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Scout Carter's Journal

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Scout Carter's Journal - Part 6

Case File X257-11

Report by Detective Scout Carter

I can't quite claim I'd gotten a good rest, but I'd gotten some. At least a little. But it was either the recent events or the painkillers for my shoulder that haunted my brief sleep with dreams...

Oberon's eyes blazed as they faced me. "Give me my Jewel," he said as he thrust out a hand and melted into Eric, an all too recent echo.

"You could give the Jewel to me, Scout," Flora radiated every bit of charm she could with the words, and that was a lot. It hurt to turn my eyes away.

Merlin smiled a half-smile similar to his father's. "I'll take it off you hands if you like, Scout. I've handled it before."

Luke's smile hinted at nearly the same dangerous charm Flora had tried to use (though of a very different flavor... besides, broken noses don't turn me on). "Scout... Let's talk." I turned away faster than ever.

And was in a spin, a whirling mess of familiar and unfamiliar features that merged, after several stomach-turning minutes, to the familiar white profile of the Unicorn from the family arms.

"Give the Jewel only to your father."

"Yeah, thanks a lot. You're not offering clues, are you?"

And, giving me as much of an answer as I could get in a dream, there was a figure, a man silhouetted in the distance. Getting further away, twice as fast as I could run toward him. Each step sent him further away rather than closer, another few steps and he was...

And I was awake, the wound on my shoulder aching and the rest of me just as tired as before.

Barely any real rest at all. And I could think of a universe of things I'd rather do than go back to sleep, just then, most of which involved making sure I actually woke up next time I fell asleep. So I gathered up my things (which amounted to the clothes on my back... I hadn't let the Jewel out of my grip the whole time), dressed carefully so I didn't tear out my bandages (the wound was healing all too rapidly... I was used to a hyperactive healing rate, but recently it'd kicked up another notch), and headed out.

Outside the tent, I saw the now-familiar blue shape of the Doctor's TARDIS, a neatly lettered sign reading "Knock if you need in" on the door. I almost headed there first, but remembered Random saying he still had a few things to talk with me about. Business before... other business, to be honest. But best to check, at least. I asked one of the guards if anyone had come out of or gone in to the TARDIS. He described the Doctor and Kesä, which helped make up my mind. Last time I noticed, Kesä was siding with Eric and he was no friend of mine.

So I went to Random's tent and we talked. He asked how Deirdre and Eric could be alive again, so I went through the whole story in outline. No details like who caused the whole mess or exactly what Corwin had done in the alternate-time, just that it had existed and was mostly fixed now, so far as I knew. Except that we had the escapees. I didn't mention Gabriel, since I didn't consider him Random's business anyway. Let Steed and Flora deal with an unrelated relative however they like.

He said I should go back to Amber, if only to get the Jewel further from Chaos and lots of bad attention (I didn't think it'd avoid much attention in Amber but at least it would change the tenor of the requests I'd be hearing). And, for my protection, he said I should have a bodyguard. Great. Someone to make sure I don't give the Jewel to anyone Random doesn't like. Or even talk to them, I bet. I hope he doesn't think I'm that easy to lead around. He called him in, and I was a little surprised to see he was a she, a fairly normal-looking woman, a change of shoes under 5' 8", dark hair tied back in a single ponytail. She was dressed in practical, maybe even bland, modern clothing (that is, what I consider modern, mid 1990's America) except for the sword that hung at her hip. She wore almost no make up, her nails were carefully trimmed and unpainted. She was checking me out as well, looking for weaknesses she'd have to deal with. No more real interest than that and no posturing or posing for me to look at, which was good. It meant Random at least meant to offer a fair contest for the Jewel and wasn't trying to sway my opinion too much with overt means. Having decided on a woman bodyguard, he could have assigned me one who was little more than an enthusiastic bed-warmer, but she looked quite serious about this. Though I wondered if she was any good with the weird magic that scared me more than men with swords (at least now that I'd figured out I wasn't all that bad with those things myself when need required... I should probably start to carry one).

