Is the Hero learning anything, or not?
Polychrome watched from the doorway as the group of Guards prepared for training combat. She knew that Nimbus and her father were deeply worried; Erik had the intellectual and, somewhat surprisingly, physical potential to be a good, perhaps even better than good, warrior, but when it came down to actual fighting, sparring with the men, the closest thing to real combat they could manage to give him… he just couldn't seem to use what he'd learned. He hesitated, he backed off, he was perhaps one-half or one-tenth as effective as he might be. She had decided to watch and see if she could figure out what was going wrong.
Erik stood at the center of the room, waiting. He was dressed in twilight-indigo crystal-metal armor and holding a shining silver sword, touched with a hint of emerald, that was about as long as he was tall. He held it in one hand, moving it absently as though it were a fishing rod instead of a huge blade of metal that, she knew, she could lift but would never be able to wield even with both hands even for a few seconds. His True Mortal nature rendered the mystical blade effectively massless for him – and not for his targets, making it terrifyingly effective if he was willing to actually use it properly.
Willing… is that it? No, I've been watching him these months. He was only telling the truth about his laziness – he doesn't like working hard, but he's also told the truth about his dreams, and he's really been working hard for this dream, even though I've heard him complaining to himself a lot when he thinks no one's listening.
Part of that work showed just in his appearance. The armor he wore made his shoulders look very broad, but they were broader than they'd been when he first arrived, and the belt holding the mail was now defining a waist instead of something more rounded; his face had become more defined, square and sharper with less rounding. She approved.
Unfortunately, appearance didn't mean much. It was performance that mattered, and he was consistently failing to perform. She'd heard the Guards whispering – and suspected he had, too – that he was already a failure. They would not speak unkindly to his face, they were too well disciplined and trained to do so to a guest of the Lord of Rainbows, but she knew that his failures were causing the Storm Legions to fear that already the Prophecy had failed and their cause was lost.
The Guards spread out, encircling Erik Medon; his eyes checked their positions carefully as he turned to watch their movements. Then he noticed her watching, and she could see his eyes widen slightly.
"Ready, all…" Nimbus called, raising his hand.
The blond mortal gripped the sword now in both hands and seemed to gather himself.
The armored hand dropped. "Begin!"
The Guardsmen charged in a synchronized attack; Erik, recognizing that the last thing he needed was to get caught in the center of that mess, charged in the direction he was already facing, swinging the huge blade in front of him to clear a path.
One of the guards behind hurled a spear, but it glanced off the armor and Erik only winced slightly, bowling over one of the Guards in front and clearing him with an impressive leap that took him well out of the encircling group of Guards. But he didn't do anything to make sure the one who went down doesn't get back up!
He whirled, delivering a sweeping strike that shattered two spearshafts jabbing at him; she saw the sword actually bend slightly from the impact, springing straight but, she thought, possibly with a notch in one side. He caught a hard-swung mace in one hand and ripped it out of the Guards' hand like taking a toy away from a toddler, threw it over his shoulder, shoved the Guard away, and smacked another sideways with the flat of the sword.
But the Guards were faster. The ring was closing in around him again and they were matching his movements better, hemming him in. Half of them were disarmed by now but they grabbed onto his arms, his legs, and those with weapons remaining were starting to get in hits. She winced as she saw one point slip through the guards to prick his leg, heard him curse. He staggered as a pair of Guards struck the back of his knees, and he went down under a pile of Guards who were now systematically beating on him; she saw him raise his head and see her still watching. She realized her hand had involuntarily gone to her mouth in sympathy. Then even that sight vanished as the Guards really piled on. She could see Nimbus' eyes roll upward, his head shaking in frustration.
Then she heard a low, baritone snarl from under that pile, a pile that suddenly shuddered; she thought she heard a couple of nonsensical words in that sound that became a full-fledged roar as the entire mass of Guardsmen was heaved skyward, flung away from the figure at the center like straws in a hurricane, and she felt her jaw drop at that display of furious power. A hand whipped out, grabbed a Guard, crushing the armor on his shoulder, and hurled him through the mass of his fellows, bowling them aside, human tenpins hit by a living bowling ball. A silver streak spun about in a complete circle, batting the still-recovering guards away in a shower of metallic fragments.
