Chapter Nine: The Smile of the Sphinx
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.
‘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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Copyright © 2017 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved
Chapter Eight: Avalon
My cloak flapped about me, the leaves skipping about my feet and across the grass, the scent of early autumn sharp, pungent. From over my shoulder the westering sun cast heavy, honey-gold on the manor and the hillside. The windows were shuttered, and no smoke rose from the chimneys.
I was standing purposely in the open, out on the lawn where I could be seen. There was no movement in or about the place that I could detect, and I eventually got tired of waiting. So I walked up the slope to the door, which was naturally locked.
Not really a problem, though. From the roof of the porch I was able to access a window and force it open. Once inside, I made my way downstairs, noting the musty condition of the halls and rooms, unlocked the door and went back out.
At the end of the front walk, I paused to take in the view. Shading my eyes against the sun, I could see the nearby farms spread over the folds of the land. Now that the day was ending, the workers were coming in from the fields. The river off to the left lazily drew its wide shining length below the farmlands down to where it cut through the bright towers and steep roofs of the town before yielding to the sea. And running alongside that river, train tracks. Where the tracks and the river met the shore, a forest of masts stood by the boardwalk and its shops. That some of those clippers, barques and caravels were captained by men of Amber and had crossed the seas of Shadow to make port in this place, this was nothing new. That the train running along those tracks had done so, on the other hand, was new indeed.
Shaking my head, I began walking down the hill. My horse was tethered to a tree at the bottom, eating grass. Holding his reins, we walked half-way up the hill together, where I found a stall for him in the stables and saw to it that he had sufficient hay and water.
Continuing up the hill, I went back indoors, opening the shutters to air the place out and let in some light. Since it was getting on in the afternoon, I lit a lamp or two. Then I swept the halls on the first and second floors (the top floor with its gables and peaked roof being too much like an attic, from my point of view, and not worth the trouble). With a couple of towels and a bucket of water drawn from the pump, I wiped down furniture and surfaces in the dining hall, library and kitchen. When all was done, I threw the towels in the sink, yawned and stretched. The place was in decent shape again, and it was time to relax and enjoy what little was left of the day.
I found a glass and made an inspection of the sideboard, which I was gratified to find well-stocked. Pouring a whisky, I went out to the porch. There I unpacked the harp, then made myself comfortable in a chair brought out from the kitchen. Looking out across the garden in back, I strummed the strings idly, pausing in between to sip the whisky. Strummed and sipped.
When the last taste of whisky emptied the glass, I set the tumbler down beside the harp and went for a stroll through the garden.
The sun was setting now, and I noticed the garden had been tended fairly recently. But there was a weed or two here and there, which I stopped to pull up. Payment for the whisky, if you like.
The train had brought us through Shadow all the way to a depot by a river I recognized. The silver towers, the sights and smells, the accents of the locals, and a dozen smaller details, all confirmed for me that we were indeed in Avalon. Once my realm, but no more, and for a long time the home of he who was the most formidable of all my relatives.
Within the hour we had found a decent inn, where I had left Erin, Maio and our gnome companion — what to do with him I had not yet determined, though he continued to act as though still on his assignment to look after us. Making sure they had sufficient walking-around money, I had left them among the vendors and the shops.
There was a hedge at the end of the footpath, and I threw the weeds over it. Filling my pipe and lighting it, I stood there, staring off into the wood. The path ran on, and if I followed it through the trees, there was a falls a few hundred paces farther on where the wheel of a small mill turned. There were also memories. I stayed where I was, and drew on the pipe.
Dworkin had taken my form after I had escaped his dream. And then he had changed form again, becoming the image of my son Merlin.
And there it was: the uneasiness that had been growing in my mind.
And here I was, some several yards away from where Merlin had been conceived. It had been a rather crazy, intense period of my life, but at least I had known what I was doing. I’d had a goal.
Now, by contrast, I had absolutely no idea of what was going on, or of what I was doing. Goal? There was still the mystery of Merlin and Martin to be solved. There was the interference with Amber’s trade, the piracy and harassment of her shipping. There was the neutralization of Random and his removal from power. There was whatever the conflict was that was running through the Courts. Very likely most of it was connected, but it was also all a confusing mess. The challenge was to disentangle it enough to prioritize and determine which problem to tackle first.
The shadows were long now. The sun was going down.
Returning to the porch, I picked up the harp and glass, bringing them inside. Merlin’s backpack was sitting where I had left it in the hallway, and I scooped it up on my way to the library. Leaving the stuff on the desk, I retrieved the bottle from the sideboard, refilled my glass and set the bottle down beside everything else.
The cool air from outside had freshened the place somewhat, but the coming night-time chill was already making its presence felt. So I went around closing most of the windows I had earlier opened. Back in the library, where I had one of the lamps going, I removed my scabbard, leaning Grayswandir against the brass stand holding the fireplace tools. Tinder and kindling I pulled from the basket for the hearth. In a little while I had a fire going and was able to add a few logs from the rack. The flames went down for a bit, but soon the logs were hissing, popping and throwing off heat. The fire added some cheer to the room, and made it warm enough that I was able to leave a window partly open.
Taking one of the candlesticks down from the mantelpiece and lighting it, I brought it over to the desk and set it down. Then, after emptying the contents of the pack onto the blotter on the desk, I finally sat, sipped, and contemplated the items before me.
Tonight, I would figure it out.
The creak I heard was likely a tree branch outside the window. Caution born of too much exposure to death and violence nevertheless prompted me to get up from the chair.
A shadow fell across the floor by the doorway.
The desk was in my way. I’d have to sidle around it in order to cross over to the fireplace. I eyed the letter-opener on the desk, wondering if it was better than nothing, deciding it was, and picked it up with my left hand.
I took a step to the right.
A figure stood in the doorway, brandishing in the left hand the parenthesis of a weapon.
Then one of us said something.
“Fetch your blade. I will wait.”
Thoughtfully putting down the letter-opener and rounding the desk, I approached the fireplace. My gaze never left the doorway. When I stood beside Grayswandir, I did not immediately pick it up.
“Don’t like what I’ve done with the garden? I was thinking of planting some old man’s beard or virgin’s bower — you could use more climbing plants.”
He didn’t move, didn’t speak.
“All right,” I went on, sighing. “Then may I at least ask why? I presumed the old offer of hospitality was still standing. I’ve done no more than remove a few weeds from the garden and a few ounces of whisky from the bottle.”
“You will have your answer soon enough,” the shadow said, and advanced toward me.
Grasping the scabbard with my left hand, Grayswandir came free in my right like a flash of moonlight.
Though shadowed, his silhouette was unmistakable. The jutting jaw, the hair long and straight, nearly falling to the broad shoulders surmounting an otherwise tall, lean frame. The firelight glinted in his eyes and upon the sword with which he saluted me.
Returning the salute slowly, I brought my blade into a guard position.
“Benedict,” I tried, moving a little to my left, away from the fireplace and closer to the desk, “as a favor to a brother, at least tell me why my blood is being spilt.”
But he was done talking. Stepping from the shadows and into the room, deliberate and unhurried, his hazel eyes swept past me and over Merlin’s things on the desk.
And then he was close, a variation of a katana out before him. I saw the head-cut coming in time to deflect it with an overhead parry. The edge of his blade skipped into space, two inches from my shoulder. In the next instant, the tip of the katana whipped down toward my wrist. Wrenching the returning arc of Grayswandir into line to parry, I kept my hand and aimed a riposte at his chest. His counter-parry answered my attack only too well, forcing me back a step.
We were fighting across the desk now.
He had been my instructor in the sword and in all weapons, which was probably the only reason I could anticipate him at all. I knew many of his moves. The only problem was, he had taught me most of mine.
He was still missing his right arm. The mechanical prosthesis I had borrowed from Tir-na Nog’th was history, of course, having evaporated ages ago in a duel with a ghost. But I saw now that he’d replaced the lost silver appendage with a device of steel. The fingers of this one did not flex or grip in an unnerving imitation of living flesh as had the one of old, but he managed all the same to use it expertly when needed for added balance and control of the orange-gleaming edge that just then was sweeping down toward my belly. My parry was fast, desperate, for such an obvious line of attack could only be his second intention. Sure enough, his attack twisted upward so quickly that again I nearly lost my hand at the wrist. I think he smiled slightly as my attempt to envelop his blade failed, but managed to throw off the strategy he’d been working on.
The movements of his blade, so fast as to sometimes be nearly invisible, seemed to me almost relaxed, even playful, fast as they were. Our swords danced in the air over the desk, yet nothing on the desk itself was disturbed, not even the candle when Benedict’s blade bit through its flame. Attack, parry, riposte, the rhythm of this encounter familiar, taking me back to times we had fenced in the courtyard. As though my brother were providing yet another lesson, forcing me to resort to every skill he had taught me.
The pace picked up, and then there was the cut that came at my eye. But I’d had my parry and riposte ready, so that my whirling cut brought Grayswandir toward his neck. As this attack was beaten aside, Benedict took a step back, raising his blade once more in salute.
Keeping my blade in guard position, I said, “Excuse me?”
A small smile touched his lips as he nodded toward me.
“You may put away your blade,” he said, lowering his. “We are done.”
“Then what the hell have we been doing for the last five minutes? Kabuki theater?”
“You were identifying yourself. You are Corwin.”
The tension in the room dissipating, I finally lowered Grayswandir.
“I already knew that, and I kind of thought you did, too.”
Sheathing his sword, he jerked his chin toward the fireplace.
“We shall sit before the fire, where we can have our talk.”
As I came out from behind the desk, I watched him leave without another word, heard the clinking of glass in another room. “Puzzled” was not a strong enough word to describe my state of mind as I returned Grayswandir to its scabbard. But when he returned with a bottle and two wine glasses, I was sitting by the fire finishing the drink I’d poured earlier, caught up in the mild buzz of my scattered thoughts and the whisky.
