Burb Rocking
Saturday, December 09, 2017
  The Pack of Merlin (Book Two)



Chapter One:  The Hunt

Chapter Two:  The Station

Chapter Three:  World’s End

Chapter Four:  Nest of Crows

Chapter Five:  Dworkin’s Dream

Chapter Six:  Moonshine

Chapter Seven:  The Railway

Chapter Eight:  Avalon

Chapter Nine:  Smile of the Sphinx

Chapter Ten:  Wing Thing

Chapter Eleven:  The Tower of Glass



 
  Three Kings of Chaos (Book One)


Chapter One:  Kolvir

Chapter Two:  The South Garden

Chapter Three:  The Library

Chapter Four:  Tir-na Nog’th

Chapter Five:  Grove of the Unicorn

Chapter Six:  The Abyss

Chapter Seven:  The Lake of Sleep

Chapter Eight:  The Tree

Chapter Nine:  The Pit

Chapter Ten:  The Well



 
  The Chronicles of Shadow — Sequel to the Corwin Cycle



Corwin has come full circle.

Zelazny left our knight errant on a gauzy roadway floating across the abyss toward the dark citadel holding ancestors and ancient enemies of Amber.  True, Corwin would put in a cameo appearance in the cycle of books written around the adventures of his son, Merlin, many years later.  Yes, that’s true.  But that was Merlin’s story.  Corwin’s own story concluded in those final pages of The Courts of Chaos, as he left one adventure behind and moved toward another.

It is nice to think that if Roger Zelazny were still with us he would have eventually returned to the two heroes whose adventures he began around the same time and several years later ended around the same time.  These would be Dilvish and Corwin.  Both are knights, both are on quests — vengeance quests, at least at first.  Dilvish seems a bit younger, a little less cynical than Corwin.  But this comes as no surprise, as Zelazny began writing about Dilvish in 1964.  An excerpt from Nine Princes in Amber appeared in Kallikanzaros, No. 1, June 1967.  At least three years separate these two incarnations of the hero who had come to fascinate our young author (he was 27 when the first Dilvish story saw print, 30 when the piece featuring Corwin — “Pattern in Rebma” — was published).  Corwin completed his quest in 1978 with the publication of The Courts of Chaos, and just three years after that Dilvish was almost disappointed to have seen justice finally play out in The Changing Land, which was being sold in bookstores just three yenars later.

It is nice to think Zelazny would have come back to these characters. Not such a crazy idea, at least in part since one of the authors he admired most — Jack Vance — did the same, revisiting the world portrayed in his The Dying Earth (1950) over thirty years later with Rhialto the Marvellous (1984).  Likewise, the novel The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), written about the antihero Cugel, set in the milieu of The Dying Earth, was eventually followed up with the sequel Cugel’s Saga (1983).

Like many fans, I miss Zelazny, miss that voice, miss those heroes.  And I always hoped, once he was done writing his Merlin cycle, that he might return to Corwin someday.  What I offer here isn’t much, isn’t finished, and is unlikely to ever see publication.  But it’s my own take on how the first leg of a follow-up story of Corwin might go.  His original quest appeared to end with his arrival in the Courts of Chaos, so it seems logical his next quest would begin there.  So where does Random send him once Corwin is ready to re-enter the game?  The Courts, of course.

The original Amber series reflected the world of its day.  The conflict between Amber and the Courts of Chaos made an effective stand-in for the Cold War.  Corwin in certain ways was a science fantasy version of North by Northwest’s Roger Thornhill (and maybe James Bond), who stumbles into the middle of a geopolitical struggle between two superpowers.  He is set up by adversaries who assume he is a high-level player in the Great Game.  Attempts are made on his life.  He adopts an alias, nearly allows the ultimate secret weapon (equivalent to Thornhill’s microfiched MacGuffin) — the Jewel of Judgment — to fall into the wrong hands.  And, like Thornhill, he naturally falls for the double agent, Dara.

The Cold War is long over.  New problems plague our world.  The emergence of a global elite which does not recognize national borders or loyalties, but only cares for its own ravenous self-interests, is at least as dangerous as the tensions once created by the Iron Curtain drawn through the middle of Europe.  A nascent feudalism is in the making as income disparity widens to an astronomical distance between the wealthy and everyone else.  The unchecked greed of this elite has unleashed a host of environmental disasters upon the planet, culminating in irreversible climate change and reckless degradation of natural resources, even resources as vast as our oceans.  Meanwhile, trust in science and facts has been replaced with a fanatical devotion to cults of personality, ideologies and religions, until events such as the Oklahoma City Bombing, the two attacks on the World Trade Center (the 1993 dry run later followed by the real thing in 2001), and the Friday the 13th Paris Attacks of 2015 are now things the public has come to expect.  Fascistic leaders are on the rise all over the globe.  The strategy of holding the masses in check through fear has not altered, only the methodology.

Corwin witnesses attacks staged for public benefit in his latest journey, finds the realm of Shadow in disarray and possibly facing something much worse, and finds it is no longer clear who is really running things.  Nothing is safe or stable.  Ghosts from the past have somehow returned.  Who can resist an agency that cares for neither Amber nor Chaos, quite content to have everything ultimately destroyed simply to preserve its power for just a little longer in the name of whatever nonsense it chooses to believe?

It has taken too long to bring Corwin back to the Courts of Chaos.  There will most likely not be any more of his story after this.  If there is, though, the next installment will be titled:  Void in the Courts.  Corwin will have to determine through trial and error who can and cannot be trusted in the Courts, and errors will prove costly.  But he will finally begin to get an idea of who or what has been pulling the strings, and why.  Once he begins to comprehend what he is up against, he may want to just go off somewhere to live out the remainder of his days before it all comes crashing down.  It will be very tempting to throw in the towel.  If he chooses instead to stick his neck even further out than he already has, he is going to need allies, but as of right now he doesn’t have any.  It would be difficult to write, and before scribbling out Three Kings of Chaos I had never written a novel before.  So this is probably it.

Then again, I said that after finishing Three Kings of Chaos, so who knows?


 
Sunday, December 03, 2017
  Chapter Eleven: The Tower of Glass

CHAPTER ELEVEN



It was crowded in the place where strands of light stretched between streaked pillars resembling celery stalks, coins stalked askew, twists of licorice, sparklers, frozen lengths of rope, other shapes harder to define.  Beings furred, feathered, scaled and tentacled, as well as many sorts of humanoids, were pressed together at the north end of this park threaded with gleaming streams of water gurgling through pools and channels carved into the stone.  Bottomless and vast, the chasm yawned beyond them, half flickering blackness, half rainbow mists, strewn with drifting ghostly roadways slipping to and fro.  The battlefield stood on the other side, shimmering intermittently, troops and the dust of their conflict moving upon it, though the fighting was now effectively over.

Drawing Merlin’s cloak about my shoulders again, fastening it with the clasp of the silver rose, I reached for Erin’s hand.

“Look,” I said, pointing past where the massive shard of Thelbane thrust into the carnival sky.

We both saw it, the oblong profile of the airship we had been aboard only moments ago.  Wing Thing was tipped on its side, in what looked to be a banking maneuver, as the craft held to the course already set, collision with Thelbane.  Yet the vehicle had been more level before — had Maio succeeded, at least in part?

Beside me I felt her hand tighten, heard her say, “There must be a way around.”

Thelbane, ridged and textured in a way suggestive of a tree trunk scaled to reduce Chaos dwellers to insects, had huge tendrils of dense glassy material flowing down its sides which then ran outward from its base in all directions before merging with and vanishing beneath the surrounding water and stone.

“Not around,” I said, taking note of the wedge of open territory between the two nearest roots and taking a step in that direction, “through.”

We started at a jog, but soon were running  between the rivulets and pillars.  Though we were somewhat worse for the wear we both knew this was the final lap and that knowledge gave us speed.  Reaching the archway minutes later, we slowed as we hurried through it.

The underside of Thelbane was a mazey space, the abstract pillars gone and supplanted by more of the gleaming roots where streams of water still ran through channels cut in the stone.  The root-columns were more than supports — portals opened and closed, denizens of Chaos passing in and out.

In this sheltered zone stood tall flowers, slim trees, massive ferns, great whorls of coral, shelves of lichen reaching above human height, tentacled entities resembling denuded willow trees, arcs of vines wrapped around nothing and festooned with bright chromatic blossoms, and other forms less recognizable.  The mosses to either side of the paths were for the most part various shades of blue, while the leaves and leaf-like appendages of the taller plant-life seemed to prefer autumnal colors — yellow, yellow-green, ruddy gold — though more familiar greenery deriving from more Earth-like places was also evident.

After passing through an arch on the other side we veered north, and came to the edge.  Rather than a sudden drop, the landscape fell in a series of narrow terraces linked by ramps and stairs.  We stopped and stared up at the flying machine.

Fewer folk here on the western side of the tower, but slowly individuals and then small clutches of bystanders and then en masse they turned from the spectacle to the northeast to look where we were looking.

Her words, “Can you do anything?” were a whisper.

“I can try.”

Up where the winds fought above the abyss, the currents were shifting, the possibilities wide open, the probabilities wild.

With the Jewel of Judgment, one’s will took hold of the stuff of reality in the same way the mind of an initiate of the Pattern would wrap reality around him or her and rework it on a shadow-walk or hellride, except that the effect was amplified by orders of magnitude.  As for the Diamond...

