Heavy lies the head, as they say.
Iris Mirabilis looked down from the balcony at the very top of his castle, moonlight streaming down and turning the blue-gray skystone to silver. Far below, he watched a small blonde-haired figure in a private courtyard, practicing cuts and jumps and rolls, sometimes stopping to indulge in strange sequences of movements that did not immediately make sense to him. Iris raised his gaze slightly, noticed another figure, slight and swathed in shifting rainbow hues, watching Erik from another balcony, lower than Iris' own but well above the mortal's ordinary line of vision.
Raising his gaze still higher, he could see the looming mountains of the Earthly Firmament encircling his city, with the greatest of them – Caelorum Sanctorum– towering steeply to a point far above his castle, one that even his eyes could not easily pierce, a shadowed eminence of indigo and black shading to a brilliant spark of light where the sun – many hours set – still touched.
"You sent for me, Majesty?"
"Yes, Nimbus." He glanced down at the Captain of his hosts, then back up. "Five days."
Nimbus grunted, then followed his gaze. "Five… " He stared, then turned directly to face Iris. "Your Majesty, are you certain? Few indeed even of our own people have attempted that. As I recall, even your own daughters were –"
"My own daughters," Iris found himself saying with an unexpected vehemence, "are of my own blood and have duties that I would expect them to carry out for that reason, if no other. They are not men snatched from their own world to die for the sake of mine."
Nimbus was silent for a moment, and then – unexpectedly – chuckled. "My King may correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to my memory that when first you had finished your perusal of the prophecies and come to the conclusions of what they demanded, you were not bothered – indeed, I might even say almost pleased – that the hero of prophecy would in all likelihood live not past the ending of the threat."
Iris restrained a glare. Instead he simply took a breath, held it, and released it with a sigh. "You were not wrong, Captain. Unlike Polychrome and my other daughters, I have had occasion to look upon the mortal world as time passed, and I was very much afraid of what sort of man I might get from that world, and especially how that sort of man would affect us." By "us", he suspected Nimbus knew, he meant Polychrome, but the Captain said nothing. "They are a world of machines, of dark and heartless countries and industries that seem almost themselves machines, while in his own country they are a people of light and empty and it would seem almost meaningless entertainments, oblivious to much of the world around them… not that the other countries are truly much different. The people of that country have become ever more oriented to pleasures, hedonistic, focused on the self. And when he came here, though he had a veneer of courtesy, I thought that might be all he was. But now… yes, he is brash in some ways, loud, he has little of the manners one might have hoped for…"
Nimbus nodded slowly. "… but he has a sense of wonder that carries him when his rude or odd manners might fail, and those 'light and empty' entertainments have given him the keys of imagination that he needs, it would appear. Still…"
The Rainbow Lord turned away and paced, looking back down to where the mortal was now standing unarmed, hands and body going through gestures that seemed akin to, yet were not exactly, combat, muttering disjointed words even Iris could not make out. Then Erik paused, and Iris could tell he had caught sight of the smaller figure above him; Polychrome waved down at him, and the mortal stood immobile, staring up at her. "…Still? Yes, Nimbus, still, there are many questions unanswered, but we simply cannot get those answers here. And there is the question of myself, of my responsibility to a man who has come here to serve the most extreme need of faerie. Oh, indeed, I nearly did hate him for his presence, for what it would mean. But now…"
Nimbus was looking down as well. "Are… are you going to tell him, then?"
"I cannot. I dare not. The delicacy of following prophecy cannot be overestimated; a single mis-spoken word and all may unravel and be lost, dispelled as the mist before the sun."
He could see in Nimbus' nod that the Captain of the Guard understood – perhaps all too well. "And so you can offer him this as a … salve to your conscience. Yes, I suppose so, although if he dies in the process –"
"—Then he is not truly what we thought." The Rainbow Lord frowned; Nimbus' straightforward phrasing was unfortunately accurate, and Iris did not like seeing in himself a King who would so cynically use those around him. But it would be worse to deny it. "He will be losing as much as even I in the end – even if he lives. At least this I can give him, and I think someone such as he will appreciate what he sees. Perhaps it will even be of use; the inspiration to do these things does not come entirely at random, you know." Both he and Nimbus looked to the sky for a moment and nodded.
"I will prepare him, then." Nimbus turned to leave.
