Jasra came over and stood to my left. I held the Trump so that we all had a clear view.
“Let us begin,” I said, and I moved forward with my mind.
A patch of light I had taken to be a stray sunbeam drifted from its position on the floor to a spot beside my coffee cup. It was ring-shaped, and I decided not to remark upon it since neither of the others seemed to take note of it.
I reached after Coral and found nothing. I felt Jasra and Mandor reaching also, and I tried again, joining forces with them. Harder.
Something? Something... I recalled wondering what Vialle felt when she used the Trumps. It had to be something other than the visual cues with which the rest of us were familiar. It might be something like this.
Something. What I felt was a sense of Coral's presence. I regarded her form upon the card, but it would not come alive. The card itself had grown perceptibly cooler, but it was not the same ice-edged chill I normally felt on achieving communication with one of the others. I tried harder. I felt Mandor and Jasra increasing their efforts also.
Then Coral's image on the card faded, but nothing came to replace it. I sensed her presence, however, as I regarded the void. The feeling came closest to that of attempting to make contact with someone who was asleep.
“I cannot tell whether it's simply a difficult place to reach,” Mandor began, “or-”
“I believe she is under a spell,” Jasra announced.
“That could account for a part of it,” Mandor said.
“But only part,” came a soft, familiar voice from near at hand. “There are awesome powers holding her, Dad. I've never seen anything like this before.”
“The Ghostwheel is right,” Mandor said. “I'm beginning to feel it.”
“Yes,” Jasra began, “there is something...”
And suddenly the veil was pierced, and I beheld the slumped form of Coral, apparently unconscious, lying upon a dark surface in a very dark place, the only illumination coming from what seemed a circle of fire drawn about her. She couldn't have brought me through if she wanted to, and—
“Ghost, can you take me to her?” I asked.
Her image faded before he could reply, and I felt a cold draft. It was several seconds before I realized that it seemed to be blowing upon me from the now-icy card.
“I don't think so, I wouldn't want to, and it may be that there is no need,” he answered. “The force that holds her has become aware of your interest and even now is reaching toward you. Is there some way you can turn off that Trump?”
I passed my hand across its face, which is usually sufficient. Nothing happened. The cold breeze even seemed to increase in intensity. I repeated the gesture along with a mental order. I began to feel whatever it was, focusing upon me.
Then the Sign of the Logrus fell upon the Trump, and the card was torn from my hand as I was cast backward, striking my shoulder against the edge of the door. Mandor lurched to his right as this occurred, catching hold of the table to steady himself. In my Logrus vision I had seen wild lines of light flash outward from the card before it fell away.
“Did that do the trick?” I called out.
“It broke the connection,” Ghost replied.
“Thanks, Mandor,” I said.
“But the power that was reaching for you through the Trump knows where you are now,” Ghost said.
“What makes you privy to its awareness?” I inquired.
“It is a surmise, based upon the fact that it's still reaching for you. It is coming the long way roundacross space-though. It could take as long as a quarter of a minute before it reaches you.”
“Your use of the pronoun is a little indefinite,” Jasra said. “Is it just Merlin that it wants? Or is it coming for all of us?”
“Uncertain. Merlin is the focus. I've no idea what it will do to you.”
I lurched forward during this exchange and retrieved Coral's Trump.
“Can you protect us?” she asked.
“I've already begun transferring Merlin to a distant place. Shall I do this for you also?”
As I looked up from pocketing the Trump, I noted that the chamber had become something less than substantial-translucent, as if everything were made of colored glass.
“Please,” the cathedral-window form of Jasra said softly.
“Yes,” came my fading brother's faint echo.
Then I was passed through a fiery hoop into a place of darkness. I stumbled against a stone wall, felt my way along it. A quarter turn, a lighter area before me dotted with bright points...
“Ghost?” I asked.
“I don't appreciate these interrupted conversations,” I continued.
I moved forward until I came to what was obviously a cave mouth. A clear night sky hung before me, and when I stepped outside a cold wind rubbed up against me. I retreated several paces, shivering.
I had no idea where I might be. Not that it really mattered if it brought me a breathing spell. I reached through the Logrus Sign for a great distance before I located a heavy blanket. Wrapping it about myself, I sank to a seated position upon the cave's floor. Then I reached again. It was easier to find a stack of wood and no trick at all to ignite a portion of it. I'd also been looking forward to one more cup of coffee. I wondered...