The operation of the Diamond was more about an opening up of the possible; where the Jewel was a kind of transmitter, the Diamond functioned more as a receiver.  Many futures ran out from this moment, but those at the periphery could probably be discounted, and one clear and shining choice lay somewhere near the center lost amidst all the less desirable outcomes, if one only knew where to look...

The air currents, I could feel them, some roaring into the void even as others billowed out of it, and swirling, I could sense, around Mount Melgem which I now understood in a flash of clarity to very much be the eye of a storm.  If certain of those airs circulating about this island in the dark — different bands moving at different speeds and even different directions — were to be nudged just a little toward or away, then the whole system would suffer a disturbance.  Could this happen?  Well, we were in a place named Chaos...

Wing Thing struck the Tower of Glass.

The airship was knocked downward sharply, swinging away, veering behind the tower, then coming back into view as Maio seemed to steer the thing back out over the abyss.  Wing Thing was on a corkscrew-like trajectory, moving clockwise from the perspective of the onlookers in the Courts and in a rapid descent.

The Diamond receded into the background, the nows fanned out before me fell away, not altogether gone but relegated to the edge of things.

The tower.  Random’s machine had clipped the tower rather than hitting it head on.  A scar was visible on the western side, almost directly above us.  While the exterior of the structure resembled glass, it was obviously made of something stronger.

“Come on,” I urged, as the ship banked to the left.

“Where?”

I don’t know what I was going to say because it changed when I saw her face, the uncertain light of the Courts caught in the unshed tears she was fighting to hold back.  So I simply pointed.

The city laid out upon the Lake of Sleep approached Thelbane most closely here where luminous channels bordered by floating paths led off to the outermost parks, where buildings slid and turned.

“He overflew this area on the first pass — it’s the best spot to make an emergency landing.”

She stumbled a little as I pulled her along.  Then we were running.  Then we stopped.

Wing Thing rounded the tower, coming in low, turbofans in reverse and whining as the black bulk of its blended-wing body passed overhead.

We watched the ship hit the water and vanish.

Walls of the lake’s fluid — possibly water, possibly something else — rolled impressively outward from the point of impact.  It seemed obvious the walkways to either side of the channel would be rocked by the force of the waves, and perhaps parts farther off might be affected.  Instead, as the waves neared the boundaries between the lake and the things it supported, they subsided to become gentle ripples as though dampened by some unguessed property or mechanism.

Wing Thing then burst through the surface.  Another great spray flew out from where the ship had emerged, and again the waves surged forth mightily, only to swiftly diminish as they ran up toward boardwalks and buildings.  The vehicle was carried forward by its momentum, skimming above the surface, but slowed as it approached a shining walkway, apparently in response to the same mysterious agency maintaining the calm on Lake Haylish.

We were running again and soon reached the airship where it rested at a corner of the canal.  I jumped onto the wing overhanging the boardwalk and made my way up to the topside hatch, which I undogged and raised open.  I was about to straighten up to run back down the wing to help Erin up onto it.  Turning my head, though, I saw her standing right behind me.

“Wait here,” I said, as I swung my legs over and began climbing down, “Depending on the shape he’s in, I may need to pass him up to you.”

“You have five minutes before I come down myself,” she warned me.

 Then down I went.

The ship still had power.  The spokes in floor and ceiling were glowing, though weakly.  Light from the city fell through the viewplates upon the interior.

And there he was.

He had had the good sense to strap himself in, but was slumped forward.  Blood streamed from a nasty gash on his forehead.  When I reached him, I felt for a pulse, found it, then bound his wound with strips torn from my shirt, staunching the bleeding somewhat.  Checking him for other damage, I discovered his right arm was broken.  Swearing continuously, I went aft, returning with two struts yanked from one of the bunks, which I used for a hastily crafted splint.

Arranging things as best as I could, I ducked under his belly, got him over my shoulders, made my way to the ladder and began climbing.  I did not get very far before I had to shift things around, slowly working Maio into position where I could get him up near the hatch, getting banged up myself in my efforts to avoid subjecting him to further harm.

“Hold on!  I’ve got him!”

Erin took his arms, and, gripping his belt, I stepped down to a lower rung to push while she pulled.

We had help, as I took note of paws and tentacles assisting her, then saw him lifted away.  Soon I was up on top of the ship with them.  Can’t say I was at all surprised she and I were grabbed straightaway and marched toward Thelbane.

“Where have they taken him?”

Taking a quick gander, I saw no sign of Maio, but suspected the purposeful knot somewhat ahead of us might include her father.

“To receive medical treatment,” I answered, failing to add that medical care would in short order be followed by some intense interrogation.

But she would figure that out once she was being interrogated herself.

An honor guard of bird-like beings with feline faces in glowing green mail was waiting in the cathedral-like space beneath Thelbane.  They attended a tall queen.

We were ushered into the circle of open space around her.

Her dark hair was long now, confined by the spiky circle of silver on her brow, even as an errant breeze from the abyss lifted it from her shoulders.  Hues of blue and yellow chased and washed over each other as they rippled through her garment as if she were clothed in a sunlit waterfall.

“Hello, Dara,” I said.

She was gesturing toward someone, momentarily distracted, when a dark bird descended and alighted upon my left shoulder.

“Prince Corwin...” she began.

“Yes?”

“You have a raven on your shoulder.”

“Oh,” I said, genuinely disappointed, “well, I’ll admit it would work better if it were a black dove, or at least a crow.”

“Really?  And why is that?”

“Private joke.”

She did not pay me much heed, however, as she had already moved on to studying Erin.

The ring of onlookers stirred and made way as someone familiar was brought forward by two of Dara’s half-bird minions to stand beside us.  Ribbons of orange armor belted his red clothing, but he had been relieved of any weapons.  More or less human, with a long narrow face and mobile pointy ears, while his hands were bound behind him he was otherwise unrestrained.

Her interest in Erin momentarily lost, Dara ran her critical gaze over our friend.

“Coyote, where is your master?”

He chuckled, and gave her a sidelong look.

“You are trying to make a joke; I like that.  Everyone knows — and you do, too — that I have no master.”

“Only because you cannot master yourself,” was the sharp retort.

“The self cannot ever truly be mastered,” Coyote acknowledged, smiling, “and what a boring world if it could be.”

“Then you are never bored, are you?”

“You two,” I interjected, coughing politely, “need to make out.”

Something was happening behind us.

Citizens of Chaos parted like grass before a strong wind.  Through the gap thus created floated a platform with low rails woven of flowers, attended by a retinue of minotaurs.  Alone upon this gliding stage was a woman robed in yellows and reds, her cloak green and literally flowing behind her as though levitated by the same force which upheld her drifting dais, robe and cloak casting bright flashes from gems, glass and gold.

To one side of the space:  Dara and her anti-sphinx entourage.  To the other side:  the mystery lady accompanied by her bull-men.

Dara signaled her cat-birds, who at once hopped forward.

The other lady of Chaos raised a beringed hand, and everything stopped.

“What right do you imagine you are exercising on behalf of Sawall by your presence here?”

As she spoke, her minotaurs advanced till they were a dozen yards away, about the same distance as the winged cats.

Dara drew herself up, standing a little taller, her banter with Coyote forgotten.

“I bring more than my battle birds, and have more than one house behind me.  I am here for my prize.”

Something touched my calf, possibly Merlin’s cloak, ignored by me as the tension in the air rose, as the space became more claustrophobic.  But I could not take my eyes off her, she of the emeralds and the rubies.  Her platform having drawn nearer with the advance of her minotaurs, she was more visible now, wearing a wreath of lilies wrought of diamonds, mother-of-pearl and pale gold.  Likewise, the rail enclosing the suspended altar resembled a chain of poppies and was encrusted with precious stones glowing red, purple and green.  And wherever the platform went, the people bowed before her.

“Any prize you believe you see in this place,” said the lady, “belongs to Thelbane.  You have my leave to depart.”

The anti-sphinxes, Dara’s battle birds, took a single step forward.

The minotaurs, brandishing double-bitted axes, also moved closer.

The air was charged with impending violence, and the lady of lilies and poppies raised her hand imperiously—

“I volunteer myself,” Coyote proclaimed loudly, “to go with the Lady Sawall if she is permitted to leave in peace.”

Tension still hung between the two opposing forces.  Grips shifted on weapons, feet shuffled, breath steamed from the nostrils of the minotaurs, the armor of the anti-sphinxes glinted...

“Will you?” asked the mistress of the minotaurs, “will you go if Coyote is released to you?”

“I should say,” Coyote added, “that I know things about Imryss, Havgan, and other subjects, which could prove...useful.”

The adversaries eyed each other, regarded each other across a distance of sixty feet or so.

But at last Dara nodded, and Coyote walked to where the feline bird things waited and was escorted away.

Sparing me a last thoughtful glance, Dara swung away abruptly to march through the crowd, her cat-headed battle birds in her wake.

“So now you are my prize, Lord Corwin.”

It was the first time she had even appeared to be looking in my direction.  As she spoke, the platform drew closer, then settled on the ground before us.  She gestured with her hand — a section of the rail slid aside — then beckoned to us with a crooked finger.

“Prize,” I asked, “or prisoner?”

“That depends on you.”

Feeling the same disturbance down by my calf which I had earlier ignored, I finally looked down to see what it was.  The white cat, the cat from Tir-na Nog’th, rubbed herself against my boot again, then jumped up onto the platform.

