Polychrome – Chapter 21

Chapter 21.

I walked straight to the East, not looking back. Not daring to look back for a while. It had been almost impossible not to just blurt it all out, looking at her then, when I knew I might die before reaching Oz, that this might be the last time I saw her. But she didn’t need that burden, even if it was something she wanted to hear, which I really didn’t think she did. I was pretty sure she did like me as a friend, now; we’d worked together a lot and she’d gotten used to me. But that was just more reason I needed to avoid that subject. I really didn’t want to get the ‘I think of you as a friend!’ knife in the gut, and our recent conversation had shown that it wouldn’t matter much anyway; her father and politics would be choosing her dating regime as much as she would.

Finally I glanced back; the Rainbow, and Polychrome, were gone. I walked on, just a bit heavier of foot for a while until the job at hand focused my attention. I’d picked this location at the border of the Nome King’s domain very carefully; Eastward, where I was heading, lay the kingdom of Gilgad (which Baum had whimsically chosen to re-name to “Rinkitink”), and its similarly-named capital city. Iris could, of course, have dropped his Rainbow right into the city itself, even on top of the royal castle, or possibly right at my first destination. And in some ways, that would’ve been a good idea.

On the other hand, there was absolutely no reason to give any spies a blazing flare-lit tipoff, complete with rainbow colored arrows pointing to my destination, as to what I was doing first. And I could use a little bit of time walking through the countryside and getting accustomed to the larger world of Faerie outside of the Rainbow Fortress.

There was a faint path visible here, which appeared to head in the right general direction. I strode along easily, something which I found amusing as hell; me, the quintessential nerd, now making my way in (admittedly very light) armor along steep mountain pathways and not even really breathing hard. A year of heavy training sure makes a difference.

As I crested a hill, I saw the trail getting more clear below… and grasses and trees carpeting the slopes farther along. I was now past the Nome King’s domain, which as described was almost lifeless barren rock, and entering Gilgad. Scents of earth and forest reached me, startlingly appealing and nostalgic; I realized that I hadn’t smelled anything like them in the Rainbow Kingdom. I’d known, of course, that they’d had to do some considerable work to keep me fed (either summoning the food, creating it, or maybe even having to occasionally send some faeries on a food run), but until now it hadn’t really registered just how alien a world that was in some ways. Iris Mirabilis’ kingdom was entirely a place of sky and wind and rain and light. There was no true stone or steel or grass or any other ordinary living thing to be found there.

This was much more like my homeworld, and I felt suddenly steadier in a way. This was the sort of land I understood, even if there were a lot of strange things to be found. I moved under the canopy of a light forest, enjoying the sparkle of sunlight and the green-tinted light in the shadows.

Glancing around, I noted signs of habitation; hewn stumps of harvested trees, tracks of indeterminate nature in the leaves and soil. Good. I needed to find people, get a good route to follow to the port city and capital of Gilgad, and get things rolling.

As I rounded a corner, however, I realized things might not be quite that simple.

About a hundred yards ahead, the path opened up into a clearing, in which was a small house with some cultivated fields around it, a small stream flowing through, clearly inhabited by a woodsman and his family. I say “clearly” because I could see the man, his wife, and two children in front of the house. They were not having a good day, as evidenced by the fact that the man himself was being held dangling above the ground by the hand of a seven-foot tall tailed monstrosity while a similar beast held an axe poised to strike the cowering children.

I took a step sideways into the forest and moved forward as quietly as I could; it looked to me like this was an interrogation, and I wanted to get some idea of what was going on before I busted in. As I got closer, I could make out what was being said, beginning with the grinding-gravel tones of the first creature:

“…ast time, mortal rat, where is it?”

I could see the man more clearly now; as you’d expect from a man living in the woods without near neighbors, he was strong-looking, weathered, the sort who would probably face down a wolf without a second thought; the futility of his struggles against the indigo-skinned hand gripping his throat showed just how strong the monster was. Supporting his weight partially by gripping the thing’s wrist, he managed to choke out an answer. “If… I tell… you let my family go…”

“I might think about letting them go.” The deep chuckle from the other made me – and from his pale face, the poor woodsman – suspect that there wouldn’t be much sincerity in the thinking.

Time to get to work. “Oooh, good. Then I might think about letting you go, too.” I said, stepping out from the forest.

The things whirled, the one tossing away the woodsman like a rag doll, and snarled.

I froze for a moment, unable to move or answer. All my training had been against human or very humanlike people. These things were nothing of the sort. Indigo-gray skin, like some sort of shadowed basalt, covered their bodies. The eyes glittered yellow crystal in the sun above wide mouths that had the jagged-fang look of a rock crusher combined with a steam shovel, but the mobility of flesh in the cruel curve of their smiles as they saw me go white; they wore gray-white stone armor and carried thick bronze axes, while their hands and feet sported sharp black claws.

Instinctive fear shot in a chill through me, and for an instant I felt myself starting to take a step back. I’d seen thousands of monsters on TV and movie screens, but that’s nothing at all like seeing them in the flesh, any more than watching a dozen shark specials on television compares to the first time you meet one in the surf, all white teeth and gray sandpaper skin and black, dead eyes, as I had once as a child.

The leader laughed. “Oh, loud of mouth but not so brave when facing the opponent, are we? Too bad for you, worm. This is Oz business.”

