Chapter Ten: Wing Thing
The wyverns are coming.
He holds his blade ready, as do I. Yet I do not move to close with him. Nor does he advance. We glare across the distance between us. A star blazes upon his chest — brightness likewise rolls down lanes of light toward him from where I stand. The wind whips his golden cloak about his waist and shoulders even as it billows Merlin’s cloak out behind me.
We are caught within a shifting collage of nearly identical images as seen through the eye of some astral honeybee. Scenes with subtle differences and variations swim in the space in which we are embedded. He looks through the eye of the bee, while I do the same, each of us a frozen mirror forever facing reflected infinities, suspended in the void, pure and perfect and unchanging.
Each separate slice of time spread before us is a different view of the next moment, a specific take to try for, and I do try, try to hold onto one of the perspectives where I am the only one standing. Yet this shivers and slips away. For this other, the only one here besides myself, possesses the same ability and seeks to bring us to a moment where I am in pieces and falling while he towers triumphant — for the shadow of an instant looming large, and overwhelming the alternatives before wrested away to vibrate against what I have summoned. The competing visions are lost among the swarm, and we are left hovering amidst the flowering field of time.
The unfolding “now” stutters, always on arrival, on the verge of becoming yet not quite here...
Drawing rein, the scene ahead steadied. Yet still was that form of chaos recognized across the inhabited worlds — war — as the rest came up on either side, bringing their horses to a halt.
Mounted on the backs of elk or sambar the color of wine, a battalion of the furry fellows from the forests of Ri’ik moved through the swirling smoke and dust of the battle plain, weapons and armor catching flickers of ghostly light. Fiery wheels of destruction were launched from their arbalests, ballistae, trebuchets and crossbows to fall among slender dark elves astride giant brown lizards.
“No guns, no tanks?”
Maio, now looking more at home in his uniform, sat calmly on a red-gold sorrel to my left, Renée on the other side of him, barely in view. After sparing him a brief look, I swung my gaze back toward the rout of Zirlar’s troops.
“I decided against them,” I answered, “and Benedict concurred. Combustibles are highly unstable here.”
“Guns jamming and going off in your hands?”
Something was going on at the lip of Chaos, on the high ground overlooking the plain.
“Or falling into the wrong ones,” I responded. “Renée...”
“In the pack you carry there is a kind of lens or crystal, about the size of an egg.”
“You need it?”
She urged her mount forward a few paces, dug into the pack, retrieved the object and held it up.
“I’ll throw it to you, okay?”
She tossed it straight to me. Catching it, I felt for the invisible writing etched into the thing’s surface and raised it to my eye. In the lens, things were altered. The pall hanging over the fighting was no longer a dirty, obscuring cloud, but rendered transparent as a shadow. Outlines and details were sharper, and parts of the prospect were highlighted by inexplicable lines and designs of soft light. Curious. Applying pressure, I snapped it into a new shape to boost its magnification, and regarded the heights by the abyss.
Charging up from the bottom of that final slope were a troop of the dark elves, their long white hair flowing behind them, led by a nobleman in orange armor mounted on a copper-colored steed. Further up, near the top, a tall warrior riding a black-striped crimson stallion waited with eight knights, outnumbered four or five to one.
The outlook was grim, possibly hopeless. Why make a stand there? Why make a stand at all?
At their backs, just a few yards above Benedict and his small band, ran the uneven line of the ridge. To the left it dipped a little before rising sharply as a sheer scarp unsuitable for anything but thrill-seeking attempts to defy gravity. On the other side the ridgeline rose more gradually and the angle, while steep, did not preclude careful, unhurried ascent.
Then I saw a hint of movement, something wavering atop the more scalable slope, amid the rocks to the right, wedged within them, large, fifty feet or more from one end to the other (probably more), black and smooth, made up mostly of curves, a cross between a frisbee and a kite, nudged from time to time by the air currents rising from the chasm.
The prototype for Random’s dream to render Amber proof against military conquest, a chimera assembled from Merlin’s and Martin’s search for technologies transferable to the immortal city, the experimental airship I had nearly destroyed when I had returned to the Courts pursued by a dragon.
