When I saw the police cars surrounding the hospital, fear pushed the rosy contentment of a good meal out of my system. Instinct, or perhaps simply my family's legendary self-involvement, made me worry for my friend inside.
The enclave's cops were out in full force: two heavy tanks, about twenty armored cars, maybe fifty cops running around. They had even brought one of their cyborgs. The citizens here expected this place to be safe, and anything which suggested it wasn't had to be quickly swatted down.
A small forest of guns tracked me as I walked towards the entrance. The movement from the cops' cars was echoed by the major weaponry on the low roof of the hospital. It stopped as soon as the systems identified me; in a moment my clearance was broadcast to cars, and their systems relaxed as well.
Inside, I took the elevator down to Calvin's level. The doors slid open to a scene of mass chaos. Maybe a dozen cops scurried around, doing a strange waltz with a number of shell-shocked hospital staff. The police were serious; their other cyborg was down here. He gave me a wink.
Nurse Bonser rushed up to me. "It was horrible! They just appeared in there, and tore him to shreds." She was in tears, her well-sheltered niche now confronted with the nastiness of world outside.
I could see that Calvin's room was liberally splattered in blood, and there wasn't much of anything human left in the center. The place already reeked of decay; without constant attention from the machines he had been hooked to, the rogue nanomachines in his system had ravaged what was left of his body.
I stared at the last bits of my old life slowly dripping down the wall. I knew I should leave, quickly, turn and walk away from this shadow, never to return. But I didn't have anywhere to go.
"This is the next of kin?" I heard someone ask behind me. I turned and saw the nurse nod; she didn't know that Calvin had met me only a few weeks before.
The questioning officer quickly sized me up. Apparently he liked what he saw, or perhaps the results of his computer search I suspected he had just received over his inskin. "Would you come with me, ma'am?" He led me to a nearby room.
After the usual not-so-pleasantries, he got down to business. "The security cameras have obviously been hacked; they show nothing unusual entering or leaving the room. We've got two webdancers checking out the systems now.
"The only nearby nurse reports that his assailants simply appeared in the room, tore him apart, and disappeared again. She may have been in on it."
He blinked. "Yes."
"She's a straight-arrow type. I don't suspect her."
"Frankly, neither do we. But this thing is bizarre, and we've got to check out every angle.
"Which brings me to my next question." He snapped open his briefcase and pulled out a roll of fine parchment, which he handed to me. "This was left at the site."
I unrolled it and read simply "Samhaoir--War is Hell." It appeared to be written in fresh blood; I didn't need a spell to guess whose. I carefully rolled it back up.
"Do you know who this `Sa-wa-eer' is?"
"Thank you," I said. "Most people don't pronounce my name correctly on the first try."
He blinked. "I see why you go by Sam." He waved at the message. "So, you think this is those creeps from Microsoft?" He'd obviously done his homework.
"I don't know. They're not exactly known for their skill at hacking, are they?"
He mercifully kept the rest of the questioning short. "So," he finally said, "we're at a dead end. My men have just finished sweeping this place, and there's nothing here. Preliminary indications from the webdancers are equally negative. Mr. Egan wasn't here long enough to develop any enemies.
"Which leaves you as the only suspect. Your alibi is rock solid; not only do multiple computers place you at the Crab, a random sampling of patrons present at the time suggests that beautiful brunettes still can attract a lot of attention. Besides, you were the one who brought him to the hospital in the first place, and you had many opportunities to take him out in a much quieter fashion."
"Which leaves matters up to me."
"Correct. You can engage our services for a more extensive search, at a substantial cost, especially if it ends up bringing us in conflict with the Microsoft Republic. Or you can let us drop it."
"Drop it," I said.
"Done. Now, if you'd give me back that parchment..."
I toyed with the idea for a moment. I'd no desire to take it with me. It might provide whoever made it with an easy way to track me, and it was certain that I couldn't prove anything with it. On the other hand, whoever was holding it might be in for a run of bad luck in the near future, and this guy had been decent to me. I'd no desire to cause his death.