A table with a board and chess pieces stood between the two chairs by the fire. With his arm of steel, my brother pushed a few of the pieces aside to make space for the glasses and the bottle. Before he did this, however, I noted that he hung his scabbard on the doorknob, with the nether end resting on the floor. Mine was back where it had been before his arrival, set against the stand and keeping company with the tongs and pokers.
“You could have just said hello,” I pointed out as he poured the wine.
“No,” he said, sitting and taking up his glass, “I could not. But we can talk of shadow doubles and shapechangers later if there is a need. Now what of you? What has brought you here? Where have you been and what have you been doing since last we saw each other?”
“Ah,” I said, glancing at him and then away, quietly picking up the glass he had poured me, then, seeking some sort of touchstone, contemplating Grayswandir off to my right. “Well, that is quite a long story.”
“I have time.”
The clock on the mantel chimed the quarter hour, as if on cue. Clearing my throat, I considered things. The last time we had seen each other we had been on good terms. We had been in more accord than we had been in ages, actually. And yet...the lines were very clear in Benedict’s world, and one did not want to be on the wrong side of them.
“Well, I am not back here for gunpowder, I can tell you that much.”
Again, the small smile. A happier version of Benedict might have laughed, but the Benedict sitting there by the fire with me was the version one usually got. To be fair, since the time I did come for gunpowder had ended with Benedict trying to process me like a cuisinart and him lying unconscious by the side of a road, perhaps he could be forgiven for finding a limited degree of humor in my remark.
“No, nothing at all like that,” I went on. “In fact, a train brought me through Shadow to your doorstep. Truly, I had no idea it would bring me here. But when I saw where I was, I decided to visit.”
“So you have come here alone, then?”
Something about how he put the question made me wary. I drank a little from the glass to give myself a moment to weigh things, and decided upon honesty.
“No, but that’s a later portion of my story. I can tell it from there, if you like, working backward.”
“I would prefer to hear your tale from the beginning. When last we spoke, it was in Amber. The peace treaty with Chaos had been signed. Bleys, Fiona and myself were escorting the visiting dignitaries back to the Courts. You recall that day, I trust?”
“I do,” I acknowledged.
“All right,” I said, slightly annoyed by his peremptory tone.
This felt a bit more like standing before a judge on his bench than sitting beside a brother at the fire. But I resolved to keep my emotions in check and do my best to give him what he wanted. He was too important and powerful a figure to alienate for no reason. I was imposing upon his hospitality, and — most of all — I had little to hide.
“I admit I haven’t thought of that day in a long time. But not an easy day to forget. A rather beautiful slice of early autumn, not unlike today. Yes, I remember. You were sharing some details of the occupation of the Courts in response to a question of mine. You indicated my participation would be welcome.”
Benedict used the toe of his boot to better position a log within the flames.
“Caine could have served in your stead. He is capable. But hated by all in the Courts, regardless of faction. Alternatively, you, Corwin, are respected there. Your resourcefulness against Chaos in Lorraine and then in Amber made an impression. You could have been an asset.”
I tasted the wine.
“And I would have been happy to have lent a hand,” I answered, quelling the guilt and defensiveness his statement had triggered. “Proud to, actually. I like to think, though, that you understood my reasons for declining.”
Nodding, he prompted, “Please continue.”
Staring into the red liquid, losing myself in the hypnosis of the ripples, the past rolled back like surf on the sand.
“Yes. We said our good-byes. Yours was one of many. It was a day of good-byes. In some cases, I think the parties knew we might never meet again. For my part, there was a growing urgency, a restlessness churning somewhere. Half-formed but insistent, born mostly of curiosity and concern, of the need to return to the Pattern I had drawn.
“But first I took Merlin on a tour of the city and the harbor. He surprised me by preferring the harbor. We met Gérard there for a late lunch. Or an early dinner. It was getting toward sunset. We had walked down, but used Merlin’s trump for Martin to get back. Martin joined us for the rest of our time together, which was not long. We descended directly to the dungeons and the tunnels. Merlin was eager to take the Pattern, and I was anxious to get going, as well.”
“And this concluded your visit?”
Sparing Benedict a quick glance, I lifted the glass for another taste. The wine of Avalon — how long it had been. For a moment, I lost myself, savoring.
Then, “More or less,” I answered. “To illustrate how it was done, I walked the Pattern first, and waited while Merlin emulated my progress. Martin held the lantern aloft, our only audience. Merlin eventually reached me, shaken, but smiling. There, at the center of the Great Pattern, we said our good-byes. Then he went off looking for his worlds, and I went to find mine.”
“And,” Benedict asked out of the dimness, watching the flames dance, “did you?”
Raising the glass, I peered through it at the fire. Was this at all like what Brand had seen when he had pierced the shadow veils with his mind? The effect reminded me of the Chaos storm that had pursued me as I had carried out my father’s last command.
“The Pattern could not take me there,” I confessed. “Maybe because the place I sought was not within its scope. But I’ve been wondering about that.”
“Explain what you mean.”
“Our grandfather emerged from the Courts to create our Pattern somewhere in the void, yet it still touches Chaos. My design, which was able to transport me to a place near the Courts, should therefore also touch our reality. And yet, when Dworkin embarked upon his effort, Shadow as we know it did not yet exist. Conditions differed substantially on both occasions. And then, of course, there is also the obvious: the problem may lie within myself.”
Benedict merely sat there, motionless, silent, thinking his own thoughts, making his own guesses, evaluating my statements for their intrinsic truthfulness and information value. Of what he privately thought, he would naturally say nothing. At least, not until I was done. Meanwhile, the flames licked the logs, the fire providing a pleasant white noise, and the golden clock on the mantel above the hearth audibly and reliably ticked away the seconds.
“In any event,” I resumed, “my search was a failure. After a time, I realized I was no longer searching, but instead avoiding a return to either Amber or Chaos. At one point, I passed through here on my way to Lorraine. From there, I set sail for old ports of call, among them the harbors of the shadow of my exile. And so I came at last to Faiella-bionin and to Rebma.
“For a year or two, I was as happy as I’m ever likely to be. But the restlessness was still there. At first, I took this to be an echo of my earlier drive to locate my Pattern. Then the dreams, visions and visitations began, intermittently and then unrelentingly. And they directed me toward Tir-na Nog’th with a persistence that wore down my resolve to remain out of sight, out of mind. So, with some reluctance, I made my way back to Amber.”
Draining the rest of my glass, I set it down, shifted in my chair. I was feeling the warmth of the grain and the grape, the distancing from life’s troubles catalyzed by chemistry. The fire needed another log, but I remained as I was, still, seeing with my inner eye, walking through memory, mesmerized by the light and the heat.
Benedict quaffed what was left of his, as well, refilled both glasses, raising his toward me. With mine, I saluted him in return — far preferable to the earlier salutes with our blades — drank, and set the glass back upon the table.
“When was it last you ate?” Benedict asked.
“Hours ago, in town. That place with the wide porch that overlooks the wharf. Fresh salmon, thick bread, dark ale. How did you know I was hungry?”
“Your stomach spoke for you. Wait here.”
And he was gone. Stirring myself, I threw more wood on the fire, jabbed and leveraged the burning pieces till the jumble seemed steady, sat back down. Daydreaming, I lost myself in old thoughts and feelings, soothed by the flames rushing upwards, snapping downward, striking higher again, a rising and falling somehow reminiscent of the slower pulse of the ocean, a reminder of the flux that is life, predictable ebb and random flow.
When he returned with a platter of breads, slabs of venison, hunks of cheese, and knives, I wasted little time. He watched as I assembled a towering sandwich, which I promptly devoured. Then I made another, which I ate more slowly, while he made one of his own.
“You came provisioned,” I noted between mouthfuls.
We sat there awhile, chewing on the conversation and our sandwiches, saying nothing.
When I finished my second sandwich, Benedict stopped eating his long enough to say, “That is not the end of your story. Word of your appearance in Amber reached me. You spent but a single night in the palace before departing for parts unknown. You left abruptly. And I assume propelled by some urgency.”
“No, you’re right, of course,” I conceded. “Random and Fiona went with me that evening up Kolvir. You can guess where I spent the night. My adventure in the sky-city had some things in common with that other occasion when I fought your ghost. The apparition I tangled with this time was of a historical figure, from whom I took this.”
Reaching within my shirt, I withdrew the diamond and pulled its chain over my head. Pooling both the chain and stone in my palm, I held it out for him to examine. He glanced down at it, then at me, but did not reach out to touch it.
“It resembles the Jewel of Judgment.”
“In many ways,” I agreed, slipping it back over my head, “and I am attuned to it. There was not much time to experiment with it, however. Random immediately tasked me with flying his experimental aircraft through Shadow to the Courts. It seems obvious now that this was merely one part of a larger program he was implementing. A program which apparently includes the train that brought me here.”
Benedict naturally knew all about the train, but showed no interest in using the pause in my story-telling to share any of what he knew with me. He had finished his sandwich, and sat now with elbows on his knees, hands clasped, looking straight ahead.
“Piloting his flying machine,” he said, bringing his chin to rest pensively on his knuckles, “was the only objective assigned to you?”
A sour laugh escaped me.
“No, it was more than a flight test. One purpose, clearly, was to intimidate Chaos. The real mission, though, was for me to check in with Bleys, and then arrange for a one-on-one with Swayvill.”
“A meeting with the High King of Chaos? To what end?”
“I never did get the chance to find out. My top priority, though, would have been to learn whatever he might be able to tell me regarding the disappearances of Merlin and Martin.”
“And Bleys?” Benedict asked, getting up to fetch a poker. “Had he nothing to say to you?”
Sighing, I picked up the glass again.
