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Scout Carter's Journal

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Scout Carter's Journal - Part 11

Case File X257-21

Report by Detective Scout Carter

We shook off the effects of... well, whatever that was and continued on our way.

The shadows around us were getting more and more technological, which I found somewhat comforting and Anna... Well, she didn't actually say anything, but she'd always seemed more comfortable with simpler shadows, as well as she seemed to know technology. I guess body guarding is easier if you don't have modern weapons to worry about. Kat didn't seem to care much one way or another, but she's like that, not caring much.

Well, it turns out modern weapons were an appropriate fear, as I started to recognize our destination. It was a shadow I'd only seen briefly, and then I was being barreled at by a truck or having a nuclear bomb dropped far too near me. Great, another visit here. Maybe I'd finally figure out why the Pattern sent me here.

And 'here' is one strange place. There was a group of women dressed in nuns' habits beating on a helpless-looking teenager (who I'd almost swear was enjoying it) and a truck with a missile in the bed drove by to re-assert the implicit threat of this place. I decided now was a good time to use the former altar stone for an assist, to help track down Martin with the minimum effort... And the minimum time here.

To my great surprise, the thing worked quickly, steering Anna and me toward a storefront. "Dr. Broccoli's Records" Strange name, but from my look at my would-be murderous may-be brother, his taste in music was also likely to qualify as strange. I glanced at Anna, who seemed more comfortable with this store than she was with the street (can't blame her there, though most of the gunfire sounded to be in the distance), so we left the horses somewhere that clearly didn't meet any dictionary definition of "safe" but was the best available right then and in we went.

Finding Martin wasn't hard. It wasn't that he stood out as an extreme look. If anything, his less than natural hair color and multiple piercings helped him blend in, and how strange does anyone look when the apparent proprietor of the shop really did live up to the name "Dr. Broccoli", his 'head' more resembling a stalk of said vegetable than anything human. But he wasn't my primary interest. Martin was, and he looked almost just like his picture.

"Hi," I said, walking up close but not quite within arm's reach of Martin. Anna was tense, I could tell that... I was trying not to be. After all, his second-hand murder attempts had been pretty weak, why worry?

"Huh? Oh, hi," he said, then turned back to flipping through the bin of records.

That wasn't the behavior I expected from someone who'd been trying to kill me repeatedly, no matter how clumsily. In fact, he didn't even act like he knew me.

"Excuse me... You are Martin, right? Martin of Amber?"

He looked up, and if he was just acting confused and a little worried, it was a darn good act. "Yeah. Who wants to know?"

I didn't have a good answer ready, so I improvised. "No one, really. I shouldn't have expected you to know me." Yeah, right. But it was a lead-in to change the subject. And to an important question that might help explain why I kept getting led back to this place. "You come around here often?"

"Sure. Best selection anywhere. Me and my dad, we shop here all the time."

I hadn't meant the record store, but I'd take whatever direction he offered, especially when it went right where I wanted. "You haven't seen your father recently, have you?"

"He was here not long ago. Back in the jazz section, mostly. Not there now."

How recently, I wondered but didn't ask. Maybe when the Pattern had brought me here, he'd been checking out the records. That would have been before he went missing...

"You have heard that he's disappeared recently, haven't you?"

Again, he looked surprised enough that I had to wonder if it maybe wasn't an act after all. "He has? I should get back to Amber, then," he said, leaving the records to be as he pulled out a bundle of Trumps. "If I wasn't his only son, I could blow it off, but... You know."

Again, if he was acting, he was doing a damned good job.

:Scout,: a familiar voice hummed in my head. :He's shielded, so I can't read him. But if he's going to use that Trump, he'll have to drop it to make the call.:

Great. Now I was part of her mind-reading tricks. Still, it would provide an answer. I'd persuaded myself to look forward to it when, quite suddenly, we were gone.

No, I don't mean he was gone, I mean we were gone. There was a flash, like one a florescent light on its last legs, then Kat and I stood somewhere else.