The wind falls off. A series of gusts buffet us. A steady, though shifting, breeze takes over. Disorienting, as there are few points of reference here. Blackness everywhere, yet illumination enough to see by and flashes of light randomly appearing and disappearing in the distance.
Vibrations run through the surface beneath my feet.
Cracks in the stasis holding us...I change my grip on Grayswandir, shift my feet...my enemy also moves, bringing himself half a pace closer...for a moment the visions recede and time sluggishly resumes...
The visions come rushing back, closing around us as we both struggle to slip into mutually exclusive versions of the Courts of Chaos...the world shudders and once more neither of us can move...but now we know that soon, soon we will cross swords...soon one or the other will fall...will fall forever...
“How can you be sure?” I wondered, “That there is a traitor, I mean.”
We were in the study. The things I had dumped on the desk had been returned to Merlin’s pack. Benedict was returning a pamphlet to a bookshelf and turning toward me.
“Though,” I added, “I will grant one or two of Caine’s actions might be characterized as suspicious.”
A large map of the region near the Courts too big for the desk was spread across it and hanging off the edges. Benedict pushed a piece representing an enemy battalion into position. With that same lifeless hand, he spread a small stack of pasteboards across an empty sector of the map. Reaching forward with his good hand, he named them as a finger deftly flipped them face up, one by one.
They were all Trumps, of course.
“You’re including me among the disappearances?”
A nod, and he turned his head to regard me.
“No word of the youngsters for months. The dramatic disappearances of Bleys and yourself at the Arena. The four of you then missing for years, as time is reckoned in Amber. Next Dworkin is lost. And finally Random vanishes, perhaps while investigating these events. Or perhaps not.”
Dworkin. I wanted to ask what information Benedict had concerning what had befallen Amber’s sorcerer-in-residence. In light of my recent encounter with Dworkin, however, it seemed likely I knew more than my brother did. Which wasn’t a whole lot. Still, there were enough overlapping threads to make me wonder. At that moment I decided to hold onto the question for another time.
Instead, I went with, “You believe Zirlar, Raum and their allies came after Random directly?”
“No,” he answered, no longer looking at me, pushing thoughtfully at the Trumps, “not directly. But a trap? Not impossible...”
He shifts his grip on the hilt of his sword. The light — the lights —are changing, what I see changes. He changes. A lord of Chaos, he is changing, too, his form melting, taking shape, melting again, moving toward something new...
Making sure of my own grasp, I loosen my wrists and shoulders, feel the weight of Grayswandir, prepare for the attack that is coming.
Time halts, starts up again, stumbles...many of him are coming toward me, many of me are raising the silver blade in defense...
Horns on his head now...
The visions are past, but an old vision returns...I lift Grayswandir above my shoulder, draw back...somewhere this was already written, this has always been and will always be...I know what I must do...
Grayswandir flies through the space between us.
The horned one brings up his blade, my hurled sword, deflected, falls to the hard black hide under our feet, skips to the side. I am helpless and unarmed.
Eyes of flame, horns of a beast, lower half of his face half-human, half-snout, lights playing about his weapon as he brings it down upon me...
I lowered the glass, sweeping the place with my gaze: Llewella on her gray Lipizzan, her green tresses falling to her shoulders, her eyes on me; Maio on his sorrel peering ahead toward the ridge, trying to see what I had seen; Renée sitting calmly upon her white mare; Sir Roricon with his helm off and staring at the corner of the canyon the explosives of Avalon had opened, seeming stunned by the scale of enemy losses.
My left hand closed about the Diamond, and I raised the glass once more, looking through it while also looking within myself, trance-like, seeing the Pattern, a feeling of déjà vu descending upon me, everything blurring in the twisting of space wrapping around us...
I closed my eyes, drew my right hand and the glass away, opened them.
It was obvious there had been a significant alteration. Maio, Renée and Llewella were turning their heads this way and that, trying to understand what had just occurred. From the back of his bay charger, our knight of Avalon, Roricon, simply gaped at the scene spread below us.