Why not? I reached again, and the bright circle rolled into view before me.
“Dad! Please stop!” came the offended voice. “I've gone to a lot of trouble to tuck you away in this obscure corner of Shadow. Too many sendings, though, and you'll call attention to yourself.”
“Come on!” I said. “All I want is a cup of coffee.”
“I'll get one for you. Just don't use your own powers for a while.”
“Why won't your action draw just as much attention?”
“I'm using a roundabout route. There!”
A steaming mug of some dark stoneware stood on the floor of the cave near my right hand.
“Thanks,” I said, taking it up and sniffing it. “What did you do with Jasra and Mandor?”
“I sent each of you off in a different direction amidst a horde of fake images flitting hither and yon. All you have to do now is lie low for a while. Let its attention subside.”
“Whose attention? What's attention?”
“The power that has Coral. We don't want it to find us.”
“Why not? I seem to recall your wondering earlier whether you were a god. What's for you to fear?”
“The real thing. It seems to be stronger than I am. On the other hand, I seem to be faster.”
“That's something, anyway “
“Get a good night's sleep. I'll let you know is the morning whether it's still hunting you.”
“Maybe I'll find out for myself.”
“Don t go manifesting unless it's a matter of life or death.”
“That wasn't what I meant. Supposing it finds me?”
“Do whatever seems appropriate.”
“Why do I have a feeling you're keeping things from me?”
“I guess you're just suspicious by nature, Dad. It seems to run in your family I've got to go now.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Check on the others. Run a few errands. See to my personal development. Check my experiments. Things like that. Bye.” `
“What about Coral?”
But the circle of light which had hovered before me spun from brightness to dimness and vanished. An unarguable end to the conversation. Ghost was getting more and more like the rest of us-sneaky and misleading.
I sipped the coffee. Not as good as Mandor's, but acceptable. I began wondering where Jasra and Mandor had been sent. I decided against trying to reach them. In fact, it might not be a bad idea, I decided, to fortify my own position against magical intrusion.
I resummoned the Sign of the Logrus, which I had let slip while Ghost was transporting me. I used it to set wards at the cave mouth and about my situation within. Then I released it and took another sip. As I did, I realized that this coffee could not possibly keep me awake. I was coming off a nervous jag, and the weight of all my activities was suddenly heavy upon me. Two more sips, and I could hardly hold the cup. Another, and I noticed that each time I blinked my eyelids were closing a lot more easily than they opened.
I set the cup aside, drew my blanket more tightly about me, and found a relatively comfortable position on the stone floor, having become something of an expert on the activity back in the crystal cave. The flickering flames mustered shadow armies behind my eyelids. The fire popped like a clash of arms; the air smelled of pitch.
I went away. Sleep is perhaps the only among life's great pleasures which need not be of short duration. It filled me, and I drifted. How far and for how long, I cannot say.
Nor can I say what it was that roused me. I know only that I was somewhere else and the next moment I had returned. My position had changed slightly, my toes were cold, and I felt that I was no longer alone. I kept my eyes closed, and did not alter my breathing pattern. It could be that Ghost had simply decided to look in on me. It could also be that something was testing my wards.
I raised my eyelids but the smallest distance, peering outward and upward through a screen of eyelashes. A small misshaped figure stood outside the cave mouth, the fire's remaining glow faintly illuminating his strangely familiar face. There was something of myself in those features and something of my father.
“Merlin,” he said softly. “Come awake now. You've places to go and things to do.”
I opened my eyes wide and stared. He fitted a certain description... Frakir throbbed, and I stroked her still.
“Dworkin..?” I said.
“You've named me,” he replied.
He paced, from one side of the cave mouth to the other, occasionally pausing to extend a hand partway toward me. Each time he hesitated and drew it back.
“What is it?” I asked. “What's the matter? Why are you here?”
“I've come to fetch you back to the journey you abandoned.”
“And what journey might that be?”
“Your search for the lady somewhere astray who walked the Pattern t'other day “
“Coral? You know where she is?”
He raised his hand, lowered it, gnashed his teeth.
“Coral? Is that her name? Let me in. We must discuss her.”
“We seem to be talking just fine the way we are.”
“Have you no respect for an ancestor?”