Oz business? The part of my brain that never stops thinking grabbed that, shoved it forward, and dumped a bucketload of shame over me. You want to save Oz, hero, and you’re too scared to face a couple of Ugu’s bullies a thousand miles from his stronghold? Run back to your little house now, then, let Poly see just what a loser she’s picked.

I swallowed, but got my limbs back under control. “This isn’t Oz, monster. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll go back right now.”

The creature – which I now guessed was a Temblor, one of the twisted Earth spirits under Ugu and Amanita’s control – sneered. “From one human shaking in his boots with a sword too big for him to swing?”

The other moved forward slowly, swinging its axe lazily. “Should I kill it, Morg?”

Morg nodded. “Why not, Gron? Might finish convincing these others to talk. Make it messy.”

Gron grinned widely, showing interlocking teeth like razor-sharp crystals, and lunged forward.

I’d had enough time to get a grip and prepare. Gron moved fast, but Earth spirits weren’t anything like the faeries of the air that inhabited the Rainbow Kingdom. The massive Temblor was actually no faster than me, not even as quick as Iris Mirabilis, and I first leapt aside as he charged, letting Gron thunder past.

He recovered and spun to face me. “Duck and run all you like, little man, you will tire, and I will not. Better to die with courage. Draw your blade.”

Time to learn if what works in training works in the real world. I straightened, and gave my own sneer in return. “And get it dirty? Come on, then.”

Gron gave a snort of disbelief mixed with amusement. “So be it.” He raised the axe and charged.

Bracing myself for an agonizing impact, I gritted my teeth, stepped forward just inside of the axe, and swung my fist with every ounce of force I could muster.

Stone armor, rocky skin, and mineral bone broke, split, and shattered at the impact, that felt to me no more than a hard punch into a sandbag. Gron flew backwards at a terrible speed, struck a tree, broke it off like a twig, continued on through two more before smashing into the mountainside with a sound like doom.

I stared in awe and felt a hell-bent grin spreading across my face as I turned towards Morg, who was staring in utter disbelief. “Your turn.”

Morg brought up his axe, but I could see there was no smile on his face now. “Wh… whatever trick this is, you are still a fool! Do you not know that this will bring Mombi’s vengeance upon you? And if that does not suffice, then the power of the King and Queen itself?”

Now I moved forward, and he was the one starting to back away. “Mombi, eh? I thought she’d be one of the ones they’d choose as a viceroy. Of course I know that. If, of course, you get your chance to report home.”

He was backing away in earnest now. “No! You mortal idiot! Whatever magic you’re using, it cannot equal theirs! Don’t you realize this?” As I closed in, he swung. Not without a chill of fear that it would end with my hand being chopped off, I reached out to catch the blade.

It was like catching a styrofoam prop; the thing stopped with barely a jolt and I could see the blade crumple a little on impact. “Here’s a surprise for you, Morg.” I said, ripping the weapon out of his hand and breaking it, then catching him and holding him up by the throat, just the way he’d been holding the poor woodsman. I brought his face close to mine and whispered, “I’m not using any magic.”

Then I threw him as hard as I could. That might have been something of a mistake, because he flew over the nearer ridge; I never saw him hit the ground, and given how he was basically made of stone, he might well survive. But… I really didn’t want to kill them, now that I thought of it. At least some of them were Winkies and other natives of Oz, warped by enchantment. I couldn’t go around killing them randomly. I would’ve pulled my first punch, if I’d thought about it and been sure I had the power to spare.

Now I knew. My True Mortal abilities were even more formidable than I’d thought, at least against the footsoldiers.

But enough of that. I turned to the woodsman and his family, who were staring with eyes so wide I thought they might pop out of their sockets. “Are all of you all right?”

After a speechless moment, the father recovered. “Y… yes, sir. You… you have rescued us before they could truly harm any of my family.”

“What were they after?”

The woodsman grimaced, rubbing his throat. “Stoneseeds. Grow just at the border between the Nome King’s lands and Gilgad and a few other lands. Dark magic has many uses for them.”

“And you know where to find them? Or you gather them yourself?”

“Both, milord.” He straightened and bowed proudly. “Amrin Stoneseed am I, and such has been my family’s name for generations.”

“Then I’d guess there are not-dark uses for the stoneseeds?”

“Oh, many. A stoneseed picked at full ripeness may be grown into many things – stone walls, stone houses even – under the right conditions by a skilled wizard. Unlike those growing on this border, such a seed will produce only sterile stone, not stoneflowers and new seeds, so there is always a need for new stoneseed crops.”

That made sense in the usual Faerie context. And undoubtedly, since such things couldn’t grow except on the borders of the Nome King’s territories, it was worth it to Oz to send out collection agents. “Well, I’m glad I was able to help. I hope it will not cause you worse trouble later, though.”

Amrin looked glum. “They will try again sometime, I am sure.”

“Well,” I said with a grin, “if they’ll hold off for a bit, they just might never get a chance.”

He looked up sharply. “Do you mean…?”

“I mean that all is not lost. Can I ask your help?”

He looked at me, eyes showing a flicker of hope. “After what you have done, of course.”

“Tell me how I can reach Gilgad, the city.”

Amrin looked at his wife and children. “I will do more than that. I will take you there.”