“Not much. The two of them had been helping Swayvill against his enemies and had gotten in over their heads. Bleys shared some interesting speculations about the Pattern and the structure of the Courts. We later went out to do some recon, where I was challenged to ritual combat by some kind of weretiger. This cut short my fact-finding. My opponent turned out to be the lieutenant of Swayvill’s enemy Zirlar.”
“Ojin?” he asked, nudging coals with the poker.
“Yes, and the duel did not go well.”
“Yet you both still live.”
Now that was interesting. His familiarity with most of the big players in the Courts derived from his duties there after the war, and was unsurprising. His assertion regarding Ojin’s continued existence, though, suggested he had access to up-to-date information. In other words, he had a source at the Courts. With Bleys out of the picture, I had to wonder who it might be, and I had absolutely no idea. With an inward shrug, I tabled the matter for later review.
“That’s right. He was technically the victor, but Zirlar decided I should be kept alive long enough to see Bleys and Merlin given to the abyss. And then I could be killed. He was countermanded by his ally, King Raum, however, and I was imprisoned.”
“Temporarily,” Benedict said, amending my statement as he returned the poker to the stand.
“Yes, temporarily,” I assented. “What was done with Bleys and Merlin, I have no idea. A lot of time passed, but I ultimately escaped into Shadow, where I tracked down Merlin. Or, rather, someone whom I believed to be Merlin. Recently, though, I have come to doubt this. Nevertheless, it was with his help that I returned to Amber.”
Benedict nodded thoughtfully.
“You believe you met an imposter.”
“Yes. The cumulative effect of many small details. These did not begin to hit me until I stood below Kolvir watching our navy trade cannon-fire with enemy ships in sight of the harbor. I began noticing many odd things, such as trolleys and the new train station. Political parties and a police force operating in and around the immortal city. And, before I left, a vampire. So: strange goings-on. Leading me to ask myself certain questions.
“My stay was necessarily brief. As you may or may not have heard, Gérard attempted to arrest me so that I might stand before a court presided over by Caine. I declined, and came here instead. And there you have it, my story since we last saw each other.”
Having finished his drink, Benedict poured himself another.
As he lifted the glass, he said, “But you have not told me everything.”
This seemed like a good time for me to lift my glass, as well, and I brought it to my lips for a taste and a moment to consider my response. For, of course, information better left unmentioned (from my perspective) had prudently been edited from the account I had just given, in particular the events occurring between the duel and my incarceration. That is, the entire business at the foot of Ygg. Where the witches had demonstrated knowledge of the operation of the diamond and the peculiarities of my Pattern. Where the two kings had abused Bleys, Merlin and myself. And where I had been compelled to bring three lost brothers back from wherever they had been exiled.
Also omitted from my story were the identities of my traveling companions, which seemed of little moment and yet might lead to avoidable questions. My desire was to keep from any mention of what had transpired in Arden. To start with, I was not at all sure how Benedict would react to my encountering his mother, exiled and long presumed dead. Beyond that, there was the matter of Dworkin sequestered in Cymnea’s hidden residence in the forest. Not knowing all the reasons for the need to keep Dworkin out of view, I did not feel qualified to challenge that call. More than that, past experience had taught me a healthy respect for Dworkin’s role. I could point to no one who knew more of what was really going on. Fiona, Bleys and Brand had studied under him and developed into a credible threat to Amber. Yet only Brand had taken things to the point where the threat had become real. And Dworkin had been locked away by Oberon when it had become clear just how powerful his knowledge could be.
There could be no denying that the timing of various recent events seemed suspiciously beyond coincidence. Dworkin having fallen comatose, cared for and kept hidden by Cymnea, being but one example. Who was behind it all? As the gangsters say, quoting wisdom at least as old as Rome, look to see who benefits. The most obvious beneficiary of recent developments was Amber’s current Regent, Caine. It was difficult to believe he was not involved at some level. Yet there was the widest possible spectrum of upheaval, spanning the breadth of existence all the way from Amber to the Courts of Chaos, threatening stability everywhere. Caine was indeed clever and subtle, but capable of a project so elaborate, of such unparalleled scope? Unlikely. Possible, yes, but only once most alternatives could be ruled out. While I could only scratch at the surface of what those alternatives might be, I had a feeling Dworkin would know. And not only would he be aware of the viable scenarios and the players involved in their execution, he would probably have a pretty good idea of who or what represented the agency behind these machinations.
Ultimately, there was the security of Amber and her attendant shadows to consider. The Pattern and Dworkin were inextricably linked. If something should happen to Dworkin, to harm him — as, apparently, something already had — then the Pattern, Amber, and Shadow would also suffer. I would, therefore, not be revealing Dworkin’s whereabouts to anyone — not even to Benedict — without good reason.
So I drank the wine, thought those things, and lowered my glass.
“Well, no, naturally not,” I admitted. “It’s a long enough story, as it is. I’ve streamlined where I could. I could go on at greater length about Bleys’ speculations regarding the Pattern. Or on how I came to doubt I’d actually encountered Merlin. And there’s the heartwarming conversation I had with Caine. I could expand on any number of points, but maybe you could tell me what you’re after?”
“You crossed Shadow by train. What did you see?”
Inwardly, I sighed, and some tension went out of me. I wondered if he noticed.
“Ah,” I said, trying the wine again. “That.”
Indeed. Yet another thing beyond my ken. How Benedict knew of this, I could not then be sure. But I could guess. The train ran to Avalon, after all, and many others had seen what we had seen.
Shadowstorms have occurred before, certainly. Still, uncommon. The Chaos storm which had swept through all of existence might be regarded as a sort of shadowstorm, though this would be akin to likening a tsunami to a wave in a bathtub. A shadowstorm had things in common with that great upwelling of Chaos, but was localized, operating at a much smaller scale.
Passing through Shadow by train was in some ways like navigating across the oceans shared by shadows, yet also different. From a moving train, it was like watching the fading sunset change the landscape — colors, shapes and light-values seamlessly shifting, morphing into new arrangements which could be mistaken for a change in perspective, something one could rationalize and attribute to one’s own motion through the scene. This brand of mind-trickery is, of course, precisely the mechanism in operation during a hellride, enabled by the power of imagination. Much like cloud-busting, one need only project one’s personal imagined conceits upon the shifting, the morphing, the change, in order to take charge of it, to move toward the picture, the place, the manifestation of one’s desire. What, then, when these things occur independently, without the apparent intervention and intention of anyone else? When they just, all of themselves, happen?
The distant treeline defining the other side of wide fields suddenly surges like a wave coming up the shore, trunks and branches looming, clouds drop into the sky, expanding like ripples on a pond, dirt and vegetation push in from either side of a road, erasing the road as if it had never been, curvilinear porcelain architectures and leafy arcologies rise up from the fields, and the mountains beyond the forests melt away, an ocean pours in from the horizon and in just minutes you feel its spray.... Terrifying to the uninitiated, to witness the physical world so pliable, fluid, unstable. Yet even those who travel the shadows are thrown when the changes not only are uncoordinated, but overlap. When the forest rushes into the city and catches fire, while the waves of the sea rise to break upon the buildings, as a stampeding herd of elephants charge out of the trees to struggle against drowning, distant mountains pushing up against the sky to send glaciers at highway speeds toward the sea into which they thunder and crash, a bombardment of blazing missiles or meteors raining down from a roiling sky, strange biomechanical flying things swinging out from the fiery forest to skim the waves like monstrous dragonflies.... Too much happening in the same place at the same time. The confusion of realities colliding, even seen from a distance, could strike fear into the heart of a traveler of Shadow who is merely passing through. Even when a driver sits behind the wheel of his car, he does not necessarily feel safe from the force-five tornado moving toward him from less than a mile away.
It had taken some doing on my part to reassure my companions that we were all perfectly safe from the shadowstorm which had erupted on the horizon, then widened and moved toward us as our train had sped along. The truth was, though, that we hadn’t been safe at all. Only our diminutive guide or guard, the gnome assigned to us by Cymnea, had seemed unperturbed.
The storm had drawn closer, and then closer still, till we could see that the needle-like stone spires pushing up out of the prairie were, in fact, windowed towers, overlooking a battle between dinosaurs charging from the west headlong into a line of fast, light-armored war-machines advancing from the east as the slope of a vast pyramid grew toward the stars just beyond them, weird green jello-like mounds sprouting everywhere, quivering and moving through the conflict. Up in the sky an enormous moon loomed, its cratered face growing larger and more distinct as it moved closer. The ground tore open, lava gushing forth, consuming numbers of the jello-mounds in loud explosions of black steam. The needle-towers tipped and tottered as the ground began to slowly swirl like tea stirred in a cup, while the shifting melée of machine, mound, and dinosaur vied with the collapsing sky — all of it seeming tilted on a tabletop toward the train, sliding closer.
Out of instinct and out of fear, I had pulled forth the diamond, closed my hand about it, setting my will against the storm, taking hold of the stuff of Shadow with my mind....
“The shadowstorm,” I said. “Yes, it was bad. Came dangerously close, too. We survived, however, as you can see. May I ask how you heard about it?”
“Avalon is under my protection,” Benedict replied. “Nothing occurs in or near Avalon of which I am unaware. I know your friends are staying at the Bywater. I know you bought a horse and rode out this way. I know a shadowstorm threatened the train and yet was somehow diverted from the tracks. I know many things.”
Turning his head, his gaze met mine.
Message sent, and message received. Swirling the wine in my glass, I raised it for yet another taste, lowered the now-empty glass and set it on the table.
“You have guessed correctly,” I told him. “It was me.”
“This was not an ability I was aware you possessed.”
With the fingers of my left hand, I touched the diamond.
“Not sure it would be correct to call it an ability. More accurate to describe it as a function of this.”
“Which you say you took from a ghost in Tir-na Nog’th.”
“Whose ghost was it?”
“Ah, well,” I coughed. “Before we get into events in the sky-city, I would like to turn your attention to something of more immediate importance.”
Here I got up, strode over to the desk, gestured toward the things on top of it.
