Chapter Seven: The Lake of Sleep
Looking through the wedge-shaped window upon the shining lake below, I saw mists curdling on its smooth surface. A Möebius strip of frosted glass the size of the Statue of Liberty blocked out part of the varicolored heavens as it slid past. Behind it, an abstracted two-hundred-foot-tall rhino or armadillo of shifting plate-walls — somehow very clearly a building, an inhabited residence of some sort — took ponderous steps as it slowly turned, and six cones joined together, three points rooted in the lake, seemed barely to move at all, while the finger of Thelbane stood still against the restless sky. The abyss was not now the carelessly tumbling night I had crossed in Random’s big black bird. At this moment it was the wrong end of a rainbow raised by the king of the leprechauns, bent and stretched nearly to breaking as it ran the impossible distance that took it right out of the universe.
“You’ve gotten used to this?”
Behind me, I heard Bleys chuckle.
“We are princes of Amber. We can get used to anything. Sit with me.”
We were in an octagonal room with windows on three sides. It was set high up on the side of the thing Bleys had brought us to, a great gleaming many-sailed barge or land-locked ark, a Guggenheim fantasy seemingly built of ice or glass, but spun, I suspected, from pure carbon. A castle woven of diamond sailcloth, which had caused me to wonder if Bourgeois’ gigantic spider-sculpture might be lurking just around the corner.
My brother was sitting by a kind of floor-to-ceiling open-faced flue, through which streamed sparks and green flame. Ordinary lamps and candles lit other spaces in the room, including the big heavy table beside him. The table, like most of the room’s other furniture, was of a reddish brown wood, possibly cherry. Two large goblets stood beside the bottle set upon it, both carved of quartz or some similar mineral, both filled with wine.
As I crossed the room, I took note for the first time of the carpet in its center. And was a little surprised to see that it bore a dramatic scene from the past. Woven into its strands was a close-up view of Kolvir’s eastern stair, filled with soldiers in single file, but in the foreground, in the scene’s center, one soldier was hurling an object — a small black card case blazoned with a unicorn device — into space, directly toward whomever might be standing on that carpet.
The guy throwing the card case was me.
I covered my reaction as best as I could, crossed over to the table, picked up one of the goblets and took it with me to the chair on the other side of the peculiar hearth. As I sat down, an unexpected feeling came over me. With all the unusual lighting effects going on, I was suddenly reminded of Christmas. The feeling was so out of place in these circumstances that I gave vent to a short laugh and shook my head.
“Like the subject?” Bleys asked, smiling, so that I knew my attempted nonchalance had not fooled him.
“The carpet? Yeah. Interesting presentation, leaving yourself out of it, focusing on me.”
“A gesture to honor your gesture. I never thanked you.”
“Are you thanking me now?”
“I am. Thank you.”
“Well, you’re welcome. You know, you also never told me why you didn’t try to spring me after I was captured.”
Bleys swirled the wine in his goblet, stared at the liquid as it turned.
“Eric I could not trust. Caine had broken his word. Gérard had no real influence over Eric — less after giving your fleet passage through the southern waters. This left me Julian. I contacted him and asked what their plans for you were. Julian said he could not predict Eric, but, as Eric had not taken your life in Arden on that other occasion, he did not believe he would now.”
“Okay, but —”
Bleys looked up then, met my gaze and held up his hand.
“I know. Not good enough. I then extracted a promise from him that he would do all in his power to see your life spared. In return, I promised not to try to give you escape.”
“But why? Why not just trump me out of their hands and avoid all the chit-chat and deal-making?”
Bleys drank a little of his wine, then continued.
“Fiona and I knew the trick of using a combined effort via the Trumps. We were not sure if Eric’s group had this information. We did not think they did, but again there was Caine. As you later learned, he had discovered how to spy on us, using the Trumps. Though not a true adept, we knew he was smarter than his partners. We did not wish to encourage anyone on their side to experiment with the Trumps. Especially Caine. An attempt to free you could have provided just the right kind of provocation to motivate them to try.”
“Sounds overly cautious to me, especially coming from you.”
“And,” Bleys went on, “we also thought Random, Deirdre or Llewella would try to free you. Afterward, we learned Llewella feared to court trouble between Amber and Rebma, and had persuaded Deirdre to hold off for a time. If Deirdre had acted, she might have lost Rebma as her sanctuary. Random was under house arrest there and under close watch. Everyone waited too long to act, for then Eric had you blinded and no one could use your Trump to aid you.”
“Yes, the blinding part was Julian’s idea. Cooked up to give Eric an option that stopped short of killing me.”
“Thereby keeping his promise to me.”
“Well, I’m still not too happy about it.”
“Understandable. Would you like me to apologize?”
I searched his face and felt the offer was sincere. He seemed to mean it, and the sons of Oberon are not generally very forthcoming with apologies. Giving one about every century or two, by my last count. I shook my head.
“Not necessary. You tried to act in my interest. And I still haven’t gotten the apology owed me by Caine for his much more serious offense of trying to murder me.”
“You’re right. He should apologize for that.”
“That’s my view also.”
The absurdity of the conversation reached me, breaking through the resentment I’d been nursing. I allowed myself a small smile.
“Well, now that we’ve covered that topic, a funny thing happened to me on the way to the Courts of Chaos.”
“I’d acquired an escort of wyvern-riders. It scattered over the abyss. As if there were a sudden hurricane, raging sandstorm or volcanic eruption. As if a natural disaster had just occurred.”
“No natural disaster was evident. Something rather unnatural, even supernatural, however, was rising out of the abyss.”
There was a knock on the door. Bleys said, “Enter,” and two soldiers of Avernus stepped into the room, wearing blue silken tunics and trousers and carrying trays of food. They set the food down on the table. Bleys thanked them and dismissed them. The two fellows left, while I took a seat at the table and fell to; my previous meal had consisted of a few bites of rations aboard the Wing Thing
. Dumplings, some spicy soup, something resembling calamari or clam strips, crispy noodles, and thin slices of a dense bread tasting a lot like rye. Bleys sampled a little of this, some of that, but spent most of his time smiling as he watched me devour everything in reach. The soup, full of bits of fish or some sort of crustacean, was particularly good.
“More?” Bleys asked as I polished off the last of the seafood strips.
Shaking my head, I pushed my plate away and reached for the wine. After refilling my goblet, I tipped the chair back a little and sipped, relaxed and enjoying it.
Bleys produced a couple of cigarettes, lighting both with a small golden lighter. He extended one to me and I took it. I noticed they were Camels — tacit evidence of Flora’s role as exporter of goods from the Shadow she and I had inhabited for centuries. We smoked in silence for a time.
“You were saying?” Bleys inquired as he tossed his stub into the green fire.
I rose and threw my stub into the flue after his. My goblet in hand, I settled back into the big chair by the fire and took another sip.
“In the Shadow where I spent my centuries of exile,” I began, “a philosopher once said, ‘He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee.’ Well, I gazed into the abyss, and saw that it was looking right back at me.”
Bleys gave a slow nod.
“I know this saying. Some wisdom cannot be kept to a single Shadow. ‘He who fights too long against dragons….’ Tell me, what did you see?”
“A dragon, you say?”
“The granddaddy of all dragons. Biggest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Then things are as I thought. Your coming here — it is to do with Martin and Merlin, is it not?”
“That’s right, yes.”
“What do you know of the disposition of the Courts?” Bleys asked.
Frowning, I replied, “I’m not sure what you mean. I only know what Random has seen fit to pass on. Swayvill has enemies here, and the boys were close to figuring out their game when they went missing. Random’s been rather stingy with the details.”
“That is because there aren’t many details. They had already gone underground for what in Amber would be five or six months.”
“Difficult to say. The sky turns, then turns back again. Though the rate seems constant, there are times when that cycle seems of a duration sufficient for complete rest, or an entire schedule of activities. Yet at other times, it would seem to amount to no longer an interval than that spent on a game of chess. Our common sense notion of time does not apply. Its passage, of course, we know to be in general far more swift here than in Amber — though not always.”
“Your best guess, then?”
“More than a week, less than a month. Perhaps three weeks of local time.”
“At that time, communication was limited to coded pulses of Trump contact. Partly because Trumps are so ineffective here. Partly to frustrate any spies who might be watching. Caine’s idea.”
“Clever idea. Trust Caine to come up with something like that.”
Bleys stood, poured more wine for us both. After handing my goblet back to me, he turned to stare into the flue’s strange fires, streams of twisting, rippling sheets of green flame wrapped in a cloud of sparks.
“’The Courts of Chaos’ has more than one meaning.”
He glanced at me, but I said nothing, waiting for him to continue, and he returned his attention to the fire.
“By convention, this city adrift on the Lake of Sleep is called the Courts of Chaos. Swayvill, as High King, need not travel. The Lords of Chaos must come to him. Their power derives from other realms. These are the true Courts of Chaos.”
“You mean they have territories extending into other parts of the Shadowlands here?”
Without turning to look at me, Bleys smiled.
“You have half the truth. Mount Melgem is not the only Chaos stronghold overlooking the abyss.”
“Well, where are they?” I asked. “Farther west? East?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how far does the abyss stretch in either direction? Perhaps we can field expeditions out to its farthest ends.”
Bleys turned away from the flames, wearily resumed his seat.
“No one knows, but it is said that it goes on forever. Both ways.”
“How can that be? This world is not a sphere, so it can’t eventually wrap around. You’re saying the abyss is…infinite?”
My blatant incredulity won a swift smile that crossed my brother’s face like a shooting star, there and gone.
“So all here maintain,” Bleys stated evenly. “They truly seem to believe it, and no evidence to the contrary has ever been produced.”
“Bleys, that’s impossible. Chaos might be flat, or saddle-shaped, or have some other crazy topology. But it can’t be infinite.”
“Why not? It’s Chaos.”
I tried to digest that, gave up, shelved it for later contemplation.
“All right. There are other realms out there. How do you reach them?”
“I am not sure. Their rulers guard that information well. It is not hard to understand why.”
“Does Swayvill know?”
“He may not. Melgem sits, if you like, off a bay where the abyss penetrates deeper into Shadow than at any other place. Wherever the other realms might be, the nature of time and space here is such that the masters of those realms must pass this place on their way to Shadow. Hence Swayvill's power.”