"Wait." Below, Polychrome had danced her way down to the courtyard and was talking to the mortal; he could catch enough of the conversation to know she was taking him to the Evening Banquet at the Tower of Dawn, where many of the people of the Kingdom would be. In these last few days he was making the presence of the Hero known, raising the spirits of the Rainbow Kingdom by making it clear that they were now preparing to act, rather than merely survive. "Let him go for now. Tomorrow is soon enough."
Nimbus smiled sadly, and bowed. "As you will, Majesty."
I felt the chill of the morning deep in my bones as I awoke. I never liked camping as a kid, and I don't like it any better now. Who was it who said that adventures were unpleasant things happening to people a long way away?
I dragged myself out of the little tent and onto the remainder of the little shelf of rock I was on. I wasn't sure of the point of this little exercise, but you generally didn't argue with Iris Mirabilis. I got out the little folded picture of a campfire he'd given me and shook it four times as instructed – once to each of the four cardinal directions.
As I finished the fourth, the picture shimmered in front of me and suddenly there was a blazing little fire on the stone almost at my feet. I jumped a bit. I'd pretty much expected that, but having it happen… even after all the time I've been here, it's pretty startling, especially if it seems to be me doing it.
I carefully didn't look very far around as I cooked up a simple breakfast and ate. Then I washed up as best I could with some water on my face and hands, and packed up everything. Pack settled, I took a deep breath and looked up.
Caelorum Sanctorum towered over me, a titanic mass of cliffs and ridges and slopes that seemed to go upward forever. For a moment, the lazy, sour-faced part of me just whined, because it didn't look as though I'd made any progress in the last few days.
I glanced behind me. I almost regretted that, because while it did demonstrate that I'd made progress, I damn near got dizzy enough to fall off. Below me the mountain dropped away and away and away, ten thousand, fifteen thoushand, twenty thousand feet, more? I had no idea really how high I'd come, or how much farther I had to go. Iris apparently thought I could make it in five days, or maybe he just wanted to see how long it took me to give up.
Well, I'm not giving up. Not after all that training, and not after I've come THIS far.
I made sure everything was secure, and then stepped up to the rockface. I found a handhold, pulled myself up, set my foot on a little ridge of stone, reached out, pulled up.
Focus. I'd freeclimbed when I was much younger – a stupid, stupid hobby that I'd often looked back on with a combination of wistful memory and wincing recognition of how easily I could have died. I'd found anything I could climb and gone up it – alone. Without any equipment. Without help. Sometimes a few hundred feet in the air, alone, doing it for as far as I could tell just the sheer adrenaline thrill of ALMOST getting killed.
And now I was doing it again… at least two orders of magnitude worse. Well, okay, this time someone else wanted me to do this stupid thing, and I did have a little equipment. I took one of the safety spikes from my pack and slammed it into the stone, tied my rope on carefully. Hmm. No handholds here at all.
I'd reached one of the sheer sections of the mountain, shining gray-white like polished cloud in the slanting sun of morning. It looked as smooth as a morning fog even close up. In fact, I realized with bemusement that it was smooth enough to have a dim reflection of me in it.
"Well, not much longer." I reached up and focused, and the stone suddenly gave under my fingers like butter.
Too much. I took a handful of it away without thinking. I tried again, this time remembering the exact procedure I'd perfected over the past couple of days. This time I ended with a scooped-out handhold with a perfect grip.
The entire mountain was of course an impossibility. It was also more than ever clear, now that I could look out over things, that I wasn't exactly in the same world that I'd been born in. Here I was above the ground at what must be, by now, over 50,000 feet, but the sky was only a little darker blue, and while it was pretty brisk right now it was going to warm up later – and I could still breathe. This kind of thing would be pretty obvious on satellite view, so we were in the parallel, different universe of the Faerie for sure.
So here I was, climbing a mountain of solid cloud. One that I could scoop out like soft butter if I wanted, or walk on like it was stone. That wouldn't save me if I fell, though, not from this height. Oh, sure, if I focused it'd be like butter, or even water, instead of stone, maybe even cotton candy, but if you hit anything at terminal velocity… well, there's at least two reasons you call that "terminal".
So, I thought, why the hell is he risking his hero doing this mountain-climbing stunt?
