The preparations continue...
"… and these notes were written by the Wizard himself, not all that long before Oz fell." She placed the thick sheaf of parchment on top of the least-wobbly stack next to Erik.
The mortal could-be-Hero nodded absently, absorbed in sketching some sort of diagram or chart which, she could see, had already been re-sketched, modified, parts scribbled out and redrawn, with dozens of little notations that she couldn't really make out; his handwriting wasn't very readable to begin with, and he seemed to have a habit of using abbreviations or annotations which referred to things only he understood. "Are… are you making progress?" she asked hesitantly.
He glanced up and looked contrite. "I'm sorry, really, Poly, I didn't mean to seem like I wasn't paying attention."
It was strange how… formal, cautious, apologetic he became around her. She'd watched him around other people and he didn't act at all like that around them – even her father. He wasn't rude normally, at least not intentionally, but he seemed almost impervious to the intimidation most mortals or Faerie would feel in the presence of the Rainbow Lord, and spoke to them apparently as he would to any reasonably respected adult. She couldn't understand why he was so oddly gentle and attentive.
But it did make these rather dull study sessions much more tolerable, so she smiled. "No apology needed, if you're getting anywhere."
He stretched, giving a prodigious yawn, and then smiled back, the smile that sometimes made him look years younger. "Oh, I'm getting somewhere. It's amazing what you can dig up when you know what you're looking for."
She couldn't keep her eyebrows from rising. "How could you possibly know what you're looking for, when none of us do, and you're not even a trained wizard?"
One of his eyebrows arched up and he raised a finger. "Because I know what I will need to be able to do, the prophecy indicates it's possible for me to do it, and this narrows down the approaches I can reasonably use to achieve it. More, because I was selected by the prophecy rather than someone else, I have to assume that this, too, was no coincidence, but rather that it's what I am, personally, which will give me a chance to win this battle," he said in a very professorial tone.
She shook her head. "Does that actually make sense, or are you just talking? Sometimes you are very hard to read, Erik."
"Oh, it makes perfect sense." He stood and pulled out a chair for her. "I'll take it apart for you. First, I know that I'm going to have to match – at least – both Ugu the Unbowed and Amanita Verdant up-close and in person, at the center of their power and with them probably by that point fully aware I'm a True Mortal. They've got all the power of Oz – minus whatever Ozma can give me, I suppose – to throw at me, plus servants or weapons wielding all the power they've managed to make use of in these three centuries. That means I have to face the full power of the Five Elements, and even if they can't DIRECTLY affect me much, there's plenty of indirect effects any of these things could manage which would totally trash me. One of those Infernos setting the surroundings on fire, for instance.
"So I'll need to be able to equal, or better yet overpower, any manifestation of the Five Elements, and do it myself, with no time for formal training. The prophecy, by its existence, tells me I can win: "…but in those final moments he may win the day", remember." He looked momentarily grave as he always did when he heard that line, and she felt a small pang at the realization of what he must be going through. I brought him here to offer himself up for our sake. What must he think of me for that? Bringing a man to Faerie so he can die to protect us.
She shook off the mood; he was continuing, and she wanted very much to understand. "So, then, how can I possibly fight two masters of such wizardry without knowing any myself, AND without destroying everything that I'm trying to protect? Ozma's power has to be directed and controlled by me. Maybe she can give me some pointers, but I have to assume it's really me doing the work." He glanced down at the annotated diagram and smiled sharply. "So that means that I must be able to properly direct and control the powers pretty much by having a clear idea of what I want to accomplish, and the basic method of doing so using the Five Elements. In short, if I understand enough about how the powers work, then it's up to me to be able to visualize what I want them to do accurately and clearly and with enough … force, I guess, passion, will, to drive them. I'm the conduit for the force, or perhaps a lens to focus it."
She looked at the diagram. "And you think you're learning what you need?"
"I think I already knew a lot of what I needed. Oh, not the details, but I spent an awful lot of time – significant parts of my life since I was fourteen, actually – imagining things that aren't, powers that only existed as far as I knew in stories, figuring out how they worked under a dozen different sets of assumptions, visualizing these things… and here, in the notes from Glinda, the Wizard, others, are the keys.