“You believe Merlin and Martin found the way to those places?”
“I do,” Bleys confirmed without hesitation.
“Then I guess my next question would be: Who are these rival Chaos lords?”
“There are many. The two strongest lead the House of Imrys and the House of Havgan. These houses —”
“Are royal houses?”
I smiled on seeing Bleys draw his brows together, though his confusion lasted only a moment.
“Random told you? Then you also know the history of dynastic struggle here?”
“No, but do I have to?”
“I suppose not.”
“Then let’s skip that for now. How would we begin investigating what happened? Where would we start?”
He waved toward the window.
“Out there, in the Floating City.”
“Not in Swayvill’s tower?”
“Wherever his enemies are,” Bleys said. He drank some wine, then roughly set the goblet down, rising to his feet. “Yes! You’re right. His enemies are everywhere, even in Thelbane right under Swayvill’s nose. We will begin there!”
“Tomorrow, though,” I suggested. “Let’s start tomorrow. Visiting Tir-na Nog’th, crossing over a big chunk of Chaos territory in Random's flying machine, coming face to face with whatever that was in the abyss all adds up to a very long day and one very tired Corwin. And, by the way, what the hell was it that I saw?”
He took up his glass again and slowly sat back down.
“You named him right enough. You saw the Dragon, Leviathan, the Lord Who Lies, the Devil in the Deep, the all-encircling Striker in the Dark. He has many names, and has appeared four times since the war. Now five times.”
“Some say it is because Chaos lost the war and lost power, and the Beast craves revenge. Others say he cares not a fig who wins or who loses. His hunger was to be appeased by the sacrifice of the millions fated to die in the war, but the war was won too swiftly, with too few casualties. Still others say other things.”
“What other things?” I wanted to know.
“When our father repaired the Pattern, some believe he did what Brand hoped to do.”
“Reshape reality, imprinting Shadow with his will in some fashion?”
I snorted, “The notion’s ridiculous.”
“Not everyone thinks so.”
“If Dad had wanted to do things that way, he could have let Dworkin destroy the old Pattern and then cast an entirely new one himself. And Dad would still be alive.”
“And Dworkin dead,” Bleys reminded.
“I guess I’m still lost. Explain to me how anyone can think Dad decided to remake Shadow in his own image. And at the same time understand that he gave up his life reinscribing the Pattern to preserve reality as it was.”
“There is more than one hypothesis,” Bleys answered, calm and deliberate. “Most rely on the assumption that Dad knew something everyone else didn’t. One idea is that he knew he only had to repair the Pattern’s circuit without necessarily restoring it precisely to its original configuration. By this means, he could save Dworkin and at the same time leave his own mark on existence. An advantage of this idea is that it makes his willing sacrifice more understandable.”
“Hmm, all right. Now that you mention it, I seem to recall Fiona hinting at something like this.”
“She believes it to be a possibility. I do, as well. There is also another idea about what really happened. Dad prevented you from attempting the repair yourself. He had already decided he would be the sacrifice. Again, one may wonder what he really intended by this act. Preserve the old order? Preserve Dworkin’s life and heal his mind? Both? Or only one?
“He had spent several years testing you, testing your loyalty to Amber. Perhaps the final test, which no one ever guessed, was to see if you were willing to try to cast your own Pattern.”
“Wait a minute —”
“Allow me to finish,” Bleys interjected. “If that were so, then his entrusting you with the Jewel of Judgment makes even better sense. He repairs the Pattern and heals our grandfather. Was it necessary to complete the Pattern, however, in order to repair it? Once the damaged areas were restored, his job was done. In fact, it may be that once the damaged portions were repaired the newly restored circuit would instantly kill him. He may have known this all along.”
“I really don’t see where this is going.”
“How did he send you the Jewel if he was still using it to redraw the Pattern? And if he was done with his task, and completing the task would kill him, how could he send the Jewel to you if he were already dead?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I answered slowly, troubled, wondering what else concerning Oberon's final act might have been overlooked.
“And there is the change wave,” Bleys continued, “the Chaos storm which commenced the moment he began to repair the first section of the Pattern. It spread out from Amber until it reached the abyss. How did he send the Jewel through Shadow where there was no Shadow, only the torn remnants of worlds in turmoil? The Trumps would not work through it, a child of the Unicorn could not hellride through it.”
“When you put it like that, it definitely looks like Dad in action, all right. Leaving plenty of mysteries behind him.”
Bleys nodded his agreement.
“Now consider this. What if he sent the Jewel to you before
he even began walking the Pattern? What if he sent it out into Shadow just after he used it to send us the message in the sky?”
“Is that how he did it? I’ve always wondered.”
“We’re not certain,” Bleys said, and by his “we” I knew he referred to Fiona and himself, the family’s two experts on Pattern lore. “But that is how we think it was done. Now, I say again, what if he sent you the stone before he walked the Pattern?”
“That would explain how the Jewel was able to reach me. The bird he created to carry it simply flew ahead of the storm. But then that leaves us with an even bigger question: How did he repair the Pattern without it?”
“He did as you had done, when you held the Pattern firmly in your mind in order to cross the Black Road. You undid the damage of the Black Road there, restored that tiny patch of Shadow.”
Recalling that experience, I saw in my mind again the ruined strip of Shadow, that dark and dim swath of black trees, clinging black grasses, heavy mists and leaden sky, and the slice of green growth which had returned where I had passed through. And very nearly passed out, pushing back at the Black Road with the image of the Pattern and every ounce of concentration that I could put behind it. I had never wondered further about it. It had been an exercise of the Pattern, a demonstration of its power. But now, yes, Bleys was right that it bore thinking on. Not waiting for my slow brain to work out the implications, he went on.
“You accomplished the feat without the Jewel. Dad explained that this same effect would be managed on a much larger scale by performing the same trick on the Pattern itself. Yet why did he require the Jewel where you had not? He was more powerful than any of us and understood the properties of the Pattern, Shadow and Chaos better than any save, perhaps, Dworkin. Do you really believe you were able to do something our father could not do?”
I was stunned. Opening my mouth to speak, I found I had nothing to say.
“So now you see. He knew how long the road to Chaos was, that your riding the whole distance and staying ahead of the storm was impossible. He sent you the Jewel knowing you’d be overtaken by the tidal wave of Chaos. Knowing you would have no choice but to try to draw a Pattern yourself, and knowing you would be willing to make the attempt.”
“So,” I said, my voice having returned, “his sacrifice upon Amber’s Pattern was…?”
“The paying of his lifelong debt to the man who had made him what he was. Giving his life to save the man he loved the most, respected the most, to whom he owed the most. He gave his life to heal his father. Another reason he could allow no one else to make that sacrifice.”
“And my Pattern?”
“It may be that no Pattern, once damaged, can truly be restored. Some here in the Courts believe your Pattern is what now holds the worlds together. It either merged with and replaced the Pattern in Amber or occupies some plane even higher than primal Amber.”
“This is incredible. I would never have guessed any of this. How come no one ever mentioned these speculations to me?”
Still smiling, Bleys raised his goblet toward me. I returned the gesture, and we both drank.
Then he said, “You disappeared soon after the end of the battle before the abyss. You were there for our father’s funeral, and then remained in Amber only a short time during the treaty negotiations afterward. Random said you’d gone off into Shadow again, presumably to the place of your exile, though no one was sure. Later, of course, you turned up in Rebma. By then such talk was old news and everyone had moved on.”
“The Dragon. He may not like the reality you have created.”
Bleys rose, set his goblet down on the table.
“I’m to bed. In the morning we shall take a walk around Melgem, see what we can find?”
I got up, too, set my goblet on the table beside his. Together, we left the room for the corridor outside. A minute later we bade each other good-night, and he left for his quarters, while I found my way to mine.
Like the sitting room I’d just left, my apartment featured an open flue, except this one was filled with purple sparks swirling about a core of blue flames. The bed chamber itself was somewhat small, wedged into one of the building’s many corners under a domed ceiling, lit by three strangely shaped pieces of glowing crystal — green, red and indigo. The illumination from the crystals waxed and waned unpredictably, filling the room with an ever-changing light.
Standing by the circle of the window, I looked down once more upon the calm surface of the lake that — somehow — seemed to effortlessly support the constantly shifting cityscape of unusual buildings, some burning steadily with inner light, some dark, others homes to light which seemed to travel within their surfaces like liquid trapped between panes of glass. Thelbane itself was not visible from this vantage point. Instead, under a sky now once more dark and full of cavorting stars, the view beyond the city gave onto an indistinct mass of twisted shapes. What they were, I could not guess. Whatever that mass might be, I wondered what lay beyond. Some lesser annex of the Courts? A military camp? Jails? Docks giving onto the abyss and the ghostly roadways which rode it? A leper colony? Gardens? Central Park West?
Maybe I’d find out tomorrow. As I stretched out on my bed, sensing sleep’s unsubtle ambush crouching close by, I thought about the Dragon. And wished him pleasant dreams, as it’s always been my wish to let lying dragons sleep.
The waters of Haylish, the Lake of Sleep — if waters they were — lying alongside the paths and promenades reflected pieces of city and sky, undulated slightly under the influence of mysterious and barely perceptible currents. Light-filled bubbles seamlessly floated up out of the lake — an almost hallucinatory effect, for they left the surface completely undisturbed, as though they did not exist in the external world at all, but lived solely in the minds of their observers. The street before us gradually flexed one way and then another, neither rhyme nor reason apparent in its turning and twisting, while the quivering will-o’-the-wisps, coming in all colors and sizes, rose, fell, and slipped in myriad directions through the middle air. Rounding a corner, a green and blue-white palace somehow reminiscent of both St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Taj Mahal came into view, while at the other end of the same ribbon of water reared a monument proud, solid, looking as though it were made of gold, its mighty and squared dimensions recalling the Kaaba or the Arc de Triomphe. Here an ethereal pagoda, and there a spacecraft standing on a pad and about to launch. A ship always preparing to set sail, a ziggurat, a bold bridge to nowhere. Much of what I saw was difficult to describe. One ivory building was cast in the shape of a reclining giantess, a female Colossus, a goddess of the wind playing a flute, hair and body streaked, stretched as if blown and gripped by a swift storm, her green eyes great windows, the flute a tunnel giving access to what could only be a unique interior. Across from the giantess, separated by two hundred or more yards of water smooth as glass, waters belonging in every sense to a lake named for slumber, towered a sculpted team of horses, each a great building suitable for the destruction of a Troy.