"I'll keep it, thank you."
He stared at his reflections in my shades for a moment, perhaps wondering if there was more to this than he was seeing. Then he nodded and opened the door to let me go.
So it was nearly midnight when I walked out of the hospital, and wondered what to do next. Obviously Chaos was behind this; enemies I made during the war, I suppose. Still, that they would venture this far into territory claimed by Amber...
I thought as I walked. No need to risk returning to my apartment; it had nothing to offer me that I couldn't quickly find in shadow. Instead, I found a dumpster, pulled out the parchment and a lighter. I halfway expected it to explode when the flame hit it, but it merely started burning with a greenish flame. I tossed it in the dumpster, turned and started shifting.
The first thing to go were those horrible high heels. I can't believe that style made it well into the 21st century. My boots were so much more comfortable for walking. The conservative dinner dress went next, replaced by jeans and t-shirt. I undid my hair.
I worked towards a more ecologically sound shadow: green grass, a bright full moon unobscured by smog, a good healthy horse. Shades firmly on, I rode into the night.
I had basically two choices. I could go into Amber and ask for assistance there, or I could ride directly for Chaos. Amber was out; my relatives would laugh off the death of a mere shadow, certainly no reason to risk renewed conflict with Chaos. Worse, they might have something else they wanted me to do. I'd been out of touch for months, taking advantage of the uselessness of the old trump to keep them off my back.
So I rode to the border between order and entropy, idly singing a dirge from my youth in a language I was surprised I remembered. I shifted the clouds out of the sky, and then played with the stars a while, finally leaving my favorite constellation ahead to guide me. Not that it was particularly useful for the shadow shifting, but it cheered me up considerably.
If it was to be me against some portion of Chaos, probably on their home ground, I was going to need something powerful to help me. I could attempt to create a weapon useful against Chaos, but that would take quite a bit of time. But I already knew of one such weapon: Greyswandir, my father's blade.
Which brought me back to the other issue, the one I'd had on the backburner for so long. Dad. I'd lost touch after I walked the Pattern the first time. When I was recalled to Amber for the war, I learned that Eric had found him out in shadow, brought him back, burned his eyes out, and thrown him in the dungeon. They left him to rot, even when Chaos overran Amber. No one had heard from him since; no one, to my knowledge, had looked for him.
We'd been out of touch for so long that it was easy to put him out of my mind. After all, I was trying to rebuild the pieces of the life I had known. Now that I'd had that part of my life forced behind me, I could put some effort into finding him, as well.
So everything seemed to be pointing in the same direction. Find Corwin, find Greyswandir; the order was irrelevant. Both would help strike blows to Chaos.
Which, if you've managed to follow all this, would seem to make the trip to Ygg a waste of time. Sigh. Still, at a minimum it would help prevent Chaos from making a direct strike on me, while giving me more time to think things over.
It's hard to accept that all your friends are dead. Oh, certainly there are shadows of them; but those shadows do not remember you, or worse, remember distorted versions. I'd tried to deny it when I found Calvin, but now that he was dead the truth was painfully clear to me. It wasn't the brain damage that had prevented him from recognizing me. The Calvin I had known before the war was gone, swept away with the old Pattern.
These morbid thoughts and others filled my head as I wandered back and forth along the border between the Amber side of the universe and the Chaos side. Gradually it occurred to me that something was wrong--Ygg should not be this hard to find. The sky was excessively grey, considering the sun had yet to rise. And shadow-shifting was a touch harder than it should have been. There was something real about this shadow, something disturbing.
On my previous trip this way, the border shadows had teemed with life. They provided perfect conditions, enough change to create varied life and enough stability to sustain it; as a result, strange new species were produced almost every day, heaven for an evolutionary biologist. (Indeed, I had done a bit of research which suggested that Earth's evolutionary "big bang" was a result of its shadow crossing this border as it went from the sphere of Chaos to the expanding early sphere of Amber.)