I gave myself another handhold, pressed on. Iris Mirabilis was hard to figure. When I first met him he greeted me in a friendly-enough fashion – aside from that lightning-ball stunt – but I'd at first gotten the impression he didn't like me much. That had changed in the last few months, and I just didn't know why, which bothered me. I've always been used to people not liking me, and other people liking me, but it's not often that someone would change their opinion without my understanding what I'd done to manage it.
Still, that wasn't going to help me with the business at hand. I settled down and started climbing for real.
It was a few hours later that it happened. That's always the worst point – you've been going long enough that you've got a routine, you're starting to get really tired, you're thinking about maybe getting lunch, something like that and then –
I squeezed too hard, lunged up a bit too much, and suddenly hand and foothold broke off under me.
I plummeted downward like a rocket; gravity, at least, worked just exactly the same here as it did back home, something for which I really was not grateful right now. I grabbed for my rope, held it in my gloved hands, tried to time it so I could slow myself gradually rather than –
I mistimed it; all my weight slammed onto the rope, and the safety spike popped out of the cliff like a rotten tooth. "Ohhh crap," I heard myself say in a sort of "Hellboy" tone.
After the momentary pause I was heading back down fast, and the recoiling rope caused the spike to bash me insultingly in the head. This did, at least, remind me I had other spikes.I pulled two from the belt harness I periodically replenished, gripped them tight, and hammered down.
With my mortal will focused on the spikes, the metal tore into the stone easily. My arms screamed protest at the impact, though, because it was like trying to hold a blunt knife straight as it tried to cut through a moving couch. The noise was incredible, a screeching wail of stone and steel with sparks showering like a fountain from the point of impact. I saw the spikes wearing away, bending ---
---I released those two, grabbed two more, slammed them in, and –
W H A M!
Slowly, I picked myself up. "Well… I'm alive. That's a good thing on my checklist, I think." I was in a ten-foot deep miniature crater, and by the way the wall on my lefthand side was cracking, I suspected there wasn't much rock that way. I carefully stood up and pulled myself gingerly upward. As my eyes cleared the edge, I cursed.
I had just landed on – well, mostly through – the ledge I'd camped on.
Most of the morning had just gone to waste.
I took a few minutes to cool down, because my first impulse was to just tear my way up the mountain with bare hands as fast as I could go – something which would undoubtedly quickly end with me falling again without anything but the bottom to break my fall, and me.
But once I had my emotions under control, I began to climb with a calmly infuriated energy. I was sick and tired of climbing this apparently unending mountain, but I was not going to let it beat me. Grip, control, pull, step, grip, control, pull, step, up and up, every few hundred feet another spike, grip, control, pull, step…
I felt my stomach growl, paused, hung myself on a couple of spikes and ate a sort of compressed granola-type thing Poly had given me. I did finally have a smile at that, because some trace of her perfume lingered on it somehow, storms and flowers touching my nostrils. Then I went back to climbing. Dig handhold, grip, control, pull, step…
Suddenly I reached up and there was nothing there. No, wait, there was, but inward…
I pulled myself up once more, shoulders and hands and neck screaming, and saw a much shallower slope, a ridge running straight to the peak of the mountain, and – standing precisely on the peak – the immense figure of Iris Mirabilis, looking somehow small against the vastness of the mountain. Despite my exhaustion – I realized now that it was evening, the sun setting and casting a rich rose over Caelorum Sanctorum – I rose to my feet and trotted the remaining few hundred feet to the peak.
It was cooler here, but still nothing like the sub-arctic unbreathable chill of near-space I'd have run into on Earth, that I'd almost died in the one time I lost contact with Poly on the way here.
Iris looked down and smiled as I reached him. "Well done. The evening of the fifth day, and you stand on the peak of the Mountain."
"You seem to have hitched a ride on a ski-lift or something. I didn't notice you climbing."
He laughed. "I climbed this mountain more than once in my youth, and in some wise it is a harder climb for me than you."
Looking at his heroic frame, I grinned back. "I suppose it might be, at that. So, no offense, but what the hell was the point of my spending five days clawing my way up this impossible mountain?"
