Polychrome – Chapter 10
“So, Captain Thunderstroke –”
“Hah!” His laugh was as abrupt as his last name. “Nimbus, please. Or ‘sir’ when I’m training you. But if the Rainbow Lord has decreed that I, personally, train you, we are equals. Say on, then.”
I grinned back at him. I was probably going to hate this guy at times during our training, but I kinda liked him already. “How much do you know about the Prophecy? Is there anything I can’t talk about with you?”
“Nothing is there so vital to our defense that the Rainbow Lord would have failed to tell me, and yet have told you, when you would be unable to fully comprehend it.” He said this with a simple, matter-of-fact tone. While I could see he was a man very proud of his skill and position, there was no ego in that statement. And it made sense; if this guy was the head of his defenses, the Rainbow Lord had BETTER trust him.
“Okay, got it.” I said. “So when we were talking, he said my nature as a true Mortal wasn’t just a neat advantage, but was necessary.” I associated the way Iris Mirabilis had said that word with the way that Mentor of Arisia would have used it. “What did he mean by that?”
“You cut to the heart of the matter. Let us hope you are so swift with weapons as well.” Nimbus rubbed his hand through his already-wild (though short) dark-violet hair. “You are familiar with Oz through the distorted retellings in your world, yes?”
“Very familiar. And I’m quite aware that there were a lot of … liberties taken with the reality.”
He grunted. “Even so.” We turned down a cross-corridor, and I was struck anew by the sheer size of the place. This palace couldn’t be less than a mile, a mile and a half, across. Maybe a lot more. The translucent blue-prismatic crystal of the walls was like marble mined from some petrified ocean, and stretched on forever, it seemed. “The first and most obvious answer is that your adversaries are both mighty magicians indeed, and all of their greatest weapons are things of fell enchantment and dark faerie power. As a True Mortal, you can stand before them with a greater hope of victory than any others among us, perhaps even than the Rainbow Lord himself, perhaps even than the Above.” At the last word he raised his head, nodding upward. “But there is a far more specific reason. Many things in the books were, as you say, not precisely what was written. The Deadly Desert was and is, however, quite real, as was the enchantment enacted by Glinda the High Sorceress to seal off Oz from the mortal world.
“The Usurpers Ugu and Amanita have taken control of that barrier and transformed it. The shield about Oz now excludes all but the most minute traces of Faerie power, save that which they permit to travel through; their spies and agents, in other words.” I nodded to show that I understood. “A being such as yourself can pass through that barrier when none of us may do so.”
“You are not telling me that I have to go charging into an enemy-occupied Oz all by myself?”
He laughed. I wasn’t sure I liked the laugh. “We will leave that discussion for later, mortal. For here,” he shoved open a huge portal, “we are.”
The room inside was roughly the size of Iris’ throneroom, but instead of a dramatic seat of power, this was an indoor drilling field, a dojo on steroids; hundreds of men with the same undefinably exotic air that surrounded Nimbus (and was much stronger around Polychrome and her father) were practicing – swinging swords, maces, blocking with shields, ducking, parrying, leaping in impossibly high arcs to evade and returning to ground to cut and jab and lunge. “This is the palace guard?”
“A small number of them, yes. Understand that for a ruler such as Iris Mirabilis, the security of the castle and his people is the security of the entire realm. One could call us his army and be just as accurate. Ten thousand and more do I command… and,” he fixed me with a heavy stare, “all ten thousand will I commit to the war if need be and if my Lord orders it. And no choice will we have in this, if you fail.”
“Sure, sure, load me up with the responsibility.” I tried to sound casual. At his sudden glare, I swallowed. “Sorry.”
He sighed and looked regretful. “My apologies. Perhaps you do not realize just how long it has been, that we have been preparing and waiting. It wears on us just as it would on you, my friend.”
“I did get the idea that time went by a lot faster here than back home.”
“As you measure time, it was nigh on fifty years ago that Oz fell. Here, it was three centuries and more a gone.”
Six to one time ratio. Well, that has some advantages for me. Still…! “You’ve been just waiting around for three hundred years for this prophecy to come due? They’ve had that long to lock it all down? Jesus, man, is it really that hopeless without me?”
He gave a bitter laugh as he led me into an alcove about as large as a ballroom. “It strikes me as improbable as well, Erik Medon, but yes, it is exactly that hopeless.
“Oz is the center, the very core of Faerie. That power is in the hands of beings who understand how to wield it and who have chosen to do so in a manner directly contrary to its normal nature. Not only does this affect all of us in one way or another, it is something virtually impossible for us, alone, to combat. As well lead your people’s armies against the Sun. Assembled all together, the other Faerie realms might, possibly, equal the forces that the Warlock and the Yookoohoo command. But even leaving aside how difficult it would be to convince all of those squabbling little realms to unite against such a foe, the barrier they have made from Glinda’s is an absolute and impenetrable defense, through which only one thing can pass.”