But here the grass was dead, there were no signs of animals, and the sky kept on getting greyer. A musty smell filled the air, and the only sounds were made by me.
Nestled among bare branches of dying trees was a grey stone castle, giving the impression it had been abandoned centuries ago. Still, a pendent flew overhead, showing a falling star on a starry background. It alone of all I could see appeared to be new and fresh.
When I reached the great wooden gate, I knocked politely, careful lest I force my hand through the rot. When a minute had gone by with no response, I broke it down and entered.
The courtyard was as lifeless as the surrounding terrain. Suits of rusted armor littered the place, giving the impression that a great battle had been fought here. Something seemed wrong, though, and when I looked more closely I figured it out. None of the hardware showed any sign of battle damage.
As I circled the building, puzzledly searching for something that made sense, I saw something even more startling. Hanging in the air in front of me was a tear, a rift in shadow. A window to another world, one with an Amber blue sky, a grassy field, and a huge stone structure in the distance. Amazed, I raised my shades and looked at the rift with my bare eyes. It didn't go away. I lowered them back into place.
I picked up a small rock and tossed it through the rift; it flew through the air in that other shadow, bounced once there. A warm breeze brought the fresh clean smell of grass into the musty stillness of this place. I circled it, and noticed that when looked at side-on, it totally disappeared.
I shrugged, and headed for the front door. First things first.
Inside, guards lined the wall, leaning on it. They were the first living things I had seen in this shadow, and they looked like they were soon going to give in to the trend. I searched a bit before I found one who looked like he might have enough energy to speak.
"Hello," I said. "What place is this?" He had difficulty making a sound, so I continued. "Who rules it?"
"Brand. Is our king," he hasped out. "What is your business?"
"Just coming to pay my respects," I improvised.
"I'll notify..." he started, then seemed to grow faint.
"No matter," I said, grabbing pencil and paper from my pouch and scribbling furiously. "Give him this note."
He took it, said "Amber."
"This place is Amber." He coughed, tried to yell something, but doubled over, spasming.
I didn't stick to see if he recovered. I sprinted back outside, and the quick exit from this place--the rift. Approaching it from the correct angle, I could simply walk through, and I did.
A blinding flare of power rendered me nearly senseless, like staring into the sun before I got my shades. It was clear I wasn't in Kansas any more; for one thing, the world was in brilliant technicolor. It was a few moments before I realized the roaring in my ears was my own blood; a few minutes before I became acclimated to the feel of this place. It was like standing in the Pattern room; perhaps even more impressive--the Pattern's power was restrained, like a slow broad river, where this was more like a mighty waterfall and swirling rapids.
No surprise; this shadow looked to be seriously messed, glacier on my left and foam-flecked ocean on my right, both regions transitioning very abruptly to the irregularly grassy region I was now on.
Or perhaps I was seeing into more than one shadow. I didn't stick around to find out, but start jogging away from the keep and towards Amber.
I looked back into the rift; it was like black-and-white television.
That grey place may have a been an Amber, but it wasn't the Amber of Oberon. I'd say the Amber I remembered, but that place was destroyed in the opening salvo of the war. I had left as the rebuilding was just beginning.
The new Amber resembled the original pretty strongly, though it had a different flavor--lighter, airier, graceful towers reaching longingly to the sky combined with a strong earthy sentiment. As I puzzled over the new view, I heard several hoofbeats coming this way. I turned to see a group of tall, thin, elegant people ride by. I couldn't help but notice the pointed ears.
I sighed, and headed the way from which they had come: the new castle. The tricky part to this was getting in and out without getting snagged by someone who was technically my superior. I decided for the direct and speedy approach.
The four guards out front were also elves. They eyed me suspiciously; my blue jeans, t-shirt, and shades didn't seem to meet with their approval. "Who goes there?"
"Samhaoir." To my relief, there was a look of recognition in their inhuman eyes. "Is Corwin in?"
"Who?" The guards looked confused.
"Scratch that. How about Deirdre?"
"She's in. Would you like an escort to her rooms, Duchess?"