"You mentioned before your father felt there was a connection between the Faerie and Mortal worlds; these papers prove it. Our dreams, our fantasies, our nightmares and visions, these cross through and touch the Faerie world, affect the fabric of your reality; and in turn, your actions, the changes and wars and triumphs of your world, echo back through the connection and affect our very souls. There are some terrible implications in this as well, ones we'll have to face later. But for now, it means that I already know what I want to visualize in many cases; I just needed the information on how I could make that work."
Now she could see that the diagram had symbols associated with particular groups of notations; a wave, a cloud, a flame, a mountain, and a star. "Oh! Water, air, fire, earth, and spirit?"
"Exactly! Each with the characteristics attributed to them by various researchers." He scratched his head. "Problem is that there isn't universal agreement here. In fact, there's a lot of overlap and confusion. You guys never quite got to the Industrial Revolution really and certainly haven't even knocked on the door of the Information Age. If I end up staying here I may have to introduce the profession of librarian. Anyway, so for Water we have of course the physical characteristics of water, plus wisdom – depth, you know – but also healing, self-knowledge, reflection, transformation in some ways. For Fire we get (besides heat, of course), speed, intelligence or cleverness, the symbolism of power; Air is truth and illusion – the clarity of a blue sky or the concealment of cloud, evasion, movement; Earth, toughness, solidity, defense, stability in all senses of the word, endurance; and Spirit is willpower, life, emotions, that which separates ordinary matter from the numinous."
"That makes sense," she said, appreciating his summary, "but how would you use it?"
He had the same slightly embarrassed look she remembered from earlier. "Well… rather than go into details on that, as a simple example it means that if he throws, say, an Inferno at me, I can counter with Water, a Tempest's lightning I can ground out with Earth, and so on. These people understand magic; I am a very devious and sneaky ba –" he broke off, continued, "er, guy, and I can think of things to do with magic that only an advanced technological civilization with our peculiar quirks would come up with."
He's a strange combination of diffidence, arrogance, confidence and uncertainty. "I'm sorry I got you into this," she said suddenly.
"I'm not." He looked at her directly and she noticed his cheeks looked flushed for a moment. "Yeah… I'm not all that excited about getting killed, which looks pretty likely… but then, a lot of people have died for things that were worth a lot less. You are… I mean, you know, you as in all of you," he stammered, speaking quickly, "you are … all of the dreams I had as a child, and aren't dreams worth dying for sometimes?"
Polychrome wondered at why she found those words so… frightening. "Well, Erik, let's try our best to avoid all the dying. In fact, I don't think I like this direction of conversation."
"Right. Too grim." He looked somehow relieved, yet tense. "Um… look, you know, I've hardly had much chance to talk to you or anyone about what you people do outside of the training and all. I've been kept mostly a secret outside of the guards as far as I know, and so I haven't seen much since my original arrival. So… when there isn't some terrible emergency, what do you people do?"
She blinked. "Why, I…" She giggled. "That was a rather abrupt shift. I haven't thought about that sort of thing in a while. I do a lot of dancing, of course, and I've always spent more time around the Storm Guards than Father might like. But there's parties, and the Cloud Theatre, and sometimes magicians showing off their talents, or…"
"You go with people, I'd presume?"
"Well, yes, of course, any event's more fun with the right people. My sisters come to some events, though they haven't got my… well, what they call adventurous side, when they're being polite." His gaze seems… so intense, she thought as she continued, describing how she sometimes convinced some of the Guard to accompany her. That's silly, though. It's not as if we're discussing anything of importance.
But I… rather like the fact he pays attention so well.
"We're running out of time, I think."
Iris nodded, surveying the training area with eyes that seemed to look far beyond the walls of the castle. "You have come far, and your words have convinced me that you do have some plan. In a week or two, perhaps, no more. Have you decided on what you will do when you leave?"
"I'm pretty sure what I need to do. I have to cross the Deadly Desert alone, and even as a True Mortal that's not going to be easy. The Prophecy also says,
With one companion he sets out,
another he must win
But that could be I set out from here with one, or from wherever I'm supposed to seek wisdom." I glanced up at him.
The Rainbow Lord shook his head. "None from here. Polychrome will bring you into Faerie, but until you have found your way to Oz itself, I will not have her leaving again. She is marked by the enemy, and they watch her every move. A quick foray on the Rainbow to bring you down, yes, that she can do, but no more."
It didn't take a genius to see that he would rather she wasn't involved at all, but having now been living there for nearly a year, it was also pretty obvious that he didn't have much chance at all in getting her to stay out of everything. "So what are you doing here now?"
