Polychrome – Chapter 16
“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 â€“ not old, true, but not in the bloom of youth â€“ 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 yetâ€¦ 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 â€“ 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 meâ€¦ 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 himâ€¦ 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 â€“
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 inâ€¦ was it Tik-Tok of Oz? â€¦ 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 â€“
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 â€“ I was sure â€“ 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 â€“ 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 ideaâ€¦ 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 leftâ€¦
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 booksâ€¦ 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 â€¦ 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.