“A true Mortal who is, by his nature, completely unaffected by magic, howsoever powerful.” I finished.
“Exactly.” He gestured to the lefthand wall; I saw, arranged in glittering, expectant ranks, dozens upon dozens of weapons: gladius-like shortswords, daggers, spears, clubs, staves, titanic two-handed swords, barbed nets, tridents, crescent-shaped blades like sickles, katana-like longswords, and more exotic offerings. “Choose a weapon, mortal. We’ll test your instincts first before we begin the training in earnest.”
“Just be careful not to kill me in your testing. As Iris pointed out, I’m not immune to sharp pointy things in my gut.”
He gave another snort of laughter as I surveyed the wall of death-dealing implements, and drew his own weapon, something like a green-blue claymore; he leaned on it as he waited.
He’s a lot bigger than me, clearly one hell of a lot stronger if he’s using something THAT size. I’m never going to beat him, but I need to play to what strengths I’ve got. I finally selected a long, twin-edged rapier. I’ve done a little swordwork with things like this, and it’s fast. My only chance to even look halfway good is to use speed – stick and move and stick again, and not in any way, shape, or form try to match him one to one.
I took a breath and turned to him. “I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
A tiny smile curled one corner of his mouth. He brought his huge sword up in a salute and then stood there, waiting.
“Yeah, I figured you’d wait.” I circled slowly, watching him turn easily in place. A fast lunge in, then retreat immediately.
I did several feints, trying to make it difficult to know when I was committing to the attack. He did unlimber his sword from the salute, watching my movements narrowly.
I gathered myself as if to commit, then pulled back, then did the real lunge forward. Extend and –
A baseball bat wielded by Hercules took me in the side of my head, spinning me sideways and sending me skidding prone on the floor, the useless rapier skittering away from my hand.
“Are you all right?” I looked up blearily to see Nimbus’ huge hand extended.
I forced myself to grasp it and tried to grin. “Sure, never better.”
“I saw your line of thinking. You noted our differential in height, my weapon choice, and so on. You elected to try to match my strength with speed and guile. A logical strategy.”
Without warning, he suddenly bellowed, “AND COMPLETELY WRONG!”
Those words, shouted loudly enough to make my ears ring, certainly helped clear my head. “What? What other strategy WAS there, short of running away and hoping I could find a hole you wouldn’t fit through?”
He grinned coldly. “Hit me, mortal.”
“Hit me. Here.” He pointed to the center of his armored breastplate.
“You want me to break my hand? I –”
“I said hit me, you idiotic overweight soft-gutted pathetic excuse for a hero! Or aren’t you able to follow even a simple command?”
I didn’t see the point, but I set my jaw, drew my fist back, and punched.
There was a crunch and for an instant I was sure I’d broken my knuckles. But to my utter astonishment, Nimbus Thunderstroke literally flew backwards from the force of my blow, tumbling end over end as though he’d been hit by a truck, fetching up with an audible thud against the far wall. What the hell…?
He coughed, a pain-wracked sound, and slowly came to his hands and knees, then forced himself to stand. As he did, I saw that his gray-blue armor was cracked where I’d struck it, the metal scales crushed like eggshell. “Well… struck, Erik Medon. And yet I think you pulled that punch.”
I did. A lot. I don’t like hitting people, and even with practice, well… I didn’t want to hurt my hand, either…
“What the hell’s going on? I can’t hit like that. No one can –” I suddenly stopped, mouth half-open, as understanding began to break through.
He smiled painfully. “I see you may begin to understand, Erik.”
“It’s… that difference in our basic natures again.” I said slowly. “I’m… mostly material. Solid matter. You’re… a being of spirit, with just a moderate connection to the solid world. So if I’m resisting you instead of going along… it’s like, what, I’m made of steel or something?”
A nod. “Close enough, though not so alike that my swords will not cut you. And so – though your logic was perfectly reasonable – it led you to precisely the wrong conclusion.” He pulled a vial from his belt and drank. I could see the color return to his face, and he straightened. “Alas that my mail will not be so easily mended. Now, can you tell me the other side of your new realization?”
I thought a moment. “Even someone your size will be faster than me. Less real mass but more mystical power, you’ll be very quick. I didn’t even see you move that sword.”
“Partly that is your lack of training and mortal age. Some of that we can overcome with training and practice. But again you have the essence correct. So your proper strategy against us is –”
I suddenly burst out laughing. “To act as though I’m something more the size of Iris Mirabilis – you can out move me, but all I need to do is hit most of you ONCE and you don’t get up.”
“Exactly so.” He smiled at my incredulity. “A man of your… condition obviously never would have expected to need to use such tactics.” The smile suddenly turned predatory. “Which means that we will need to work much harder to make you able to properly take advantage of this.”