"You could call this your final exam, Erik Medon." Nimbus leaned on his sword, a smile I didn't like at all on his face.
"I've been doing pretty good for someone who hardly ever saw a sword before, I think."
"And not one of us would disagree. As an older mortal – not old, true, but not in the bloom of youth – you seem to have gained some perspective which perhaps a younger man would not, giving you something to make up for the reflexes you might have lost." Nimbus effortlessly sheathed his sword, and paced around the room. "We have found a way to replicate the effect of your medicines, so your own body should not kill you if you are given enough time to use them, and you have become quite adept at judging exactly how far you can push your body."
I smiled wryly. "Learned a lot of that many years ago; pay attention to the signals your bod gives you, or it might never give you any again."
"Wisdom and truth, my friend. Still, all of your training has been with my warriors. Formidable they are, and very much like some of those you will have to face, and yet… not quite. We cannot give you a foretaste of the true power of the Tempests, Infernos, Temblors, and Torrents at the command of our enemies, but it is to be hoped that many of their advantages will find themselves useless against a True Mortal. However," he turned to face me again, "in the end you must face even more formidable opponents, and of that we can give you a sample."
I blinked. "Oh, I have a bad feeling about this." The old quote felt all too true.
Yes, that was a very evil grin on Nimbus' face. "All you have to do is take down both of your opponents. Not even, necessarily, show that you could finish them. Merely take them down."
I turned my head slowly, to see Iris Mirabilis, the Rainbow Lord, unlimbering a sword that would have been more appropriate as a helicopter rotor blade, twenty feet or more long and over a foot wide, double-edged. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
"Far from it, Erik Medon. You will be facing opponents as formidable as myself – perhaps, even, my size. For do not forget one of the new rulers of Oz was once a Giant, and may use other Giants against you."
"You said 'both' of my opponents," I said, still having a hard time taking my gaze from that monstrous blade, "who's the second? You, Nimbus?" That would be bad; with no false modesty I knew I'd gotten to be pretty damn good, but there was no way I would outmatch the immortal guard captain, especially with the Rainbow Lord ready to step on me like a bug.
"Oh, no, not me." The smile he wore was still evil. "Neither of your ultimate opponents are, after all, master warriors, though I would not underestimate their skills entirely. However, there is a much more appropriate choice in this case."
I glanced in the direction he indicated. Polychrome stood there, a crystal staff in her hand.
Oh, Jesus H. Particular Christ on a pogo stick. "I can't fight her!"
Iris' sword stabbed down inches in front of me, embedding itself in the smoky-blue floor, shattering the mystical stone like glass. "One of your opponents is a woman of beauty enough to perhaps even match my daughter, mortal," the Rainbow Lord said, looking grimly down at me as I recovered my balance from the sudden shock. "We do not require you to truly hurt or kill either of us, but you must be able to fight anything and anyone. Ugu the Unbowed is a master of illusion as well as of more direct magics, and properly cast such illusions will fool even you until you actually touch their source. You must follow your convictions, fight your opponents, let nothing distract you."
Poly spun her staff around like a baton, showing that she wasn't at all unfamiliar with the weapon. "Erik, I appreciate that you don't want to hurt me… but if you don't at least try, I'm going to have to hurt you, and I really don't want to do that."
I stared at her for a moment, then swallowed. They were completely right. I couldn't be expected to fight the real thing if I couldn't win a sparring match against something roughly equivalent. "All right." I pulled out my latest sword and hitched my armor slightly; the armorers had gotten used to supplying me with replacements after every session, so at least now they fit me perfectly.
Nimbus backed off.
Even before he'd fully reached shelter, Iris Mirabilis charged, whirling his blade up and then down in a killing stroke.
He is actually large enough that I can dodge him… and I'd damn well better when possible. I tumblesaulted between his legs, trying to smack his ankle; I managed a glancing blow, but that didn't do much.
A blaze of clashing colors erupted around me, and I almost closed my eyes reflexively; only my training in ignoring the actually-ineffectual magical attacks kept my eyes slitted open; that allowed me to see Polchrome streaking in through the dazzle. I swung the sword around, flat side to her. There was no chance for her to –
And she was gone.
A stinging thwack from behind. I whirled, saw Polychrome fading away again, but now I was dodging as that gigantic sword came down, carving a ditch in the mystical cloud-stone we fought on. I took advantage of that magical characteristic and jumped hard. The stone, as rigid and unyielding to faeries as it appeared, bowed and rebounded like a mass of rubber under me; in effect, my anti-magic repelled the magical stone, sending me hurtling into the air where I took a cut at Iris' head; he ducked, but I cut deep into his shoulder-guard and staggered him with the impact.