“These are all from Merlin’s pack. Or, rather, from the pack carried by his doppelgänger.”
Benedict leaned forward, set his glass beside mine, stood, walked over to stand beside me. With his index finger, he prodded one of the objects.
“Merlin has accompanied Martin on visits here in the past. He usually has on a cloak of some shade of purple. I am certain I have seen him in this one.”
He flipped the edge of the cloak over. Several rectangles of fabric were revealed, in checkerboard pattern, sewn into the lining. Each represented a panel, perhaps telling some unguessed story — people, places — each woven from shimmering thread.
“What about the other things?”
Benedict prodded an oval, crytalline item.
“I have seen Merlin peer through this object. I know not why, nor what he saw.”
He picked up a ring, held it out in front of him a moment, turning it, before placing it on the cloak.
“A serpent biting its tail — a symbol of Chaos. More than that, I cannot say.”
“But,” I said, picking it up, examining it in my turn, “nevertheless something recognized by those dwelling in the Courts. Could be useful.”
I replaced the ring, pointed at the ivory tube, cut in places with oval slots.
“Mayhap,” said Benedict, picking it up, “but there is something inside.”
He shook it, and a rolled up piece of parchment slid part way out. Meeting my gaze, he extended the thing toward me.
I pulled it free, a tightly wound scroll, tied with a ribbon. Untying the ribbon, I unrolled it, scanned it. And remembered it. Tying it back up, I reached for the tube Benedict held, slipped the scroll back within its container.
“This scroll has something to do with Dworkin. I know that much, but that’s all I know,” I told him, and laid the ivory tube beside the ring.
Returning my attention to the crystal, I picked it up, turning it so the light struck it from different angles.
“Could be an eyepiece,” I hazarded, holding it to my eye, seeing the suit of armor on the other side of the fireplace suddenly magnified, a kaleidoscopic effect around the edges, then turning it upon the painting by the door with the same result. “Yes, that’s what it is.”
So saying, I passed it to Benedict, who tried the same experiment, then weighed it in his palm, and finally turned it every which way in his fingertips.
“The surface is etched with markings of some kind.”
“Really? No marks or scratches are visible when looking through it.”
He returned the lens. Taking it in both hands, I applied pressure to different points on the surface. And it changed. It flexed, like a plastic bottle squeezed too hard, or like a dent popped out of a fender. From convex to concave, from clear to reflective on one side. Pointing it toward the fireplace, it directed a faint beam of concentrated yellow light. Running my fingers over the thing a few times, I tried to visualize the curves and angles inscribed on its otherwise smooth surface.
“The only things I can think of are cuneiform and Braille, except...”
“Except it feels more like some emblem or design. A logo, perhaps. Signature of the manufacturer?”
Placing the lens on the cloak with the ring and the scroll, I turned away, resuming my seat by the fire. Benedict joined me. He brought out his pipe, and I did the same. We smoked a minute or two, thinking, watching the flickering light.
After a time, Benedict asked, “Where did you encounter this Merlin double?”
“After my escape from the Courts, I made my way to the old shadow of my exile. And there I found him. Or he found me. I’m still not sure about that part.”
“Why do you believe this was not Merlin?”
This had actually only become clear to me when Dworkin, talking in his
unwakeable sleep, had implied I had never met Merlin. But, again, my instincts strongly ran in the direction that it would be better to have Benedict impressed with how insightful I could be than with
how trusting I could be.
Easy enough to report something Dworkin “had once said” had led to that conclusion, without giving away how very recently it actually was when he had said it. Dworkin’s opinion would lend credibility to my claim. But Benedict might be inclined to ask for verifiable details as to when, where, and how the topic had come up. And in his present sharp-eyed, hyper-alert state, I had a feeling my creative storytelling gifts might not be enough to stop him from pressing until he had the truth.
Was it worth the risk? In the
current climate there was more solidarity than in times past, less mistrust. On
the one hand, by trespassing into Benedict’s realm, I had become his
guest, owing him something in return for his welcome. That is,
information. Further, as a master strategist and Amber’s most capable
defender, I wanted him to have as much knowledge as I could spare. More
than that, I hoped to trade it for whatever he might know.
On the other hand...
On the other hand, knowledge is power. So he could not have everything.
“He was overly mysterious, remaining close-mouthed about his activities. Yet his depth of knowledge about Amber and Shadow was impressive, on a par with Fiona’s. I fully intended to have answers from him as soon as there was time, but there never was. Later, however, when things had settled, it seemed to me his behavior was not entirely consistent with the Merlin I remembered.”
“Yet he was carrying Merlin’s possessions.”
“So it seems. Though I can’t say why, I can guess who. I believe it was a shapeshifter, an agent of Chaos.”
“How do you know this?”
Puffing on my pipe, I saw again the scene below Ygg’s branches. The two witches, Keridwen and Dana, had seemed strangely detached from much of what had transpired there, though very interested in the diamond and the exiles it had helped me to retrieve. Their patrons, if that was the right word for the relationship, had had a more obvious agenda. These were King Zirlar and King Raum, Swayvill’s dedicated foes. And it had been in an underwater cell in Raum’s territory — wherever that was — that I had been held in durance vile. Had I been tracked after my escape? But, then, if Merlin’s double had followed me from the Courts, why had he delivered me from the burning tower on the shadow Earth? While there was much I had yet to understand, the involvement of Chaos still struck me as the most likely solution to the mystery. As to why, I could hardly begin to speculate.
“I believe Merlin was their captive, and likely still is. It is possible that his pack was given to one of their number to complete the disguise.”
“To what end?”
“I’m not sure. I would say to gain my trust, in order to use me somehow in the advancement of some over-arching scheme. What might be the objective of such a scheme? To pit Caine and I against one another? To foster rumors and further unsettle an Amber already plagued by police and paranoia? Done and done. Some third thing not yet guessed. Very likely. But it was not so this imposter could destroy me, since he gave me escape when death came calling.”
“You were attacked?”
“A military assault. We were in a tower. There were explosions, deaths. We were lucky to get away.”
“‘We.’ You and your friends in town?”
“So that’s his name,” I said, smiling. “He doesn’t talk much to us. Or at all, really. No, he wasn’t there. He’s new.”
“Yet none of this explains why you are here.”
“Well, in a way it does,” I countered. “The abrupt departure from my old shadow brought us to Amber. With Caine determined to put me on trial, it seemed like a good idea to leave quickly. So we took the train. While I admit I did not expect it to bring me here, I’m glad it did. And how does that happen, by the way?”
Benedict looked up at the smoke curling above him.
“As you must know by now, all modernization was by Random’s decree. He was no longer willing to rely primarily on seaways through Shadow. And with good reason. Nor did he want Trumps for key places such as Avalon to be readily available. He called these Royal Trumps, reserved for use by himself and those designated by him. I supported him in this also. There are too many who can use them.”
“It all adds up,” I said, nodding. “It’s almost as if Random saw all this coming — the pirate attacks on Amber’s shipping, the moves against Swayvill and himself, the instability in the Courts and in Shadow. Something is going on, something very big. But what? What do you know that I don’t know?”
He removed his pipe, stared at it.
“Our forces of occupation were withdrawn years ago. Not long after, trouble began brewing in Chaos. There were disturbances far afield. Shadowstorms are now commonplace. After you left on your assignment, Random walked Tir-na Nog’th and has not been seen since. If there is indeed a single entity or group behind these events, then we are contending with a power not seen since the creation of Amber.”
To hear such a pronouncement, and from Benedict of all people, set me back. There was a lot I felt like saying just then, but I kept it to four words.
“We need a plan.”
Clearing his throat, Benedict said, “First there is something I must ask you. And something I must show you.”
He got up from his chair, walked over to the mirror on the other side of the suit of armor, hanging on the wall opposite the windows. Setting aside my pipe, I got to my feet and walked over to where he stood before the glass.
“Who did you take the diamond from in Tir-na Nog’th?”
“Oisen,” I said softly.
His face betrayed no emotion. Had he already known?
“Now,” my brother said, “look in the mirror.”
I did as he bade me, seeking some out-of-place detail. Was it something in the room, best revealed in a reflection? Perhaps a faint message written on the mirror itself? Yet nothing out of the ordinary was visible. What was I missing?
And then I saw.
“So it is with all of us, Corwin,” Benedict said from beside me, as I stared.
“We have all begun to age,” he continued, as I took in the new lines around the eyes, the handful of gray hairs. “We are getting old.”
Copyright © 2015 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved
Chapter Seven: The Railway
Set out on a road for a place, end up somewhere other than your destination. Come home, find confusion. In that bit where Bilbo says stepping outdoors and onto a road is a dangerous and unpredictable business, he has it right — it is. It’s the way of the worlds, I guess.
Looking out the window as we thundered through the tunnels and caverns under the mountain, I reflected on the unpredictability, the danger and the confusion.
Amber is supposed to be the one reliable constant in the universe, the pole star about which everything else spins. That, more than being the city where I was born, is what has made Amber worth possessing above all other things, what makes her worth inhabiting more than any other place. Yet while change comes with reluctance to the Eternal City, it does come. You would think I’d have figured this out by now, but, clearly, I am a slow learner.
Change provides a wonderful incentive to pause to get one’s bearings. So I peered out into the blackness punctuated with mysterious flecks of light at indeterminate distances and strange green glowing structures nearer to hand, and took stock.
He threw his arms around me and held me tight for a hug. This is not something I am much used to, but then it struck me: this man was my best and closest friend in Amber, maybe anywhere. I hugged him back.
We were standing at the end of a street, where a very wide avenue crossed below us. Perhaps more of a court or plaza than an avenue, but it stretched to avenue length, curving out of view on either hand. Piers, docks and boardwalks reached from the side opposite out into the shimmering sea itself, where vessels were moored. The sea was full of ships, most of them foreign and strange. Many other streets also emptied into this great avenue, where buildings and setups less permanent were everywhere in evidence. Storefronts, awnings raised, doors propped open, vied with merchant’s carts and tents scattered across the granite-flagged space. Above the perpetual movement and shouts of the citizens and outlanders, the flight and cries of the gulls.