Erin followed the cat, and then, after I looked back along the way we had come, toward the city on the lake, wondering what would become of Wing Thing, wondering how it went with Maio, I joined them on the flying carpet.

The rail closed, the platform rose.

With a small motion of her hand, she guided the palanquin northeast, toward where the walls of Thelbane were one with the cliffs of Melgem and the gap between the Courts and Shadow was narrowest.

As we slowly slipped toward the brink, I inquired, “Who are you?”

She offered her reply without turning.

“Falikwen of Thelbane.”

The name rang a bell somewhere.  Had she been among those who had attended dad’s funeral?  Probably, as most Chaos dignitaries had.  Could she have been among those brought to Amber for the treaty negotiations?  Doubtful.  The delegation from Chaos had been small and, perfunctory as my participation had been, I was sure I would have remembered.

Turning her head slightly to her left, she addressed Erin.

“And what do they call you, child?”

“What?” Erin croaked weakly.

“I asked for your name.”

“Me?  I’m Erin...Erin Maio...I just want to go home.”

“And where is that?”

She didn’t answer, perhaps overwhelmed by all the experiences she had been propelled through, by her father’s ordeal aboard Wing Thing, by the prospect growing before us.

So I spoke into the silence, volunteering, “She is from a great city of an Earth strong in science, far from here.”

Half-turning, so I could see her frown of disapproval, Falikwen marveled, “What deficiency causes the two of you to have so much trouble with names?  Of what city do you speak?”

I managed to respond with, “New—” but then the palanquin stopped and I did, too.

The columns supporting the tower had retreated to either side as our vehicle had progressed on its course, so that we had drifted through a wide plaza before stopping just before the drop.  Beyond the token barrier of bejeweled poppies there was...nothing.  Just space.  Peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon might provide a dizzying thrill; this was more like falling into the sky, like wondering how secure one’s tether to the spacecraft is when confronted with infinity.

A feeling beyond vertigo took me, a certainty that I would fall into the abyss mixed in equal measure with doubt and confusion over whether to step into it would constitute a fall at all.  Strung across the space between the Courts and the shores of Shadow were pale twisting bridges drawn to one side or the other, beings moving indistinctly upon them — filmies, the floating bridges were called — as if gravity were absent there.  What happened to people and things claimed by the void?  For a brief moment, I was a prisoner of that thought.

“—York,” I finished quietly, as though voicing an afterthought.

The filmies parted like the Red Sea for Moses, pushed to either side as an empty zone opened in the unplumbed deep lying between the Tower of Glass and the battle plain at the end of all the worlds.  Something was moving down there within the boiling, streaming colors, something boundless and black, spiraling  and unspooling and rising.

There was a sudden flapping, quite nearby, followed by a dark shape launching itself into the air before us — the raven taking off, soaring out over the abyss before swinging back in our direction to pass overhead and back into the park beneath Thelbane.

Meanwhile, flying creatures rose and dipped over the plain.  Fire and smoke flickered and swirled there, fallen combatants lay there.  A whirlwind of wings and limp bodies boiled toward us across the mottled landscape.  The fires, smokes, bodies and wings swept toward the chasm, then surged into it, a wave washing into the maw of the maelstrom.

The black immensity unfolded itself, coils rotating and winding beneath the long, widening triangular mouth of geographic proportions, a mouth opening in what seemed a genuine desire to touch both Melgem and the plain at the same time.  The colossal mouth was full of blue and red fires, as though a mountain had opened to reveal the magma within.

The bodies of the slain, borne aloft by the wyverns, rained down into the jaws of the monster.  They fell and fell and fell.  And as they fell, the light from the fires within grew brighter and began rolling out across the intervening distance, obscuring the exploding colors of the depths.

As the waves of ghastly light fell upon us, a different sort of wave overtook me.

Glancing at Erin, there was something on her face which I recognized within myself:  horror.  For me, though, there was something more.  There was remorse, and even a feeling which might well be dubbed shame.

No one should misunderstand, however.  Tens of thousands — perhaps more — had given their all under my command, and over the centuries hundreds of thousands more had died opposing those I led.  Death and I were no strangers.  But here, what was it?  Here, death appeared needlessly greedy and cruel.  Here, I feared, was death for its own sake.

As the bodies fell into the gullet of the Beast, I felt sickened.

“This is...” Erin said, “...that...it’s hiddeous.”

“What,” I finally managed, “...what the hell is that?”

We were about three paces behind our benefactor, in deference to her obvious status here.  She turned to face us, and it was the first time we had gotten a good look at her.

Her hair was long, falling to her waist, pale and red and brown and wild, and her bright and steady gaze seemed to hold starlight captive within it.  Though not much more than five feet in height, she carried herself with great confidence, as one of formidable stature.  The golden diadem of interwoven lilies, encrusted with diamonds, inlaid with pearl, the cloak a lush green with emeralds scattered throughout the material, a liberal distribution of ruby, carnelian and garnet visible in her gown — these only enhanced the authority she clearly wielded.  Whoever she might be, small as she was, she was a power in this place.

“This is the teind.”

“The...teind?”

“It’s a tribute,” Erin said, “like the seven youths and seven maidens.  Isn’t that right?”

A nod.

“Yes,” Falikwen agreed, “you understand.”

She reached out then to take Erin’s hand, which she lifted up so that the ring upon it sparkled in the unusual illumination of the Courts and the abyss, the gemstone that was the eye of the serpent sending forth violet rays.

“As you should, being a child of Chaos.”

Behind her, the rain of bodies had ceased.  The cloud of wyverns hovered over the abyss. The jaws of the monster were closing, its head twisting above the bulk of its undefined form, filling the expanse.

Its enormous eye regarded us.

Intense, disturbing purple light streamed out of it and also seemed to pour into it, so that a mesmerizing swirling effect was created.  There was something beyond the visible operating, almost a magnetic power working its will upon those in range, holding us in thrall.

The lady drew Erin forward, turned toward the vast form so terrifyingly close.  She held up Erin’s hand.

My own will had left me, my awareness of my body became a distant thing, my mind had gone adrift.

Falikwen’s voice rang out.

“O, Great Serpent, behold!  Your daughters stand before you!”

My eye was drawn to Falikwen’s hand, where I now saw among her rings one nearly identical to that which Erin bore — a serpent, tail in mouth, whose single eye was a stone of purple hue.

“Leviathan, thou hast feasted.”

The center of the eye was black, somehow bright, and it hurt to look upon it.

“Striker in the Dark, thou hast been paid.”

Darkness for a moment, as the eyelid covered the crackling iridescence of the indigo sun, as the Beast blinked.

The cat jumped up on my shoulder, rubbed her face against my neck, then reached her paw down to pull the Diamond to where it entered my field of vision.

“Go, lie down in the darkness, Lord Who Lies.”

For me, the spell was broken.  My body returned to me, and my mind.  A shiver ran through me, I shook myself.

She turned toward me.  Erin did, too.

Though I had asked the question before, I felt I hadn’t really gotten an answer, so I decided to ask it again.

“Who are you?”

“I am Falikwen, last of the House of Barimen, Mistress of Thelbane, Queen of the Courts of Chaos.”

The palanquin drew away from the abyss as the black shape fell back into the depths.  I turned around.  We were sliding toward one of the columns, where a wide doorway waited.

From behind me, I heard the queen say, “Welcome to my house.”



Copyright © 2017 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved
 
Sunday, November 26, 2017
  Chapter Ten: Wing Thing

CHAPTER TEN



The wyverns are coming.

He holds his blade ready, as do I.  Yet I do not move to close with him.  Nor does he advance.  We glare across the distance between us.  A star blazes upon his chest — brightness likewise rolls down lanes of light toward him from where I stand.  The wind whips his golden cloak about his waist and shoulders even as it billows Merlin’s cloak out behind me.

We are caught between two unseen mirrors, within a shifting collage of nearly identical images as seen through the eye of some astral honeybee.  Scenes with subtle differences and variations swim in the space in which we are embedded.  He looks through the eye of the bee, while I do the same, each of us a frozen mirror forever facing reflected infinities, suspended in the void, pure and perfect and unchanging.

Each separate slice of time spread before us is a different view of the next moment, a specific take to try for, and I do try, try to hold onto one of the perspectives where I am the only one standing.  Yet this shivers and slips away.  For this other, the only one here besides myself, possesses the same ability and seeks to bring us to a moment where I am in pieces and falling while he towers triumphant — for the shadow of an instant looming large, and overwhelming the alternatives before wrested away to vibrate against what I have summoned.  The competing visions are lost among the swarm, and we are left hovering amidst the flowering field of time.

The unfolding “now” stutters, always on arrival, on the verge of becoming yet not quite here...



Drawing rein, the scene ahead steadied.  Yet still was that form of chaos recognized across the inhabited worlds as the rest came up on either side, bringing their horses to a halt.

Mounted on the backs of elk or sambar the color of wine, a battalion of the furry fellows from the forests of Ri’ik moved through the swirling smoke and dust of the battle plain, weapons and armor catching flickers of ghostly light.  Fiery wheels of destruction were launched from their arbalests, ballistae, trebuchets and crossbows to fall among slender dark elves astride giant brown lizards.

“No guns, no tanks?”

Maio, now looking more at home in his uniform, sat calmly on a red-gold sorrel to my left, Erin on her pretty white mare beside him.  After sparing him a brief look, I swung my gaze back toward the rout of Zirlar’s troops.