"Where...?" I started to ask, then I got a better look around. Steed was there, along with his leather jumpsuited sidekick, and Fiona as well. I'd only crossed paths with this particular aunt a few times, but I had heard her reputation for magical abilities was second to none, so I quickly summarized that was how we got here. Where 'here' was I didn't know, but the place looked a bit like the inside of the Doctor's TARDIS, but on a grander scale. Maybe just a bigger room? No, the TARDIS had been destroyed.

"Sorry to just grab you like that, Scout old boy, but all of reality's falling apart," Steed said.

Fiona nodded and did something with a ring she was wearing. "Something to do with that alternate timeline you visited."

"I thought we fixed that," I said because I was quite sure we'd done a lot to make that the truth.

"We had," Steed said, frowning slightly, "but now it's acting up again anyway. We've got... How long?"

"Thirty hours, six minutes and... a handful of odd seconds," the Doctor's voice answered from behind a console. Score one for me for recognizing his style in the surroundings.

"I think you had managed to mostly fix things," Fiona added, "until he managed to do something between Trumps somehow." She gestured toward the console, so she must have been blaming the Doctor. Seemed to make sense to me. Except for the "between Trumps" part, which I'd rather not know about. That was getting to be a catch phrase... 'I'd rather not know'. Not like me at all, is it? But it's true. The metaphysics of all this were starting to give me constant headaches.

"Ahh. He broke it again, then. Back to the trees, are we?" I was overcompensating by getting casual about this. Call it a defense mechanism, but it's easier to deal with total absurdity by treating it like it was no stranger than a sale at WalMart. Nobody else treated it any differently.

"Trees?" Fiona quirked a pretty eyebrow toward me. I guess no one had told her the whole story, and I wasn't about to dodge that bullet now. So I gave her the sort form, about the giant trees, the mud, the ball of yarn, the castle and Delwin. Only the last seemed to surprise her. She claimed to have thought he was dead.

It was about then that I noticed the omission in our little gathering. Kat and I had come through, but Anna had been left behind, probably with Martin. Damn, I should have noticed that sooner. Fiona just smiled at my worry and held out her ring. "I don't know her well enough, but if you touch this and think of her, I should be able to bring her here."

I half-recognized the ring as being a lot like the one we'd fought with Sweeney over, back when this ultra-weird phase of my life was just starting. Good to see it was getting some proper use. I did as directed, and Anna appeared, first as a fuzzy energy shape, all wavering light like a heat haze, then my familiar bodyguard. I'd expected something more Trump-like, but I was learning to be flexible.

"I was just starting to look for you," she said, after looking around and assuring herself the situation wasn't hostile.

"Did Martin get off all right?" I asked, putting off explanations for a moment in the hopes that she might have noticed him breaking his innocent act.

"I didn't stay around to watch."

So Kat and I had vanished and she'd jumped to the chase, probably getting out to her horse and... "I guess I own you another horse."

"That was one of Bleys'," she said with a slight smile. "Talk to him."

That was OK by me. I'd let the issue drop. And, pressing matters dealt with, I filled Anna in on just what was going on (as little as I knew) while Fiona used the ring to bring Blazer, Suehprom and, after a bit of negotiation, Corwin into our little group. Just what I needed, another complex problem that had Suehprom trying to help fix it. Not to mention that I was finding it harder and harder to trust Corwin to not have his own interest ahead of anything else...

That was when Luke strolled into the room, all smiles, like usual.

"You invited to this party, too?" I asked, wondering who'd decided on this particular guest-list and why.

"Afraid I'm a party-crasher. Nice group, though." He didn't stop smiling, and only a few people were glaring at him. Me, I would be nice to him even though I didn't trust him for a second. In fact, mostly because I didn't trust him. He was pretty high on my 'keep an eye on him' list.

"Oh yeah," I said. "Only the best for the end of the world bash. But it doesn't look like we'll be kicking you out."

I noticed that Suehprom and Kat were starting at each other across a few tense feet. I assumed, since I knew Kat did it to me, they were talking mind-to-mind (or whatever substitute for the same Suehprom used). I was distracted from that when the Doctor (still bearded and sinister-looking, though the toolbelt around his waist spoiled the effect a bit) pulled himself from the console he'd been working on and stood. Corwin gave him quite a stare, which I'm thinking might have been just because he didn't want to cede the "sinister looking and probably not worth trusting" title too easily. Damn it, I used to almost like both of them. Now they were on the list with Luke, though a good few entries further down.