"Anna, this is Scout Carter. Scout, Anna. Your assignment, Anna." We traded nods and I gathered my audience was over because Random turned to other matters (I'd guess that marching an army into Chaos required some diplomatic dance steps, especially when it turns out to be nothing). I left with Anna taking a spot just behind me. She was good, because the hollow between my shoulders didn't itch as soon as she did that. I'd gotten used to that feeling recently and it was nice to have it fade a little. Only a little.

I decided to Trump back to Amber using the card Steed had given me of his rooms. It saved me from having to owe someone for the passage, but it was a serious strain trying to open the link. I guess we were a long way away, after all.

"You want help with that?" Anna asked. I considered what that meant, which was at least a bit of opening my mind to her. If she was studied in the mind-tricks I was really worried about, I'd be giving her a key to the cupboard. But without her help, I'd be exhausted before getting back to Amber and I'd already started to worry about what I had to do once I got there. I'd need every bit of energy I had. So I nodded and felt her hand on my shoulder...

Her presence in my mind...

Careful, distant. Focused on the card, carefully not looking at me. Carefully not revealing herself to me, either. I was impressed, but didn't have time to be curious about what she might be hiding because even with her help it was still a trick to reach the Trump all the way to Amber. But the card grew cold, the image more real, and we stepped through.

Back into Amber, into Steed's rooms, which looked just like they did on the card. Apparently he never felt the need to move anything even a little bit. There was a photograph of Steed and the woman I'd seen with his body over the Abyss. Must be an old friend of his. Lucky guy, getting to spend time with a woman like that. I'd had pretty wretched luck myself, especially since the last few women I'd spent any time with -Kat, Kesä and Deirdre - had all tried to kill me, directly or indirectly. Now I had the cool, plain, businesslike Anna lurking over my shoulder. Great lot that'll do for my social life.

There was a sudden cry out in the hallway, attracting both of our attention. "This was supposed to be a quiet place," I observed, mostly to myself, as Anna simply said "I'll check" and crossed the room to the door, sword ready.

When she opened it, I got a quick view of an old friend and infirmary-mate. Blazer was running by, away from something, it seemed. He saw the motion and stopped, looking to us for help, I suppose. He described discovering a small, fierce creature attacking him and a few of the castle guards. Anna and I traded glances and decided together to do what we could. I borrowed a saber from Steed's wall, made sure it actually had a usable edge, and was grateful for the delay because Blazer added a little fact about the creature while I was arming myself. Apparently, its blood was highly corrosive, able to eat through stone. Great. I made a note to be ready to replace Steed's sword if I had to.

Fortunately, I didn't. We arrived too late for the fight, but with plenty of clean-up needed. I counted six dead guards, another two wounded, and the creature. It was an ugly thing, humanoid in the broadest sense but hunched over, somewhat insectoid. It's hide looked more like a thin coat over a solid armor suit of bone than anything else and from the wounds on the guards, I'd bet that was a good assessment. The two guards who were on their feet seemed calm enough, as if they were used to this sort of mess. One of them headed off to get more help and start a search of the castle for more of these things. The other helped us try to account for the situation. Apparently, this room was beneath Blazer's and he'd found a hole in his floor through which the creature had come. The room was fairly austere, decorated in a way that borrowed heavily from Japanese history. Or Japanese history borrowed heavily from here, if I'm understanding the directions things flow from Amber correctly. "Prince Benedict's room," the guard informed us when he noticed me looking. But I was looking behind a delicate, hand-painted paper screen that had hidden the seventh body up until now. I never did find crime-scene investigation fun duty.

"You'll need a new room, Blazer," I observed. He nodded, clearly pretty shaken up by the whole mess. The guard said there'd been servants going missing for a while, which this half explained, assuming the critter was very hungry. Unfortunately, a better assumption was that there were more than one of them. "Get things like this often?" I asked.

"Not since the Black Road War." He left the search to us then, heading back to Blazer's room with a hand up through the hole melted in the ceiling. Messy.

"We should wait somewhere safe until the search is done," Anna observed, doing her job. I guess she was right, since as long as I had the Jewel I was not expendable. Almost made it worth keeping, since I never like to be thought of as expendable, except that being publicly not expendable doesn't make you privately not a target. I liked environmental, impersonal threats over targeted ones. We decided on the dining room, since I was famished.