“Good to see you,” he said, drawing back. “Alive, I mean. People have been saying you’re dead again.”
“So I gather. But I have also heard about a list, and gotten the impression I might be on it.”
“You are. Anyone not in the Party is.”
“The party with the cool kids and their beer and loud music?”
“The Black and Green Party. It’s also called the Regency Party. Most call it the Black and Green. That probably doesn’t make much sense.”
“No, but it’s beginning to. Come on. I have friends waiting, and we can talk while we walk.”
So we descended into Mapmakers’ Market. There were other points of interest, where the streets and alleys twisted their ways through the maze of shops and dwellings down to the ships and quays. Fisherman’s Wharf, Gallowglass Way, Weavers Row, and the Rare and Precious House were just a few of the popular places. But down below Kolvir where the morning sun flung its gold on the narrow windows and red tile roofs, this was the busiest place and where all the best food could be found.
His name was Rein, and he was a lord of Amber. Red-haired, and his preferred colors were crimson, though today he had come down to the Harbor in more subdued garb, blues and greens, hoping to be less easily recognized. I had gotten in touch with him through a mutual acquaintance (a guard from my time in the dungeons, when Rein had risked life and liberty to bring me food and gossip), and now here he was, guessing I would be asking for favors and not seeming to mind.
“So,” I began, “Black and green suggest Caine. Sounds bad. ‘Regency,’ though, sounds ten times worse. Holding my breath as I ask the inevitable: Random?”
“Among the living,” Rein quickly reassured me, “according to the Regency Council.”
“Wait,” I said, stopping and grabbing his arm, “When was he last seen publicly?”
“Over two years ago.”
Releasing his arm, I glanced around the plaza. The sun no longer felt quite so warm as it had, and even the steady breeze from the sea seemed to falter as I watched the people go about their activities. Was the vibe less cheerful, less lively than it should have been where folk from Shadows far and near come to do business in the Harbor below my mountain? Were there fewer people in this place than typical in times past? Were there fewer smiles? To me, it seemed so, though I could not be sure if I was merely projecting my own disquiet.
I started walking again.
“Awhile after my latest departure, then. Well, if a quiet palace coup has been staged by someone, it wasn’t rushed. So who are the someones? Who is on this Regency Council?”
“Long-time friends and allies. Who else?”
“Gérard. There are no others.”
“Interesting. And no one asks, ‘Where is the King?’”
A trolley rolled by, clanging its bell, and we both watched as it crested a hill and then dipped out of sight. That was something new, and it wasn’t the only change I had noticed since waking and finding myself in my father’s old love-nest at the White Rabbit. There were many questions, of course. As in: How could I fall asleep in the ghost of an inn up in Tir-na Nog’th, and waken in the real inn three blocks from where Rein and I had just met? But this man was part of Amber’s court and my best hope for learning what was happening there. Focus, I told myself, focus.
“The rumor is that Random has gone to the Courts of Chaos,” Rein elaborated, “or was ambushed along the way. Because you, Bleys, Merlin and Martin have all gone missing, and he went to investigate. But, Corwin....”
“You are the main suspect.”
The darkness came closer as shafts of discolored light and strangely glowing stalactites went away. Not that I was alone on this underground railroad, but I refused to look around me and meet the gazes of those close by — we see in others what is reflected in ourselves. And I was not ready for that just yet.
Rein was someone I loved. Not as a brother. Better than that, I would say, since a few of my brothers I would be happy to meet sword to sword. And I would not weep if one or two were left bleeding on the floor, leaking life and losing all excuses to cling to it. But this is not knowledge resting close to the surface; it’s underground, like this train. I missed him, prayed I would see him again, feared I would not.
“What are you going to do?”
We were standing at a street-corner, near where I had headed us. I sucked in some air, appreciating the gift, the energy generously bestowed by the breath of Amber. No air fills a man like that of his homeland.
Rein’s question echoed within my skull and I tried to answer honestly.
“Someone has sunk his or her fangs into the jugular of Amber. He or she has tried to drain the life-blood of my family and my city. This entity, or these entities, has tried to claim my son, my nephew, my brothers. Given the opportunity, I will cut them down with every ounce of strength in my blood, and I care not if it costs me my own life. Does this answer your question?”
Rein nodded, and smiled.
“No other answer was expected. What would you of me?”
Rein was not a swordsman of my caliber, or even that of Gérard. He was not the man who would — or could — cut down Caine. But he was loyal, trustworthy, honorable, no question. He would try.
We had crossed the intersection in silence. No answer from him, not that he owed me one. It had been an absurd request.
But then I hear: “And what else?”
“Take my friend under your wing, protect him from harm. Do that, if you can.”
“I can do that. Who is your friend?”
“His name is Bill.”
“And then forget that thing about killing Caine. If it comes to that, I’ll do it myself.”
The train was slowing.
I got up from my seat.
“I’ve got to go. Be back soon.”
Walked up the aisle of the train, came up to the door as the train stopped, turned and said over my shoulder, “Or not,” and took with me the lantern hanging above the door.
And stepped into a natural cavern. Parts of it had been widened and buttressed. There were lamps, electric ones, and lots of tracks. Yard workers were busy unhooking freight cars from the back of the train. A couple other passengers disembarked with me. No one got on. This place seemed more geared toward freight. There was a well-lit passage with steps carved into it, which, of course, led straight to the surface and nowhere near where I was going.
There were other caves here. The gnome had told me which one I needed. Putting the light and noise of the yard behind me, I crossed over to it. Someone shouted at me as I did. I threw him the finger and entered the cave. No one followed me.
It would be so easy, so very easy to get lost and starve to death. So I just did what felt right to me, even when it didn’t actually make a lot of sense. I bore to the right and upward. At every branching I stopped to sniff, choosing the passage where the air smelled freshest. The whole time, I held Grayswandir before me, summoning the image of the Pattern into my mind, for it was the center of everything and I was connected to it by my blood, by having walked it, by attunement through the Jewel of Judgment and the Diamond of Tir-na Nog’th, by having cast a Pattern of my own many years ago. And I also worried about the lantern going out.
My mind moved into a trance-like state as I wandered. The fear that had gnawed at me in the beginning had abated, and I felt I was moving toward something. This thought occurred to me by degrees, rather than all at once, that the phosphorescence of the caves and tunnels, the peculiar multilevel network formed by them seemed to me to form a spiral interrupted by zigzags, by right-angled corners and by backward loops, but a spiral just the same. Like the Pattern, I realized. Very, very much like the Pattern, as though it had been realized as a sculpture instead of a drawing on a polished black floor. All I had to do, then, was proceed to its center.
Something hissed, so I stopped, froze, listened. Snakes made sense down here, but what the hell could they be eating, except perhaps the occasional mushroom? Then again, that might have been the hiss of intaken breath or—
I looked up, just in time to swing Grayswandir toward something pale and falling toward me. No time to cut, so I thrust the blade upward, skewering the thing with red eyes, fangs, something black flapping around it. The blade was torn from my grasp and the thing screamed, spat, and crashed into the stony ground. Smoke curled up from the wound, and there were spurts of flame running up the blade where it protruded.
Howling, it rolled toward me, back onto its feet and into a crouch. Then it leaped.
By then I had the gun out and put three rounds into the beast.
Three new holes, and the smoke and the fire gushed forth. I stepped back as it fell, bellowed its pain, clawed at its wounds, eyes rolling as though unable to contain their hate and anguish. But there was something more in its gaze, stronger than everything else: a terrific and all-consuming lust.
“Hungry, so hungry,” it rasped, “for the blood...the blood of Amber.”
Then it writhed, spasmed, and lay still.
It was awhile before I was willing to come close enough to pull Grayswandir free.
A vampire, in Amber.
The thing was only human in outline, closer to a feral descendant of some failed line of humanity —
say, Homo ergaster —
bred with something else, rat, wolverine, hyena or some combination of these. The image of it stayed with me as I continued on my way. I looked up a lot.
And then I was in a tunnel I recognized, though I had never come to it from this end before. But I knew it as well as I knew the great, gray, metal-bound door guarding the room where was locked the thing I sought.
As well as I knew the man standing before that door, his own lantern burning at his feet.
Over six feet tall, massive, heavily muscled. Resembling me in some ways, but bigger.
“Corwin,” he said. “Caine warned me you might come here.”
“He did, did he?”
“And he said I must stop you.”
“Really? And why should you do that?”
“You brought back a prince we hoped was dead.”
To that, I had nothing to say.
“You’re a traitor, Corwin.”
Still, I said nothing.
“I’ll do it myself,” I said, but neither of us was paying attention to me anymore.
Cannon fire. Rein looked first, as if he’d been expecting it, and I followed his gaze. Out to sea, where there were flashes of fire and the booms of gunpowder. Modern naval warfare, off the coast of Amber. I looked back to Rein.
“Gorlan, we call him,” Rein said, not looking at me, unwilling or unable to look away from the war on the waves.
Turning away from Rein, I saw ships flying the green and white flag of Amber closing with other ships. Black hulls, black sails, and flags of blue and ochre —
the enemy vessels fired cannons of their own upon our navy.
“Yes, cannons, Corwin. You brought gunpowder to Amber. And most say you brought him, too, the plague of the high seas, Gorlan the Corsair, Scourge of Ships.”
“Harbor’s not as busy as it used to be...,” I commented, recalling how something hadn’t seemed quite right as we had walked about the old places.
“Sea Monster,” Rein said softly. “That is his other name.”
“Well, I have some questions.”
“Like how did Caine become Regent? And what happened to Random?”
“You really expect me to believe you don’t know?”