Erik Medon stood there alone, breathing heavily, a sharp whistling undertone becoming evident, but triumphant. His armor was hanging on him in fragments, there were trickles of blood from a dozen minor wounds and red welts of bruises which would undoubtedly become blue soon enough, and the mighty sword was a shattered, unrecognizable mess except for the hilt, and his expression was wide-eyed, shifting from anger to concern.
Nimbus' expression, by contrast, had just changed from worry to savage delight. "Now by the Seven Hues that is what I was seeking, Erik Medon! THAT is the power, the strength, the skill I've been trying to get you to reach for these six months! Well done, well done indeed!"
Erik didn't seem to hear him; instead he had run over to the Guards, especially the one he'd used as a bowling ball. "Jesus, holy crap, Rain, you okay? Stratos? Mist? I'm sorry, guys, I—"
Rain winced and panted; red showed under the torn and crumpled armor, but even so the Guardsman managed a pained smile. "Think… nothing… of it, Lord Medon. I am … honored to have been… one of the first to learn that our hope is not gone." The others nodded, lines of restrained worry smoothing out despite pain.
"What? I could have killed you with that stupid –"
"Peace, Erik." Nimbus placed a hand on his shoulder. "None died, and the injured will be tended to." He shook his head with a wry smile, studying the mortal before him as another piece of Erik's armor – most of the breastplate – fell off. "Finding you equipment that will survive your use, however, may prove more problematic. Still, now that you have gotten past whatever had restrained you, let us continue."
He shook his head emphatically. "No way. I'm done for now. Maybe for good." He turned and walked away, slower now but with clear decision.
The Captain of the Legions went to stop him, but Polychrome shook her head, and went to follow.
She hung back, but caught up with him halfway back to his quarters when he slowed to a stop. "Erik—"
The whistling undertone had gotten louder, and she saw him suddenly grope under the remains of his armor, tearing it off and reaching into one of his pockets, pulling out the plastic-and-metal device he called an "inhaler".
It did not make quite the same sound as she remembered, and he triggered it twice more before she heard something more like the original quick, sharp hiss. He held his breath for a moment then let it out; slowly that undertone retreated, but it did not seem to be going away. "Sorry… I may be in trouble. That sucker's running out, and you don't seem to have a decent pharmacy around here."
"You need that … device often?"
He grimaced and leaned against the wall. "If I do exercise, yeah. You remember our little run, of course. Well, Nimbus has been driving me hard. I've tried to pace myself as much as I could, but it's not easy."
"Maybe Father could –" She broke off. "Oh."
"Yeah. There's all sorts of miracles your dad could do, I think. He thinks he can get away with fixing my vision; that's basically a one-time shot that just re-molds my lenses and softens them up, doesn't really change ME. But fixing my asthma and allergies? That's a full-body biochemical change, maybe genetic, or it means I have to have magic running in my bod 24/7."
That would be self-defeating, she knew; the more magic that was made a part of him – even willingly – the greater the chance that it would compromise his True Mortal status, at which point the entire reason for his presence here would be in jeopardy. "Perhaps we can at least find a way to duplicate or re-fill your inhalers and your other medicines."
He nodded, clearly still recovering from his own body's attempt to suffocate him after that last huge exertion. "Yeah. I sure don't want to have to try to do this whole gig while having to guess when and how I'm going to keel over suddenly." He straightened. She noticed that he still kept his eyes focused exclusively on her face, or away from her entirely. "Poly, I'm sorry you had to see that mess."
"Mess? I got to see you succeed for the first –"
"I got mad for a minute and I almost killed the guys who are supposed to be teaching me!" he snapped, and there was brittle edge in his voice. "It felt real good for a couple of seconds, until I realized I might really have hurt someone there."
That explains a lot, she thought, and filed it away for her later discussion with Nimbus. "So why then? That can't be the first time you got… overwhelmed."
He looked away for a moment, a sheepish grin on his face. "You weren't there the other times. It's probably pretty stupid, but the last thing I saw as they hogpiled me was you looking at me as though I was so totally pathetic… and I just couldn't stand the thought of lying there being beat to a pulp while you watched. And with all of them punching and kicking… I just suddenly got really pissed and let it all out." He looked down at himself. "Er, look, I'm hardly in any condition to be talking to you right now, I hurt all over, I probably stink, and as soon as I get over my upset I'll probably just have to head back to training." He went to the door of his quarters.
She wanted to inquire more, but she thought she understood now. "All right, Erik. I'll… see you later?"