We were near the head of a slope, and down near the bottom there they were: Zirlar, Ojin, their knights and a handful of troops. Emulating my comrades, I turned Mirage enough to verify my suspicions and saw behind us Benedict and the small group he led.
The distance between points in the regions about the Courts tends to be an uncertain thing, so I could not say for sure, but we had all just been shifted a half-mile to a mile from where we had been. As soon as I understood this, I believed I understood the rest.
As had happened on the night Caine had attempted to assassinate me, we had been transported by the power of the Diamond as I had once been transported by the power of the Jewel. My action, taking hold of the gem, summoning the vision of the Pattern, this had been so involuntary that I was left questioning what had truly transpired. Had I called up something from the talisman? Or had it called up something from me?
This was not the first time I had felt as though I were moving through a dream, a spectator to my own actions. What was troubling me more and more was the possibility that something besides my will at times seemed to be in control of what I was doing. The notion that some external agency could willy-nilly puppeteer or program me was deeply unsettling, something I would have to unravel and remedy...
But not now.
Benedict and his band were already moving to join us as I turned to my friends from New York.
“You two,” I called, and pointed up to where Wing Thing
swayed like a buoy in the air currents generated by the abyss, partly obscured by the intervening rocks, “That airship is our prize — make sure it does not fall into enemy hands.”
Seeing them hesitate, I said with a bit more emphasis, “Go!”
The white mare began moving off at a walk, bearing Renée up at an angle toward where the ship was moored a few yards west of us.
Hesitating, Maio suggested, “I can help,” and his hand fell to the hilt of his saber.
“You can,” I agreed, “by securing that vehicle for us. You’ve flown before, you’re the man for the job.”
“Waiting for you up there is a large powered glider. Benedict made you an officer. These are your orders.”
A curt nod and he got his horse moving at a quicker pace than Renée’s mare, just as Benedict and the others reached us.
Like me, Benedict rode without full armor, trusting in his fighting skills and the strength and endurance which were his as a son of Oberon. But his jacket was leather, metal disks sewn into it to protect vital spots. Also, he rode a horse larger and tougher than those found in most shadows, a beast known in many worlds as the warhorse Glemdenning.
Three of the knights riding with him I knew from our covert operation — Fredigar, Walram, Langevin — but the other five were new to me, and all bore somewhere on their equipage the device of the oak tree against a sunset.
“You must tell me how you managed that trick without a Trump,” Benedict said by way of greeting, once he was close.
“When I know, I will tell you,” I told him, and then gestured toward the approaching force. “How many do you reckon?”
“Altogether, I number them at forty.”
“So a little worse than three to one,” I calculated, glancing at Llewella, who already had out her bow.
Seeing my sister prepare, the five new knights also brought forth their bows.
Benedict rode Glemdenning over to Llewella and looped a quiver about her saddlehorn, instructing her, “Use these first.”
Then my brother issued a set of terse orders. We broke into three groups, with me off to Benedict’s left with Sir Fredigar and two of the new fellows, Llewella to the other side with Walram, Langevin and one other, the rest with Benedict in the center, arrayed in a crescent formation as we waited for them to come.
When they were near enough, Benedict gave the signal, raising his katana and then lowering it abruptly. The arrows flew, catching fire in flight, sowing havoc where they fell.
There were archers among the dark elves. A couple of their arrows struck Benedict, embedding themselves in his light armor. One came toward me, but a sudden gust caused it to sail just past my shoulder. The arrows did no harm to the knights they struck, protected by heavier armor than what Benedict wore, save for Sir Roricon, who groaned and fell from his saddle.
Volleys flew two more times at my brother’s command, and by then the survivors were very close. He raised and lowered the katana a fourth and final time.
While wishing to do justice to the dark elves, who fought bravely, it was nevertheless over very quickly. We tore through them with our first charge, wheeled and charged again. Disorganized, several of them still on fire, their numbers already reduced by our archers, we made quick work of them. A few of them fled once their doom became apparent. But even before it was over, I knew something was wrong.