“Would I be asking if I did?”
“He’s no longer himself. You know that — you’re the one who destroyed his mind. You’re the one who made him insane.”
He straightened, drew his greatsword from its sheath.
“The time for talk is over, Corwin. You can surrender to me now and keep your life.”
“No, wait. What do you mean Random’s gone insane?”
“You attacked his mind. And now he’s basically catatonic. Thanks to you.”
“Who says so?”
“The Council says so. Caine was there the day Eric held you with your Trump before you overwhelmed his mind. And he was there at the edge of the abyss when you took control of the Jewel of Judgment from Brand. And we were all there when you used combined Trump power to find Brand in his hell. Only you have been able to do all these things.”
“Flattering to find I am reckoned so formidable. But you need to get your facts straight. Nobody hated Eric more than me, and it was that hate gave my will the strength to beat back his.”
“What about Brand?”
The light from our lanterns licked the veins in the surface of the rock walls, cast our shadows about the place, making them unstable, shifting, even though we stood still. I decided to set mine down on the floor, too.
“That one’s easy,” I replied. “He wasn’t fully attuned to the Jewel. I was.”
“He was wearing the Jewel. You were a hundred yards away.”
“This is coming from Caine? Who is now head of the Regency Council, as I understand it? Interesting. Has everyone forgotten it was Caine’s arrow that took Brand down, and not my power over the Jewel?”
“And who else ever drew a Pattern, Corwin? Besides Dworkin, who went crazy? Besides Dad, who died doing it? You’re the only one strong enough to do to Random what’s been done. You
It was easy to see where he was coming from; I mean, who could blame him for going with the propaganda? Still, I had to try.
“Gérard, have you considered that by working so closely with Swayvill and Chaos, Random’s run greater risks than Dad ever did? Exposed himself more fully to Amber’s enemies? I bore the Jewel only for a few days. Random’s had years to grow in his control of it. Yet I easily blasted his brain with my minimal mastery? While Chaos has had nothing to do with Random’s condition? Makes no sense, and you know it.”
“No, Corwin! You always make everything you say sound so reasonable and—
“Obvious, Gérard. The word is ‘obvious.’”
“Not this time, Corwin. You will have your chance to have your say before the court.”
“Court being the new head of the Regency Council, Caine? Who has benefitted so strangely and spectacularly from Random’s incapacitation? I hope you will understand if I decline that sort of justice.”
“Decline all you like. You are coming with me. Or you are falling to my blade.”
And with that, the brother I trusted most advanced toward me, death in his eyes.
Amber’s navy fired upon the black ships. The black ships fired back. Some of the black ships began listing, though, and the rest began retreating back toward the horizon. Caine or Gérard — Gérard, I imagined, as the Harbor and southern waters normally fell under his protection — had done his job. Again, but how many times again? Amber under assault? That hadn’t happened, well, since the Black Road War.
“Attacking ships visible from shore. Cannons. Trolleys. Political parties, with their political lists. Regency Council.”
“I know,” Rein said, looking at me with sympathy touched with unhappiness. “There’s a lot to explain.”
“Actually, it all seems to kind of fit together. Still, since we have to start somewhere: Trolleys?”
“Generated how? Combustion engines, turbines, all that used to be impossible here.”
“Used to be,” Rein acknowledged.
We watched awhile longer, as Amber’s navy drew farther out to sea and as the crowd of bystanders, who had stopped in their tracks as we had, began to break up and continue on their various ways. I noticed we were standing outside a bookstore I recognized, ages ago a favorite haunt of mine. Still had the blue paint on the window-frames.
We started walking again. Rein stretched his hand out toward me.
“Dangerous times. Please take this. You may need it.”
It was a SIG semi-automatic pistol, or something very similar, with three magazines. I muttered, “Thanks,” and quickly put the weapon away. In my mind, I vowed never to use it in Amber unless facing a similarly armed opponent —
or, of course, if I was going to lose. Returning to my earlier question, I asked, “Now where does the electricity come from?”
“There is a generator somewhere in Arden,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the mountains. “No one knows how it works. But there is a fuel depot down here at the Harbor. Ships we’ve never seen before deliver the fuel.”
“What kind of fuel?”
“No one knows that either. But I can tell you whose idea it was.”
“Let me guess. Not Gérard, who’s never been a fan of change. Leaving one or the other of the remaining two in the troika. So: Caine?”
Grayswandir before me, I retreated into the shadows. My lantern guttering, Gérard’s going nice and strong. Not exactly ideal from my point of view, light at his back.
There was no one I knew who could put more behind a sword stroke than the strongest of my brothers. I could beat him through a combination of luck and skill, but he could still demolish me through sheer force and staying power. If it came down to a choice between valor and discretion, in this situation my preferred option would be discretion.
But I didn’t think I had that option, not really.
He kept coming, of course. And I considered where this left me. I wasn’t sure I could find my way back through the caves again. And, honestly, I was hungry and thirsty and didn’t want to even if I could. It is possible that the small matter of having been attacked there by a vampire also contributed to this feeling. The darkness to which I was returning would negate my edge in fencing ability, working to Gérard’s advantage.
What to do? The pistol came to mind, of course, but I rejected that notion. I would not be the one who began the shooting of family members. Let someone else claim that distinction.
So I stooped for a stone I had felt underfoot, picked it up and charged. The stone I threw at his head while I aimed a cut at his chest.
He blocked the stone with his forearm, which moved his blade out of line. This left him open and I could have given him something to remember, but this was not my goal. Instead, I used the opportunity to continue my rush and get past him. This put the door he had been guarding at my back. We had traded positions in the tunnel.
He whipped around.
“That was dirty, Corwin.”
“True,” I admitted, “but I didn’t slice your chest open when I had the chance, which kind of evens things out.”
“It’s still cheating.”
“Then get the ref in here and I’ll take the foul call.”
He aimed a cut at my head — I supposed an indication of his displeasure — but it was off and slid down my blade. It still sent a shock down my arm, but also told me what I had hoped.
Throwing caution somewhere into the cool darkness, I came at him with cuts at his head and chest. His parries were slow and uncertain — again as I had hoped. So I pressed him harder with faster attacks. Opportunities presented themselves, and I ignored them as they were of the fatal variety. And I wanted him alive.
Mercy, of course, might get me dead.
So I drove him deeper into the tunnel. Then I eased up, so as to move us back where I needed us to be; namely, with the lanterns not far behind me, so that Gérard was stuck fighting my silhouette with eyes which had become dark-adapted. The very thing I had avoided by our switch.
It began to dawn on him at last what I had done, and there was the moment when I saw his eyes narrow as he understood he was going to lose. That was also the moment that he suddenly came straight at me, fast, with a wild lunge.
And just like that, I slapped the flat of my blade against the side of his head, hard, as his lunge missed me.
He just stood there, stunned, refusing to either fall or release his blade.
With Grayswandir, I twisted his sword from his grasp. Difficult, even with Gérard on the brink of unconsciousness. Shifting my blade to my left hand, I punched him in the face.
Any normal person, even any of my brothers, would already be on the ground. But he just stood there for two more seconds. Then, like a tree at the final blow of the axe, he toppled.
It hurt to hear it. And hurt to see it. And I feared things had not gone to plan, that he was gone.
“Julian, you say.”
They were seated at a pair of small tables outside a breakfast-and-lunch place that was also a bakeshop across yet another intersection. The joint was sandwiched within a messy jumble of shanties, shacks, stalls, warehouses and shops, and would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the wonderful smell of the food. I inhaled and smiled.
“That is the story up in the palace. The train gets its power from its track somehow. People think that is why the electrical power station is located out in Arden, where the rail runs.”
Bill, Maio, and, yes, Erin were there, waiting. Still confusing, everything to do with our visit to Tir-na Nog’th. Our gazes met briefly, then we both looked away. And the gnome Cymnea had assigned to me was also there, imbibing ale and even blending in; not all who come to Amber are human. Though I had been planning on crossing the street — and then immediately consuming a quantity of potato pancakes stuffed with shrimp, with some of that ale the gnome was drinking to wash it down — I stood stock still.
“Through Arden, yes.”
Why was it that now, as things were starting to fall into place, it still didn’t make much sense?
“A train,” I said, still marveling, “through Arden.”
“Yes. Would you like to see it?”
For just a second or two I thought he might not have survived, but I should have known better. When I checked his breathing, he was still very much alive. Further inspection turned up what I was really after, and with his belt I bound his wrists behind him. His greatsword I threw deeper into the tunnel.
What was going through my head, I wish I could say. But I can’t, at least not with any great reliability.
My first goal, naturally, had been to get to the Pattern chamber. This had apparently been anticipated; thus this latest round with Gérard.
There was another thing, however, a notion gnawing at the back of my mind, refusing to be ignored. Not far from here lay my old cell. And on a wall of that cell there had once been carved a rather important drawing. There were two drawings, actually. One of them had been of the Lighthouse of Cabra, but I was thinking of the other.
The other drawing was of a study located in a very special place, perhaps the most special place there is. And a question had been moving nearer and nearer to the surface of my mind ever since my shared dream with Dworkin.
As I turned the key I had taken off of Gérard, I glanced back toward him.
He lay motionless, though I knew this would not last for very long. Even with the belt, which I had wrapped more than once about his wrists, he would only be slowed a little. Gérard was too damned strong for that to be much more than a minor obstacle, but I had dismissed the idea of hogtying him as too cruel and extreme. In a little while he would wake, shift closer to the wall, push himself to his feet. Maybe he would walk back toward the dungeons and the stair leading back up into the palace. Maybe he’d peer into the Pattern chamber to see if I was there (I shouldn’t be). Or maybe Caine or Julian would look in on him via his Trump, wondering why he hadn’t been heard from, and cut his bonds.