“I decided against them,” I answered, “and Benedict concurred.  Combustibles are highly unstable here.”

“Guns going off in your hands?”

Something was going on at the lip of Chaos, on the high ground overlooking the plain.

“Or falling into the wrong ones,” I responded.  “Erin...”

“Yes?”

“In the pack you carry there is a kind of lens or crystal, about the size of an egg.”

“You need it?”

“I do.”

She urged her mount forward a few paces, dug into the pack, retrieved the object and held it up.

“I’ll throw it to you, okay?”

“Okay.”

She tossed it straight to me.  Catching it, I felt for the invisible writing etched into the thing’s surface and raised it to my eye.  In the lens, things were altered.  The pall hanging over the fighting was no longer a dirty, obscuring cloud, but rendered transparent as a shadow.  Outlines and details were sharper, and parts of the prospect were highlighted by inexplicable lines and designs of soft light.  Curious.  Applying pressure, I snapped it into a new shape to boost its magnification, and regarded the heights by the abyss.

Charging up from the bottom of that final slope were a troop of the dark elves, their long white hair flowing behind them, led by a nobleman in orange armor mounted on a copper-colored steed.  Further up, near the top, a tall warrior riding a black-striped crimson stallion waited with eight knights, outnumbered four or five to one.

The outlook was grim, possibly hopeless.  Why make a stand there?  Why make a stand at all?

At their backs, just a few yards above Benedict and his small band, ran the uneven line of the ridge.  To the left it dipped a little before rising sharply as a sheer scarp unsuitable for anything but thrill-seeking attempts to defy gravity.  On the other side the ridgeline rose more gradually and the angle, while steep, did not preclude careful, unhurried ascent.

Then I saw a hint of movement, something wavering atop the more scalable slope, amid the rocks to the right, wedged within them, large, fifty feet or more from one end to the other (probably more), black and smooth, made up mostly of curves, a cross between a frisbee and a kite, nudged from time to time by the air currents rising from the chasm.

The prototype for Random’s dream to render Amber proof against military conquest, a chimera assembled from Merlin’s and Martin’s search for technologies transferable to the immortal city, the experimental airship I had nearly destroyed when I had returned to the Courts pursued by a dragon.

Wing Thing.



The wind falls off.  A series of gusts buffet us.  A steady, though shifting, breeze takes over.  Disorienting, as there are few points of reference here.  Blackness everywhere, yet illumination enough to see by and flashes of light randomly appearing and disappearing in the distance.

Vibrations run through the surface beneath my feet.

Cracks in the stasis holding us...I change my grip on Grayswandir, shift my feet...my enemy also moves, bringing himself half a pace closer...for a moment the visions recede and time sluggishly resumes...

The visions come rushing back, closing around us as we both struggle to slip into mutually exclusive versions of the Courts of Chaos...the world shudders and once more neither of us can move...but now we know that soon, soon we will cross swords...soon one or the other will fall...will fall forever...



“How can you be sure?” I wondered, “That there is a traitor, I mean.”

We were in the study.  The things I had dumped on the desk had been returned to Merlin’s pack.  Benedict was returning a pamphlet to a bookshelf and turning toward me.

“Though,” I added, “I will grant one or two of Caine’s actions might be characterized as suspicious.”

A large map of the region near the Courts too big for the desk was spread across it and hanging off the edges.  Benedict pushed  a piece representing an enemy battalion into position.  With that same lifeless hand, he spread a small stack of pasteboards across an empty sector of the map.  Reaching forward with his good hand, he named them as a finger deftly flipped them face up, one by one.

“Random...Dworkin...Bleys...Martin...Merlin...and you.”

They were all Trumps, of course.

“You’re including me among the disappearances?”

A nod, and he turned his head to regard me.

“No word of the youngsters for months.  The dramatic disappearances of Bleys and yourself at the Arena.  The four of you then missing for years, as time is reckoned in Amber.  Next Dworkin is lost.  And finally Random vanishes, perhaps while investigating these events.  Or perhaps not.”

Dworkin.  I wanted to ask what information Benedict had concerning what had befallen Amber’s sorcerer-in-residence.  In light of my recent encounter with Dworkin, however, it seemed likely I knew more than my brother did.  Which wasn’t a whole lot.  Still, there were enough overlapping threads to make me wonder.  At that moment I decided to hold onto the question for another time.

Instead, I went with, “You believe Zirlar, Raum and their allies came after Random directly?”

“No,” he answered, no longer looking at me, pushing thoughtfully at the Trumps, “not directly.  But a trap?  Not impossible...”



He shifts his grip on the hilt of his sword.  The light — the lights —are changing, what I see changes.  He changes.  A lord of Chaos, he is changing, too, his form melting, taking shape, melting again, moving toward something new...

Making sure of my own grasp, I loosen my wrists and shoulders, feel the weight of Grayswandir, prepare for the attack that is coming.

Time halts, starts up again, stumbles...many of him are coming toward me, many of me are raising the silver blade in defense...

Horns on his head now...

The visions are past, but an old vision returns...I lift Grayswandir above my shoulder, draw back...somewhere this was already written, this has always been and will always be...I know what I must do...

Grayswandir flies through the space between us.

The horned one brings up his blade, my hurled sword, deflected, falls to the hard black hide under our feet, skips to the side.  I am helpless and unarmed.

Eyes of flame, horns of a beast, lower half of his face half-human, half-snout, lights playing about his weapon as he brings it down upon me...



I lowered the glass, sweeping the place with my gaze:  Llewella on her gray Lipizzan, her green tresses falling to her shoulders, her eyes on me; Maio on his sorrel peering ahead toward the ridge, trying to see what I had seen; Erin sitting calmly upon her white mare; Sir Roricon with his helm off and staring at the corner of the canyon the explosives of Avalon had opened, seeming stunned by the scale of enemy losses.

My left hand closed about the Diamond, and I raised the glass once more, looking through it while also looking within myself, trance-like, seeing the Pattern, a feeling of déjà vu descending upon me, everything blurring in the twisting of space wrapping around us...

I closed my eyes, drew my right hand and the glass away, opened them.

It was obvious there had been a significant alteration.  Maio, Erin and Llewella were turning their heads this way and that, trying to understand what had just occurred.  Our knight of Avalon, Roricon, simply gaped at the prospect spread below us.

We were near the head of a slope, and down near the bottom there they were:  Zirlar, Ojin, their knights and a handful of troops.  Emulating my comrades, I turned Mirage enough to verify my suspicions and saw behind us Benedict and the small group he led.

The distance between points in the regions about the Courts tends to be an uncertain thing, so I could not say for sure, but we had all just been shifted a half-mile to a mile from where we had been.  As soon as I understood this, I believed I understood the rest.

As had happened on the night Caine had attempted to assassinate me, we had been transported by the power of the Diamond as I had once been transported by the power of the Jewel.  My action, taking hold of the gem, summoning the vision of the Pattern, this had been so involuntary that I was left questioning what had truly transpired.  Had I called up something from the talisman?  Or had it called up something from me?

This was not the first time I had felt as though I were moving through a dream, a spectator to my own actions.  What was troubling me more and more was the possibility that something besides my will at times seemed to be in control of what I was doing.  The notion that some external agency could willy-nilly puppeteer or program me was deeply unsettling, something I would have to unravel and remedy...

But not now.

Benedict and his band were already moving to join us as I turned to my friends from New York.

“You two,” I called, and pointed up to where Wing Thing swayed like a buoy in the air currents generated by the abyss, partly obscured by the intervening rocks, “That airship is our prize — make sure it does not fall into enemy hands.”

Seeing them hesitate, I said with a bit more emphasis, “Go!”

The white mare began moving off at a walk, bearing Erin up at an angle toward where the ship was moored a few yards west of us.

Hesitating, Maio suggested, “I can help,” and his hand fell to the hilt of his saber.

“You can,” I agreed, “by securing that vehicle for us.  You’ve flown before, you’re the man for the job.”

“A glider.”

“Waiting for you up there is a large powered glider.  Benedict made you an officer.  These are your orders.”

A curt nod and he got his horse moving at a quicker pace than Erin’s mare, just as Benedict and the others reached us.

Like me, Benedict rode without full armor, trusting in his fighting skills and the strength and endurance which were his as a son of Oberon.  But his jacket was leather, metal disks sewn into it to protect vital spots.  Also, he rode a horse larger and tougher than those found in most shadows, a beast known in many worlds as the warhorse Glemdenning.

Three of the knights riding with him I knew from our covert operation — Fredigar, Walram, Langevin — but the other five were new to me, and all bore somewhere on their equipage the device of the oak tree against a sunset.

“You must tell me how you managed that trick without a Trump,” Benedict said by way of greeting, once he was close.

“When I know, I will tell you,” I told him, and then gestured toward the approaching force.  “How many do you reckon?”

“Altogether, I number them at forty.”

“So a little worse than three to one,” I calculated, glancing at Llewella, who already had out her bow.

Seeing my sister prepare, the five new knights also brought forth their bows.

Benedict rode Glemdenning over to Llewella and looped a quiver about her saddlehorn, instructing her, “Use these first.”

Then my brother issued a set of terse orders.  We broke into three groups, with me off to Benedict’s left with Sir Fredigar and two of the new fellows, Llewella to the other side with Walram, Langevin and one other, the rest with Benedict in the center, arrayed in a crescent formation as we waited for them to come.