Luke was there, smiling and looking even more smug than he had in my dream back in Chaos. And, true to the dream, he told me he'd been talking to Merlin and had a few suggestions that might help me with my Jewel problem. I told him I had things under control, but I'd keep him in mind if things got messy. I know he didn't buy it, but he played the game like a good salesman on a cold call and decided to wait on a better time.

We asked for some soup and sandwiches to be brought up, which resulted in a very fine snack. I guess it's kind of a rule that the best pastrami in the world is only a shadow of what they have here, but if so I'd be hard-pressed to point out exactly why this was better. It was just very good, as was everything. I'm still not adjusted to wine with every meal, but just then I didn't say 'no' to a glass. After all, I had a pretty ugly task in front of me and this was fortifying me toward it. I didn't mention it to anyone just yet, because I didn't want anyone knowing who didn't need to. Besides, Luke was distracting himself talking to Blazer about the creature. He said it sounded like something out of the movie "Alien", which I almost kicked myself for not recognizing myself. Which meant if there were more, there were lots more. Ugly situation. He also took a try at getting Anna on his side, probably for future leverage to part the Jewel from me. She didn't seem all that interested, which made me feel a lot better. I didn't feel like having to watch my own back against my bodyguard.

Ge`rard showed up then, dragging a much larger version of Blazer's critter. "Definitely the movie," Luke observed and I had to agree. Big, nasty and deadly-looking. Also very dead. "Where'd you find that, Ge`rard?" I asked.

"Your room. Any clues why?"

Great. I'd hoped I wasn't a target of anyone outside the Jewel-hunters. "Sorry, no. Think you can take care of the hunt without me? I've got something I need to take care of right away."

He shrugged and dragged the thing off. Luke half-tried to keep me from leaving, saying we still had to talk "for Coral's sake." Really cold, Luke. I remembered that the Jewel had, until recently, been his wife's eye. But I had a place to put it that wasn't there and he wasn't going to sway me that easy. Still, he's smooth and I was sure already that he wouldn't give up easily.

Anna and Blazer followed me along a route I remembered from Tir-na Nog'th, a route I'd promised myself I wouldn't ever walk again. Through a door (which wasn't guarded... possibly because the guards were in short supply with the army in Chaos and the bug hunt going on in the castle), down a staircase that was longer than I had any care to count.

"Random told me you might want to do this," Anna observed part-way down.

"'Want to' isn't quite right," I answered, then looked back at Blazer. "You know, there's not much to see here." He answered with a simple "Yeah" and kept following. His choice.

And this whole diversion was my choice, I suppose, even if all my options were bad ones, this one included. Keep the Jewel and try to fend off everyone trying to take it until I uncovered who was meant to have it, that was the best of a sorry lot. It required I be able to use the Jewel effectively, at least as a defense. And that meant either trusting someone to help (Steed was the only possibility I seriously considered, but his recent vampiric turn didn't encourage me; Random and Corwin were both out, not quite worth trust by their own admissions) or trusting myself to the Pattern a second time. Damn, but once was more than enough. And nothing I'd heard implied it was any easier the second time around.

Down the steps was fairly easy, at least in comparison to the work I expected getting back up after the Pattern was done with me (no, I still had Steed's room Trump... That'd come in handy again). Still, I could have used a few week's sleep before trying this again, because the stairs alone left my legs heavy. Of course, I didn't have a few weeks because the wolves were already circling, as Luke had proven by playing lead dog.

I opened the door to the Pattern room (I remembered which it was... those sort of things are hard to forget), left Anna and Blazer near the door and stepped to the start of the glowing knot. The glow was sharper here than I remembered from the reflection Pattern in the sky, but it was clearly the same power. I could feel it, pulsing slightly. I drew out the Jewel, wrapped its chain around my hand so it hung just slightly below my grip. Somehow, it and the Pattern resonated with one another. The power was the same, somehow. I'd have to find out more about the relationship, somewhere.