When I looked around there was no sign of either Zirlar or Ojin. With a sickening feeling, I rode out of the fray, charged up the slope, drew rein.
Movement atop the ridge. Was it Maio or Renée? Or someone else?
Shaking the reins, I urged Mirage on as fast as he could go. We struck a kind of path and made better time. The path led through the rocks atop the ridge, then up to a wide area ringed with boulders like a shallow bowl. And filling almost half that space was Wing Thing
All the mooring lines seemed to have been cast free. All the same, the ship was hovering five or six feet off the ground. The horses of the two lords of Chaos stood nearby.
Dismounting, I ran toward the belly of the vehicle, crouching a little, and saw the lower hatch had been left open. Also, two gnomes were there, holding what appeared to be oversized fishhooks with lines running from them to the rocks they were looped around. The hooks were fixed onto the hatch.
“Took you long enough,” said Narl.
“We can’t hold your storm cloud forever,” Smirt growled.
Wasting no time with the gnomes, unusually chatty though they were just then, I grabbed onto the hatch, pulled myself up into the entrance shaft. As I began climbing, I heard the hooks scrape against the hatch and clank lifelessly upon the rocks. The ship lurched upward.
When I reached the deck, I hung on the ladder a moment, considering what to do next. The vehicle interior was fairly spacious, fully equipped for a small crew — my guess when I first flew in it years earlier was that Random had intended it for recon, which is how I imagined it had been employed in the defense of the Courts.
There was a sound from somewhere above me. I looked further up the ladder, where the shaft giving access to the top of the fuselage had also been left open.
A face I recognized was staring down at me.
“I have the Dreaming Diamond I took from you,” said Zirlar, “and I am waiting for you on the back of your black bird.”
Staring at that face, recalling the beatings of Bleys, Merlin and myself on the day of betrayal at Ygg, I felt a power moving within me, a fire.
“I am waiting for you,” Zirlar repeated.
...my left hand shoots forward as I pivot, trying to side-step the blade as I reach for his wrist, miss, seize briefly on his bicep, seeing my death in his eyes...hooking my right foot behind his left I lean into him with my shoulder...feel the edge bite my arm...
“You have brought everyone in?” I asked dubiously.
Benedict had retrieved all the Trumps except for mine from the map of the Courts. He laid down new ones, spreading them like any professional dealer in Vegas.
I named them as they appeared.
A small nod as he said, “This war is bigger than anything between the two of you.”
“Okay...well, let’s see...who else?...Fiona?”
“We need everyone, Corwin.”
The firelight, playing on the side of his long, lean face, gave my older brother a somewhat sinister cast as I tried to push the memory of our recent duel away from me. It didn’t help much that this man who hardly ever smiled was faintly smiling now.
“Honestly, Fiona I understand,” I started, “we all know she prefers to be involved and near the center of things, but...”
He raised his eyebrows: “‘But’?”
“Llewella? She likes to be as far from the center as she can safely get. She’s a historian and antiquarian, not a warrior.”
“She is our sister.”
“She will fight for Amber,” Benedict stated simply, “anywhere the fight takes her.”
“You’re asking a lot of her.”
“Mayhap,” he said, pausing before adding, “but she will trump you to the battlefield once you have completed your mission and reported to me,” and here he touched the map at the approximate spot where Llewella and her reserve troops, my furry friends from Ri’ik, would be stationed.
“And what of Caine?” I asked, surprised by the coldness in my voice when I heard it.
“We need someone to watch over Amber,” my brother said, staring at the map.
“Then leave Llewella in Amber and put Caine in the middle of things to trump me to the battlefield.”
Benedict glanced upward then, his gray gaze seeking mine, the firelight glinting on the suit of armor behind him as he said, “I do not trust you with Caine.”
Nodding, I looked back to the pieces on the map, using the ensuing silence to take in the nuances of Benedict’s strategy.
After a minute or so, I said without looking up, “That’s wise.”
...we stand frozen...neither moving a muscle, the crooked sword embedded in my arm and yet even my blood refuses to flow on the dark metal...
...we are as close as we have been during the contest between us, and we are statues...