When they were near enough, Benedict gave the signal, raising his katana and then lowering it abruptly.  The arrows flew, catching fire in flight, sowing havoc where they fell.

There were archers among the dark elves.  A couple of their arrows struck Benedict, embedding themselves in his light armor.  One came toward me, but a sudden gust caused it to sail just past my shoulder.  The arrows did no harm to the knights they struck, protected by heavier armor than what Benedict wore, save for Sir Roricon, who groaned and fell from his saddle.

Volleys flew two more times at my brother’s command, and by then the survivors were very close.  He raised and lowered the katana a fourth and final time.

While wishing to do justice to the dark elves, who fought bravely, it was nevertheless over very quickly.  We tore through them with our first charge, wheeled and charged again.  Disorganized, several of them still on fire, their numbers already reduced by our archers, we made quick work of them.  A few of them fled once their doom became apparent.  But even before it was over, I knew something was wrong.

When I looked around there was no sign of either Zirlar or Ojin.  With a sickening feeling, I rode out of the fray, charged up the slope, drew rein.

Movement atop the ridge.  Was it Maio or Erin?  Or someone else?

Shaking the reins, I urged Mirage on as fast as he could go.  We struck a kind of path and made better time.  The path led through the rocks atop the ridge, then up to a wide area ringed with boulders like a shallow bowl.  And filling almost half that space was Wing Thing.

All the mooring lines seemed to have been cast free.  All the same, the ship was hovering five or six feet off the ground.  The horses of the two lords of Chaos stood nearby.

Dismounting, I ran toward the belly of the vehicle, crouching a little, and saw the lower hatch had been left open.  Also, two gnomes were there, holding what appeared to be oversized fishhooks with lines running from them to the rocks they were looped around.  The hooks were fixed onto the hatch.

“Took you long enough,” said Narl.

“We can’t hold your storm cloud forever,” Smirt growled.

Wasting no time with the gnomes, unusually chatty though they were just then, I grabbed onto the hatch, pulled myself up into the entrance shaft.  As I began climbing, I heard the hooks scrape against the hatch and clank lifelessly upon the rocks.  The ship lurched upward.

When I reached the deck, I hung on the ladder a moment, considering what to do next.  The vehicle interior was fairly spacious, fully equipped for a small crew — my guess when I first flew in it years earlier was that Random had intended it for recon, which is how I imagined it had been employed in the defense of the Courts.

There was a sound from somewhere above me.  I looked further up the ladder, where the shaft giving access to the top of the fuselage had also been left open.

A face I recognized was staring down at me.

“I have the Dreaming Diamond I took from you,” said Zirlar, “and I am waiting for you on the back of your black bird.”

Staring at that face, recalling the beatings of Bleys, Merlin and myself on the day of betrayal at Ygg, I felt a power moving within me, a fire.

“I am waiting for you,” Zirlar repeated.



...my left hand shoots forward as I pivot, trying to side-step the blade as I reach for his wrist, miss, seize briefly on his bicep, seeing my death in his eyes...hooking my right foot behind his left I lean into him with my shoulder...feel the edge bite my arm...



“You have brought everyone in?” I asked dubiously.

Benedict had retrieved all the Trumps except for mine from the map of the Courts.  He laid down new ones, spreading them like any professional dealer in Vegas.

I named them as they appeared.

“Me...you...Julian...Llewella...Gérard...Gérard?”

A small nod as he said, “This war is bigger than anything between the two of you.”

“Okay...well, let’s see...who else?...Fiona?”

“We need everyone, Corwin.”

The firelight, playing on the side of his long, lean face, gave my older brother a somewhat sinister cast as I tried to push the memory of our recent duel away from me.  It didn’t help much that this man who hardly ever smiled was faintly smiling now.

“Honestly, Fiona I understand,” I started, “we all know she prefers to be involved and near the center of things, but...”

He raised his eyebrows:  “‘But’?”

“Llewella?  She likes to be as far from the center as she can safely get.  She’s a historian and antiquarian, not a warrior.”

“She is our sister.”

“Meaning?”

“She will fight for Amber,” Benedict stated simply, “anywhere the fight takes her.”

“You’re asking a lot of her.”

“Mayhap,” he said, pausing before adding, “but she will trump you to the battlefield once you have completed your mission and reported to me,” and here he touched the map at the approximate spot where Llewella and her reserve troops, my furry friends from Ri’ik, would be stationed.

“And what of Caine?” I asked, surprised by the coldness in my voice when I heard it.

“We need someone to watch over Amber,” my brother said, staring at the map.

“Then leave Llewella in Amber and put Caine in the middle of things to trump me to the battlefield.”

Benedict glanced upward then, his gray gaze seeking mine, the firelight glinting on the suit of armor behind him as he said, “I do not trust you with Caine.”

Nodding, I looked back to the pieces on the map, using the ensuing silence to take in the nuances of Benedict’s strategy.

After a minute or so, I said without looking up, “That’s wise.”



...we stand frozen...neither moving a muscle, the crooked sword embedded in my arm and yet even my blood refuses to flow on the dark metal...

...we are as close as we have been during the contest between us, and we are statues...

...the Dreaming Diamond shines like moonlit ice on the silver chain about his neck, yet it also hangs from an identical chain where it lies upon my chest.  Though I do not know how this is possible, I am aware of a single basic fact:  I have recovered the stone from Tir-na Nog’th — twice.  Can two versions of this pendant, which somehow contains, shapes or opens up reality itself, truly exist?  Or are they one and the same?  Is this an illusion, or an example of something only ever seen in the subatomic realm and never at macroscopic scales?  Is the Diamond capable of bilocation?

...and we remain locked in combat, in the moment where my opponent will remove my arm...

...upon a time, here under the Chaos sky, I once cast a Pattern while lost in the Jewel of Judgment and drawing upon my memory, upon myself, bringing a new reality into being...

...reality is found within...

...the gem blazes where it rests against me...everything shimmers in silver...my right hand migrates outward a snapshot at a time in stroboscopic motion...the dream of the Goat as I slept before my tomb comes to me now from the day I returned to Amber...from where it has fallen, Grayswandir flies to my hand...

...years ago, at the beginning of all this in Tir-na Nog’th, I used Grayswandir to wrest the Diamond from the ghost of Oisen...now, in an echo of that event, I hook Graywandir under the chain and flick it, watch the gem fly up into space...

...like a tree thawing, movement returns to me, I step away from this king of Chaos, his blade comes free of my arm...yet he does not move, cannot move...

“Zirlar, I free you and present you with a choice:  Face me...or face the abyss.”

The silvery pulses slow and fade, the Diamond dims, competing futures relinquish their hold on the present, the visions collapse in upon themselves, moment follows moment, time is once more as it was...

My enemy does not hesitate.  He turns toward where his stone has flown, runs and leaps from the top of Wing Thing into the flickering not-quite-empty void...

And I watch as he is borne aloft by a wyvern and carried off into the star-churning night.

Turning to the hatch, I take one last look around before climbing down the ladder, then close the thing behind me.  Down hand over hand, and then I step off into the cabin.

How many years between when Random ushered me into this interior and now?  Mild sodium-like illumination comes up from the spokes in the floor and down from those in the ceiling.  Behind me a door leading to whatever occupies the space just ahead of the tail.  To either side, guages, levers, tanks, three sets of double bunk beds opposite a compact galley.  Up in front a wide view plate above a dashboard with its own dials, levers and switches, seats for pilot and co-pilot as well as seating for four additional crew or passengers.

The co-pilot seat swivels around.

“He went down the ladder,” Erin says.

“He who?”

“The Tiger Man!” she exclaims, “The dude who held me hostage and made my father fly this thing, the ass-hat who told us to shut up or die as he sabotaged the controls, the one who said you had gone up top to meet your well-deserved fate.”

“Ah,” I respond evenly, feeling the heat of her anger and terror and contrasting it internally with my own emotionally depleted state, “the Tiger Man.  What about you two?  How are the both of you holding up?”

“Um, besides being scared to death and about to crash and burn, we’re fine.”

“Then,” I tell her as I grab onto the ladder and begin to climb down it, “please excuse me while I go deal with the Tiger Man.”

It is not that long of a climb and I am looking down the whole time.  When I see him there, hanging from the bottom rungs, I stop.

“Ojin.”

He is looking down into a darkness that is somehow boiling, a lack of light which seems to swirl, the currents visible in the paths taken by the motes of light moving within it, and as I stare into it with him my mind is caught in it, seeking I know not what in the interweaving illusory strands which seem to arise in response to one’s gaze...

The head turns, the golden eyes regard me, and I see something in that furred and striped visage which I had missed in our encounter on the Wheel...I see nobility...

“He said he would come for me,” and the low resonant voice is nearly human, “After finishing you, he said he would come.”

“Well, you see how that worked out.”

“I saw him fly away.  He did not look back.”

“Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but his track record when it comes to keeping his word might generously be described as ‘not great.’  Why don’t you come back up, and we can share stories about how not great he is?”

“You do not understand.  We are all going to die.”

“The floor will be open to any subject,” I assure him, “but there isn’t a lot of time; best you come up now.”

“You, Corwin of Amber,” he announces, the golden eyes blinking once, “have been a worthy foe.  Look for what  you seek in Thelbane.  Now...I die the final death.”

Sensing this coming, I lean out as far as I can and reach for him — a useless gesture.