One of his crackling balls of lightning thundered down at me as I landed, but I was more concerned with Polychrome. I remembered the scene in the Nome King's halls in… was it Tik-Tok of Oz? … where Ruggedo had tried to catch her and she'd simply humiliated him. Now I understood what Baum had tried to convey. The other Faerie were much faster than I was, but you could still follow them. Polychrome was like a flickering sunbeam off of water, darting from one point to another. Part of me was getting frustrated, the other just fascinated, watching her move here, there, seeming almost everywhere at once. No single stroke of that staff was terribly damaging, but if I couldn't stop her –
And the Rainbow Lord was there again, slower by far than his daughter but still terrifyingly fast, the sword coming straight down, Poly disappearing to reappear – I was sure – behind me.
That gave me a minor inspiration. I brought my sword up in a focused parry and, at the same time, kicked out behind me.
I felt my foot connect at the same time Iris' massive sword slammed into my own. The impact jarred me from teeth to toes and I was hammered at least four inches into the stone as my sword shattered and Iris' was gouged deeply. He staggered back from the sheer force of the parry and I turned as fast as I could, seeing Polychrome just as she finished her tumble across the floor.
But she was getting up, though slowly; I shoved away my instinctual impulse to run to her and ask if she was okay. I have to get BOTH of them down!
As fast as I was, it still wasn't enough. She dodged from me with a laugh. "That was well done, Erik! But you have to do better!" There was both encouragement and concern on her face.
And then I heard, too late, the whoosh of air behind me.
The flat of Iris' sword took me right across the back, sent me sailing up and across the room like a golf ball. I caromed off one wall, smacked into the next face first, and then skittered across the floor like an air-hockey puck. I woozily tried to roll, keeping the Rainbow Lord from getting another bead on me, but Polychrome was already there, bashing me about the head and body, beating me like a cheap drum. Every blow stung, and I could taste blood from where my front teeth had gouged my upper lip.
And this isn't a mob. It's just two very powerful people. Who don't even really want to kill me. And they're not going to hogpile me like the guards. They'll just keep bashing me piecemeal until I collapse or surrender.
And then I fail.
I forced myself to my feet, but that damn staff tripped me up again – and just as I hit the floor, Iris stomped on me.
The breath exploded from my lungs at the impact. Thank whatever gods there are that the magical stone gives like rubber to me, or he'd be scraping me off his shoe. I felt the stone rebound as he stepped back, and despite being almost totally disoriented managed to use that, flip upright, then tumble drunkenly away to buy just a little time.
It was a crazy idea… but it fit with all the crazy things I could already do, and the way magic worked around me.
I rose to my full height, bringing both my arms up, seeing Iris already almost on me to the right, Poly streaking in from the left…
I brought both my arms down, bending double, practically dropping to the ground, focusing my attack not on either of them, but on the floor; the stone which was not real stone, but mystically-solidified cloud, the fabric of the Rainbow Lord's realm.
The impact bowed the floor under me by ten feet or more and rebounded in a shockwave that thundered outward like a tsunami, hurling Polychrome into the air and away like a toy and toppling Iris Mirabilis as though his legs had been cut out from under him. I was up in that moment, leaping through the air. I caught his impossible sword and laid it across his throat. "Down."
Polychrome had not yet risen; she stared from the floor in utter amazement, and her father's eyes were wide.
Nimbus emerged from the doorway, clapping, and his applause was echoed by the other warriors who surged into the room. "You pass, my friend!"
Polychrome launched herself from the floor and flung her arms around me, and then, laughing, danced around me. "Oh, that was beautiful, Erik!"
I couldn't take my eyes from her. She was beautiful. No, she was beauty itself. And strength, and joy.
And now I knew I was in real trouble. I'd fallen in love with Polychrome when I was a kid, reading the books… but that wasn't the same as this. I'd known her for a year. She'd been a support, an advisor, sometimes the only encouragement I had, and now I could see she was just as tough and strong as her father, and what I felt for her now … was something I didn't dare even contemplate.
It's a good thing I'm leaving soon.
That was the right thought to have. But it made the whole adventure suddenly feel a tiny bit darker.
Yeah, it would.