His face lit up. "If… if you want to, sure."
As he started to pen the door, she said,"Wait. Just one little question before you go."
"Well… it was something I heard when you finally acted…" She concentrated to make sure she remembered it right. "Um… 'Mortal smash'?"
He burst out laughing, and there was a touch of red on his cheeks. "Oh, that… um… Look, that'd take a while to explain. Later, all right?"
He is so hard to understand sometimes, she thought. "All right."
She retraced her steps to the training area and found Nimbus examining the shattered pieces of sword and armor. "Lady Polychrome," he said with a nod. "Did you learn anything of value?"
"I think so." She recounted most of the conversation. "So… I think the problem is that he really just doesn't want to hurt people."
"Um." Nimbus wrinkled his brow. "That's common for Faerie of a certain sort. You've got much of that in you, of course, though I've noticed you seem willing to overcome that. Most of your sisters. The Lady Ozma, of course. But he's talked about dreams of being a great warrior of various sorts, some I just can't quite understand. Does his dream, then, stand against his soul?"
She shook her head. "I don't know for sure, Nimbus. But I think that's the problem you've been seeing."
He sighed. "That could be fatal. Thinking along those lines, there's some things I can do to make him more effective, but in the end he has to be ready to hurt – or even kill – because sure as the Rainbow, our enemies will kill him if they get the chance."
"I know, Nimbus. But … is it not better that he be unwilling to kill, than too willing?"
"I suppose," the Captain of Hosts said grudgingly, "but I just hope we won't pay for the luxury of a conscience."
I sat down at the small table; this time it was just me, Iris Mirabilis, Nimbus, and Polychrome. "So… what's on the agenda today?" I said after a pause.
"Nimbus tells me that you have… made considerable progress." The Lord of Rainbows' tone showed that there were still reservations in that assessment. "While we have many concerns, it is clear now that you have the potential and the will needed, and that – for good or ill – we shall have to rely on you truly fulfilling the role of prophecy."
I really hate hearing that line. Too much on my shoulders. Yes, I know it's all there anyway, but whenever they say it, it just looms up that much more. "I don't think I'm done with my training yet."
"No, not quite," Nimbus agreed. "But we are nearing the point at which I will be unable to teach you much more without taking vastly more time. A few more months, at the most, and you will be ready for the final test. We cannot wait for much longer."
"No," Polychrome said. "We evaded Tempests on the way here, so the enemy surely knows I went to the mortal world and did something. They probably even know I brought someone back with me. So they must guess we're planning to do something…"
"… and the longer we wait, the greater the chance that they will decide to act, rather than react." Iris Mirabilis finished. "So now we must begin the real planning of what you will do, how it will be done, and how we can best assure our victory in the end. You have heard the Prophecies of the Bear many times. Have they enlightened you at all? For I admit that often they remain opaque even to me, and I have spent many years indeed reading them."
I grinned. "In some ways, yes, I think they have. Though in most cases it might be best for me to keep things to myself, if you understand what I mean."
The Rainbow Lord's immense head tilted slightly, but his lips were touched with a smile. "I believe I may, Erik Medon. For your journey, your guesses and judgments must be your own." He turned to Nimbus. "Have you solved the riddle of his arms and armor?"
"I'm afraid not," the Captain of Hosts said reluctantly. "We do not generally work in mortal materials, and such materials would be too heavy and clumsy without proper modification. Our own materials, alas, simply cannot survive his use."
"Never mind," I said. "I already have my own answer for that problem. It's in the Prophecy."
The three looked at me in surprise. "In truth? I remember no lines that address your equipment. Not even thinking on them now," Iris said finally, "can I find a reasonable interpretation that would lead me to that conclusion."
Now it was my turn to chuckle. "Well, maybe it's not in the Prophecy literally, but it's sorta implied. Anyway, don't worry about it." I ran over the lines in my mind. "I'm more worried about the bit involving fighting a battle there when I happen to know that – as you've mentioned more than once – the Great Barrier around Oz prevents any Faerie from entering Oz. I'll admit I've managed to become a lot tougher than I would've thought, but I'm not an 'army of one', so to speak."
Iris nodded slowly. "You are correct. This is a matter to which I have had to devote much thought.