The darkness seethes more intensely and some of the flecks and arcs of light are indigo and brightening as Ojin falls into them and can be seen no more.



The image of Ojin staring upward and growing smaller was still with me when I stood once more on the deck.  Absorbed in their efforts to regain control of the ship, neither of my companions seemed to notice my return.

“Party’s about over,” I announced as I came forward, taking note of the damage to the dashboard, “and we should be going.”

“Going where?” Erin asked absently.

“Wait,” Maio said, meeting my gaze briefly before returning to his examination of the flight controls.  “I know what they did.”

“And you think you can fix it.  Sorry, we’re out of time.”

Lifting my gaze from his attempts to elicit a response from the controls, I looked past him toward where Erin was staring, toward the scene filling the view plate.

Some of the structures were technically towers despite the unusual concepts expressed in many of their designs, others were realizations of pure geometric abstraction, some were forms found in the natural world — a fern, a fish, a frozen waterfall — expanded to stupendous scale where one of these might hold the contents of a town, still others closely resembling ordinary objects of artificial origin like the thing that seemed to be a mammoth microscope filled with inhabited space — château, entertainment venue, temple? — some dark, some faintly luminous, some brightening-fading-brightening in slow pulses, all sliding with somnulent lassitude upon the silver surface of the lake filling much of the caldera or crater on the summit of the volcano or the pole of the tidally locked asteroid — it was never clear what the black bulk beneath the vast lake truly was, but to everyone who would ever set eyes upon it the place was the Courts of Chaos.

Will-o-the-wisps trailing about it like a dream-spun swirl of autumn leaves slowed to a fraction of natural speed, rooted to the northern verge of the isle known as Melgem, forever facing the infinite manifestations of reality known as Shadow, the mighty needle spiraling up, up into the dimensionless dark like some partly melted multicolored candle...where it was set like a barbican giving access to the city-in-motion beyond, this was the one thing clearly not moving, this was Thelbane, this was the Tower of Glass.

It was growing larger and closer with each passing second.

“Yeah,” Maio agreed, “I think I can fix it.”

“They threw the autopilot lever,” I reminded him, “and then broke it.”

He had his dagger out, was digging down to where the stub of the lever was somewhere below the dashboard, and said grimly, “If you can go, go — I will stay so more lives are not lost.”

Well past the point of arguing any longer, I shut up and instead reached for my Trumps.  But which to try, here at the one place in existence where they were least likely to work?  I almost turned to look at the parachutes stowed aft, but stopped myself.  What good would they do, here above the abyss which had already consumed Ojin?

“What are you doing?” Erin asked, seeing me unmoving, maybe sensing the coiled tension in my stance.

“Thinking what to do.  My Trumps are not much good here.”

Reflexively touching Merlin’s pack, she said, “What about the ones on the inside of the cloak?”

“What do you mean?”

But as soon as I put forward the question, I knew she was right, realized I had actually known for awhile that the patches sewn on the inside of my son’s cloak were Trumps of some sort.  Why had my mind turned away from this knowledge until now?  I didn’t know.

“This place is your son’s home, right?”

I nodded.

“Why would he fill the inside of his cloak with gateways to places that couldn’t be reached from here?”

Unclasping the cloak, I removed it and held it before me, at last giving it the close scrutiny which I had been putting off.  Almost immediately, I noticed a patch depicting a place known to me.

“All right,” I said, moving to stand closer to her, “here we go.  Look with me now.”

The scene described by the patch stirred, shifted, sharpened...the scents of water, lilies, and wet stone reached us.

“Maio?”

“No.”

As I hesitated, Erin said, “He means it, and he knows more than he ever lets on — he is staying.”

Still I hesitated longer.  I glanced away from the Trump — just for an instant — and saw how close the tower had become in just the last couple of minutes.

“Okay,” I said, “if you’re ready...”

She was, and I was.  The scene before us grew larger, nearer.  We stepped toward it.



Copyright © 2017 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved
 
Wednesday, February 08, 2017
  Chapter Nine: The Smile of the Sphinx
CHAPTER NINE


Seven of us rode across a scarred and pitted zone of gray rock and dirt that pulsed here and there with various portions of the spectrum.  The foreign wavelengths were possibly borrowed from the sky above, half of which swam with crashing waves and roiling columns of color even as the other half consisted of black depths torn and pierced by jumping, spinning stars.  Yet none of this held our attention, which was instead given to the progress of the approaching horde, barely discernible in the weird light, in the sparkling dust, and in the lavender fog which without regard for any known reason or rhyme had descended from a strip of the same shade high above.

Grayswandir came free of its sheath as I leaned forward, holding the blade out from my body, stealing myself for what was to come.

Horned they were, vaguely humanoid, yet in no way human, as they howled and bounded toward us in gravity which in places seemed less than that of more familiar worlds.  Then they were close, their eyes going wide as they saw us at last, as they broke to either side of us like a stream parting for the rocks planted in its course.  They hurried past and fled on toward the hills we had so recently quitted.

Then we saw what they were fleeing.

Griffin-like, their lower bodies leonine with great eagle’s wings rising from their shoulders — or no, perhaps more harpy-like.  (Could they fly?  I rather doubted it, but this was Chaos, where gravity and other conditions that were laws elsewhere operated as mere guidelines.)  Given the disturbing presence of human faces and breasts, truly improbable beings drawn from ancient vases and ageless pyramids, from dreams perhaps best forgotten.  They were sphinxes, and they tore at any stragglers with their claws.

Almost without my willing it, my left hand let go the reins and drew forth the Dreaming Diamond, its light emerging from between my fingers, shifting streams of white radiance tinged ever so slightly blue. 

My horse responded to my straightening in the saddle and other body language by relaxing his pace and then coming to a halt.  The others slowed and drew up alongside me.

Giving us a wide berth, the sphinxes sprinted through the dust and fog after their prey.

Taking a breath and slowly letting it out, I released the gem.  Before its light faded completely, I saw shapes moving in the waning rays, beings seemingly, revealed only by their outlines.  Then both the brief burst of illumination and the drifting forms within it were gone.  We turned our heads.

There was not a living thing in sight.

From over my shoulder I heard Smirt, the gnome riding with me, growl, “Hungry sphinxes.”

Narl, seated behind one of the knights assigned to this mission, muttered, “Hunting deserters.”

Sheathing Grayswandir, I took the reins in hand.  We rode on.

Soon Smirt indicated a great boulder a hundred yards off on the gray downs, squatting on its haunches like a petrified Tyrannosaurus.  Beyond this object, glittering and shifting a few short miles away, could be seen the forces of the battle which the beast-men had deserted.

We rode up and the gnomes and I dismounted in the shadow of the looming object.

More an oversized work of abstract art than some leftover from an ancient meteorite impact, all planes and angles, dark gray and somewhat metallic in appearance, I peered up at the thing as Smirt approached it with his pickaxe.  He tapped out a peculiar rhythm and three triangular faces, petal-like, folded outward to reveal a vaguely mouth-like opening taller than a man and wide enough for three men walking abreast.

I returned the salutes of the four knights, who had taken up positions near the entrance to the space within the pseudo-boulder.  Then the gnomes walked through, and I followed, hearing the slabs grind shut behind me.

There was the sound of breathing in the darkness, and an unusual scent reached my nostrils.  Something rustled in the space before me.  A pair of silvery circles of light shining high in the air became apparent as my eyes adjusted.

Two torches abruptly came to flame.

We were in a vaulted chamber nearly thirty feet wide with a ceiling half that high, everything faceted and angular like the exterior.  The torches were mounted on the walls to either side, the gnomes standing beside them.

Filling the space before me was a sphinx twice as large as those we had just seen.  Gorgeous mail covered the upper body, wrought all of gold and silver scales, while the plumage consisted of feathers of Nile green, crimson and indigo, and the fur was peacock blue.  The face beneath the great folded wings was that of a giantess, ritualistically scarred, human-like yet inhuman, and it wore a smile.

“Ah,” she said, the voice coming from deep within, throaty, resonant, “at last.”

She seemed unconcerned as my hand fell to the hilt of Grayswandir, and I began to question how useful my blade would be against a creature of such might and stature.

The smile widened, revealing fangs.

“Our game begins.”

My eyes were now fully adjusted.  I noticed the bones stacked neatly off to the side.

“We can play another time.  Right now I’m in kind of a hurry.”

“You are already playing,” she said, the smile fading.  “Hungry, I’m very hungry.  I could eat you now.”

Reaching down into the Diamond, I tried to feel outward as I would through the Jewel of Judgment and saw the place quiver, then split into many, each with a great sphinx, two gnomes, and myself...

There was a large paw resting heavily on my chest, a single cool claw against my throat.

“But I want to play the rest of the game.”

“Well,” I said, noting the pressure on my Adam’s apple as I got the word out, my mind through the Diamond seeing some versions of this moment where I answered incorrectly and the threat of the claw was fulfilled, “I wouldn’t want anyone to be disappointed here, including me.”

“Power,” she whispered, her gray gaze sliding knowingly toward the pale rays multiplying the fluid present moment into myriad ways, so that I suspected she also saw time fanning out before us, “is part of the game.”

“And what,” I asked, “do you get if you win?”

“You become part of me, forever, and for a little while I become less hungry.”

The temperature fell by a few degrees.

“And if I win?” I managed, carefully moving the words past the claw.  “I see no cliff from which you can throw yourself.”

