookoohoo had never been said to be stupid. She paused and considered, and her red-lipped smile was as a shard of poisoned ice. "Oh… Oh, my, yes, my King. My sincere apologies. We have here in our grasp the way to our defeat… and if we take care, we can guide our enemies to follow that course until it ends in theirs."
"Precisely. We must take care that none recognize that we know how our end is foreseen. We must not interfere in any way that would reveal our foreknowledge. React, never act, but prepare, here, for the grand finale that will dash their hopes, shatter their belief in their protection from our powers and their futile hope that the Above shall one day rescue them." He slowly seated himself in the Gray Throne. "And this very Prophecy also shows that – by describing how it may be used against us – the final ritual we have often discussed would, in fact, give us final and total control over all the power of Oz."
She laughed, that delighted yet chilling glissando echoing through the throneroom. "And they will be delivering to us that vital ingredient which we were lacking!" She settled back in her own throne, looking much more relaxed, and then glanced back up at him. "You mentioned three advantages, your Majesty. What is the third?"
"The third, my Queen, is the major reason that I not only prevented you from killing Cirrus, but have rewarded him, and intend to continue doing so – and I hope you shall join me in this. Even if we succeed in this grand final ritual, you know full well that it is Iris Mirabilis and his Legions – and the connections that it is said he has to the Above – who will pose the final and greatest threat to our eternal power over Faerie and Mortal lands.
"And here, in Cirrus Dawnglory, we have one who knows every detail of that sky-fortress' defenses – every door, every wall, every passage obvious and hidden, the tactics and strategies discussed by the Lord of Rainbow and his Head of Hosts, every single aspect of their ways of offense and defense… and they suspect not a bit of this. With his help, we may find that we can send our own warriors into the Rainbow Fortress without even sounding an alarm."
Her laugh rang out again, and a moment later his own chuckle joined hers.
And I just realized that this piece is insanity and bankruptcy: Section 8 and Chapter 11...