I stepped onto the Pattern again.

The feeling was much like the first time. Sparks and draining numbness, starting in my legs. It wouldn't take long to get worse, surely. But I'd made it through once, I could manage a second time. Except, of course, I hadn't actually made it through that first time, at least not all the way. I tried not to let that worry bother me as I made my way forward, growing ever close to the first veil.

"Good luck!" Blazer called out, which I took to mean him wishing it to me from his own less than full supply. I've never met a more unfortunate individual, to be honest. Still, it's the thought that counts, right? I took another step toward the veil.

And I felt a mind trying to contact mine. Strong, insistent. Not like a Trump call, really, much more like... I couldn't see my ankles, already lost in blue sparks, but I remembered this last when Citten had rubbed against them. Kat?

:What are you doing here?: she thought toward me. I couldn't speak, had barely the excess energy to keep stepping forward. So I tried just thinking a reply back to her.

:Walking the Pattern. You?: If she had any sense, she'd leave me along after that. Except, as I should have known, she doesn't tend to cooperate.

:In a little place.:

I considered the possibilities. She'd shown a need for physical contact to make these mental chats happen earlier. That meant she was...

The Jewel pulsed red under my grip on the chain.

:I don't think you should be here.: I took a step.

:Oh?: Her thought felt disinterested in what I thought. I should have tried subtlety to trick her into leaving, but how does one be subtle when exchanging thoughts rather than words?

:Can you leave?: Another step. Mustn't stop walking.

:Haven't tried.:

:I would. Before the Veil.: Another, and it was right in front of me.

:ummm... I think I'll stay, actually.:

:Your call. Hope you're confident about you parents...: Not that I was sure it mattered if she wasn't walking, but I was fairly certain she wasn't of Amber's blood...

And we were in the first veil. Kat was standing beside me, dressed in her familiar black leather. I had my own coat again as well. Another hallucinatory veil experience, I suppose. We were in a hallway, the floor, walls and ceiling all made of metal. Something like that Leviathan we'd chased Creed to, but it didn't look exactly right for that...

"You recognize this place?" She'd spent longer in the Leviathan than I had, as I remembered things.


Well, there were steps in front of us, and since I knew I had to keep walking forward, I did so. I got a feeling, kind of like when the stone buzzed me in warning. I made a mental note to check on the stone soon, once this was done. "This isn't a good place to be. We should hurry." I quickened the pace, trying to get to the stairs.

And in front of us, the ceiling started to bulge. A panel seemed about to burst open... "Watch yourself, Kat. Something's coming out..."

And something did. Another Alien-like creature, slightly bigger than the one Ge`rard had carried into the dining hall. It hissed at us and slashed toward my chest. I bent backwards, trying to avoid it without stepping back, then snatched at its extending mouth. My hand burned as I grabbed and pulled, drawing the creature forward, off balance. It hurt like hell, but even worse as I let go to allow it to fall, but I ignored that, stepped forward...

And was out. Back on the Pattern, alone, walking...

:Thanks for the assist,: I thought to Kat as I took another step and hugged my hand close.

:What was going to do? I don't even know what that thing was!:

:Yeah,: I agreed without agreeing and took another step.

:Keep walking,: Kat thought, and started repeating it like a drumbeat. But if she was doing anything else to help, I certainly didn't notice. My legs were heavy, my hand still ached and sparks were up to my waist and climbing as I rounded a curve and stepped into...

A crowd of familiar faces.

Luke stepped from them. "Come on, let's have that 'talk' now." I shrugged him off. :Keep walking,: said Kat's voice, disembodied in this veil.

A man dressed in white armor who I didn't really recognize stepped forward. "I'm your father, Scout. Give the Jewel to me." :Keep walking.: As if I had any plans to do otherwise. But I gripped the Jewel more tightly.

A red-haired man, bearded and forceful now. "To me, and I can fix things." :Keep walking.:

Another redhead, this one smaller but with piercing eyes. "Give it to me. We can rule the Universe." Talk about no-brainers. I didn't want to rule anything. :Keep walking,: thought Kat, totally needlessly this time.