“That old story,” she snorted.  “It is easier to listen to a blind wandering king than wonder what the sphinx’s version might be.”

“And what is the sphinx’s version?”

She glanced upward, seeming to reflect, then returned her attention to me.

“The king answered wrong.  The correct answer would have been ‘Man and Woman.’”

“Everyone knows ‘Man’ means both man and woman.”

One side of her mouth and one eyebrow quirked upward — skeptical, and also amused.  It was almost as if we were old friends.  But there was no sympathy in those stormy eyes, nothing soft and warm about the claw against my skin.

“What good would the cliff do you?” she asked at last.  “What do you truly desire?”

Before she even finished the question, a daunting feeling of uncertainty descended upon me.  To have come this far, and not to know what I was after?  Or, perhaps more damning, not to know why?  And yet there was nothing terribly subtle about it.  To save lives by untangling the knot of troubles which seemed to lead to the Courts.  What else could I want, an old soldier tired of wars and quests?  The visions of different edits of our script receded and were lost; there were no longer any prompts and possibly no longer a need for them.

“To solve a riddle,” I responded quietly.  “And it is true, I don’t care very much one way or the other whether you live or die.  In the spirit of fairness, though, it does seem rather obvious that if my life is at stake then yours should be, too.”

She tilted her head, lips pursed, looking off to her right, then regarded me once more.  She spoke solemnly.

“Solve this:

‘Here there is no south, no west, no east,
Answer quickly else on thou I feast.’”

Looking to the gnomes, I noticed both were intently studying the tips of their boots.  No help would be coming from that quarter.  Continuing my survey of the interior, I saw petroglyphs, as well as more runic, elemental characters, running along the walls.  None of these held much meaning for me.

The ceiling was a different story.  Stretched across its apex was a cave painting:  a small child crawling, a young woman walking, an old man leaning on a staff.  As I stared, I discerned more.  Though beautifully realized, key portions of the figures were anchored by simple carvings of stars, so that one could see the images were once the simple stick figures found in any set of constellations.  As this knowledge came to me, my eyes now made out an entire circle of basic starry characters depicted in outline — a bear, a stalk of barley, a dragon, a boat, a tiger, a lyre, and others harder to make out due to the play of the shadows.  With my mind, and with senses more subtle tied to the Pattern and the Dreaming Diamond, I looked still further and contemplated the twisting, turning sky high above, half stars, half polychromatic display, wheeling around the nether axis of existence.

Lowering my gaze, I met the level stare of the sphinx.

Slowly and distinctly, pronouncing the words as though each were a sentence unto itself, I answered.

“The Courts of Chaos.”

The claw twitched against my neck, then the paw fell to rest again on the floor.  She moved back from the slab she had been concealing beneath her.  With that same paw she pushed the slab aside, revealing a shallow step, glowing green, followed by another, glowing orange, green then orange then green again and so on down into misty darkness.

The gnomes stepped forward without a glance for either the sphinx or myself, disappearing down the steps.

Grimly, I drew Grayswandir, and she calmly lowered her head.

“Go,” I said, pointing the blade toward the entrance, “leave this place and trouble the gnomes no more.”

She looked up, a slow half-smile spread across the plain of her face.

“Bound as their guardian here, harming those who summoned me is not something I could do, though I am grateful for this release.”

Ambling past me, she tapped on the rock with a claw, watched the entrance open.

Looking over her shoulder, serenely she prophesied, “We will meet again one day, perhaps even in the Tower of Glass.”

Then she was gone, and I followed the gnomes down into the pulsating vapors haunting the caves and tunnels hidden below this region overlooking the Courts.

Water resting in quiet still pools, shapeless black spaces where the walls suddenly fell away, and heaps of rubble slid past as we explored what lay beneath the face of Chaos.  Oversized mushrooms ruled here, offering a sickly greenish light where they stood at corners and junctions, most as tall as a man, some taller and looming like nightmarish apple trees.

Seeming to see by a faint red radiance from their boots, pickaxes and perhaps also from other items they wore — their turnip-shaped hats either reflected or emitted the same color — my companions knew where to stop.  When they did, I drew my Trump for Benedict, who passed me packages from a stack by the door of a barn in Avalon.

Smirt and Narl navigated the passages confidently, and we worked fast.  In little over an hour we were back in the cave of the sphinx.  Pushing on the rock as I had seen the previous resident do, the door opened like the petals of a flower, and in short order we were once more standing beneath that sky.

Then I riffled through the cards until I came across one I had not looked upon in a very long time.  Contact came readily when I concentrated on it — an unusual experience so near the Courts, where communication by Trump was notoriously unreliable.

Black hair, which he kept long, blue eyes which were intense and set in a visage of wide cheekbones and hollow cheeks largely devoid of expression, scaled armor that was white as porcelain, a hawk on his shoulder and a horn at his hip.  This brother of mine ruled the inland border between Amber and the attendant worlds arrayed in the beyond we call Shadow.

“Julian,” I said.  “Ready?”

“I am,” he answered.

“Knights, gnomes, horses and all?”

“Send them through.”

Through the Trump I passed them.  Then, clasping his mailed fist with mine, I joined him on the slope where he stood.  Swaying a little as I was assailed by a moment of vertigo, I sought a better purchase upon the bare rock and, while steadying myself, spared a quick glance for my surroundings.

Well over a dozen battalions — cavalry, artillery, infantry — were bivouacked below in the great oval of the corrie which stretched away from us to the northeast.  Some of the nearer companies were easy enough to identify from the devices on gonfalons, armor and gear.  There was, for instance, the silver tower, emblem of Avalon.  Yellow flags emblazoned with the red eagle of Lorraine were also in evidence, flying from lances and tent-poles.  Did I also glimpse the theme of a white bear chained to the stump of a tree?  The glimpse was short-lived and the troops gathered under those pennons and banners must have been urgently needed elsewhere, as the last of them marched through a pass in the mountains and were soon lost to view.  While I seemed to know the chained bear from somewhere, I was reasonably certain the green-leafed oak upon a sunset-orange field — the most prevalent of all the motifs on display in the valley — was entirely new to me.  Though it seemed to signify the main strength of our troops, I could not recall ever having seen it anywhere before.  The tents ruffled and fires flickered to the puffs of a sporadic breeze, but they were otherwise shielded from regions beyond by the encircling heights, and the identities of all those assembled could not be discerned through the mists, the play of the many colors, and the distance.

Such details, however, were but transient and peripheral stuff.  Once I had my footing, the brother before me was my most immediate concern.

His white armor in muted fashion reflected the shifting hues of the sky and was spattered with mud and dirt below the waist, and the black serge cloak fluttering behind him was now mostly gray with the grit of his travels.  One side of his mouth crooked upward when he paused to get a better look at me as I reached for the reins of my horse, which were in his other hand.

“Dusty,” he remarked, using a mild approximation of irony, brushing some grime from his knees.  Straightening while continuing his appraisal of me, he added, “But still in better shape than when last I saw you.  Did Random at least honor his promise of breakfast before sending you off to the end of the worlds?”

Producing an apple from my pouch (I always make an effort to carry some of these away from Avalon whenever I am there, my most recent visit being no exception), I fed it to my horse.  A peculiar shade of gray-green, Benedict had drawn this creature from a place he named Kelidun but kept him in stables in Avalon.  The animal, whose name was Mirage, was mine for now, and I wanted our relationship to get off on the right hoof.

“Speaking of breakfast...” I answered, patting my horse.  “And the answer to your question is yes, I managed to wolf some of it down before Random arrived to claim the rest.  The meal was necessarily brief, however, as we were shortly joined by your favorite sister.”

“Who was better company than I would have been, I trust.  But Benedict is already at the lookout point; we should be going.”

We were on a hillside trail.  As he did not have his steed Morgenstern with him just then, I led Mirage along as we made our way toward a wide cleft in the rock, a broad cave opening, where a kind of stable had been organized.

“As a regent of the Council, it is my duty to arrest you, of course,” Julian remarked as we made our way along the incline.

“Of course.  I presume you heard about Gérard.”

A dry chuckle escaped him.

“Corwin,” he said, gesturing toward the valley filled with troops, “look around you.”

“Then try and arrest me.  This could be interesting.”

The normally impassive countenance changed.  Furrowing of the brow indicating perplexity, gaze searching my face suggesting curiosity.  He frowned and said nothing for a moment.

“Perhaps you know something I do not?” he wondered, his glance drifting to the Diamond on its silver chain, glowing where it rested on my chest.

“Besides,” I went on, “is that really what you’re here to do today?”

Taking in a breath, then letting it out, he sighed.

“Clearly not,” he acknowledged with apparent relief, looking up where the way wandered up to the crest of the ridge.  “Whatever the validity of the charges against you, their import is secondary.  The fate of Chaos is being written this night.”

We were near the stable now.  We halted as two of his rangers approached.

“And Benedict’s involvement,” I noted as Julian’s men led Mirage off toward food and water, “is proof enough of how crucial this affair is to the security of Amber.”

“Very true,” he admitted, and then, possibly sensing how I was hoping such a perspective would make his acceptance of the situation easier, he extended his hand.

We clasped forearms.

On impulse, with my left hand I also grasped his shoulder, and he returned the gesture.  And the tensions of the moment receded.  Whatever the current politics, we were still brothers, which, even within our mixed-up family meant something.