Yet what if he should wake sooner than I planned? His wrath, while slow, was a terrific force once unleashed. He would probably be angry. That, combined with his incredible strength, would make short work of his restraints. He wouldn’t need Caine or anyone else. Even if I did lock the huge old door behind me, he’d come right through it. With his sword, or without. I’d be well on my way through the Pattern by then and therefore beyond his reach. So I would be safe from him. But not from Caine.
Gérard could use his Trump for Caine, a master archer. And Caine could pick me off using a couple of arrows. Or, worse, a couple of bullets.
The moment for second, or even third, thoughts had arrived, and I chose to act on mine.
Returning to Gérard, I relieved him of his Trumps. Unfortunately for me, they were all for people I didn’t trust fully right now; i.e., my family. They were useless to me (especially since I already possessed the set Random had lost on his ill-fated mission to rescue Brand), but they were all too useful to Gérard. So he couldn’t have them.
On my way back to the now-open door, my lantern went out. Gérard’s, though, was burning nice and steady. I picked it up and brought it with me into the enormous chamber — cavern, really — and over to the corner where the Pattern begins.
Then I set the lantern down. The Pattern glowed with enough light of its own to illuminate my way. I stood there and regarded it. Big, complex, eerie, powerful, daunting. And, I knew now, alive in a sense, the way Earth, the Sun and the Universe are alive. This design was the code ordering existence, the physical expression of that equation the physicists of today seek with the same fervor with which alchemists once pursued the Philosopher’s Stone. It lay there before me, unmoving, yet brightly shining and far from passive.
Even a non-religious fellow like myself knows the sacred when he sees it. I felt the need to say something.
“Damn it, you’re beautiful. But you’re not the Pattern I walked as a young man. You’re just not. I don’t know how I know, but I know. You’re doing a good job holding up this end of creation, though, so don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone.”
Flashes of brightness travel through the Pattern all the time, enhancing its light as they do, and the Pattern flashed then as though in answer. Randomly, of course, as a matter of coincidence. But I couldn’t help wondering. Whatever the thing was, it was Dworkin and, ever since the end of the war, also my father. And it probably also included the Unicorn somehow in the fundamental aspects of its nature. The Unicorn, after all, was the source of the Jewel, which had provided the original image inspiring its configuration. No wonder it seemed alive to me; life was part of what it was.
Then I inhaled, exhaled, and started walking the line of light.
As I did, damned if something didn’t attach itself to my leg. It quickly clawed its way up to my shoulder and then draped itself there, a living scarf, purring.
Once on the Pattern, there is no going back.
Though I doubted the creature would survive the process, I soldiered on.
“You crazy cat,” I muttered, “this thing can kill a prince of Amber if not done right; it’ll certainly kill you.”
That’s right, this was the cat from my visit to Tir-na Nog’th. Make that: our visit. For, before the animal had attached itself to me just now, she had attached herself to Erin up in the sky. She had been in the real White Rabbit where I had woken up, and had never truly separated herself from our group down in the Harbor. Must have followed me off the train and through the tunnels.
So I pushed on through the veils, the Grand Curve, all of it. Though I considered just pulling the thing off of me and hurling the animal through the air and beyond the design, I refrained. This would have the nasty effect of robbing me of all my momentum, and at the same time probably just end up killing the cat, since she would be departing the Pattern, which is death even for a prince or princess of Amber.
The creature responded by seeming unfazed by the current generated in passing along the glowing lines of force. She even amused herself by indulging in a fascination with the chain supporting the Dreaming Diamond, which she pawed at till the gem was pulled from within my shirt to hang out in plain view.
With no alternative, I just kept going till, sweat dripping from me, hair fairly crackling with electricity, sparks falling from myself and my passenger like snow shaken from a tree branch, I once again made it through the ordeal and stood in the center.
I had survived the Pattern. Again. Strangely, the cat did not perish as expected, perhaps shielded by the presence of someone of the blood who was therefore inherently connected to and part of the Pattern. However that might be, I was far more interested in the Diamond, which had flashed and shone like a prism in a focused beam of light, rays from it dancing on my clothing, the polished floor, the Pattern itself. On the other hand, maybe death was still coming for the cat and this would occur when we both left the Pattern.
Feeling simultaneously depleted and renewed, I closed my eyes and thought of places within the Pattern’s reach — essentially anywhere I desired. Thoughts of Caine, and of Brand, and of Dad, had intruded as I had struggled, along with thoughts of all that led me to the Pattern, here, now. Erin had been part of that stream of consciousness, too. Our recent lovemaking seemed the most obvious reason, but I sensed there might be something more to it.
Without fully understanding what I was doing, I looked about me. But not in the sense of studying the chamber in which I stood, no. With eyes closed, I looked about me through Shadow.
Brand had mastered this ability, and had been able to do it without even traversing the Pattern first. And Caine had taught himself to briefly touch several Trumps at once to waken the connections sleeping deep within them without fully activating them, so he could “look but not touch” with respect to what (more properly: who) lay on their other sides. Fiona’s facility in these matters, whatever her abilities were with things related to the Pattern, had intimidated even Brand. As for Dad and Dworkin, they had taken their understanding of such matters entirely to another level. Which meant, of course, that there was
I had remained contentedly ignorant of such things for far too long. The time had come to learn more.
So I stood there and thought of other places. I opened the channel to Manhattan and looked in on my hotel room. All was as it had been, though the bed was now made and the laptop seemed dormant. I opened the way to Gérard and saw him lying where I had left him, breathing shallowly.
Next I tried for Random, but that way was truly dark, tacit verification of Gérard’s story that something had damaged his mind.
Finally, there was the place depicted in that drawing on the wall of my old cell in the dungeons.
With a deep breath, I tried for that place, for Dworkin’s old quarters, for Wixer’s den, for the shelf of rock sliced into that other Kolvir, for the home of the primal Pattern.
There are technically four Patterns. Three are reflections, and these are the Pattern in Rebma, the Pattern in Tir-na Nog’th, and the Great Pattern of Amber, in the center of which I was now standing. The original, the source of those reflections, was but a shadow veil away in primal Amber. That place had been kept secret for quite a long time, for obvious reasons, since damage to it could threaten Amber and all of Shadow. A very special place and, for reasons I did not understand, not easy to reach. To my knowledge, no Trump for it existed, and it seemed to me it probably could not be accessed that way. But there was no place with greater overlap with primal Amber than the center of the Great Pattern, which was congruent with the original, wherever it was. So it shouldn’t be difficult to reach from where I was standing.
It wasn’t difficult, it was impossible. I tried to just look in at first, as I had done with Gérard and my room in Manhattan. Nothing. Like tuning a radio dial for a station you know and finding only static. Perhaps not trying hard enough? So I threw all my will into it, so that I would be transported there by the power of the Great Pattern. Again, nothing. It was as if the place did not exist.
Could the reflections of the primal Pattern exist without the original image? Many of us have looked upon paintings and photographs of things which no longer exist. So maybe such a thing was possible. But if it was, it seemed to me things would be less stable without a real center. The Patterns of Amber, Rebma and Tir-na-Nog’
th were now on equal footing, and equally responsible for the condition of Shadow. What was that line from Yeats? “
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Yes, that was it. The center cannot hold.
My experiment had failed, and I just stood there a moment, confounded. Then, on an impulse, I tried for Caine. And there he was, in his black and his green, dark and sardonic as always, standing in Beacon Tower. I knew the place and had used the Jewel to call my first storm from there. He looked confident and was even smiling a little. Perhaps he believed I was already in Gérard’s custody and soon to be standing trial?
“Hello, Caine,” I said into his mind, “treachery looks good on you. Keep smiling.”
Amber now had her own Grand Central Station, and I didn’t know how to feel about it.
“Julian, Julian. Making his power-grab. Admittedly unexpected.”
Rein glanced at the four we had in tow, turned to me.
“You know how gossip is in the palace,” he began. “Servants and soldiers talk.”
“This is very true.”
“Some claim to have been bringing trays of food in and out, and hearing part of the Council meeting.”
“So they say. And they say Julian suggested the train with great reluctance. He felt it would compromise security in Arden, but nevertheless was the best way to get around Gorlan’s raids on Amber’s shipping.”
“Sure. Yet Julian, in all his reluctance, also proposed shipping some new kind of fuel to Amber and the construction of a generator for electricity? That is quite a lot of research and effort and planning in which he engaged so ‘reluctantly.’”
“Well, the generator was already being built on someone else’s orders.”
“Who gave said orders?”
The train station was located within sight of the fuel depot. It wasn’t actually much like Grand Central Station. More of a cross between the Gare d’Orsay, Antwerpen-Centraal, and Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, an eclectic blend of Neo-classical, Renaissance Revival and Raj styles. Vaulted spaces, pinnacles, arcades, towers, pavilions. And I couldn’t help admiring it. The trolley yard was here, and there were rails running north toward Baylesport, south toward Garnath, and west up the slope of Kolvir.
“Does the train really run up the side of Kolvir into the City?”
Rein shook his head.
“No. That train runs into a tunnel within Kolvir. It stops somewhere along the way to unload things for the City. And then it comes out the other side of the mountain and into Arden.”
We were inside, where half a dozen platforms were evident. Looking up, the sky was an impressionistic blue blur as seen through the arched glass roof. To either side, the high walls were grand expanses of white stone, interrupted by the tall pointed arches of stained glass windows, festooned with sculpture of centaurs, pegasi, griffins and dryads clinging to ledges, buttresses, and columns.
“Must admit,” I said, my gaze roving over the layout, catching sight that moment of an astrological map of the constellations rising from the walls to meet the transparent ceiling, “even I would be a fan of Caine’s if he brought something like this to Amber. Whatever his sins, he is to be commended for forward-thinking and good taste.”
Beside me, Rein coughed politely.
“Things like this were ideas Random promoted. Yet when the King went missing, it was Caine who went forward with Random’s projects.”
“Then the generator...?”
“Random’s idea, yes.”