Now Oberon, imperious and angry. "My Jewel..." He melted into Eric, just as angry but less impressive, somehow. "Give it to me." :Keep walking.:

And then the twisted hunchback who had pulled me from the Pattern before. He was the first to not reach for the hand where I held the Jewel, it's chain wrapped three times around my hand. "You'll never make it without drawing on the power of the Jewel," he observed. Really cheery guy, that one. I wondered who he might be, since he didn't seem to share the family's traits of dangerous charisma and insatiable power lust.

"You offering lessons?" I answered, pressing forward even before Kat's thoughts formed.


And I was out, back on the Pattern itself, legs like lead-soaked bags of cement and barely halfway in.

:Kat... That stuff about my father?:


:Don't tell anyone.:

Did I expect that to work? Not for a second. But it was worth trying. Besides, adjustment was easy. Anyone I suspected Kat had told the importance of my father would just not be trustworthy for information to lead to him. Except that, soon enough, that might mean there was no one who actually knew the truth about my father that I could trust...

:Any idea what comes next?: she thought to me, after an eternity of walking that had gotten me at most half of the way from the second veil to the third. Blue sparks were climbing my chest and my shoulder throbbed in time with the pulsing of the Jewel held in front of me. In time with my heartbeat.

:Nope. Only did this once before, and it was nothing like this time.:

:Hasn't been so bad, so far.:

If she'd been at hand, I could have strangled her for that. She wasn't walking, after all, and carrying her certainly couldn't be making this any easier. :For you, maybe. Who knows what's next?: If I was lucky, a veil special-made for her. Just what is it that would scare a girl like Kat anyway?

Case File X257-12

Report by Detective Scout Carter

There was a loud sound from the far side of the door. Something coming down the stairs? I couldn't give the time to check, focusing on the progression toward the next veil. The third? Yes, the third... That meant two more. I was pretty certain I wasn't going to make it now, that I should never have started tired. But I didn't have any option now except continuing. And regretting the mistake.

Left and right, through turns and short bits of straight. Each step took forever, and I heard the door opening. Anna and Blazer were back there. I hoped they could handle whatever that was, because another step took me into...

Fog. Thick and heavy, all around me, obscuring almost everything there might be here to see. There was still the Pattern blazing on the floor at my feet, but straight now, a line going forward. Another mental test, because the real thing turned constantly this far in. Somehow, I guessed that all this was happening while I really raised my foot and put it down just once...

:Kat, you still here?: I asked in my head, half hoping for no response and so fully expecting one.

:Yeah,: she answered, seeming disinterested. Maybe the slow pace of my struggle with this was boring her. Of course, I hadn't invited her as a passenger anyway.

The silence was broken by my voice, though I didn't speak. "Hello, Scout." There was a shadowy figure, barely visible through the fog doing the speaking. He looked to be about my height, about my build. About me.

"uhh... Hi," I said, more interested in walking than talking just now. The Pattern-line was easier to follow here, just a roadside sobriety test sort of challenge. As heavy as my legs felt, that was more than enough for me. I stepped forward.

"You know, you're not going to make it without changing how you look at things."

I noticed that the path went its glowing way straight into where the figure stood. So he was blocking my way symbolically. That meant he probably wasn't here to offer good advice if I had to bet. "What makes you think that?"

"I don't think it, I know it. I know all about you, Scout."

"Yeah? That makes one of us, I guess."

His laugh wasn't pretty. Especially because it was too much mine. "That's right. I'm the you who knows the truth, you're the one still hugging the illusions. That's why you can't make it."

Great. The Pattern, the source of all power in the universe (if its backers were to be believed) was offering me a confrontation with my 'dark side' as a test. Like I didn't have to face this regularly anyway. "Give it up. I don't need a mental workout just now."

"Oh, but you do. You've forgotten the one great law of success. If you want to get something, you have to want it. You don't want this, so you don't have a chance. And it'll kill you for trying halfway." I could recognize some of my own style in this doppelgänger. He certainly played my responses back at me as soon as I made them. Of course, he probably wasn't exhausted by a long walk and didn't have a Kat in his head.