“There may be concerns even greater than Amber,” he said as we released each other.

“Such as?”

He waved toward the trail.

“Up where Benedict waits there is much I have not yet been told.  But you passed through a shadowstorm on your way from Amber.  That much I do know.  And it is one of the reasons I am here.”

“I would think a word from Benedict would be enough.”

We resumed walking.  The going was steep, but not far.

“It is.  But, Corwin, the shadows are going away.  Shadow-worlds are vanishing now, every day.”

That gave me enough pause that I simply stared at him for a moment.

Julian stared back, and repeated, “Every day.”

“Julian, my own Avalon — the Avalon that was the realization of my youthful desires — that place was lost to Chaos long ago,” I reminded him, adding, “Nothing lasts forever.”

We had been moving through the rocks and colors, and near to hand two tents stood within the declivity we had just achieved, couriers and staff officers coming and going.  The lookout point was now in view further up the mountainside, a flat area below the last juts of stone.  The man on duty there was difficult to make out from where we stood, though I would have known who it was even if Julian had not told me.

“Ysang,” Julian began, “Namchar, Sishrev, Chendy, Dinavalu, Zinzhir, Giribet — gone.  And that is far from a complete list.”

They were places I had known, had visited on many occasions in past centuries, especially back in my days sailing under the command of old-timers like Jopin and sometimes even Oberon himself, learning the shadows and the seaways.  We had all spent time among those worlds.

As I was digesting this latest revelation, three personnel who had emerged from the lower tent moments ago came abreast of us.  One moved with more assurance than the other two, and when he stopped to acknowledge Julian and myself his salute was smart and professional.  They wore sabers, and each had a long knife in a sheath sown into the right boot.  From their insignia, which was consistent with the system used by the military forces of Amber, I could see all three were warrant officers, but the latter two wore their uniforms less comfortably and their salutes were a bit awkward.  By then, though, I recognized them.

“You must have impressed Benedict,” I commented, after dismissing the officer whose duty it had been to escort the two newly minted to the ranks.

“You bet,” Maio said.  “After I told him my backstory, he told me, ‘For the duration you shall serve as a cavalry scout, with rank commensurate with your new duties.’  Something like that.”

“He did, did he?”

“Yeah, and the Protector gave me a very important job:  carrying the secret weapon.”

He opened the duffel bag he was carrying, drawing forth a large thermos, partly wrapped in a blanket.

“Coffee,” he announced with a broad grin.

“No war can be won without it,” I agreed, but my attention had already moved on to Erin.

Her bright hair had been put up and was mostly concealed by a cross between a Stetson and a bush hat, standard issue for cavalry officers.  She bore a backpack, which she was in the process of slipping from her shoulders and extending toward me.

Accepting Merlin’s pack, I flipped it open, inspecting the contents.

“You should wear it,” Erin said softly.

Still rummaging, without looking up I asked, “What?”

“His cloak.  You should wear it.”

Now regarding her, I asked, “Why?”

“It saved us in the forest.  You should wear it, for luck.”

As my hand was already on it, and it was somewhat in the way, I pulled it out, let the pack drop to the ground as I unfolded it.

The serpent-ring fell out of the cloak, jingling as it rolled across the stone.

Erin picked it up, held it pinched between thumb and forefinger.

Moved by impulse, I said, “Maybe you should wear it.”

Our eyes met.

“For luck,” I added as she sought behind my eyes for thoughts and feelings which even I did not fully understand.

She slipped it on the ring finger of her left hand, and I did not fully understand that either.

“For luck,” she said.

Unclasping my cloak, I removed it, folded it, placed it beside the pack.  Shaking out Merlin’s item, I noted again the patches sewn in shimmering thread on the inside.  One of them in particular briefly caught my eye.  A tower, of course, in keeping with the theme running through events lately.  Then I drew it about me, fastening it with the clasp of the silver rose, recalling a dream from two nights ago while staying at the manor in Avalon.  It sprang into my mind suddenly and with startling clarity.  There had been a tower in it, yes, and weeping, and fire...

“There is little time,” said Julian, who had stood by quietly, though not altogether patiently, during this exchange.

Taking the hint, Erin expedited things by scooping pack and cloak off the ground, stuffing the latter into the former, then marching up the path.  With a shrug, Maio followed.

Feeling something in the air akin to a sudden shift in the weather, I hurried after them, glancing at the sky.  And Julian fell in step right behind me.

The tumbling streamers of flowing color were now mostly at our backs, trailing off to the east and the north.  In an otherwise black sky, stars dimmed and brightened, swirled and pirouetted.  Whatever was about to happen, it would take place during the Chaos equivalent of night.

Leaning there against a crevice in the stone, possibly hearing the scrape of our boots upon the rock, he turned his head, passed his gaze over us, then went back to peering through his spyglass.

I knelt beside him.

Wordlessly, he held the instrument out to me, and I took it.

Scanning the horizon, focusing first on those farthest afield, I made out two, then three divisions, each around fifteen thousand strong.  Maybe twenty thousand?  Maybe, though on consideration probably less.  Still, impressive.  About fifty thousand troops in total I guessed were gathered there on the final ledge suspended over the ultimate abyss.

Sweeping the nearer prospect brought into view the plain where we had so recently conducted our operation.  Arrayed in a semicircle below the forces on the heights were four divisions, each comprised of some ten thousand or so troops.  Between the armies a crescent of blasted ruin lay, in many places still burning, all overhung with smoke and the pall of ashes.  Charred and scarred, this no-man’s land was reserved for the dead and the dying, a sphinx’s smile.

Thoughtfully lowering the glass, I handed it back.  He motioned us away from the edge, and we retreated to where the others waited.

Julian held a Trump before him.  Already his outline bled rainbows and he himself seemed insubstantial, two-dimensional.  As I watched, he became a study in pointillism and appeared to recede as he faded and then was no more.

Seated on a rock, Maio had unpacked his duffel.  Beside him were laid some of the contents:  the case holding his harp, two large thermoses, some basic utensils, a folded map.  There were also four cups.  Getting to his feet, he handed one of the cups to Benedict, one to me.

“Your ‘secret weapon,’” I said, sipping.

“Black as hell, strong as death...” Benedict said, tasting the coffee.

“Then we must be in the right place.”

“We are,” he affirmed, “Shadows are falling.  Should the pace continue to accelerate, soon only Amber and this place will be left.”

“Benedict...” I began, though I had nothing to follow it with.

He stared into the olive wood cup.

“Corwin, we are not here to save Amber, or to save Chaos.”

“No?”

He looked up to where we had been a minute ago, perhaps recalling the vista we had both surveyed.

“No, we are here because something is pouring shadows into the abyss, because Shadow itself is disappearing.  With each shadowstorm.  We are here to save everything before it is too late.”

“Sooo...we’re boned?”

Distracted, focused on something unseen, he said, “Wait,” as the air near him broke into many colors.

Maio was nearly done repacking the bag when Benedict said to him and to Erin, “Report to your posts,” and extended his hand.

After they were passed through the Trump connection, it was just my older brother and I on the windswept mountaintop.

“Maybe it’s time you let me in on the whole plan,” I suggested.

Nodding, he said, “The time for secrecy has indeed passed.  Come with me.”

He strode back toward the crest, no longer crouching or troubling to lower his profile against the sky.  I followed, understanding that if the plan were about to unfold then our being detected would do little to affect the outcome.  It was now too late for knowledge of our location to confer any meaningful advantage.  In any case, we would not be here for much longer.

But I could not help crouching a little as we came up to the edge.

With his metal hand, Benedict gestured toward the scene below.

A sudden cloud of dust rolling south toward the defenders and north toward us, the terrain going dark and smokey where those laying siege had only a moment ago stood gleaming in their armor, weapons sharp and bright, mounts restless beneath them, engines and machines of war full of the tension and menace wound up in their gears, springs and wheels while steam billowed out from their sides.  Flashes of fire, then dust, darkness and disaster as entire brigades vanished into the voids opening below them, as the cacophony of the explosions reached the mountainsides, the ridge and the empty places beyond.

“The plan is simple,” Benedict said as the rocks where we stood trembled and shook.

“The plan,” he said, “is annihilation.”

Then, in a prismatic nimbus, he stepped toward something, leaving me alone to behold the doom decreed for the foes of Chaos.  As I stood there, watching the deaths of tens of thousands, my ears caught a kind of white noise.

I realized it was the cries of woe and helpless dismay, the screams of the dying, as they met their final end.

Pulling myself away from the scene, I picked my way back down the path, quickly reaching and descending past the tents of Benedict’s makeshift headquarters.  I hurried on, my boots sliding and dislodging stones, till I stood outside the cave where the horses were stabled.  A soldier had Mirage tacked and waiting, and held the reins as I mounted.  Taking the reins, I guided us slowly back toward the path, glancing down into the corrie on my left.

Many tents remained, but most of the cavalry was gone now.  The last artillery battalion was departing through a gap in the west, and the rest remaining were infantry, though at half or less the numbers I had observed when I had arrived.  How had so many been moved out so swiftly?  Creative use of the Trumps?  The strange sideways workings of time in these parts?  Benedict’s predictably brilliant and innovative planning?  Perhaps I would have the answers in short order.

The sensation of Trump contact came upon me.  Without hesitation I opened myself to the connection, moved toward it gratefully, the vision of the horrific carnage on the plain before the abyss still burnt into my brain.




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