"That would be wonderful."
The castle had been completely designed, and redecorated. Not to my taste, but then, I didn't intend to be here very often.
Dierdre's rooms were a mess, but she smiled to see me. "Samhaoir. It's been what, six months?" She patten a place on the sofa next to her.
"Since the war, anyway. I don't know how long it's been around here. How's life in Amber?"
"It's still not like the old days. Racial tensions are running rampant in the city. The remaining humans hate the elves, and blame us for their presence. On top of that, Oberon is very sick."
"Sounds fun. Glad I'm not sticking around to deal with it."
"How long have you been in Amber this time?"
"About ten minutes. And I'm leaving again as soon as you answer me this question. What's happened to Corwin?"
Her face fell. "I'm pretty sure he's dead. You know what that bastard Eric did to him. He's not been heard from since Chaos overran the city."
"Nothing at all?"
"Shit. Well, thanks for your time. Next time I'm in town, I'll fill you in."
"You're going to look for Corwin?"
"Let you know anything I find out."
I was almost out the door when I thought of a last question. "Do you know where Greyswandir is?"
She looked at her reflection in my shades, then shook her head. I left the room, the castle, and the city as quickly as gracefully possible.
The breakfast at the inn was pretty crappy, but at least I'd gotten a good night's sleep. Now I crept slowly along the border between the ice-fields and the grassy region surrounding that keep of power. Approaching it slowly had removed the edge from my reaction to the power there.
Finally I judged myself at a reasonable distance, still out of the line of sight of the guards on the castle. I took cover behind an outcropping of the glacier. Peering over the top, I had my shades pull their usual binocular trick, so I could leisurely survey the place. First I checked the flag flying over the place; as I had guessed, the falling star flew there. Bringing my gaze down to the guards, however, I was surprised to see that they wore a different emblem--a lion rending a unicorn.
I paused and considered exactly why I had come here. Wasn't I supposed to be finding Corwin and avenging my friend? But the weirdness here seemed truly exceptional, worth taking a few moments to investigate. Not to mention that if Brand were truly behind this, he could prove a powerful, if possibly unstable ally. As one of Amber's exiles, he surely had no love for those who had mistreated my father.
And even if an alliance with Brand was not forthcoming, there was power here, with a capital P. (That rhymed with T and stood for trouble? Only time would tell.) If I could tap into the power at this keep, I might well be able to force a trump contact through to dad, no matter what was between he and I.
Excited at the prospect, I pulled my sketchpad out of my pouch, and got to work. It had been years, but it was easy to picture our last meeting. The dread of the upcoming twenty-first birthday, sure sign that it was time for an arranged marriage. Then he arrived, and literally took me out of it all, on a whirlwind tour of the real world and shadow. And the final view, as I looked back from the Pattern's center, and saw him smile...
The sketch went cold. He was alive! Now it was just a matter of concentration.
Nothing. Nothing at all. Wherever he was, he was unreachable from here. It would take power.
And I was near a great source of it.
I spent about ten seconds debating how to get into the keep, then decided to simply walk up to the front door. I headed back to the heart of the grassy region, and started in.
(Understand, I'm a very patient person. Ordinarily. Honest. But I was having one hell of a bad week so far, and I couldn't see how patience was going to get me anywhere here.)
Turned out I was not the only impatient person around. The guards starting shooting crossbow bolts at me as soon as I was on the outskirts of their range. Not friendly types, I guess. Their loss.
So I gave the guards the finger, ducked a bolt, ran back and dived gracefully through the rift.
On the other side, I rolled into a crouch and scanned for trouble. I needn't have bothered. The only thing that threatened was an overwhelming sense of depression at the pervasiveness of the grey. I stood and dusted myself off.
Maybe the reason the guards at the keep weren't friendly was that they knew what happens to friendly guards at the castle. The badly decomposed body near the entrance appeared to be the guy I had chatted with earlier; most of his comrades were dead, as well. No signs of violence; the greyness of this place got to them, I guess.