It made sense. Everything Rein had mentioned was consistent with my youngest brother. Caine was resourceful, absolutely. But he did not, as a rule, initiate change. Change disturbed the pieces on the board, and Caine liked to be the only one who made that happen, subtly and by careful degrees, and usually while others weren't looking. Change? That was Random.
“And the train through Kolvir? It can bear my friends and I west and out into Shadow?”
“Yes, it can.”
Even as I asked my question, a sleek train slid into the station. It had a kind of retro science fiction look, like something futuristic dreamed up back in the ‘50s, a bit like the Nankai Rapit and also reminiscent of the Nautilus of Jules Verne. Rein pointed to it.
“And there it is.”
Caine did keep smiling, yet this compliance of his did not endear him to me.
“Corwin,” he said. “It is good to know you are alive.”
“Yes, I imagine it is. Now you know previous attempts to kill me failed, and it will be necessary to try again.”
He furrowed his brow, seeming concerned.
“We knew you were on a mission for Random, but feared you had fallen victim to forces in the Courts and were lost.”
“And wasted no time bringing electricity and the locomotive to Amber. Naturally, this leads to speculation as to what else your Council was waiting to fire up once Random was out of the picture.”
“After the war,” Caine said, unperturbed, “Random understood Amber had to be modernized.”
But I noticed his hand had drifted down toward the vicinity of his emerald-studded dagger.
“And modernization includes the creation of a ruling party?”
“Disloyal elements have arisen of late. They had to be opposed.”
“The brand new police force wasn’t enough?”
“The Black Guards keep the streets safe, the Green Guards watch Arden’s roads. They have been integrated to work more closely together. Amber is growing and can no longer hide behind her walls.”
“Black and green. Those are your personal colors, Caine, and the people of Amber have gotten your message. Having just spent a few days in Amber, that message has been made clear to me, as well. You are now the government of Amber.”
“For now, until Random’s return.”
His hand was now resting on the dagger.
“In some places, people call that a coup d’état.”
“Corwin, why don’t you come to the palace, where we can talk about these things?”
“Caine, I’m not going to lie,” I said, lying, “but I can see into your mind. I can read your thoughts. Nothing is hidden from me.”
“Then I have told you nothing you did not already know.”
“Wrong. You’ve told me a few things neither of us would have imagined you telling. And I must say, some of those things surprise even me.”
Besides Random, there was only one brother I feared playing poker with, and it was Caine. As if to back this up, he laughed.
“That I would continue Random’s policies? You find that surprising? Well,” he said, “I am glad you underestimated me.”
I laughed in return.
“Underestimate you? You’ve staked your money on quite a gamble, though. Not saying I don’t admire your audacity, because I do. But you bet wrong this time. Random’s coming back, and with me on his side.”
Caine’s brows drew down and he looked puzzled.
“Corwin. If you can read my mind, then you see my confusion. All I desire is for Amber to survive.”
And here is the strange thing. For all my boasting, for all my lying, I could indeed read his thought. This surprised me, yes, it did. And I knew he was telling the truth.
So: “Caine,” I said, “I am gone. Me, and my allies. We are no longer in Amber. We know your plans, as well as those of the others. And we are going to win. We are going to bring Random back. We are going to bring back some others, too, and there will be an accounting. We are going to win. For the good of Shadow. And for the good of Amber.”
Caine’s smile flickered for a second, faltered, then came back.
“Just so you know,” I said, preparing to break the connection, “yes, it is good. And, yes, really. We will meet again. Soon. Good-bye, my brother.”
“Word reached us you were taken by Chaos. Our abilities do not work as well there as they do elsewhere, sometimes not at all. Yet you escaped. We have differences, you and I, but Chaos is still our enemy.”
“Should Gérard or Benedict be made captive, you would not want them at the mercy of our foes. So: How did you escape?”
I could not help it. I laughed heartily. Like I would tell Caine.
“Your interest is duly noted. Meanwhile, you might want to check on Gérard.”
“You will. He is lying in the tunnel just outside the Pattern chamber. Good-bye.”
Then I broke the connection.
On my shoulder, the cat purred. The Diamond and the Pattern were bright, the corners of the cavern dark. Except for my breathing and the sounds from the cat, there was only the sound of my thoughts.
Puzzling, was what it was. And practically pointless. But I did not care.
And I had indeed considered pitting my will against Caine’s. I had held back for several reasons. With Brand and Random no longer in the game, and Benedict’s whereabouts unknown to me, Caine had the best mind among my remaining brothers. Even Fiona had referred to him as a virtual adept in matters relating to the Pattern. Caine was also the one who, whatever my feelings regarding certain of his motives and actions, was best suited for the job of running Amber during a dangerous time. I hated to admit that, but it was true, especially if I was about to do the thing I had been avoiding since my escape from the Courts of Chaos: return there to learn more, kill whom I must if that were called for, and very possibly lose my own life in the process. I could not attend to internal matters in Amber while at the same time going into the heart of enemy territory.
Caine had already known I was alive. The farmer in Garnath, the troops in Arden, and probably some observant folk down in the Harbor. I had been seen by too many, and word had reached him. I had lost nothing by revealing I was alive and had been visiting home. And I had learned something.
Caine feared Random’s return, and “return” was the key word. I had caught it there when our minds were close: Random was not in Amber.
But Random was alive, else Caine would not fear his return.
Standing there at the center of the Pattern, I reached for the Dreaming Diamond. The cat tried to reach it with her paw, came up short, but she stared at it, hypnotized by its light. Peering into the milky gem, focusing my mind with it for a lens, I sent my thought far, far from where I was, out through Shadow, and farther still, on toward what lies beyond the farthest reaches of the worlds.
The Waste slid beneath me, the plain running for miles and miles from the final range of mountains at the end of the universe, creased with rifts and ridges, pocked with craters, as barren and ancient as the bottom of the ocean. Already taxed by tackling the Pattern, and then by using it to scan for Gérard, Random and Caine, my strength was flagging. And it is not easy to cast one’s mind all the way to the Courts of Chaos from Amber. But I had to try.
For I had suffered yet another prophetic dream, a dream of a day of blood and steel at the farthest end of that Waste. I had woken from it at the White Rabbit just this morning, and I wanted to know if the dream was for something imminent, or for something years hence.
And, yes, it was so. There were troops there. There was not one battle, there were many. There were flying creatures everywhere, a large proportion of them feasting on the bodies of the fallen. There was fire and smoke and carrion. There was war.
Then I swayed where I stood, and it all flashed away as I was snapped back to where I was, wondering what I had really learned today.
“Knowledge is not what counts,” I whispered, my only audience a stray cat. “It never was. It is wisdom. But first...”
Holding the Diamond at eye-level, I looked within, sought a flaw in its depths, let the planes and vertices fill my vision, moved my mind toward the strange spaces it held, willed the Pattern to send me there.
Projecting myself through the gem, the white cat mesmerized, too, I retraced my journey through its interior/exterior realm where a storm of worlds spun. The walk with the Diamond on the Pattern of Tir-na Nog’th had had a different feel than my experience at Ygg, where I had finally found the Pattern I had drawn. Not every Pattern is the same. Intuition informed me, therefore, that I should do this while I had some strength left. This chance might not come again, and I had never completed my attunement the night of my reunion with Random and Fiona, when I had traversed the Pattern in the sky. As with my interview with Caine, likely pointless, but how could I know without trying?
So once more I tripped the light fantastic, as provided by the Pattern and caught in the gem from the sky. The Pattern-walk from the night I robbed Tir-na Nog’th of the Diamond seemed to merge in my mind with the return to my Pattern on the other side of Ygg. Different, this journey, for though I found myself within a sphere of whirling flashes of light, this time I was pulled in a new direction, toward one flash in particular, a bright surface that was somehow familiar.
And then everything took the course it had that first time, years ago, when I had attuned myself to the Jewel of Judgment. My mind sank through a luminous white medium, seeming to become small, a mere point falling through a glacier of jello toward a curling piece of shredded fruit deep within. The light faded as I descended, the glacier a memory, and now there was the feeling of rushing through the black void that lies between the galaxies, of ferocious acceleration toward the flaw glimpsed earlier, not an imaginatively twisted bit of fruit, after all. More like a flower, an elaborate knot waiting to be pulled tight, a three-dimensional Spirograph by Hawking or Einstein. As it zoomed close, its scale expanded and became galactic. Flares of purple, green, lavender, blue, yellow and colors less definable accentuated the confusion and complexity of its design. I was whisked from a wispy frayed end made up of glittering diamond dust through blazing convolutions reminiscent of the whorls of a seashell chambered to hold all our stars. Nor was I alone as I was hurled through motes and clouds of color toward its bright center (though “center” seemed not quite the right word in this place where more degrees of freedom opened up, but close enough). Toward that blinding terminus I was flung, and I could feel the sentience of the cat nearby as her awareness was dragged along with mine. Then through, but not quite out, as, from within the Diamond, drenched in its white luminescence, I regarded myself standing there, saw myself looking back at me, looking through the Diamond, which I was now looking through, lowering the gem slowly. The halo of the gem’s light fell and faded as I looked up from it to see the world once more.
More than enough for one day. The power of the Pattern to send me wherever my mind could go remained. Calling upon it, I found myself, body and soul, on the train once again. The cat had survived, and jumped down to the seat next to me. Before turning to the others, I looked out the window. Still in a tunnel, widening now. And was that light I glimpsed up ahead, or only a larger darkness? Alongside us, just rock, and behind us, I knew, an Amber to which great change had come at last, and with a vengeance. The sureness of the ground, the simplicity of the old days — Amber’s golden age was gone now, and would not be coming back.
Home is not waiting faithfully for your return like a soldier’s young bride while he’s off to the wars. Home is as content as youth, as loyal as gold, as sturdy as castles in the sand. And time is the tide. We do not leave the places we love — they leave us.
Copyright © 2013 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved