Burb Rocking
Wednesday, February 08, 2017
  Chapter Nine: The Smile of the Sphinx
CHAPTER NINE


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

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

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

Then we saw what they were fleeing.

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

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

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

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

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

There was not a living thing in sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two torches abruptly came to flame.

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

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

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

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

The smile widened, revealing fangs.

“Our game begins.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The temperature fell by a few degrees.

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

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

“And what is the sphinx’s version?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Solve this:

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

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

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

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

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

“The Courts of Chaos.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Julian,” I said.  “Ready?”

“I am,” he answered.

“Knights, gnomes, horses and all?”

“Send them through.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dry chuckle escaped him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We clasped forearms.

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

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

“Such as?”

He waved toward the trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He did, did he?”

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

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

“Coffee,” he announced with a broad grin.

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

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

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

“You should wear it,” Erin said softly.

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

“His cloak.  You should wear it.”

Now regarding her, I asked, “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Our eyes met.

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

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

“For luck,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knelt beside him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then we must be in the right place.”

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

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

He stared into the olive wood cup.

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

“No?”

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

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

“Sooo...we’re boned?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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