It was 'round midnight when I caught up with Chorovius. "Learn anything interesting?" I asked.
"Oh, indeed, old chap. Shall we retire to the library and compare notes? With perhaps a bit of covert research on the side?"
"Capital suggestion," I replied, starting towards the library. "So you've chatted with a few of our cousins?"
"Makes you wonder how we're related to them, eh?"
He shrugged. "At least the ladies are fetching."
"Did you get a chance to talk to Diana? I believe she's the only one I've missed so far."
"Yes. She learned tonight that her mother is dead, and it's hit her pretty hard. Frankly, I'm surprised she's doing as well as she is." Chorovius shook his head gently, sighed. "What about Elise?"
"Either she's an amazingly good actor, or next to her I'm a regular Machiavelli. This is her first trip here, and she only wants to figure out what is going on and make friends." I stopped briefly. "Come to think of it, those are more or less my primary interests here, as well."
Chorovius laughed. "Are you sure you're not the innocent being pulled into the lovely lady's web?"
I grinned back. "Not that particular lady's."
"We've hit it off very well," I replied. "Speaking of which, do you have any idea who might surprise people by not being dead?"
As I reached to open the library doors, Chorovius grabbed my hand and ssshhhed me. Now that I listened, I could hear bits of a heated conversation from inside. Random's voice was recognizable. "Where were you when we fought Chaos?"
A female responded, "We were indisposed. But we are here now, and the throne is by rights ours."
Another female cut in. "And don't give us any of that crap about the Unicorn. Even if we believed in it, it didn't have much there to pick from."
On cue, Chorovius and I looked at each other. I motioned us away from the door. "When I was exploring earlier tonight," I whispered, "I found several balconies in the library could be reached from the second floor. Shall we?"
"Sneak up and spy on the Regent of Amber?" He mulled it over ever-so-briefly. "Capital idea."
It only took us a minute to find the stairs, but embarrassingly long to find one of the balconies. Finally we crept out on one, staying in the shadows. As we crouched there, peeking through the railing, it struck me that Chorovius had referred to Random as regent, not king. Did he know something I didn't? Too late to ask.
The argument below was now in full force, pitting most of the surviving children of Oberon against the two newcomers. Random was saying, "If you think you can just show up after a few thousand years and act like you own..." when all hell broke loose.
A flash of fire brought an overwhelming stench of brimstone. The smoke suddenly filling the air had an orangish-red tinge, no doubt from the same light source that turned the chandelier into something horrific. Things were entering the room from the east, and as the smoke cleared, I could see a wall of bookshelves was missing, replaced with a portal to somewhere nasty. To the beat of an insane drumming, demons poured through it.
Chorovius stood up and drew his sword in one graceful motion. I followed suit. "Think you can close the portal?"
"If I can get some time with it and no interference."
I pointed over at one corner of the room, where Flora was surrounded by several six-foot-tall, winged demonesses. "Remember that time in Florin?" I asked.
"How could I forget?" he responded. "That time, our opponents weren't this attractive." Sword in hand, he leaped the twenty-five feet down to one of the great tables below, decapitating one of the taller horned demons on the way.
I swung over the railing, grabbed a tapestry, and took a barely controlled fall. As I hit the floor, one of the succubi rushed me, brandishing a wicked-looking dagger and a crazily twisting rope. Having no time to draw my blade, I surprised her by charging forward with my shoulder down--not my prettiest block, but certainly one of the prettiest things I'd ever blocked. As she rolled over, her rope twisted round my leg, but a quick chop with my now free sabre severed it. As she struggled to stand again, I separated her head from her shoulders. I regretted being forced to deal so with a beautiful female form, but I needed her out of the way to deal with the next two bruisers.
Several feet taller than the succubi and me, the balrogs weren't going to be easy to handle. But it was desperately important to get over to Chorovius--standing alone in a melee like this for very long was bound to be fatal.
Grabbing the first thing handy--the dead succubus's head--I threw a left-handed lob at the further balrog. He threw up his curved blade to protect his ugly face, and would have blocked it if my throw had been on target. But it went high and to the left, hitting him on a horn.
I didn't wait to see how it affected him; I charged the other balrog. Our blades met and laughing, he slowly forced mine away from him. I took advantage of the opening, putting my weight behind a kick to his knee. The leg gave out and he crumpled.
I was by in an instant, and the remaining fifteen yards to Chorovius were clear. I'd covered one-third the distance when something grabbed my legs and I fell, hard. I forgotten the balrog's barbed tail. It was all I could do to hold on to my sabre, and my bruises would be wonderful tomorrow.
Rolling over, I saw the other balrog start to swing his huge scimitar down on me, and I knew I was done for. Out of nowhere, a chair flew through the air, slamming him to the ground. Cutting the tail wrapping my legs, I bounced back to my feet. Halfway across the room, Géerard gave me a wave and a friendly smile, then picked up a large table and wielded it as a weapon.