He looked serious – not grim, as he had with other questions I'd posed on occasion, but grave. "There were many points, in fact, to this apparently purposeless challenge. The simplest, and most to the point in our ultimate purpose, was to see you alone, set a task that you were not forced to complete – that you could choose to abandon at any time, or could simply fail at without direct consequence, and a task which presented no little risk to you. It is in my mind that when first you came here – even had I been able to grant you in an instant the skill and strength you now have – you would have given up that climb long ere you reached the summit. Would you say I was wrong?"
I thought on that for a few moments, gazing back down towards the Rainbow Fortress, a tiny toy castle so far away that in the fading light it was hard to make out at all. Finally I sighed. "No… no, I'd say you were right. I've had a lot of projects I started and gave up on after a while."
"But not this? You hold our fate in your mortal hands, Erik Medon. What guarantee have we that this is different for you?" Despite the words, it wasn't an accusation, or even a demand. It was, to my surprise, simply a question.
I looked up at the Rainbow Lord; his face here was … different than in the Throne Room or other parts of the castle. He was no less impressive, no less powerful, but I saw lines of worry and care which I had never noticed before. "I wish I had a guarantee for you. All I can say is that…" careful, Erik, careful… "… the realm of Faerie, the land of Oz, and all these things are part of my soul in a way nothing else is. For years those were my favorite stories, and in some ways very privately so, because I never met anyone else who knew them all until I was much, much older. Baum's stories … they're one of the top five things that shaped my entire life, and finding out that they're real… there are no words, Iris Mirabilis. I've always prided myself on my ability to speak and write, but I have no words to say what this place and… its people mean to me."
He allowed a faint smile to touch his face, and I thought for a moment I saw a slight gleam in his eye that I couldn't quite read. Then he straightened up.
"Fairly spoken, and true. We are forced to rely on your heart and your head, Erik Medon; an unlikely hero you seemed when first you arrived, as you yourself admitted, yet much has become clearer to me since that day.
"Another reason I had you climb Caelorum Sanctorum is that here – and here alone – can I be absolutely certain that I speak to you with none other to hear. While I believe my castle is secure, while I have done all that can be done to maintain the secrets of my house, I know full well I am beset by enemies of surpassing cunning and power perhaps vaster than my own, who were able to fell the greatest of the kingdoms of Faerie."
"So while you're probably right, you're still not going to take more chances than you have to."
"You have the right of it. Truth be told, I would have had you brought and trained here, were it possible, that it be utterly impossible for any eyes save my own to know who and what you were."
I looked around the peak. The top was actually quite broad, with the literal peak – the highest point – a couple hundred yards away, a miniature mountain itself about sixty feet high and a few hundred wide. "Why couldn't you?"
"In a moment," he said, postponing that answer.
"Okay, then why did you want to have me up here where no one else can spy on us?"
"Because there are a few things I must say which cannot be said in my throne room, regardless of their truth." He dropped to one knee in front of me – which still left his head well above mine. "Erik Medon, I must apologize to you. I have committed – and must continue to commit – a grave wrong upon you."
"Er… how do you mean that?"
"In two ways, if I am to be honest. Firstly, even now – a year after you arrived – there are elements of the Prophecies which I have not told you, and cannot. Even though it is possible that they may have some vital key to your survival."
I'd known there were some things he was probably still holding back, but that was a new, and unsettling wrinkle. "You're saying that the other material in the prophecy – the stuff you haven't told me yet – might be something that could save my life?"
He considered, then nodded slowly. "It is… possible. Not certain, not, perhaps, even probable, given what I now know about you and the other aspects of the Prophecy. And of course you and I are both aware of the terrible dangers of acting too overtly on Prophecy unless it is absolutely necessary."
Yeah, the classic Evil Overlord Mistake: someone makes a prophecy that a certain baby will be your downfall, so you run out and kill off all the babies that meet the spec, except naturally you miss just ONE of them, and she grows up being trained for vengeance upon the baby-killer. If you'd just left things alone, she'd have grown up to be a farmer. "Yeah. I know. But … that's still pretty hard to just ignore."
"And thus I must beg your forgiveness. For as I understand the Prophecy, I have no choice but to withhold this information."
And maybe get me killed in the end… but that's part of the risk of any hero-ing. I shook my head, then laughed a bit. "You're forgiven, I guess. You're the King, and you have to make the call as best you can."