From the High Road of the Prophets to the Low Road of the Beggars, down the Avenue of Mirrors, over to the Lane of Lust by way of the Road of Ruin, where we came to the Courtyard of the Dancers...
“Don’t stop,” Bleys advised.
“Why not?” I wondered, for the lively tune was well into my blood, and the splendid dancers, swirling silks and scarves, stepping and spinning to mellifluous music, had caught my eye. I was already moving to join them.
“The dance does not end till someone dies. As a prince, like as not you’d live, but it takes its toll.”
Reluctantly, I drew myself away from the marvelous dancers, the enthralling music.
“Bleys,” I prompted as we passed into a park of giant wierdly shaped crystals, each singing a different note as we moved among them, notes which shifted as our location did while we walked. “I’d like to correct an impression you may have received. You might have gotten the idea that I was hanging around Amber just waiting for something to do.”
“But that’s not so,” Bleys surmised, stepping over the unconscious body of a stout full-bearded chap about four feet in stature, pickaxe stuck in his leather belt, curled around a brown jug of hooch the size of his head. He muttered, “Vagrants,” even as he detoured around another prostrate dwarf.
There were a number of dwarves, in fact, scattered about the park. They were generally either semiconscious or completely out of it. Not all were enamored of the demon rum. Some sucked on the blue smoke of their hookahs, while others smoked yellowish rocks in bulbous pipes, and still others were inhaling pale powder.
I asked, “Who are they?”
Bleys noted the direction of my gaze.
“Melgem’s lost souls, the underclass.”
We angled across the sunken garden of stone. Colors brightened and spread outward through the silvery moss in each place where we put down our feet, sending pulses of radiance upward as the waves of color broke on the bases of the nearest gleaming polyhedrons. With each footfall on the springy surface we moved deeper into a spontaneous symphony and a rippling spectrum of light.
Bleys seemed to know where he was going and appeared little affected by the impromptu concert of light and sound generated by our passage. In contrast, I imagined my responses ― turning my head to follow expanding rings of red and green sent out by Bleys’ feet, and blue and orange from mine, frowning as I sought to untangle the musical web we wove ― gave me away as a tourist from some bucolic Shadow where soil and sky were limited to only three or four colors. How these city-dwellers would smile to learn my sky merely ranged between two.
“Underclass,” I echoed, finding the word interesting. “You mean lower class, peasantry, the poor?”
“No,” my brother answered, shaking his head and slowing his pace. “Imagine Amber without her mountains, most of Arden stripped away, the sea all gone. What would become of her rangers, vintners, woodsmen, sailors, shipwrights and traders? That is Melgem. And they” ― he stopped to gesture all around him ― “are the dispossessed. Swayvill doles out food, whiskey, drugs, entertainment. The dwarves, and others like them, are hardly better than slaves. They never wake, and die while dreaming. And so Haylish truly is the Lake of Sleep.”
“How nice. But what of Swayvill’s Shadowlands?”
“Depopulated wastes, nameless deserts, forgotten ruins.”
“All of them?”
Reflections of our visual duet returned, ran through the moss where we stood. Bleys put off his answer while the currents of music, joined to the onrushing colors, swept together into a magnificent crescendo that crashed all around us.
Colors and music subsided, and in their wake Bleys said, “No, not all.”
We began walking again.
Introducing a fresh topic, I announced, “I’ve been having crazy dreams.”
Nodding, I said, “With an unusually wide range, showing both past and future. And with effects which reach into the real world.”
My brother gave me a strange look, but kept walking, and then asked, “What sort of effects?”
“They mostly concern Grayswandir. When I wake, it is often in a new location nearby, unsheathed. Sometimes my deck of Trumps is lying right next to me, on my pillow. Most recently, I was attacked by two of Chaos’ overgrown cat creatures right after dreaming about them. In Garnath.”
Bleys said nothing, veering to the left around a trio of gnomes, clad in dirty blue and yellow garments, alert enough to drunkenly belt out a worksong, offkey. Precious stones were featured prominently in the lyrics.
“And that’s what brought me back to Amber,” I continued. “I’ve been plagued by bad dreams and was looking for a cure. Do you think there’s anyone in the Courts who can help me?”
“There is an entire science devoted to the logic of dreams here in the Courts.”
“Really? What do they call it?”
“I should have guessed.”
A smile flashed across my brother’s face.
“Yes, dreams carry much weight here. Trustworthy practitioners of that science are much sought-after. And hard to find. Their advice guides those at the highest levels of power.”
“Surely Amber’s foreign minister, brother to Amber’s king, could pull a few strings?”
There was another smile.
“There may be something I can do. I will see what I can arrange.”
Then he stopped and pointed to something ahead of us, a great towering ovoid. Its stylized exterior was as smooth as an eggshell, too. And the thing was the size of a coliseum.
“The Arena of Doom. Many come to watch pain and judgment, death and near-death. Enemies and allies meet here every day.”
Bleys gave me a signifigant look with that last statement. We approached the gate.
The gate was a chill arch of green ice, and along the underside of the arch ran a line of red fire. A tall man all in black, in a long coat, his face lost in the shadows of his wide-brimmed hat, stood alone under the fire which never got very warm and the ice which never seemed to melt.
“You wish to enter the Arena of Doom?” his voice rasped.
Bleys answered, “We do.”
“You will abide by its judgments?”
As we passed through the flickering entrance, Bleys whispered, “Accept no challenges, nor offers of any kind. All that is said and done here is binding and enforced by the Law of Necessity and the Ordeal of the Wheel.”
“Not sure I like the sound of that.”
“Come,” Bleys said, and led on.
We ascended a curving ramp. Light rippled along the vitreous surface of the walls at either hand, alternately rosy pink, blue-green, orange, violet. Waves of color washed over us as the way wound upward. We walked past occasional openings giving onto curving organic spaces shaped like huge internal organs, walls ribbed and spiraling upward. In one there was a mighty gent with blue skin, webbed fingers, a fin running along his scalp, shouting from a dais at a group of amazons, women with skin like coal, clad in yellow armor and bearing bows and spears. In another chamber beings human and otherwise stood on small disks balanced atop narrow poles, leaping from one disk to the next, fighting to keep their balance — two screamed in dismay as they fell. A third space, narrow and deep, seemed empty at first, but, when I stepped closer to the edge I could see a quasi-human pyramid of “men,” some with the tusked heads and reddish fur of boars, others not human at all (two of my feline friends from Garnath were visible at the bottom), one cyclops supporting the center, struggling to reach the place where I stood. A solemn feast was in progress in the last, lit solely by red flames leaping up from golden bowls.
During our progress up the winding way a peculiar feeling worked its way into my bones.
“I’ve been here before,” I said, not realizing I'd voiced the thought out loud till it reached my own ears.
Bleys’ right eyebrow went up, the top of a question mark, even as the left eyebrow drew down skeptically. The frown punctuated his expression.
“We are deep inside the city, Corwin. Perhaps you are mistaken.”
“No mistake,” I insisted. “Tonight the Sign of the Bear meets the Tiger in the local zodiac. One is ascendant and one on the way out. At least, that is how it was in my dream.”
My brother’s eyes widened a bit, though he had no opportunity to respond. Because then we were there.
The corridor leveled off as we caught up with a group of Chaos folk who pushed purposefully into the great space that opened beyond. Incomprehensible words, music, and shouts swept over us — we entered a sea of sound.
Sloping down to our left, row after row of benches dropped gently and steadily away from us toward the center far below. Across from us, similarly canted rows of seats rose up the opposite wall. The walls converged overhead, forming the ceiling, finally twisting together at a bright point from which light streamed down. This vision of the building’s core crystalized a notion that had been growing within me, that the building was not so much an elaborated and stretched out egg as it was closer to an idealized and smoothed out conch shell. At the same time, however, this central cavity reminded me of nothing better than the yoke suspended inside an egg.
Bleys edged past those onlookers favoring the nosebleed seats, pressing onward and down toward the place where all the lights were. We fell in behind a fellow of a type I’d not seen before, a sort of walking tree, wearing a crown of what looked to be blue candles — a wreath/crown/candelabra — his green and gray hide bark-like but scaled like a snake’s, much of his thirteen-foot-plus frame wrapped in purple ivy. Yet he was man-like, striding forward on two mighty legs, two heavily thewed arms swinging at his sides. He was accompanied by a pale woman — tall at nearly half the tree-man’s height, though almost diminutive beside his height and bulk — in a gown woven entirely of blue metal leaves, her flowing hair the color of turquoise.
Turning to my brother, I asked, “Why didn’t Chaos send an army of him against Amber? They would have been virtually unbeatable!”
“Have a care,” Bleys cautioned. “If he should hear you, you could find yourself pitted against him on the Wheel.”
“What about my diplomatic immunity?”
“Less than worthless. We agreed to submit to the judgments rendered here.”
“We can die here.”
Taking a look around, hoping to spot a way out should one be needed, I noticed no exit signs. And saw also that the tree-man’s companion had turned her head. Our gazes met. A skeptical half-smile playing on her lips, she turned her attention forward again. The towering chap beside her leaned down to better hear something she was saying.
I resolved to be more careful.
We found our seats, but no one was sitting. The two we had followed were nearby; somehow I didn’t think our tall friend would have any problem seeing the action, or that anyone would tap him on the shoulder for obstructing their view.
The event was just getting started. The floor of the place was a white oval about thirty paces across, a ten-foot hole cut into its center. Ranged around it were half a dozen doors set into the high curving wall. Two of the doors stood open, framing the individuals who were just arriving onstage.
First to catch my eye was a being who was more polar bear than man. He wore a golden bandolier and a few strips of golden armor. When he stepped forward the crowd answered his roar with one of their own.
Immediately following the entry of the bear-man into the arena, a man with a tiger’s head stepped in, his two feet the paws of a tiger, his hands semi-human with tiger-claws, his tiger’s tail twitching. Black leather covered much of his torso, barbed vambraces strapped to his arms. As with the bear-man, his deep-throated bellow drew an enthusiastic response from the audience.
“Bleys!” I exclaimed.
“I know,” was all he said.
As the two began warily circling each other, the floor on which they stood slowly lifted into the air, aided by nothing visible, floating, turning as it rose. A breeze rushed through the great space, ruffling hair, fur, feathers and clothing as the case might be, carrying a wealth of strange scents. The breeze might have risen from beneath the floating disk. Below the disk it was dark and nothing very distinct was visible, though perhaps those were beams of wood or metal running down the sides of the hole into the deeper darkness.
Seeming to shift — though not always predictably — in response to the movements of the two whom it bore, the disk tilted slightly first one way, then another. It continued to turn slowly but ceased to rise, surfing on nothing, dropping a few feet for a bit, only to rise several feet moments later.
A third roar went up from the assembled onlookers, as objects were hurled up into the air from the lowest level of the arena, landing on the disk with a clatter. Weapons. The bear-man swept up a halberd, held casually by a mighty paw, and the man-tiger snatched up two spears.
Battle was instantly joined.
The man-tiger hurled both spears, nearly simultaneously, one just ahead of the other. Spinning the halberd like a baton, the bear-man deflected both with almost contemptuous ease. The man-tiger did not pause to observe his opponent’s reaction, but used the time to pick up a sword and a heavy maul. The bear-man’s advance continued, virtually unabated, the halberd destined for the man-tiger’s midriff. The halberd head was knocked aside by a powerful swing from the maul. Yet fur flew — the man-tiger had been grazed. Using enviable coordination, with the sword in his left hand the man-tiger aimed a blow at the bear-man’s head.
The bear-man, completing the swing of his weapon, twisted, using the halberd’s haft to catch his opponent’s blade. The blade slid away harmlessly, and the two warriors leaped back at once, eying each other carefully, searching for opportunities.
“I’m guessing we’re seeing the resolution of some dispute?” I suggested.
Turning to me, Bleys said, “This is justice, such as it is in the Courts. Aggrieved parties may apply to Swayvill to address perceived wrongs. This takes time and occurs at the High King’s pleasure. If one party feels he may lose a royal judgment, or is impatient, he may offer a blood-price to settle the matter. It is often the case that neither wishes to resort to Swayvill and neither will offer or accept a private settlement.”
“So they come here? And fight to the death?”
“Not always. Mercy is permitted, and concessions are always possible. You may buy your life if you can. Or die. Or fall into the Pit of Despair.”
“You’re kidding. ‘The Pit of Despair’?”
“The joke is on those who fall in, who are rarely amused.”
“Has anyone who’s fallen in ever come back out?”
Bleys shook his head: “It is not good to fall into the Pit.”
We went back to watching the fight. Both combatants had been wounded, retreating to opposite sides of the disk. The bear-man reached behind his bandolier to produce a flat square from which he unwound a silvery cloth. This he wrapped around the wound on his right arm, where flames spurted forth. The man-tiger had discovered a similar remedy, tucked into a sleeve woven into a strip of leather encircling his right thigh. He used the silver mesh to cover the burning wound on his left side.
The man-tiger was quicker to bind his wound. He charged his foe, and as he did his form softened, altered, so that he became more tiger than man. Then he launched himself through space, while retaining his grip on the mallet in his left hand.
The bear-man stretched the bandage material wide and held it out in the front of his body, seeking to entangle the flying tiger. The tiger may have anticipated this maneuver, or one like it, for he was already hurling the maul at the bear-man’s head. Desperately, the bear-man tried to bring up his left paw — the one unwinding the bandage — to take the blow. Meanwhile, the tiger crashed his body into that of his enemy.
The maul struck a glancing blow to the bear-man’s head as he reeled under the force of the tiger’s impact. Already close to the edge of the disk, he fell two steps back, right to its edge, struggling to regain his balance. The disk, however, tilted further up and away from him. For an instant he hung there, swinging both his mighty paws before him.
Then he fell. Two daggers could be seen sticking from his side. Flames burst forth as he dropped from sight.
The collective shout that filled the arena the next instant nearly deafened me. And everywhere money was changing hands. Bets being paid off?
The disk leveled, slowed its turning, lost altitude, settled back into its place against the lower wall. The form and features of its only remaining occupant slid, rearranged themselves until the man-tiger stood once more before us. He took three steps forward, stooped before the fallen war-hammer. Picking it up, he swung it above his head two times, then bellowed what must have been his name — “Ojin!” — before hurling the weapon up into the air, out over the audience. Somewhere someone must have caught it, or sustained a terrible blow. Whichever, the crowd screamed back, “Ojin!”
Ojin shouted back, “Corwin of Amber!”
The woman with the blue hair turned and pointed at me.
“Here is Corwin!”
It seemed I was about to participate in a sporting event. In shock, I looked at Bleys.
“You must go, and either accept the challenge or accept dishonor by refusing. Give me Grayswandir.”
I unbuckled my sword, handed it to my brother.
“Yes,” Bleys answered grimly. “Kill him. Before he kills you.”
“Who is he?”
“A warlord. Be very careful. And take nothing of value with you. It could be lost forever.”
“Then you’d better take this,” I said, drawing the chain of the pendant from Tir-na Nog’th over my head and handing it to him. Not wanting to advertise its existence to the world, I had kept it hidden till then beneath my shirt.
My brother’s eyes went wide.
“Where did you get this?”
“From the sky-city. Hold onto it for me, will you?”
Bleys, marveling at the thing in his hand, tore his gaze from it to look at me.
“You must tell me how you came by this artifact.”
“Just the motivation I need. I promise to tell you after the fight.”
“Then go. And good luck.”
“Thanks,” I said, turning away, then stopping. Turning back, I added, “On the off chance I don’t come back, though, get it to Dworkin, okay? Once he’s figured it out, it should go to Merlin. Those are my wishes. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Corwin,” he said and, extending his arm, clasped mine. I gripped his arm in return.
Then hands took hold of me. I was pulled, pushed, nudged, guided. As I made my way down with help from the crowd, my mind turned back to the dream which had given me a sneak preview of today’s events. I’d recognized the enormous shell once we were inside it and had known the power of a tiger would be tested by that of a bear. Desperately, I searched the muddled memory of that dream. Looking for clues concerning anything useful — say, for instance, whether I would live or die. All I got beyond what I had already recalled, though, was the sight of Grayswandir flying through space, Grayswandir falling. And that was it. It would no doubt make perfect sense later, after the fact, as tends to be the case with most omens and prophesies.
In less than ten minutes, I stood before the faceless man in the wide-brimmed hat. Behind him stood a diamond-shaped doorway.
“You are?” the reptilian voice demanded.
“Asking your name. How are you called?”
From the shadows beneath that hat issued a series of hisses, which I took to be laughter.
“I am Ankou. Now give me your name.”
“I am Corwin of Amber, and I never agreed to accept the judgments of your arena.”
“But you did.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “My brother Bleys did. So know you this, Ankou of Chaos, I submit to no one’s will here, not yours, not even that of your king. Now: Let me through.”
It probably wouldn’t do me an ounce of good, but, whatever happened, I wanted that on record.
This time, as I passed Ankou I caught a whiff of him as I did. He smelled of death and decay, and I had a vision of worms wriggling into a coffin. Angrily, I pushed the vision from my mind. The only one who would be feeding the worms today would be the man-tiger I’d never met who wanted to claim my life.
There was a short corridor, which bent twice, then another doorway, open. Without breaking my stride, I stepped through.
A shout went up. It was my name.
Ojin, the man-tiger, stood on the other side of the disk.
He growled, “By entering here, you accept the challenge.”
Another doorway opened. The third player to enter the deadly game smiled as he set foot on the disk. Part man, part wolf he seemed. No, not wolf, I decided, nor dog. Dingo?
The crowd corrected my impression with a great shout.
With a flourish, Coyote paid me a mocking bow and offered Ojin a salute which terminated in a rude gesture.
“I also accept the challenge!”
I wondered at that moment if the rules were being closely observed. Then, remembering where I was, I wondered if there really were any rules at all.
The disk was already adrift.
Up we went, the arena turning around us as the disk rotated. There was another shout, and the weapons fell at our feet.
A heavy saber lay near at foot, so I took it up. With it, I saluted my adversaries, who by this time held weapons of their own.
“Gentlemen, before mayhem and murder commence, one question.”
They regarded me curiously.
“My son is known to you, I think. Merlin, son of Dara, great-granddaughter of the hellmaid Lintra and Benedict of Amber.
“This is your chance to tell me what you may know of him. Whoever tells me something I can use, lives. Whoever doesn’t can explore the Pit of Despair. Anyone feel like talking?”
Silence. Coyote, however, appeared amused.
So I ran forward, leaned down to scoop up a crossbow. It had a bolt already cocked. Running straight for Coyote, I fell to one knee, twisted, shot the bolt at Ojin, dropped the crossbow, and rolled to my right. Ojin’s spear landed where I had been. As it was he who had called me out, the attack came as no surprise. Coyote was the variable in the equation. Cancel out x
, solve for y
Also seeming to understand the equation, Coyote had held back, traditionally armed with a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. He stood watching and made no move.
Ojin stared down at the bolt protruding from his belly and looked unhappy.
I was back on my feet and sprinting to where a quiver lay. Shouldering the quiver, I whirled, fully expecting either Coyote or Ojin to be on top of me.
But Ojin, snarling, yanked the bolt out. The wound belched fire, which he ignored so he could run to a spear five paces away.
Coyote’s dagger was already in flight. It bit into Ojin’s leather and stuck till the man-tiger grabbed the spear. The dagger came unstuck then, fell. Ojin leaned back, holding the spear somewhere behind his ear.
Staying in motion seemed my best defense. About half-way between me and Coyote lay a bow. I ran for the belt of daggers three paces to the right of it, keeping one eye on Ojin. So I saw the spear as it sped toward me, and twisted, narrowing my profile and trying to bring the saber into line at the same time. The saber only brushed the spear as it struck my shoulder with enough force to almost knock me over.
I also saw Ojin stop in his tracks with a howl as a second thrown dagger bit into his belly, four inches to the left of the wound made by the crossbow bolt. He sank to his knees.
My ears ringing, I fell forward, threw my hand out toward the disk, dropping the saber. Kneeling where I was, I picked it back up and looked around for Coyote. The damn spear was still lodged in my shoulder and hurt like a son of a bitch.
He was standing only a few feet away, the belt of daggers draped over one shoulder. He still held the longsword, but the other gripped the bow I’d been after.
“Looking for this?”
“Goes with the nice quiver,” I gasped. Blood was running down my right arm from the shoulder.
He nodded and tossed it. It skidded, bumped against my right knee. I didn’t reach for it.
“It’s yours. Anything else?”
“I’d still like to hear anything you can tell me about my son Merlin. You know, before I die. Care to help a brother out?”
“Sorry, Corwin, former prince of Amber. Can’t help you there. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Could you pull this spear out? And…”
“Throw Mr. Ojin into the Pit of Despair. I’d consider it a personal favor.”
He glanced over at Ojin, still down, sluggishly dealing with his wounds and seeming pretty much out of the picture, then looked back at me.
“Truce?” he asked.
He stepped closer.
“This is going to hurt.”
He put down his weapons, watched me and waited. I lay the saber down. Then he came closer still, reached behind his belt, produced a bottle of blue fluid, extended it toward me.
“Pour this on the wound. I will be quick.”
Taking the bottle in one hand, I picked up the saber with the other and placed the blade between my teeth, biting down.
He yanked out the spear. I dropped the saber and saw stars, but remained conscious. Then, swaying, I opened the blue bottle, poured some of the contents onto the wound, felt it tingle.
“Prepared for the Pit?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Unless, of course, you have something to offer?”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
“On your feet then.”
Coyote smiled, and motioned me toward the hole in the center of the disk. I moved closer to it, and noticed as I did that Ojin had made some progress in binding up his wounds, and was standing uncertainly on his feet.
“Corwin of Amber!” Coyote shouted in a loud voice, so all could hear. “I consign you to oblivion!”
At that moment, something flashed toward me through the air. Reflexively, I caught it and my hand knew it before my mind did.
It was Grayswandir.
“What do you say you go into the Pit first? Let me know what it’s like?”
Around a toothy grin, Coyote said, “I’ll see you in hell first.”
“Then let’s go there together.”
And so our duel began. He was good, this Coyote. And, perhaps more importantly, undamaged. More important than that, the damage I'd taken now had me wielding Grayswandir left-handed, something I could do but certainly not my strongest suit as I was not ambidextrous. Feint, cut, parry, riposte — your basic swordplay, but fought at an intense pace. We both seemed to know many of the same tricks. I’d studied the blade under Benedict; there was no better teacher in all the worlds of Shadow. But as we fought around the platform I learned two things: I was stronger, and he was faster. In this sport, unfortunately, speed mattered more, and I’d a feeling he would beat me. Gnawing on that, I recalled that besides swordplay my only other real talent was that I could talk a good game even if I couldn’t play one. That is, not only could I shoot the bull, but I could get others to believe it was a horse while I beat the hell out of the carcass. Small talk for a small advantage? Worth a try.
“Want to tell me why you two thought it would be fun to come gunning for me today?” I asked as I moved to his left, so that we circled one another, taking the opportunity to catch my breath and to try formulating tactics with which to defeat my opponent. “Or how you even knew I’d be here for the target practice?”
“Second question first,” Coyote replied, circling as I did, perfectly aware of what this brief break in the action meant to both of us. “All of Chaos knew of your arrival. It was inevitable you would come here sooner or later, so Ojin was waiting for you.”
“Ojin. What about you?”
“I am Coyote. No mystery am I. Where there is trouble, there you will find me. I came here tonight hoping to see Ojin’s head handed to him. Saw him call you out instead and knew a prince of Amber would meet his fate.”
“And decided if a tiger couldn’t finish me off, then maybe a Coyote could?”
His smile widened.
“Something like that.”
He aimed a cut at my chest. I blocked it easily enough, but that had merely been an opening gambit. He came on strong, trying a shoulder cut that veered off toward my head. Suddenly, we were corps à corps
, glaring at each other up close and personal.
“So you come looking for your son? And not the Pattern you drew?”
We both shoved then, jumped back, each striking an en garde
“I’m not picky; I’ll take what I can get. Up to and including your hide.”
Coyote laughed and further stepped up the pace, pressing his advantage in speed, each blade now a blur. I’d lost blood, though the peculiar salve loaned me had turned into something like Play-Doh and staunched my wound. All the same, I was slowing. He came at my chest again, but it was another feint, intended this time for my shoulder. I managed to parry it, but it felt more like luck than anything else. He then launched a swift series of attacks, and, realizing I simply couldn’t match what he was doing, I retreated before the onslaught.
Then there was yet another cut at my chest that I desperately tried to parry. Only this one was really meant for my side, and the bastard ran me through.
“That’s gonna hurt in the morning,” I wheezed, fighting to keep my feet, falling back a few steps.
Then, because I could see Ojin over Coyote’s left shoulder, and Coyote obviously couldn’t, I hurled my blade at the man-tiger. Missed him, but managed to throw him off his game. His spear-cast went astray, missed Coyote by almost a foot.
Coyote, noting the fallen spear, said, “That bit of foolishness may have just bought you your life,” and reached out to me where I stood, wavering by the edge of the Pit. I stumbled, trying to avoid the hole, but — in a sickeningly familiar replay of the demise of the bear-man — the disk shifted under me as I did. Behind my eyes, I was seeing stars again.
“Then again,” I answered, reaching for his hand, missing it as one leg gave out under me, “maybe not.”
As the blackness took me, my last thought was that if anyone would be sending a postcard back from the abyss, then it was going to be me.
Copyright © 2008 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved
Labels: Bleys, End
Chapter Six: The Abyss
We stood on a rocky slope which descended — and then quickly disappeared — into a pleasant fog. It was as though the world had been upended and to walk further down into that valley would actually be to stride into clouds at dawn or dusk, backlit from beyond the horizon, glowing, pink. For there was no sun here, only the sky streaked green, red, yellow and black, and pink fog drawn from a bottle of pale wine.
Random turned the card away, replaced it in his deck, which he dropped into a pouch hanging from his belt.
“I do know this place. These are the borderlands, aren’t they?”
“Nobody is king here,” Random affirmed as he turned around, putting the valley to his back. Pointing in the other direction, he announced, “This way,” and began climbing.
Turning to join him, I caught sight of the tree. Big, unfathomably old, I recognized it right away.
Where it stood several yards off, the tree shivered, stirred a few of its branches. Looking up at the sound, I saw that the canopy of leaves and limbs extended over my head and well beyond. Like I said, big old tree.
“Come on, Corwin,” I heard Random call from behind me, “We’re on a mission, remember? Besides, all Ygg mostly does these days is snooze a lot. He’s not even awake right now, just tossing in his sleep.”
I shrugged and fell in step beside my brother. The going wasn’t too difficult. Still, we were quite a ways up the side of a mountain and the trail was steep.
“I liked it better back there,” I let Random know, as we neared a pass up ahead.
“’Cause you miss old Ygg?”
“Because this isn’t far from where Brand ambushed me and killed my horse. Too bad I couldn’t get close to him that time — would like to have finished it right there. Then a lot of things would have been…different.”
Random nodded, uttered just one word: “Deirdre.”
Frowning, I turned my eyes skyward. Already it had altered — yellow, orange and red now accompanied the band of black, and the green was gone.
“Deirdre, yes. But not just Deirdre. Jiggle things even a little, Deirdre lives. And I don’t run into Duke Borel. Allow me to rephrase that: I don’t run through
“Well, yes, but I’d also be closer to my son,” I said, voicing the regret uppermost in my thoughts.
As we moved up into the pass, the wind kicked up and blew at our backs, whipping our garments, our hair. And I thought of Merlin. The best I could say was that I’d kept my promise to him, bringing him back to the Great Pattern in Amber. He had walked it and come into his heritage as a prince of the blood, but I had hardly seen him since, only occasionally wondering what he might be up to. And now Random had told me Merlin had come to prefer Amber and Shadow to his native Chaos, going so far as to volunteer to go on missions for the crown. That is, for Random. Who by now was probably closer to my son than I was. Me bitter? No, since this state of affairs was no more, and no less, than I deserved. But, yes, there was regret. And now, thanks to Random, maybe also a chance to address that regret. Still, even Deirdre and Merlin did not encompass all I would change, if I could.
“There’s also the small matter of a new primal Pattern and an entirely new and separate existence spawned somewhere,” I continued. “Which no one can seem to find, including me.”
“So what? Who cares?”
We were well into the pass. Overhead, the sky was made up of strips of black and bright red, drenching the world in its ruddy, bloody light. The wind gusted, suddenly strong in places, not so much in others. I couldn’t help seeking some trace of my encounter with Brand. The carcass of Star was long gone, of course. Lying around the place somewhere, though, were the remains of a busted crossbow, if one knew where to look.
“Yeah, but why, Corwin?”
“Why do I care what happened to a universe — or a very large number of them — which I helped bring into being?”
“Why do you care that it exists at all? You wish it didn’t?”
“I — I don’t know. You’re right. But…it’s like you produce a capstone, a supreme work, such as, say, Rousseau’s The Dream
, and then somebody accidentally throws it out with the trash. That’s not a feeling you want.”
“Painting, by a master from the Shadow Earth of my exile.”
The puzzled expression didn’t go away.
“Features a naked chick on a couch.”
He nodded and smiled.
. So you’re talking about great art, stuff men make that stands the test of time. That lots of the time makes men stand up.”
Conceding the point, I said, “Yeah, like Woman Bitten by a Serpent
“Sculpture. Trust me, you’d love it.”
“Yeah, but would Vialle?”
After a moment’s consideration, recalling Clesinger’s provocative, and controversial, piece, I said, “She might.”
We had reached the other side of the pass. Our conversation had been pitched to overcome the buffeting wind, and now we began to leave that wind behind us as we headed down the slope on the other side. Below stretched a twilit valley under a jailbird sky of black and white stripes, holding luminous groves — clutches of silver-barked trees hung with silver leaves — towering needles of rock, white, gray, black, scattered about the hummocks, terraces and gleaming mist-streaked pools, sprays of pale wildflowers bursting here and there among bright silver grasses.
Random pointedly looked me over, stared at the valley, looked back at me again.
So I gave myself a quick once-over to see what was provoking his reaction. I was in my usual colors — on this occasion wearing black trousers with silver seams, a black cloak secured by a silver clasp in the shape of a rose, a gray jacket over a black shirt, silver boots, silver gloves tucked into (what else?) a belt woven of a dozen wide links of silver. Then, mimicking my brother, I took another gander at the valley. Just as it slowly began to dawn on me, I heard his chuckle.
“Hey, you match!”
I decided to let his ironic observation pass, because I remembered this place, too, where once I had nearly been caught in its spell.
“Is this some kind of a joke?” I asked. “I came through here on my ride to Chaos, not long before meeting Brand“ — I jerked my head toward the pass behind us — “back there.”
“No joke,” said Random, pointing toward something at the near end of the valley. “Unless you think my baby is a joke. And then I’ll be pissed. Talk about works of art. From where I’m at, unless it’s women or music, the Wing Thing
is as close as you can get.”
Then I saw it, tethered to a pinnacle of rock about half-way between the pass and the valley floor. The first thing I thought of was a manta ray, minus the eyestalks and tail. Which led immediately to my next impression: whatever it was floating a few feet off the ground, it resembled most strongly a fictional vehicle I recalled from an old science fiction television show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
. For it looked like a cousin of the Flying Sub, except for the fact this version was of some shiny black material. It could just as easily have passed for a UFO, a novelty-sized dustpan, or some exotic sort of kite.
“Well, what would you call it?”
“I don’t know. What the hell is it?”
“A prototype. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Ahead, points of light shone bright and unwinking at indeterminate distances — bits of brilliance caught in prisons of alien chrome? As we went forward and our view of the prospect shifted, the distances between ourselves and everything else became uncertain. Angles and lines-of-sight went strangely awry here, everywhere a vanishing point leading…somewhere else, so that none could be trusted. Where there was bare ground it had the consistency of half-dried clay, stuff that would smudge before its poor cohesion would cause it to break, pale white material reminiscent of bone.
The distance to Random’s toy was farther than it first seemed. Before we got there, it became obvious that it was under guard. Perhaps a score or more of helmed figures in full armor, sporting the device of a white unicorn on a green field, variously stood, squatted or sat in a perimeter about the floating mystery. They jumped to attention at the sight of us, saluting, relaxing only a little at Random’s, “At ease.”
The object which, from a distance, I'd guessed was as big as a house, was definitely bigger than your average home, and hovered silently about five feet off the ground. Random crouched beneath it and made for its center. Still dubious, I followed. As soon as I bent underneath, I noticed a pair of canoe-shaped skids fixed to the kite/dustpan/UFO's skin. The belly of this big black bird had a button, actually a hatch, which at the moment hung open. Random straightened, then hauled himself up and out of sight. Wondering what any of this had to do with plans we’d already discussed, I did the same.
There was a ladder set into the side of the hatchway. We climbed through the tube up to another hatch, also open, and clambered up onto the deck of a wide cabin. The space had a teardrop shape. Where it narrowed there were six bunks, some storage lockers, and a wheel-locked door at the end. Opposite the narrow end an array of controls spread below the arc of a windshield made up of five large transparent plates; facing that setup were two padded seats bolted to the floor. Four more seats were bolted to the floor behind the first two. Ranged in the space between fore and aft, mostly along panels set into the walls, were wheels, guages, levers, switches, tubes and dials. A nook on the left contained a small galley. The ladder continued on up to the ceiling directly above, where another hatch was mounted. A soft yellow-orange glow, like firelight, passed into the cabin through translucent bars set in the floor and ceiling, radiating out from the hatches like spokes of a wheel.
Standing in the middle of that cabin, turning slowly as I tried to take it all in, in wonder I asked, “I repeat: What the hell is this?”
“Follow me. Gotta show you how she flies.”
There were a couple of big fellows lounging in the two forward seats. Their feet were propped up on the consoles just below the windshield. At the sound of our steps on the wood-and-metal flooring, their feet had quickly dropped to the floor. Hearing Random’s voice, they stood up, turned, delivered rigid salutes.
“Hey, I know these guys!” burst from me, as I took note of their seven-foot stature, red hides, pointed ears and cat-like eyes. Unlike the warriors below, these two were not wearing helmets.
Random returned their salute.
“Mur, Brul. My brother, Lord Corwin, and I are taking the ship on her maiden flight. You know what to do. Get her ready.”
They nodded, replied in stereo with, “As you command,” and got busy with the mechanisms built into the walls.
“Random, those are Bleys’ guys, from Avernus. What are they doing here? And what’s this about a maiden flight?”
Random had already taken the seat on the right.
“The ship’s ready right now. They’re just double-checking everything. Have to show you how to work the controls before I go.”
A dozen responses leaped to mind. I chose one.
“Okay, but what’s this got to do with my mission, where I’m following up on Merlin and Martin?”
Random pursed his lips while looking up at something on the ceiling, then regarded me again.
“Nothing at all, I guess. It’s a combined mission.”
He gestured to the unoccupied chair.
“Have a seat.”
“You know,” I grumbled, stepping forward and lowering myself into the other chair. “Kingship has done nothing to reduce your cockiness. If anything, it’s made it worse.”
He chuckled, eying the controls.
“Yeah, I hear the same crap out of Gérard. Even though I let him run Amber half the time. That’s gratitude for you.
“Okay, this bird’s bionic. She has turbine-driven props — sorry, the fuel’s a secret — but a lot of the action happens in the wings…”
Short version: Random showed me how to fly the Wing Thing
. It turned out the airship was the result of a series of missions carried out by Merlin and Martin, basically raiding Shadow for high-tech notions with military applications for the immortal city. The problem, however, always is that technology which works elsewhere tends to fail in Amber. The solution had been a lighter-than-air concept incorporated into a lifting-body design, based on things known to fly around Amber: birds and clouds. The Wing Thing
was a cross between an ornithopter — the tips of the fin-like wings tilted, twisted, undulated, even flapped — and a dirigible. She made use of cells of thin superstrong material (another secret Random declined to share) wrapped around hard vacuum (for buoyancy), fore and aft ballonets, both water and shot types of ballast (for emergency ascents), and, of course, turboprops.
At Random’s order, the lines were loosed and our craft drifted free. Since there was no easy way around the mountains, we went up, up, up and over them. The wind fought us the whole way; after that, the journey got easier.
“So when did you decide Amber could use air power?” I wondered out loud.
“When the wyvern-riders from the Black Road had Eric’s back up against the wall.”
“Didn’t ever get around to mentioning the idea to him, though.”
“Nope, never did.”
He laughed, and I joined him. We were quiet for awhile after that. Our mood was subdued, perhaps, by the uniform gray fog below, stretching nearly as far as the eye could see, its surface gently ribbed and rippled the way the sand of a beach can be where the waves fall back into the sea. Or perhaps it was all that lay unspoken, everything that came after the laughter, that ordained a momentary silence.
Random punctuated his own reverie with a rap of his knuckles on the edge of the dash.
“Trumps don’t work very well around here, you know.”
“And the charts we have for Chaos —”
“None too reliable?” I hazarded, scanning the featureless expanse of fog for the twentieth time.
“About as reliable as that compass,” he said, glancing at the needle on the dashboard, which bounced and jogged in what looked like a private game of spin-the-bottle.
“What about gyros, or some sort of inertial compass?”
“Right. Okay, so what else?”
“Nothing else. You can take the controls.”
He shoved a lever in the middle of the console all the way to the left and nodded to me. The lever had just locked the controls; our autopilot. I threw the lever back over into the unlocked position, took hold of the controls. I’d flown before, though not nearly to the extent Random had. So I did the obvious and tried keeping the nose up, sighting on the horizon.
“Higher,” Random instructed.
I threw him a quizzical look.
“The horizon’s different here. Chaos is not a round world like most places. It’s not exactly flat either, but close enough. Pick a mountaintop.”
“I can’t see
Truth was that I could just make out the dark blur of a mountain range up ahead, though it didn’t look much higher than the sea of colorless mist below. Trying out his suggestion, I pretended an Everest stood out from the middle of those far-off peaks and steered for it.
“Better. So why have you come to the Courts?”
“To visit my brother Bleys.”
“Does Bleys know your plans?”
“Yes and no. We were in touch awhile back, when I let him know I’d be coming. But he had no idea when.”
“Hoping to see him during my visit, but my main purpose is to see how Bleys is doing. My mission is diplomatic, not personal.”
“Okay, but you’re ordered to turn around and go home.”
“As someone assigned a diplomatic post by the King of Amber, only the King of Chaos has the authority to review that appointment. I’ll only depart under Swayvill’s order. Look, Random, I understand the mission. I just don’t understand why you’re sending me instead of Caine.”
“They don’t like Caine.”
“I don’t think they’re too crazy about me either. Killed Borel. Got bypassed in the succession, spoiling their plans to put Merlin on Amber’s throne. Earned the hatred of a Princess of Chaos. I’m not the biggest fan of Caine myself, but me? I make Caine look good.”
Random was shaking his head.
“No, you don’t get it. They expect
Caine to do something sneaky. You and Bleys, they know, teamed up against Eric. What the two of you did was stupid, but it took real balls. They’ll believe you volunteered to make this trip. Caine? They’ll know it was an assignment.”
“You’re holding out on me,” I suggested, sparing him a brief glance. He had pulled a kind of tray out of the console and spread a chart over it. Our friends were strapped into two of the seats behind us. I turned a little more to see how they were doing. One was plainly bored, eyes only half open, dozing, while the other was completely asleep. The troops from Avernus truly were fearless — napping while aboard an experimental vehicle headed straight into the most dangerous place in existence.
I wondered if they’d been trained on the parachutes stowed in the back.
Swinging my gaze back to Random, I saw him turn toward me and shrug.
“You’ve got more on the ball than Caine. Sneaky is what he does. They know how he did you and Bleys, that he can’t be trusted.”
“They also know I finished off Borel the only way I had time for: quick. And dirty. I’m a dishonorable s.o.b.”
“Only to Borel’s friends. Quite a few in the Courts were glad to see him go. He’d killed a lot of people in duels.”
It seemed there was still something, either something Random had overlooked, or something he was deliberately withholding. I had my doubts, but put them aside for the obvious reason. Nor were my misgivings lessened by the knowledge that Random had doubtless anticipated that reason. So I said it out loud, to let him know that I knew.