The new guard who had replaced him was waiting for me. "I've orders to take you to see Brand."
"Ah, I'm to be provided with an escort? Very well, lead the way." I gave him my arm, subtly offering him some support as he slowly led me through the twisted maze that was the path to the throne room.
It was just the sort of dump you'd expect to be the throne room of a hell hole like this. There were exactly three things of note in the room:
A throne which was relatively intact.
A young red-headed hunk which stood next to the throne. He looked to be maybe eighteen, and stood absolutely at attention, only acknowledging my presence with a slight flicker of his eyes.
And Uncle Brand, sitting in his throne. I'd never seen him before, but he was the spitting image of his old trump--except for the eye patch where his right eye should have been, and the stump where his right hand should have been. (And he wasn't sitting on a horse, either.)
I thanked the guard, checking to make sure he wasn't going to collapse when I let go of him.
"Hello, Uncle Brand."
"Hello, Samhaoir. How do you like my kingdom?"
"Well, it's a bit drab. But, on the bright side, it doesn't have elves."
"I know, I know, it's not Amber, but it's home. What brings you here?"
"I was looking for Ygg. You wouldn't know where it went to, would you?"
"Ygg is gone. I used it as firewood."
"Oh." My. "That explains why I had trouble finding it."
"Indeed. How is Oberon?"
"Sick, I understand. I've done my best to avoid him since the war. And my best has been quite successful so far."
"Waiting till you can collect your reward from him?"
"For me. Oberon wants my head."
The rest of it? I wanted to ask. "You needn't worry about me. I'm not some lackey of Oberon's."
"You heard what they did to my father, right?"
"Speaking of which, do you know what happened to dad after Chaos overran Amber?"
"I'm afraid not. You should probably ask Eric, Caine, and Julian."
"Really? I'll have to look into it." I didn't want to press this subject, and Brand didn't seem all that eager to comment any further. The young guy hadn't moved a muscle since I got here. "So, why is everything around here grey?"
"Undesired side-effect of my little project in the basement."
"You know," he started suddenly, "there is one favor you might do for me."
"I have a number of projects going at the moment myself."
"Understood. I'm not asking a commitment. But if you see something of mine in Caine's possession, I'd appreciate getting it back."
"What is it?"
"You'll know it if you see it."
"Fair enough. If I get a shot at it, I'll see what I can do."
"If you succeed, you will be amply rewarded. In fact, if you'd like, I'll give you a sample now." He stood up.
"Rinaldo, see to it that my throne doesn't fall apart while I'm gone."
"Ah," I smiled, "pleased to meet you, Rinaldo." He gave the slightest of nods.
Gesturing with his stump, Brand indicated for me to follow. He led me down a twisted path, certainly much different than the Castle Amber I remembered. Deep in the dungeons we trudged.
Our destination seemed to be the center of the greyness and decay. Rotting beams propped up the sagging ceiling. As I watched, one snapped, and the ceiling came a little closer.
There was a Pattern there on the floor, similar to that of Amber in shape and size, totally different otherwise. Its path was strange, somewhat disturbing, and erratic. Instead of glowing, it ate the dim light of our lanterns.
Brand tsked. "Better hurry up, Samhaoir. I don't know how much longer the ceiling will hold."
"You want me to walk that? Don't I have to be your kid or something?"
"Not with this thing. The rules are different here." He paused. "What the hell, I'll walk it right behind you, in the unlikely case you have any trouble."
The lure of another power was irresistible. Sure, it could be some sort of trap. But at this point, what did I have to lose?
I stepped onto the start, braced for the familiar shock of stepping on the Pattern. Nothing happened.
I quickly took several more steps and was delighted to find each step was as easy as the last. Clearly the rules were different here.
Then my next step found me in a field filled with dead flowers, under a pale grey sky.
What the hell? It disappeared as quickly as it appeared, leaving me back in the room. I stopped.
"Keep going!" Brand yelled from just behind me. "The one thing you can do wrong here is stop."