"I thank you." He did not rise. "And in the second case, I wrong you in the simple fact of your presence. I – not Polychrome, though she was my agent and, she has said to me, blames herself for this – I called you forth from your world, brought you here to my castle, and I have had you forged into the best weapon that could be managed, all to protect my people. This is not your war. Even if there is, as you and I suspect, a connection between your world and mine, it is … unfair that you be drawn from your world in a single day, lacking time or knowledge, and set on this course. I feel it was necessary… but still I am ashamed that I, Iris Mirabilis, must hide myself behind a True Mortal and pin the hopes of my kingdom on one who owes me no such service… especially as we both know the probable end of that service."
No wonder he didn't want to say this in his throne room. He's implied some of this, but no King can afford to be caught doing this kind of abject apology.
But it occurred to me that he was also right. I was owed this apology. But, as I looked at his bent form, not like this. If he's being honest, he deserves honesty.
"Iris Mirabilis, stand up."
He saw the expression on my face, and stood, a questioning look on his own.
"Understand something, please, and perhaps it will remove your need for any apology." I took a deep breath. "I'm not doing this for you. I'm not doing it for your kingdom. I'm not even, entirely, doing it for Oz. I'm doing it for…"
He raised a brow at my hesitation. "Yes?"
In that moment, a part of my courage failed me. I finished the sentence, "… for myself. For my own dreams, for my own spirit." Which was true, as far as it went. But it did not quite go far enough, and perhaps I should have… but I could not bring myself to state the unvarnished truth facing Iris Mirabilis here, alone.
For a moment I was sure that he knew exactly what the real ending of that sentence would have been. His violet eyes seemed to burn through my own straight into my brain, and I was suddenly very aware that it would take very little effort from him to send me falling to my death, training or no.
But whatever he knew or suspected, he said nothing; instead he straightened. "Then… no apology is needed, I suppose. I have given you an honorable route to achieve your own goals. So be it." He turned towards the other side of the mountain, away from the Fortress. "To answer your other question, because this mountain is sacred to us."
Caelorum Sanctorum. No surprise there, at least not entirely. "So no training field on top of the Mountain of the Heavens."
He smiled very faintly. "No. That would be… not wise." He looked outward. "Erik Medon, you go to fight for all Faerie. I felt… it was only proper you stand here, where no mortal has in… millennia, at least. The Above watch us. Sometimes, rarely, they give us a sign. But even without a sign, this is a sacred place and one of great import for those who begin on such a journey."
"The Above and 'they'… so it's several gods." I was still unsure what to think of the whole god thing, but if even Iris took it seriously…
He gave a surprisingly open smile. "Several indeed. And hard to know the truth of them it is, as hard perhaps for us as knowing the truth of Faerie is for you. Yet –" he broke off. "Look! Mortal, look there. Do you see?"
The deep vault of the sky here was a deep cerulean blue, with only a few wisps of high cloud. But in one of those wisps, for a moment, something flashed. At first, it seemed to be just a sundog, the phantom rainbow glow from ice-crystals. But it bloomed and deepened, and for an instant of time that seemed as brief as the moment between life and death, and as long as eternity, I saw into that spectral realm, streets that glittered with gold and emerald, a mighty palace that seemed made of great beams of wood set in a pattern almost familiar, and – in a fraction of that timeless instant – figures of untold majesty.
Then it was gone. But I had no doubt what I had seen. "That… those buildings, the way the roofs angle…" I could barely bring myself to even try to say it; I felt a bone-deep chill of awe and disbelief, in some ways stronger than that I'd had when first I met Polychrome.
"And so I know you, Erik Medon, know your heart by what you have seen; not that you have seen it, but by what that sight is to you." He nodded slowly, seeming almost as affected by the sight as I. "Perhaps you do have a warrior's heart within. But whatever the meaning, they have given us a sign. They are watching. I shall hope this means we have their blessing as well."
"But… does that mean… are you…?"
"There are questions best left unanswered, Erik Medon," he said quietly. "Take that to be whatever answer you prefer. You saw … what you saw. It is a sight given to few enough of my people, and even less often to yours."
I nodded slowly. I wasn't going to get that answer. But as he summoned his Rainbow to take us, I could not help glancing back and thinking of the Rainbow that bridged heaven and earth, and the god who watched over it with a horn, seeing all upon which he fixed his gaze… and look up at the massive figure leading me to his palace, and wonder.