“Well, I would like to know what’s been happening with Merlin and Martin as much as anyone. More, no doubt. So it looks like you made the right choice in sending me.”
He pretended to look at something off to his right, but not before I saw the smile.
The mountains were no longer so far away. Distant peaks could be made out. Either our swift passage was due to the peculiarities of the regions adjoining the Courts, or the airship flew faster than I thought. My guess was the former.
Leaning forward, I tried for a better look at the local sky. The dark swath seemed to have expanded, no longer split into separate black bands, and might have contained motes of light — hard to tell. The green belt had acquired the faintest tinge of blue, while the red had bifurcated and been replaced by a band of pumpkin orange and another of a subtle shade of crimson. We had come far.
Random noticed the direction of my gaze.
“Making good time,” he noted.
“Which means we haven’t got long. So tell me: How long since you last heard from Martin?”
“About a year — which isn’t as long as you think. You know how differently time moves here.”
“But you got worried just the same.”
“Only because it looked like they were getting close to something. Besides Bleys, Caine and I were their only contacts.”
“And you had Caine try to reach them, then tried yourself?””
Random stared at nothing in particular, but his posture, which had perceptibly become more taut, communicated frustration, tension.
“No dice on both tries. That’s when we brought Fiona in. We didn’t give her the whole story, just asked her to see what she could do.”
“Which was nothing.”
Next to me there was a pause on the other side of the conversation.
“It was something? What did she find out?”
“It might as well have been nothing. She made contact through a Trump, which faded right away. No words. Don’t think she even got an image.”
“You didn’t mention that before. Which one did she reach?”
He unstrapped himself, stood up, leaned forward in the narrow space between the two seats, holding onto his.
“Remember. Swayvill knows I’m trying to help him, but doesn’t know how. It’s better that way. But he’s no fool. He’ll probably guess you’re part of whatever I’m trying to do, but he’s savvy enough not to let on.”
“So he won’t be of much help to me.”
“Expect him to be downright nasty. Not hard for him to do. Doesn’t much like you, anyway.”
“Thanks a lot.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, gave it a quick squeeze, let his hand fall.
I heard him riffle through his deck, seeking a Trump.
Without turning, keeping my eyes on the prize, I asked, “Where are you headed?”
“Back to Ygg. Gotta get Bleys’ boys home.”
“And these two?”
“Part of Bleys’ personal staff at the Courts. He’s really part of the scene there. Our expert on court relations.”
“On the subject of relations,” I began, seizing the opportunity to put forward a question I had been meaning to ask, “any new ones I should know about? You make it sound like Bleys is a fixture in that place. So…?”
Behind me, I heard him laugh.
“Don’t know. Nobody kisses and tells any more.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
“Corwin, stay in touch, be careful, and…”
I turned for one last look at him. He was holding the Trump before him and the air there trembled as it wavered between two places at once; the connection had been made.
“And good luck.”
Then he took a step toward his new reality, leaving me with mine.
A long level plain, largely shrouded in tendrils of the ever-present fog, stretched toward a low line of hills beyond which stood the mountains, now much more clearly defined. Noting how little disturbed by wind the mists below were, I locked the controls once more. And brought out the family album, which is to say my Tarot deck. Behind me, Harpo and Zeppo were still out of it, so I was effectively alone. I dealt out the cards.
Brand came up first, slim, red-haired, in his green, sitting a white horse built for speed and not so much for strength, jagged mountains at his back, a sky torn between sun and storm. The small portrait did its job very well, effortlessly conveying a sense of his mercurial personality. He was gone now, though, and I was glad; he had cost us too dearly.
Eric turned up, too: black hair, blue eyes, big, strong, confident, dressed in the colors he preferred — black gloves, wide black belt, big black boots, leather jacket, leather leggings, favoring red in the rest of his attire, in the lining of his cloak, in the scabbard for his sword. My feelings were mixed. We had long been enemies, but he had done Amber proud, dying on Kolvir’s slopes while personally leading troops against foes the like of which we’d never seen before. Nor was it likely we’d ever see their like again, that war having finally been won.
I hesitated to turn over the next card. Would this be a gathering of the dead? If so, then either my father Oberon would be next, or it would be my beloved sister.
But it was Merlin, my son.
Like his father, Merlin was fond of gray and silver, clad in a gray jacket, boots gray and bossed with silver. And, like me, his hair was dark, though his eyes were blue, almost gray. There were other differences beside his choice of purple shirt and burgundy trousers, or the color of his eyes. He had a lighter build than I, for one, and wore no weapon. He was not cast from the warrior mold, like Benedict, Bleys, Eric, Gérard and myself. Yet he had sallied forth on dangerous assignments on behalf of Random and Swayvill; he had courage. He struck me as more of a thinker than I had been at his age, more intrigued by what lay behind the forces shaping our universe than by what power could be gained from them.
I wondered if he was still alive.
Touching the card, I felt its coldness come and go. Here, so close to the heart of Chaos, the Trumps could not be trusted, as Random had reminded me. Yet the cold was there, the sensation that this was not really a pasteboard at all, but a door which had been left open, letting in the chill from some unknown “outside” — unknown till one looked through the door. I held the card, stared at it, willed it to change, to lose some of its idealization in a trade for greater reality. My mind desperately sought for the mind of another. There? Did the outlines stir just then, did the image shift, just for a moment? Whatever it was, it had the quality of something glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, there one instant, gone the next, never truly seen.
Yet it had seemed a connection might have been made. Now I could not be sure, as I wondered to what degree my impressions might have been influenced by wishful thinking.
I put the cards away, no longer wanting the glimpse of the future they might afford. I had not liked the direction the reading seemed to have been taking, anyway.
Instead, I came back to another concern at the top of my agenda. Dreams. I nourished a foolish hope: that the Courts of Chaos might hold some key I could use to unlock the secret of my dreams. Chaos was older than Amber, had a richer history, knew things Amber didn’t know. When I had taken on the assignment Random had given me, I will admit I had had at least one ulterior motive in accepting it. Beyond my wish to learn more of what had befallen Merlin and Martin had been my desire to resolve the dilemma of dreams that moved around swords and other objects, even going to the trouble of attacking fully awake princes with feline fangs and real big kitty-cat claws. Maybe in the Courts I could find the answers that had eluded me in Tir-na Nog'th?
Enough. Break-time was over and I needed to get back to the task at hand. I forced myself to focus again on the present, on where I was going.
The view through the windshield showed how close the foothills were. The mountains looming beyond were ancient, rounded, worn. Even as I unlocked the console and took the controls back in my hands, the vehicle was struck by sudden buffets of wind. Not so strong as to pose a real problem just yet, but a warning of worse to come.
Things were getting too interesting, too quickly.
My two friends stirred, responded almost at once.
“We need to gain altitude to get over those mountains! See what you can do.”
Swearing softly, I worked the controls. I was a lousy choice for a test pilot, especially after only a few quick lessons. I’d flown a Nieuport 17 biplane in Belgium a long, long time ago, taking to the air again much later in the Piper Cherokee Arrow I’d enjoyed on weekends in upstate New York. And that was all, as far as my flying resumé was concerned. I had no direct knowledge of lighter-than-air flight and, in comparison to Random, was barely a pilot at all.
Though I’d only the vaguest idea what needed to be done, my two airmen understood what I wanted and made it happen. They turned cranks and worked something that, as best as I could tell, was related to the jack you use when changing a tire.
Whatever they did, it worked. The Wing Thing
rose toward the bizarre turning, churning sky. We were above the hills now, rising fast. As pilot, I did as Random had shown me, canting the flexible wing-tips and adjusting the pitch of the props. Our ascent was swift enough that we would clear the mountain peaks before us. The only problem was that, now that winds were kicking up, my talent for steering the airship was roughly equivalent to the sort of talent that would earn you thrown tomatoes and rotten fruit on the old Vaudeville circuit. If I got us booed offstage under current circumstances, that step off of stage left was a real long one which would give us all big lumps and bruises. Fatal ones.
Up we went just the same, and it really did feel like we were riding on some giant’s kite. Steering the airship became even more problematic. There was only one available solution: more power. With an eye on the fuel guage, I throttled up the props.
The distinctive sky of Chaos was more evident on the other side of the mountains. Half of the heavens were as black as outer space and, like outer space, full of stars. These stars were not stationary scintillating points of light, however; they expanded with stunning brilliance, then dimmed to dying embers, all while shooting about, twirling, spiraling — a celestial fireworks display. The other half of the sky was just as disconcerting, made up of writhing snakes of color, a twisting tortured rainbow of green, gray, red, brown, violet, orange and blue. As a belt of mulberry was born, a belt of chartreuse would be absorbed, slices and strands of the spectrum blending and separating like ribbons spun on a manic maypole, or swaths of cloth woven and unwoven on a tireless loom. Because that crazy sky seemed to turn about a point directly overhead, instinctively I assumed it was located some unimaginable distance away. Yet at times some of those colors filled the air right where I was, shifting, shaking ropes of colored fog, vibrating, pulsing, seeming somehow alive. Always moving at random, always in motion, only the rotation of the psychedelic wheel in the sky seeming regulated, foreordained.
A pilot might find the sky of Chaos a distraction. I know I did.
We rapidly crossed the barren plateau on the other side of the mountains. As we made the crossing, I judiciously experimented with the controls, endeavoring to get a better feel for flying a saucer.
The wasteland ran for more than forty miles. Yet we were soon across it and upon the mountains on the other side. This time we did better getting over them. And, when we did, I knew what we’d see before we saw it.
The battle plain before the abyss.
Before us swept a desolate, cratered expanse, lifeless, studded with rocky outcrops and gray hills, riddled with rills, ridges, sudden valleys — a lunar landscape. That jumbled broken terrain went on for another fifty miles before running into a final uplift of scattered mountains, hills and heights. And beyond that? Nothing, only blackness and space, that from which all things came, to which all things return.
Then I saw something I had not anticipated.
Up from the mountains below, from caves and crevasses, rose a great storm of wings. As the ominous black cloud achieved greater height, grew closer, Mur, Brul and I could see that many of the winged creatures bore riders on their backs.
And then I knew them, of course.