...the Dreaming Diamond shines like moonlit ice on the silver chain about his neck, yet it also hangs from an identical chain where it lies upon my chest. Though I do not know how this is possible, I am aware of a single basic fact: I have recovered the stone from Tir-na Nog’th — twice. Can two versions of this pendant, which somehow contains, shapes or opens up reality itself, truly exist? Or are they one and the same? Is this an illusion, or an example of something only ever seen in the subatomic realm and never at macroscopic scales? Is the Diamond capable of bilocation?
...and we remain locked in combat, in the moment where my opponent will remove my arm...
...upon a time, here under the Chaos sky, I once cast a Pattern while lost in the Jewel of Judgment and drawing upon my memory, upon myself, bringing a new reality into being...
...reality is found within...
...the gem blazes where it rests against me...everything shimmers in silver...my right hand migrates outward a snapshot at a time in stroboscopic motion...the dream of the Goat as I slept before my tomb comes to me now from the day I returned to Amber...from where it has fallen, Grayswandir flies to my hand...
...years ago, at the beginning of all this in Tir-na Nog’th, I used Grayswandir to wrest the Diamond from the ghost of Oisen...now, in an echo of that event, I hook Graywandir under the chain and flick it, watch the gem fly up into space...
...like a tree thawing, movement returns to me, I step away from this king of Chaos, his blade comes free of my arm...yet he does not move, cannot move...
“Zirlar, I free you and present you with a choice: Face me...or face the abyss.”
The silvery pulses slow and fade, the Diamond dims, competing futures relinquish their hold on the present, the visions collapse in upon themselves, moment follows moment, time is once more as it was...
My enemy does not hesitate. He turns toward where his stone has flown, runs and leaps from the top of Wing Thing
into the flickering not-quite-empty void...
And I watch as he is borne aloft by a wyvern and carried off into the star-churning night.
Turning to the hatch, I take one last look around before climbing down the ladder, then close the thing behind me. Down hand over hand, and then I step off into the cabin.
How many years between when Random ushered me into this interior and now? Mild sodium-like illumination comes up from the spokes in the floor and down from those in the ceiling. Behind me a door leading to whatever occupies the space just ahead of the tail. To either side, guages, levers, tanks, three sets of double bunk beds opposite a compact galley. Up in front a wide view plate above a dashboard with its own dials, levers and switches, seats for pilot and co-pilot as well as seating for four additional crew or passengers.
The co-pilot seat swivels around.
“He went down the ladder,” Renée says.
“The Tiger Man!” she exclaims, “The dude who held me hostage and made my father fly this thing, the ass-hat who told us to shut up or die as he sabotaged the controls, the one who said you had gone up top to meet your well-deserved fate.”
“Ah,” I respond evenly, feeling the heat of her anger and terror and contrasting it internally with my own emotionally depleted state, “the Tiger Man. What about you two? How are the both of you holding up?”
“Um, besides being scared to death and about to crash and burn, we’re fine.”
“Then,” I tell her as I grab onto the ladder and begin to climb down it, “please excuse me while I go deal with the Tiger Man.”
It is not that long of a climb and I am looking down the whole time. When I see him there, hanging from the bottom rungs, I stop.
He is looking down into a darkness that is somehow boiling, a lack of light which seems to swirl, the currents visible in the paths taken by the motes of light moving within it, and as I stare into it with him my mind is caught in it, seeking I know not what in the interweaving illusory strands which seem to arise in response to one’s gaze...
The head turns, the golden eyes regard me, and I see something in that furred and striped visage which I had missed in our encounter on the Wheel...I see nobility...
“He said he would come for me,” and the low resonant voice is nearly human, “After finishing you, he said he would come.”
“Well, you see how that worked out.”
“I saw him fly away. He did not look back.”
“Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but his track record when it comes to keeping his word might generously be described as ‘not great.’ Why don’t you come back up, and we can share stories about how not great he is?”
“You do not understand. We are all going to die.”
“The floor will be open to any subject,” I assure him, “but there isn’t a lot of time; best you come up now.”