"The Barrier cannot be broken from without. From within, however, it can be opened, and by careful examination of the magics used and what we have learned from the enemy's actions, I have devised a solution." From a pouch at his side he pulled a crystal – to him, the size of a large marble; to me, more like a golf ball – that flickered with the colors of his Rainbow. "Place this upon the soil of Oz and my Rainbow will bridge the gap, become a path from one side of the Deadly Desert to another."
That was a relief. "So – if you'll pardon me for trivializing something that's undoubtedly anything but trivial – all I have to do is get across the desert and I can bring through my reinforcements?"
The other three laughed. "Yes, indeed, that is all. An afternoon's work for one of your might, Erik," Nimbus said with a half-smile. "But there is more to concern us."
Poly nodded. "The lines that go:
Army faces army, fifty thousand strong
Both of faerie, neither yielding
The battle will be long;
Nimbus grunted. "Any way I read that, I cannot come up with enough men. Even if I assume both armies together are fifty thousand strong, which would strike me as a most unlikely reading. I have ten thousand men, fifteen perhaps if I call for more volunteers. All of these I will commit, but that leaves us many short."
I nodded. "I know. What about the other Faerie kingdoms?"
Iris shook his head. "None of them will commit anything. They all see any attempt at attacking Oz as foredoomed, and any who attempt it will be destroyed. The only forces of warriors that might have been capable of being a significant factor in such an assault were taken by Amanita herself."
"The Phanfasms and some of the other nastier Faerie types."
"You speak truly. Not that they would have been inclined to aid us; though they were partially neutralized many years ago, still their nature was capricious and often cruel, and uninterested in aiding others."
Nimbus picked up the thread. "You of course represent a new factor… but we cannot discuss that factor with them. You are our secret until you leave here, and when you do so, you must be greatly cautious about those you contact, for any of them could be a spy or ally of our enemy."
I nodded. "I understand. I'm not planning on taking too many risks. But… I'll have to take some. Hell, the endgame means I'm going to be risking everything, so I think you – and I, for that matter – will have to trust my judgment on a lot of these things."
"Yes. We have little choice. But that 'endgame' is of grave concern. I am not even sure how to help you there. You would have to understand a great deal, especially about the basic nature of Oz and the power of Faerie, before you could even begin to wield it. And you will have no time to practice… yet there really is no way to teach it to you except in theory. In the end, you will have to have clear in your mind the way in which you will wield the Power of Faerie, and keep that clarity…" Iris frowned. "How to begin? The essence of Oz –"
"—Is the Five Elements." I said.
The startled, gratified look Polychrome gave me made my heart stop and restart. "True enough," the Rainbow Lord said slowly. "But can you say what that means?"
"It's pretty clear after I thought about it a bit. Oz is divided into five areas – four quadrant countries and one central area linking all of them. Then you have the clue of the Tempests, which Polychrome once mentioned were derived from Gillikins, at least in part. So I guess this means that the Gillikin country represents Air, the Quadling country Fire, the Munchkin country Water, and naturally the Winkie country is Earth."
"And the Emerald City?"
"Emerald, the color of growing things, and the center of Faerie? Spirit, soul, the power of life itself. So if I'm right, Ugu and Amanita have not just storm-based Tempests but other twisted elemental spirits. Am I right?"
Nimbus looked pleased. "You are exactly right. There is much more to each element than their simple natures, though."
"Yes, I realize that. Together the five make up, well, everything, so things like, oh, intelligence have to be characteristic of some element or another. I'd guess fire, for that one in specific. Toughness is probably earth. And so on."
"Does this…" Polychrome began.
"…Help? Hell yeah. If you can give me a list of the associated properties for each element, I can get quite a bit of practice envisioning how I might be able to use them in an actual conflict. And with luck, it might even work the way I envision it, if the power combines with me as you say."
We all carefully avoided the issue of exactly what was going to be happening to me WHILE I tried to use all that power.
"Polychrome? Please gather all this information for Erik. What he asks for we indeed have." For the first time, I saw actual hope on Iris' face, and I was glad. The longer I'd been here, the more I'd started to understand what a terrible burden he lived under.
Just as long as it isn't false hope, the nagging part of me said. But it was right. I had come a long way, I had to admit. I had figured out several parts of the prophecy, and I was starting to see a path to the end of the journey… but any part of it could come unglued with just one wrong guess.
And boy, was I having to make a lot of guesses.
Guesses are better than nothing at all. usually.