"Gentlemen, Ladies," the Doctor began, and I noticed more than ever that his new look had also changed his voice and demeanor. He was almost frighteningly charismatic now, and took to a leadership role like he was born for it. I liked him better the other way. "Here's the plan. I'm going to jump back to get a better means of travel, then pop us to the TARDIS off in... well, nowhere for want of a better term, and fix things from there."

There was a little debate, most of which centered around trying to get details of the situation which the Doctor was unwilling to provide. A little unlike him, but since the other option was providing a flood of seemingly contradictory facts and all but nonsensical scientific-sounding explanations, this was a welcome shift in my opinion. Before long, he left.

Of course, the debate didn't end. Suehprom seemed to think our plan wasn't complicated enough (no surprise there) and recommended we move our base of operations from here (which, I found out, was the Doctor's home planet not the inside of the TARDIS) to someplace safe in Chaos. Of course, from my visit, I wasn't sure anyplace in Chaos took the name "safe" as anything but a joke, and enough people seemed to agree to squash his suggestion quickly.

The Doctor returned then, and claimed there were signs of sabotage. That sounded unlikely to me, since I saw nothing anyone here could gain by seeing reality end in... well, it couldn't be more than a few minutes now. But that was his story, and he took Steed with him to make the repairs. After sending Suehprom off to what he said was the library to do some research. I suspect he'd taken pity on us all and saved us more absurd suggestions.

During the blessed silence that followed, Luke pulled me aside for a second.

"Scout, did you hear that King Random's missing?"

If he'd been planning to sell the information, he'd just given away the store. But if he was looking to offer more insight, I wasn't going to stop him. "So I've heard. Do you know anything about it?"

"No more than I said. But Merlin's been acting weird lately." Maybe the two were connected, he implied without saying it. I had to learn how to do things like that.

"How do you tell?" I asked, since my own experiences with Merlin had hardly proven him to archetype of stability. Still, there was the possibility...

The Doctor returned with Steed, said he'd been trying to use Steed's Pattern energy to recharge a time ship, this one an ugly and utilitarian steel-looking cabinet, though far less comical in appearance than the blue police box. But, he said, there wasn't enough power to manage. So they asked Fiona if she could help. She offered the ring, and touched it to a small panel the Doctor indicated. He went inside the cabinet.

Within seconds of that, the small jewel in my pocket started humming. That usually meant trouble, and I hoped it was something more personal and not the end-of-reality deadline sneaking up on us while we made ready to stop it.

"I think you might wanna..." I started to say, just as the Doctor's cabinet started to fade and his voice came from a speaker saying "That's quite enough power, I should think..."

Fiona pulled the ring away, but it might have been too late. The fade-out stopped, and we all stood about where we had before. Except for Suehprom, running back into the room, screaming something that sounded very much like "Nothing's right behind me!" but couldn't have been because even he's not that shakily connected to reality.

Or, perhaps, he is.

No one paid him any attention, though.

Fiona looked around, and from her expression was probably seeing more than anyone else could. "Doctor, is something wrong?" she asked.

"Well, yes," he answered, his voice coming from some sort of intercom as he stayed inside the cabinet-like time machine. "It seems that we had a bit too much power. Take a look down the hall."

We did, and found that hall lead to a nice, green field, much like anything at home. That didn't seem right, as I'm sure I'd glimpsed more technology-packed corridors through that arch. We concluded, after a little bother, that we'd somehow dragged the whole chunk of the Doctor's home planet with us. 'Too much power' huh?

Suehprom and Kat start arguing with each other, which I'm surprised took this long. The Doctor came out of his cabinet to try something that might be called peacemaking... if you're a generous kind of person. In the end, the three of them were all but shouting at one another and the rest of us were studiously ignoring them. The Doctor stormed off, then the rest of us agreed that, until we knew just where and, probably more importantly, when we were, we would stick together.

No sooner was that decided and agreed to than Suehprom remembered somewhere important he had to be and headed off. I knew it sounded too easy.