I reached Chorovius's table just in time to skewer a succubus trying to sneak up on him. Picking her up on my blade, I threw her at the balrog who limped back after me. I yelled, "For Harry, England, and Saint George!" and leapt to the table. I was dismayed that being skewered and thrown didn't seem to have bothered the succubus very much.
>From here I could see the character of the battle had changed. A second wave of creatures had brought a number of unique creatures. Random was threatened by a huge wolf-headed figure in chainmail, now smacking its gigantic mace into its hand with an awful look of anticipation. The redheads would soon be facing a naked, crimson-skinned humanoid, complete with horns, hooves and wings. A perfectly proportioned female in silver plate mail and golden mask moved towards Gwynfar and Biscilla.
And a great square bodied creature with red-orange skin lumbered at Flora. I didn't like the way it leered at her from its misshapen mouth.
"So, old chap, shall we offer our services to lovely Florimel?" Chorovius asked, his blade slicing into another succubus as he spoke.
I quickly surveyed the intervening space. It wasn't going to be easy. But what worthwhile thing was? "Indeed. On the count of five?"
In unison we roared "One, two, FIVE!" and leapt into a crowd of demons. We'd been through more than a few scraps together, and our blades were remarkably well-coordinated.
"Have you observed their wings?" Chorovius asked. For emphasis he reached over and hacked a wing of the balrog who was giving me trouble.
"Not especially," I responded, reciprocating the favor by piercing the breast of a succubus on his side. It bought him a little time, but didn't seem to slow her down very much. This was starting to get discouraging.
"Notice how they're leathery, much more so than the succubi."
"So?" I now got a better look at my balrog, and realized I was once again squared off with my limping friend. Didn't he ever give up? I dubbed him Chernabog.
"What creatures' do they resemble?"
"Hmmm...pterodactyl?" Repeatedly I had to demonstrate that I had let him deflect my blade during my earlier charge, and my arm was getting sore.
"Not exactly what I meant. Don't they resemble a certain artist's work?"
Not to me. I tried to remember old McPherson had taught me about situations like this.
"So you think..." I started, trailing off to give him a chance to answer.
Then I remembered! Quickly I had the odd, rhythmic pattern going, with a speed which seemed unlikely from one my size.
"I think the Patternfall War was but the warm up for what is to come."
In many ways this trick used my musical skill as much as my fighting skill. Both rely heavily on patterns; and the trick is knowing when following the pattern is important, and when one must deviate.
"Did you get why they call it that? As I understand it, not only did the one Pattern not fall, but it is possible that another was created." I matched action to word, and my shift caught old Chernabog off guard. He paid the price by losing an arm.
"My impression is that at one point they believed the Pattern destroyed, and the name they gave it then stuck."
My now one-armed pal gave me a huge grin, and his attack increased in fury. Luckily he wasn't nearly as effective with one arm gone.
"Seems an awfully silly thing for the victors to do. Why not the `Battle of the Abyss' or such?" We traded hits on the shoulder, but mine went deeper. For the first time, Chernabog seemed to be weakening.
"Doesn't sound as good as Patternfall."
Time to shake things up. "Old friend, perhaps we should take the high road?"
I made a wild hit on Chernabog's sword arm, knocking it out of line. I dived at his legs just as Chorovius took him out high. Chorovius rolled back to his feet as I cut the tenacious creature in half.
Having bought myself a little breathing room, I tried to spot Flora. It was easy to see the succubus hovering above the corner when Flora had stood. Two more stayed just out of Flora's reach, lashing her with their ropes. She was moving more slowly than normal, but as I shifted in an effort to see what was slowing her down, a scimitar whizzed in front of my face.
"Time's a-wasting, Chorovius," I said, parrying. "Flora's in trouble."
Sweat stung my smoke-irritated eyes as Chorovius and I fought our way across the floor, leaving a trail of crippled demons in our wake. About halfway there, the ferocious sounds of the battle were drowned out by a terrible crash. In the dazed pause that followed, I stole a glance around the room and saw that the large double doors that were the main entrance to this room had been blown off their hinges. The creatures starting pouring out into the rest of the castle.
"Shall we save the castle or Florimel?" Chorovius asked.
"Let our cousins take care of the castle."
With the cork out of the room, the pressure inside went down. Through the thinning crowd, I saw Gwynfar and Biscilla's male companion go down, defending them against Golden Mask. Géerard barreled his way out of the library.
After making quick work of a patch of succubi, we broke into the clear and reached Flora's corner just in the nick of time. Two dead attackers lay dead at her feet, but the two remaining had her entwined in their ropes. As I watched, the cords wound themselves more tightly, forcing her arms together.