The half-beast, half-men brandishing cutlasses, seated in saddles on their dragon-like mounts were the same who had slain Eric on that fateful day. Dying, he had given his death curse to these, the wyvern-riders. But his curse hadn’t been necessary. For that was the day I had brought guns to Amber, stymieing the forces of Chaos even as they had readied themselves for their final assault and conquest.
With all that running through my head, I took a look around me, seeking weapons. Only then did I recall Random touching briefly on the subject as he’d given me the Readers’ Digest version of how to fly the Wing Thing
. The airship carried no armament. She was a prototype, after all, whose maiden flight would take her straight to our former enemy’s places of power. Though Swayvill and the rest in the Courts were not daft and would right away understand the implications of the ship, we would not provoke them by openly displaying her as a weapon.
Today I was wearing a blue helmet, without even the benefit of rubber bullets. Where’s a NATO when you need one?
Yet I was not completely powerless. I still had my Trumps and, for whatever it might be worth, the stone from Tir-na Nog’th. With my left hand, I touched the diamond, attempting to commune with it in much the same way I would reach through a Trump. If there was a connection between myself and the gem, if I were in some way attuned to whatever lay within it, then I would feel something. Closing my eyes, I sought for that other sense, that other seeing. And, yes, there was something. Different from the Jewel of Judgment, but real enough, all right. The power was there.
Opening my eyes again, I prepared for the attack to come. Evasive maneuvers were still an option. Could wyverns fly at the same maximum altitude as the Wing Thing
? We would soon find out.
They didn’t attack.
What happened instead was that our airship was flanked on either side and, for want of a better word, herded toward the Courts. As that was where I wanted to go, anyway, I didn’t mind. We had just acquired a military escort, that’s all.
So, with the wind behind us, wyverns and their riders on either hand, we glided over the battle plain.
Then we were over the abyss itself.
Translucent roadways drifted above the chasm, flexible strips which barely seemed substantial. Indistinct entities moved upon them. Below them the abyss opened upon an infinity of darkness and jumping, swirling, free-wheeling stars. I was assailed by a nearly overwhelming sense of vertigo, as I had been on the other occasion I had made this crossing. It was as if the real sky lay below my feet, while the yin-yang/color-wheel overhead was the surface of some madman’s dream of Jupiter. Time and gravity behaved strangely in this place. Perhaps the illusion was no illusion at all.
Up ahead jutted a fantastic horn of black rock, its summit mesa-like, staggered with level places like shallow steps descending to some sacred pool. It looked volcanic, like Devil’s Mountain or Ship Rock, a cathedral of stone floating in the abyss. Seeming to grow like a natural formation up from the nearer edge, like a petrified Sequoia, its roots obsidian, ruby, sapphire and topaz, soared a mighty spindle of glass. Beyond it shone elegant sculptures of ice, walls glowing softly with light and color. The structures were not anchored to anything, seeming to float on the surface of a quicksilver lake. Sifting through the scene like dust-motes which appeared and disappeared were transient lights, untrustworthy will-o’-the-wisps. Like soap-bubbles, some brushed against structures and stalagmites, seemed to burst in slow-motion, spilling a dying liquid radiance on this wall or that crag, so that many things here were limned with phosphorescence which would evaporate, dissipate, or drain away, only to be renewed again minutes or hours later by the next ethereal collision.
For this was Mount Melgem, overlooked by Thelbane, Swayvill’s ageless Tower of Glass, home to powers — and secrets — so venerable that their beginning had long since been forgotten, if in fact they had ever had a beginning. The Shadowlands at this nether end of existence were but the playthings of the eerie lords who dwelt here, weavers of dreams, shapers of fire, spinners of matter and energy whose raw materials might well be nothing at all. The everchanging city of luminous ice filled its center as would lava domes and cinder cones within a huge caldera. And some of those domes and cones could have passed for temples, telescope observatories or pleasure palaces set on the summit of some otherworldly volcano. They were lotus flowers adrift in a slow shining contemplation of creation.
They were the Courts of Chaos.
Abruptly, and for no reason I could determine, our honor-guard, constantly uttering raucous shrieks over a substrate of guttural chanting that I took to be war-cries or even a battle-hymn, exploded with a collective scream of terror. This gave way to a wild and furious beating of wings. They flew off in all directions — the wyverns, their riders, and the gigantic razor-beaked birds accompanying them — chaff scattered by a whirlwind.
Looking around, glancing skyward, I could see nothing to cause this sudden panic. I was mystified.
Then I looked down.
Something was stirring in the blackness below. The darkness was writhing, twisting, seeming the unwinding of an immense coil, galactic in scale, visible by how it blotted out the glints and glares permeating the spark-shot void. Crescents of purple incandescence appeared, glowing like neon scimitars, electrical arcs infused with astronomical energies.
The chill that touched the back of my neck kept on going, moving down the length of my spine at goose-bump speed.
The ears of my two friends lay flat against their scalps, their vertical pupils having gone wide. Even the fearlessness of the holy warriors of Avernus had its limits.
I shoved the throttle for the props all the way forward. Moving the wheel-like pitch control, I adjusted the positions of the props. Working the levers for the wings, I reset the angles at which they flexed. The Wing Thing
was now in a dive and on a collision course with two of the see-through strips of floating road. The gauzy bridges across the void seemed to intersect below, one hovering perhaps a hundred yards above the other.
If we missed the undulating strands and kept on going, the situation didn’t improve much. We’d impact on the cliff below Thelbane. That is, if whatever was rising from the abyss didn’t reach us first.
Doubtless believing I’d lost my mind, Brul and Mur howled.
Though concentrating on my main objective, making adjustments with the controls in order to reach our destination as quickly as possible, I couldn’t resist repeated glances at the darkness below and to our right. Where something very large was unwinding, growing ever larger and seeming to move toward us.
As we entered the space just above the crossroads, I pulled us out of the dive. We weren’t far from the cliff-face now, but the air-currents I’d noticed lifting the flying bridges also lifted us. We even got an extra boost when we flew past the roads, which had partially blocked the thermals. At the same time, I released our lead-shot ballast. We shot up suddenly, a balloon released underwater, seeming almost to graze the cliff as its caves and ledges dropped past us.
We raced up alongside the walls of the Tower of Glass. And I felt relief then, reasonably sure we’d be safe within the Courts in mere moments, well ahead of whatever swam in the abyss. (And, yes, a part of myself looked askance back at me, bemused: Safe within the Courts?)
I spared one final look for that which had scattered the wyvern-riders, as the wind bore us to one side of Thelbane.
Far below — though nowhere near far enough — a swollen red sun had come into being, traced with yellow-white lines of force, its center a burning paradox of dark violet so intense it hurt to look upon it. Darkness shuttered across it, blocking its fearful and disturbing radiance, then retreated again to reveal the great and terrible orb once more.
It was an eye.
We rounded the tower, swooping and dropping, an enormous black seagull blown in from some unspeakable gulf. The props were thrown into reverse, air was let into the ballonets and I used the trick Random had taught me for using flexes of the wings to stabilize the craft, so it could circle a fixed point. We spiraled down into a courtyard of colored pillars, each unique and distinct from the rest. Thin beams of light of various colors criss-crossed the air, an overgrown cat’s cradle woven on vast many-fingered hands, a web of multicolored yarn. Rivulets here and there ran through the place, following grooves and trenches cut in the stone. Glowing fish leaped from the waters, stretched their fins to greater length, took to the air. The idea for the Wing Thing
might have been born right here.
We hit the ground with a lurch, bounced up, struck a pillar, drifted sideways, approached the ground again. By now, figures were emerging from the tower. Luminous paths, rivers of light, ran farther on into the Courts, and there was movement on these also as inhabitants converged on Thelbane. I shouted to Mur and Brul to do whatever Random had shown them. They released lines, which snaked down toward the ground. Meanwhile, I managed to steady the ship somewhat, so that she was slowly circling one corner of the garden of water, light and stone.
Limbs — not all of them human — laid hold of the lines, lashed them to things, hauled us down. I shut everything off. The fuel (whatever it was) was nearly spent. Didn’t look like there’d be a return flight. That was fine by me, so long as I could say I’d lived through the experience.
Unstrapping myself, feeling the ship rocking slightly under my feet as I stood, I turned to address my crew.
“You two have done well, and you have my gratitude. I do not know what waits below, so you must remain here. If all goes well, I will have Lord Bleys send for you. Good-bye for now.”
Not knowing what might come, I saluted them. They returned the gesture, and I opened the hatch, climbed down the ladder. At the bottom, I threw open the lower hatch-door and jumped to the ground.
There was a large squid in front of me. Several of his (her? its?) tentacles were wrapped around one of the mooring lines. And, while I stood for a moment transfixed by the sight of him, I’d swear he winked at me. Then I turned to see who else had shown up for the party. There were a number of half-men — half human and half lion, for instance, a fellow who reminded me of Egypt and pyramids — and many mostly human folk distorted in odd ways, such as the rather elongated gentleman who rested one taloned long-fingered hand on the hatch-door. Tattooed hides were clearly popular, as were blue skin and green skin. There were also quite a few albinos, not to mention a few very large men — ten to twelve feet tall, so call them giants — each sporting a pair of big claw-like hands and a single eye. A beautiful woman with glistening green skin flecked with gold caught my eye — turning her head, she met my gaze with her own bulbous golden eyes.
A human, about my size, was pushing through the crowd. A red cloak swept behind him, but almost everything else he wore was some shade of orange or another, his jewelry all of gold and displaying a preference for big colorful gems. Fiery red were his hair and beard, and I knew him at once.
He was grinning as he threw his arms around me in a hearty embrace that was almost a bear-hug. He stepped back, keeping his hands on my shoulders, studying me a moment, then looked up at the Wing Thing
“Random said you’d come, but I did not really believe him. He said nothing of your coming in, in a —”
“In a hybrid dreamed up by the Brothers Montgolfier and Wright? Not my idea, but it got me here. Listen, two of your troops are inside and, I think, a bit freaked out—”
“Later.” Moving just his eyes, he directed my attention to our welcoming party. “You are no doubt hungry and thirsty—”
“And tired. You forgot to mention tired.”
“Come with me now, then. Your sky-ship will not be molested; you are now under my protection.”
He threw one arm about me and marched us through the crowd of cyclopean giants, albinos, squids, and sphinxes. And past one lovely girl with very large eyes.
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Labels: Beginning, Random