“You, Corwin of Amber,” he announces, the golden eyes blinking once, “have been a worthy foe. Look for what you seek in Thelbane. Now...I die the final death.”
Sensing this coming, I lean out as far as I can and reach for him — a useless gesture.
The darkness seethes more intensely and some of the flecks and arcs of light are indigo and brightening as Ojin falls into them and can be seen no more.
The image of Ojin staring upward and growing smaller was still with me when I stood once more on the deck. Absorbed in their efforts to regain control of the ship, neither of my companions seemed to notice my return.
“Party’s about over,” I announced as I came forward, taking note of the damage to the dashboard, “and we should be going.”
“Going where?” Renée asked absently.
“Wait,” Maio said, meeting my gaze briefly before returning to his examination of the flight controls. “I know what they did.”
“And you think you can fix it. Sorry, we’re out of time.”
Lifting my gaze from his attempts to elicit a response from the controls, I looked past him toward where Renée was staring, toward the scene filling the view plate.
Some of the structures were technically towers despite the unusual concepts expressed in many of their designs, others were realizations of pure geometric abstraction, some were forms found in the natural world — a fern, a fish, a frozen waterfall — expanded to stupendous scale where one of these might hold the contents of a town, still others closely resembling ordinary objects of artificial origin like the thing that seemed to be a mammoth microscope filled with inhabited space — château, entertainment venue, temple? — some dark, some faintly luminous, some brightening-fading-brightening in slow pulses, all sliding with somnulent lassitude upon the silver surface of the lake filling much of the caldera or crater on the summit of the volcano or the pole of the tidally locked asteroid — it was never clear what the black bulk beneath the vast lake truly was, but to everyone who would ever set eyes upon it the place was the Courts of Chaos.
Will-o-the-wisps trailing about it like a dream-spun swirl of autumn leaves slowed to a fraction of natural speed, rooted to the northern verge of the isle known as Melgem, forever facing the infinite manifestations of reality known as Shadow, the mighty needle spiraling up, up into the dimensionless dark like some partly melted multicolored candle...where it was set like a barbican giving access to the city-in-motion beyond, this was the one thing clearly not moving, this was Thelbane, this was the Tower of Glass.
It was growing larger and closer with each passing second.
“Yeah,” Maio agreed, “I think I can fix it.”
“They threw the autopilot lever,” I reminded him, “and then broke it.”
He had his dagger out, was digging down to where the stub of the lever was somewhere below the dashboard, and said grimly, “If you can go, go — I will stay so more lives are not lost.”
Well past the point of arguing any longer, I shut up and instead reached for my Trumps. But which to try, here at the one place in existence where they were least likely to work? I almost turned to look at the parachutes stowed aft, but stopped myself. What good would they do, here above the abyss which had already consumed Ojin?
“What are you doing?” Renée asked, seeing me unmoving, maybe sensing the coiled tension in my stance.
“Thinking what to do. My Trumps are not much good here.”
Reflexively touching Merlin’s pack, she said, “What about the ones on the inside of the cloak?”
“What do you mean?”
But as soon as I put forward the question, I knew she was right, realized I had actually known for awhile that the patches sewn on the inside of my son’s cloak were Trumps of some sort. Why had my mind turned away from this knowledge until now? I didn’t know.
“This place is your son’s home, right?”
“Why would he fill the inside of his cloak with gateways to places that couldn’t be reached from here?”
Unclasping the cloak, I removed it and held it before me, at last giving it the close scrutiny which I had been putting off. Almost immediately, I noticed a patch depicting a place known to me.
“All right,” I said, moving to stand closer to her, “here we go. Look with me now.”
The scene described by the patch stirred, shifted, sharpened...the scents of water, lilies, and wet stone reached us.
As I hesitated, Renée said, “He means it, and he knows more than he ever lets on — he is staying.”
Still I hesitated longer. I glanced away from the Trump — just for an instant — and saw how close the tower had become in just the last couple of minutes.
“Okay,” I said, “if you’re ready...”
She was, and I was. The scene before us grew larger, nearer. We stepped toward it.
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