Chorovius was still dealing with one of the balrogs, so it was up to me to save the day. I ran one of her captors through, kicking it out of the way. The remaining one took to the air, dragging my aunt after it. I slashed her tether, reaching forward and grabbing her with my left hand as I brought my sabre to a guard position. I must have looked the very model of the old school of sword-and-sorcery cover art--the burly gentleman, shirt in tatters, holding the impossibly beautiful maiden in one arm and naked steel in the other.
Then everything went dark.
The floor felt good against my back; I could relax here for a long time. But behind the ringing in my ears, I distantly could make out a pulsing, poly-rhythmic drum beat, and the clash of steel. I suspected I should open my eyes.
My view of the ceiling was being obscured by spots of red and something ludicrously tall. I blinked away the red spots, but the huge orange-red thing obstinately remained. Ram's horns curled over slit eyes, above a gaping mouth of irregular diamond shaped teeth. There wasn't much of a neck; the head seemed to sit directly on the broad shoulders.
As my eyes travelled down the creature's body, it started bending closer, a huge fist poised to crush me. I tried to roll over, but nothing seemed to work. Then that misshapen mouth was screaming in pain, and the fetid stink that hit my nostrils jump-started my brain. I rolled over, and saw what had caused the creature's inconvenience-- Chorovius's rapier stuck far into the back of its knee.
Chorovius had his grim look of triumph wiped off his face when the monster grabbed him in one of those squat hands and effortlessly lifted him over its head. My sabre was AWOL, so I rose to my feet and rammed my shoulder into the front of the knee with the rapier sticking out of it. I felt like I had tackled a tree, with similar effects--the tree just sat there and my shoulder developed a huge bruise.
Then it slowly toppled, right on top of me.
"The bigger they are, the harder they fall on you, eh?"
"Shut up and get me out of here."
Chorovius helped me untangle myself from the now unconscious creature. I looked up in time to see a trussed Flora passed through the portal. A second woman, whom I had seen but not met, was being similarly carried off. I looked around wildly for something that would lend itself to my use. I yelled "Cover me, Chorovius," dashed forward and grabbed the whip from a nearby fallen succubus, and snaked it out at my cousin. The distance was there, but my aim was lousy. The noises behind me suggested the giant was waking, but I had time for a second throw. I made it count, wrapping the whip around her waist, and jerked her back from the portal.
Damsel rescued, I braced myself for the inevitable blow. I was hit by a furious assault, but it was once again the aural and olfactory attack of the creature screaming. I turned in time to see Chorovius finish withdrawing his rapier from the critter's other knee. It roared its anger. Chorovius and I scrambled together, side-by-side for one final face-off.
A flash of blinding red brought the proceedings to a close. When my eyes started functioning again, the creatures and the portal were gone, leaving only dead bodies and battered Amberites.
"Are you okay?"
I used my pocketknife to cut the ropes from the lady I'd rescued, and threw them in a corner to keep them from crawling back onto her.
"I think so." She looked me in the eyes. "Thank you."
"Here's your sabre, Roland."
Great timing, Chorovius. "Thanks." I returned my attention to the woman. "I don't think I caught your name?"
"Perry, daughter of Florimel, grand-daughter of Oberon. Lady of Amber." She seemed to be in a state of shock. "You're Roland?"
"The one and only."
There was a commotion across the room, near Gwynfar and Biscilla. Géerard walked into the room, cradling a body in his arms. Elise followed, looking horribly upset. My uncle motioned for Julian to come over.
"This wouldn't have happened with someone competent on the throne!" Gwynfar snapped at Random.
"Or if Clarissa's children had tried to stop it. Doesn't this place have any magical defenses?" Biscilla echoed.
Fiona and Bleys, the two who were most likely to know the answer, had busied themselves inspecting the remains of the demons, and ignored the two. Random looked like he was about to answer, but Géerard's strong if unusually subdued voice cut through the conversation. "Michael is dead."
I glanced at Chorovius and Perry, wondering if they knew who Michael was. Perry was crying, and Chorovius softly said, "Julian's son."
Gwynfar hardly missed a beat, staring pointedly at Bleys. "We would have had the gate closed almost immediately if someone hadn't interfered."
Silence filled the room. In an unprecedented display of unanimity, we all ignored the sisters. We were just starting to understand the extent of the damage:
Random had a broken arm, suffered defending the Queen.
Collin had a decent sized puncture wound from a trident, stabbed from behind.
Baldric had taken a deep cut on his shoulder.
Martin had suffered a concussion early in the battle and spent most of the fight unconscious. Repeatedly trampled, he had several broken bones.
Flora was gone, dragged through the fiery portal from whence our adversaries had sprung.
Michael lay dead.