:Don't listen to him, Scout,: was the extent of her sage advice. She'd made her case as a burden rather than an ally a good ways back, but didn't seem against sandbagging her status now.

"Finish or die. That's what they warned me before I started. I think wanting to live is enough wanting for me, though, thanks."

"That's why it's so much work. You have to want more to make it. Look at that fop Steed. He does this for fun because he understands what it takes."

He had a point there. Steed did seem to have plaid into the family power-trip and was pretty much adapted to the 'whatever it takes' style that required. "Another difference between him and me. He's also got better taste in wines, I bet."

"Just vinegar waiting to earn the name," he echoed my low opinion of the vintner's art. I took a step or two forward while he was distracted. "Nice try. But I'm here for a purpose, so I'm not that easy to distract. You, meanwhile... You don't even want this. Listen to me, Carter. You have to want power or you'll die here."

"I'll take door number 3, Monty," I said, pushing forward even though it got me no closer to him. It got me closer to the exit, I hoped.

"I do hope you make it, Scout," he said, switching tactics. "Because if you do, I have a chance to exist. But you can't make it without accepting me. Without becoming me."

:You don't need him, Scout,: Kat offered from her perch in the observer's deck.

"You don't even want this," he continued as I ignored him, pressing on step by step. "You're doing all this just to give it to your father. feh!"

Yeah, I recognized the style. I'd argued this way, now and then. But I never really liked it. Intellectual bullying. Of the style commonly used by "bad cop" interrogators and other wanna-be tough guys. I wasn't building any respect for the new me being offered.

"I think I'll go it alone a little longer, if you don't mind. Knowing you're the alternative makes it easier, really." I knew if I could shake him up, he'd get angry and help. He was already doing a good job of erasing any doubt I had about wanting to avoid his way of doing things.

"I'm not an alternative, Scout. I'm the only chance you've got. No one told you how people who don't manage the Pattern die, did they? I can fill you in, if you want."

I had enough of an imagination solo. And Kat's constant reminders that I could make it on my own were getting old. Somehow, I think she's on my side only because I was easier to deal with this way. He'd have found a way to kick her out of his mind by now, I bet. Now that was almost tempting...

But no. The rest of his argument (and there was more of it... my refusal to play along didn't get him to shut up) got to fall on deaf ears as I concentrated entirely on pressing on. A step, then another, and then I was out of the mist, back to the familiar impossible pressure.

Would giving in have made it easier or impossible? Too late to find out now. Besides, I didn't have the energy to think about that right now. It was all I could do to step forward without passing out.

:You can't actually help with this, can you?: I thought to Kat, which I regretted because talking to her was starting to make my head hurt.

:Haven't so far,: she observed.

:Yeah, I noticed.: So much for help from that direction.

"You're looking pretty ragged. Can I help?" Anna called in her offer from infinitely far away. Across the room. Blazer had left her on her own, but I didn't ask why or how. And I didn't have the time to reply before she acted. I just felt... something. Mental noise, a new hint of Anna, without the defenses from when she helped with the Trump from Chaos. Glimpses of a life, the ache of loss. A single image. Me? No. But very much like...

And it was gone, though the support was there. Just a hint, enough to move things from double impossible to just half-past. I pressed on because I didn't have a choice. The Jewel pulsed more brightly than ever in my grip and I'd swear I felt Kat humming lightly, as if distracted.

:Kat? You're in the Jewel, aren't you?: I asked in a sudden fit of inspiration, though it was inspiration unassisted by the sense to know better than expect an answer.

:Don't know: was all I got.

:It's a small, red place, right?:

:Small, but not red. There's a jungle-gym thing.: Now that was helpful. But was she telling the truth?

:Not red?:

:No. Kind of blue. No, now it's green. And getting more yellow-ish...: She offered me a series of colors that went on for longer than my next step forward. She proved to have an extensive knowledge of names for minimally different hues.

I could feel the next veil (the fourth and final one, I was fairly certain) building ahead of me. Anna's help was fading fast and I was pretty sure I'd drop any second now. But I was at the end, I'd made it all but the last few steps. I couldn't give up right then.