Through a gothic cathedral in ruins. The pale virgin in the grey dress appeared to be a very recent sacrifice, though she was pleasantly decayed.
Through empty space, darkness broken only by the occasional dim red star.
Each of the physically effortless steps brought a new horror to my vision. It had never occurred to me that there were so many ways for a universe to die.
A fire consumed a great tree, as three old women wailed from its roots.
I passed through what must have been the equivalent of the First Veil. Double exposure, a beautiful city with a cynical core overlaid by its final grey destruction.
An old man wept over the body of his dead younger self.
It started pounding on my brain, trying to force it to accept that shadow is just that, flimsy illusions we craft for ourselves to make it all bearable. There was great power in the knowledge, and great numbness. Strip away the facade and the cold grey world that remained was yours to command, if you could bear it.
The cathedral returned in all its gloomy grey splendor, a gutted hornless unicorn on the altar. Its sad eyes pleaded for help.
Brand, body nearly consumed in cancerous growth, stood laughing in the shaking highest tower of the collapsing Castle Amber. I heard an echoing chuckle from behind me.
Then I found myself in the center and it was all there with me, I think. Shadow was so much nothing; I'd never been anywhere real, hardly known anyone real. Despair filled me, and I grasped for something to cling to. Hate filled the vacuum in my soul, and I knew where I would go. Chaos. In particular, the scene of the final battle. From there I could fight my way in, die in glorious, pointless combat. I could almost see it through the grey film surrounding me...
"It won't work," Brand said, stepping beside me. "It's too chaotic to focus on."
As he said it, my vision disappeared. My hate fled with it, chased away by the urgent need to get out of there. I focused on the inn where I'd spent the night. Instantly it became clear that I was already there. A sonic boom, and Brand was gone, his room with him, and my own sense of understanding. How had that worked?
But I had more urgent problems at hand. As I watched, the color faded from the room, and the inn rotted. I ran for the window. My foot went through a decaying floorboard; I stumbled, cursed, and lurched through the window, taking a good chunk of wall with me. As I hit the ground painfully, the building collapsed. I rolled and hit something squishy; a brief inspection revealed it was the rapidly decaying corpse of a stablehand.
I was just off center of a killing zone. All around me were dead and dying peasants, rapidly becoming a uniform grey. From outside of the circle of death, a few peasants were already pointing at me, the sole healthy thing near the inn.
Or so it appeared. I wasn't so certain I was healthy. How far was this grey in my soul?
"Sorry." I felt the need to address the natives as I took my leave. "Didn't mean to devastate your shadow." I started walking quickly away, shifting as I went. I was relieved to see that my normal powers over shadow remained, and that the neighboring shadows had not been affected, and the effects did not follow me.
My sleep was fitful and restless. Several hours before dawn I gave in and got up. As long as it was dark, I could do some scouting at the keep.
Dodging the guard laying in the stable door was child's play; I probably could have done it from his snores alone if he hadn't shown up so clearly in the infrared. I liberated a horse, and woke the guard by jumping over him at a full gallop.
I love riding at night. The cool air against your check, crisp stars shining down. It's easy to imagine the world is more interesting than it really is; every shadow hides potential mysteries. It took me a while to figure how to adjust my shades so that they give me enough enhanced detail to shift by, without taking the mystery out of the ride. But now that I know how to do it, shifting at night is a pleasure of the highest order.
The ride was almost too short. Only moments after I brought the moonlit glacier into the scene, I saw the keep up ahead. I cursed: it was completely illuminated by some bright light source. There'd be no sneaking up tonight.
Comforting the horse, I rode around three-quarters of the place, staying just outside the circle of light. The odd construction of the building made every angle show a difference face, a different type of construction. But whether I looked at it from between bubbling pools of lava or while sliding across the ice, one thing was constant. This place was highly defensible, and guards were everywhere. I stopped counting when I reached thirty.
The power of this place sang in my veins, ran through my hair like static electricity. Sighing, I turned and trotted away. At least they hadn't seen me in the dark; that was something.
I galloped carelessly into the rising sun.