Fiona had decided to try her Trumps, and, to her surprise, they worked but found the person on the other end significantly younger than she expected. As I'd guessed, we'd slipped in time.

"Yes, well..." the Doctor explained, once he'd come back out of his cabinet, "my plan was to contact a time-mobile creature and use it to enhance this thing's limited capabilities." He smacked the metal cabinet hard, and it rang slightly hollow. I thought it seemed to have worked pretty well, given that it took itself and its immediate environs through time, but he wasn't happy at all. Apparently, we hadn't gone back nearly far enough and he wouldn't be able to contact this "chronovore" thing. Funny, I though "-vore" meant you ate something, not traveled through it... Someone else pointed this out and the Doctor admitted that this was one of the creatures other abilities...

I hated to have to move him up on the "watch closely" list, but what choice did I have?

Fiona was still a bit shaken. "I think you actually did manage to move us through time." Hard to believe I was taking this easier than she was, but maybe she'd spent longer convincing herself it wasn't possible. I've always been quite proud of my open mind. And, lately, grateful for it as well.

I looked around to take in just who we had with us again. Corwin, Blazer, Kat and Anna. The Doctor, Fiona, Steed and Mrs. Peel. Then wandering around somewhere, there was Suehprom and... And no sign of Luke. Damn it, I had too many people on my "watch closely" list to actually manage to watch any of them! I went over to Fiona, to ask if she could track him down.

"Since you used that ring to power our move though time to here," Steed was asking Fiona, "couldn't it move us through time on its own?" She seemed interested in the idea, since time was one of the things the Pattern didn't let people move through.

In fact, the Doctor added, the Pattern was apparently trying to eliminate moving through time. He blamed it, or someone using it, for eliminating the rest of his kind. Though he didn't seem all that upset by it.

"That was likely Eric's doing," Corwin pointed out. "Or someone upset that he's back." I noticed that he didn't seem worried that anyone would be upset that he'd brought Deirdre back. Except me, of course. I still owed that woman for a near throttling and couldn't see what made Corwin ignore her so consistently.

By this time, Fiona was trying to track Luke, but results weren't good. "He's blocking me. I could probably get through in time, but he's good at this." I offered her his Trump, since I had little use for it, but she didn't think it would help. So I kept it, just in case I needed it later.

It took us only a few minutes of discussion to decide that Luke had probably undertaken the worst possible course of action. That is, that he'd almost certainly taken advantage of coming back in time to try to warn his father and prevent Brand's death. Or, more likely, prevent his plan's failure. And, since none of us seemed attracted to the idea of a universe re-written in anyone's image, we decided we needed to stop him.

Fiona said the only way the block could be preventing her was if Brand also had something like her ring, which she called a 'Spikard.' I'd heard the term before... In relation to Delwin and Sand, the lost siblings of the family. And I said as much. Fiona wasn't sure if we were back far enough to find them (they were, I gathered, hiding quite effectively in the present-day, even though I've met both of them), but she tried and, to what might have been her surprise, she managed to locate Sand quite quickly. And, just as quickly, she pulled all of us to near where Sand was. And she must be getting better with that ring, because this time there was no fuzzy energy field like I'd seen with Anna as we materialized.

In Sand's room. Sand's bedroom. Very nice, tasteful, in blues. And with her, quite asleep, in the bed. Also quite nice, though I tried not to drool and ruin the mood.

The Doctor and Corwin looked at one another then headed into the hallway. The rest of us whispered around for a moment about what to do, then Steed rapped on the door to wake her.

She was far less startled than I would have expected, though Fiona made certain she didn't overreact by clamping her hand over her mouth.

In just a few minutes, we managed to explain the situation in as much detail and honesty as we could manage. I took the spokesman role to make sure of that.

"What it comes down to is this... We brought someone back with us uninvited. He's helping his father wipe out the universe and rebuild it in his image. We're hoping you can help us stop him."

Sand, who had negotiated Fiona's hand away from her mouth by this time, played a little guessing game trying to figure out our would-be universe re-creator. I was surprised it took her so long, but not surprised that Corwin was her second guess and Brand wasn't even her first redheaded choice. Somehow, though, she felt she could eliminate Julian as a possibility. I didn't think there was too much I'd put past him.