It's probably just an illusion of memory that makes me thing there was a sudden surge of energy just as I stepped into that last veil. I couldn't guess where something like that would have come from.

And I was somewhere else. Not the Pattern, though its glowing line faded away like any burned-in image. I was in an alley, dank and shadowy. Late evening, probably after a rainstorm. There was a siren in the distance and a dumpster ahead with something half in, half out. An all too familiar looking something.

:Kat?: I asked, but got no answer. Thanks for small blessings. I stepped forward, sticking to where my memory placed the now-faded line of the Pattern. A glance aside confirmed that the object was a body, recently put there. And not quite dead yet, though there was little doubt it wouldn't be long. She'd been gutted, left to die. A step closer and I saw the face.

Anna? That wasn't possible. It made no sense at all. But looking at her, I recognized the face, the clothing. And that she'd have a slight chance if she got medical attention right away. But she was several feet to the side, out of reach unless I could step off the now invisible line.

There was a sound behind me. A footstep.

"Nice try, Scout. You almost made it." It was a different voice, one I hadn't heard before. Cruel in a way my dark side had just played at. "I'm here to stop you, of course. You'll never find your father."

He was close, possibly just behind me. I tried to keep walking, at a steady pace. The world didn't move as quickly as it should.

"I'm his only son."

And the words were accompanied by the sharp bite of a knife. It cut into my back, tore up and across, scraping against bone. I struggled to move forward more quickly, but it ripped up though a rib, trying to find my heart. I gripped the Jewel and struggled one more step, trying to ignore the pain that couldn't be real or I was...

And I fell forward, sprawled in the center of the Pattern, through the last veil.

No. Not the center. Someplace else. It was like the beginning of the Pattern again, only this was not a line but a thick tube, snaking in a complicated knot in front of me. It looked something like a 'jungle-gym thing'. The air was red, regardless of what Kat had said earlier. Random had implied it was something like this.

I closed my eyes and tried to find anything like energy to crawl forward. It took more time than I thought. Maybe I even passed out for a while. Then I started to climb.

It wasn't like the Pattern, really. Moving was easy, and if anything I felt physically less drained. But there was still a drain all the same. No veils, no strange dreams. But even as I wove around curve after curve, I found myself advancing on nothing but reflex. A mental drain, somehow, exhausting beyond description. Even thinking was difficult. I just didn't have the energy to focus.

And it was over. I was laying in the center of the Pattern now, the air around me clear instead of red, the Jewel pulsing as it lay beside me and nothing but the memory of pain to show for the knife wound (since it didn't bother to leave even the slightest mark).

I don't know how long it was before I turned my head and found Anna. Not gutted, but apparently worried. She was watching me carefully, but her expression returned to a calm, professional look when she saw me move.

"So... how do I get out of here?" I croaked, hoping she could hear me. My throat was dry.

"They say you can go anywhere from there. The center. Just ask and the Pattern will take you there."

That was very convenient. No one had mentioned it to me before. But I didn't want to upset Random by leaving his bodyguard behind, so I fished for the pack of Trumps I had. I found Steed's room still near the top, tossed it toward her.

"Here. Contact me once I'm gone and we'll both give the stairs a miss." I didn't even like the idea of those stairs going up even relaxed, so I owed the primal force of the universe for saving me the work.

She caught it easily, but eyed the card with a surprised look. "You sure you want to go there? I mean, you can go..."

"'anywhere'," I muttered, realizing just what that meant for the first time. Anywhere? If what I'd been told was true, that was more places than I could imagine. Maybe more than anyone had ever imagined. And I had the power now to move through this everything. I don't think I'm ready for that, really.

But I dug out another card. The image the Doctor had made of me. Again, Anna caught it without any sign of effort.

"Call me soon," I said, then I took another moment or two to gather what little there was of my strength.

And I asked the power I could feel all around me but couldn't really identify to take me to my father.

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R. Cal Westray, Jr.
Copyright © 2001 [Westray.org].
All rights reserved.
Revised: October 23, 2007 .