“I do. But I also have a shapeshifting brother who'd like to mount my head and hang it on the wall of his den. And he might just be able to do it real quick if I give him half a chance.” I sat up and rubbed my eyes, my wits finishing the job of reassembling themselves. “So where's Coral?”
“Come. I will show you the way,” he said, reaching forward. This time his hand passed my ward and was immediately outlined in fire. He did not seem to notice. His eyes were a pair of dark stars, drawing me to my feet, pulling me toward him. His hand began to melt. The flesh ran and dripped away like wax. There were no bones within, but rather an odd geometry-as if someone had sketched a hand quickly in a three-dimensional medium, then molded some fleshlike cover for it. “Take my hand.”
I found myself raising my hand against my will, reaching toward the fingerlike curves, the swirls of the knuckles. He chuckled again. I could feel the force that drew me. I wondered what would happen if I took hold of that strange hand in a special way.
So I summoned the Sign of the Logrus and sent it on ahead to do my handclasping for me.
This may not have been my best choice of actions. I was momentarily blinded by the brilliant, sizzling flash that followed. When my vision cleared, I saw that Dworkin was gone. A quick check showed that my wards still held. I perked up the fire with a short, simple spell, noted that my coffee cup was half full, and warmed its tepid contents with an abbreviated version of the same rendering. I reshrouded myself then, settled, and sipped. Analyze as I might, I couldn't figure what had just happened.
I knew of no one who had seen the half mad demiurge in years, though according to my father's tale, Dworkin's mind should have been largely mended whet Oberon repaired the Pattern. If it had really been Jurt, seeking to trick his way into my presence and finish me off, it was an odd choice of form for him to assume. Come to think of it, I wasn't at all certain that Jurt even knew what Dworltin looked like. I debated the wisdom of calling for Ghostwheel to solicit an inhuman opinion on the matter. Before I could decide, however, the stars beyond the cave mourh were occulted by another figure, much larger than Dworkin's-heroically proportioned even.
A single step brought it within range of the firelight, and I spilled coffee when I beheld that face. We had never met, but I had seen his likeness in many places in Castle Amber.
“I understand that Oberon died in redrawing the Pattern,” I said.
“Were you present at the time?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “but coming as you do, on the heels of a rather bizarre apparition of Dworkin, you must excuse my suspicions as to your bona fides.”
“Oh, that was a fake you encountered. I'm the real thing.”
“What was it then that I saw?”
“It was the astral form of a practical joker-a sorcerer named Jolos from the fourth circle of Shadow.”
“Oh,” I responded. “And how am I to know you're not the projection of someone named Jalas from the fifth?”
“I can recite the entire genealogy of the royal House of Amber. “
“So can any good scribe back home.”
“I'll throw in the illegitimates.”
“How many were there, anyway?”
“Forty-seven, that I know of.”
“Aw, come on! How'd you manage?”
“Different time streams,” he said, smiling.
“If you survived the reconstruction of the Pattern, how come you didn't return to Amber and continue your reign?” I asked. “Why'd you let Random get crowned and muddy the picture even further?”
“But I didn't survive it,” he said. “I was destroyed in the process. I am a ghost, returned to solicit a living champion for Amber against the rising power of the Logrus.”
“Granted, arguendo, that you are what you say you. are,” I replied, “you're still in the wrong neighborhood, sir. I am an initiate of the Logrus and a son of Chaos.”
“You are also an initiate of the Pattern and a son of Amber,” the magnificent figure answered.
“True,” I said, “and all the more reason for me not to choose sides.”
“There comes a time when a man must choose,” he stared, “and that time is now. Which side are you on?”
“Even if I believed that you ate what you say, I do not feel obliged to make such a choice,” I said. “And there is a tradition in the Courts that Dworkin himself was an initiate of the Logrus. If that is true, I'm only following in the footsteps of a venerable ancestor.”
“But he renounced Chaos when he founded Amber.”
“Good thing I haven't founded anything,” I said. “If there is something specific that you want of me, tell me what it is, give me a good reason for doing it and maybe I'll cooperate.”
He extended his hand.
“Come with me, and I will set your feet upon the new Pattern you must follow, in a game to be played out between the Powers.”
“I still don't understand you, but I am certain that the real Oberon would not be stopped by these simple wards. You come to me and clasp my hand, and I will be glad to accompany you and take a look at whatever it is you want me to see.”