In the end, she agreed that she would help us, and her brother as well. This after we'd all introduced ourselves and Suehprom earned a long, somewhat confused-seeming stare at his introduction. It was only then that I recalled that, in the Sandra Dream role I was now sure she had played, she'd said she was his mother. I wonder if that was already in the past or still to come. So, I think, did Suehprom.

Me? I was just happy for her help. She seemed like the one member of this family who was almost a decent person without any severe anti-social tendencies. My only worry was that, after a little more exposure, she'd prove as undeserving of that label as anyone else.

So we made our plan, which was to stop Luke (Fiona seemed to prefer to call him 'Rinaldo' but I was in the other habit), somehow make sure Brand only knew what he should know, then get back home. The original flow of time wasn't perfect, but it was known.

Sand asked for a moment to dress, and so we headed out into her sitting room. A few minutes later, she came out, dressed in a reasonably functional outfit and accompanied by Delwin. I recognized him, of course, though he'd never met me. This time travel was too confusing, I wouldn't miss it once we'd managed to clean this up. That was part of the plan, of course. Once we'd fixed this one last time-knot, we'd eliminate the worry of more. Not that the Doctor seemed too happy about that.

We couldn't go directly to Luke or Brand, but Fiona was able to locate their general whereabouts, and I thought the little jewel could probably track them from there. So we went...

And where we arrived at was one strange place. A castle, setting at the crossroads of four violently different worlds. One frozen wastes, one blazing lava, another violent storms and the fourth crashing waves. The four classical elements. How symbolic.

I took point, and though I couldn't quite track Luke, looking for Brand got an immediate response. One which led us straight to the castle's gates.

"WHO DARES INTRUDE ON THE KEEP OF FOUR WORLDS?" a bombing voice lacking only the flaming, floating head to be right out of Oz asked as we approached.

"Travelers. Just passing through," the Doctor spoke up. "With your permission?"

The voice was silent for a heartbeat, then Fiona let fly with a blast of power and an order to run. I knew better than to mess with magic. I ran, and so did everyone else. Fiona left us with covering fire until we could find a cave to hide in.

But not to be alone in. Luke was there, or a very good stone facsimile. No, Delwin assured us that it was Luke, turned to stone. Good thing we knew when to run.

"It's a trap," Suehprom said. "It's going to explode."

We all ignored him and Fiona waved her ring over him to turn him back.

I could say that he wasn't exactly pleased to see us, but I guess it would be more honest to say his feelings on the matter were mixed. He didn't want to be a statue, but he didn't want to have to explain himself, either. Eventually, though, he admitted to having told his father a bit, but, he though, not enough to change time. Seems daddy didn't trust him.

Smart man. Still, probably a good thing he's dead, with the whole 'destroy the universe and remake it in my own image' kick he was on.

I made a deal with Delwin and Sand. If they kept their eye on Brand and made sure he fell into the Abyss with an arrow in his eye right on cue... Well, I didn't have anything to really offer, but they took the deal anyway. I had to thank them for that. And for future help they didn't know about, couldn't know about. But that I knew they would provide. It's almost impossible to accept than anyone with her poise and calm about all this could be directly related to Suehprom...

And then, regrettably, we bid them farewell and headed off to a shadow where time ran differently, where we could let events catch up with us without passing through all the intervening years.

Somehow, I was pretty sure the promise of a few quiet days while we waited this out wouldn't be kept.


Case File X257-22

Report by Detective Scout Carter

To my surprise, things actually did start off pretty quiet.

The shadow we were in was pretty dull. There were plants, though not very big ones, but no animal life, not even bugs. Nice place to camp for a while, if only for that. Though the lack of inhabitants also meant were had to rough it, living in some slightly moist caves. Not my idea of red carpet comfort, but it was all right for a while. There was a fairly nice beach, warm sand and all. No washed-up garbage or drunken surfers, so nothing at all like home.

Fiona headed off right away, saying she needed to explore and set up "barriers". She said it would stop anyone from wandering in and keep out Trump calls as well. Good. Less chance we'll mess up time while we're here. And the Doctor said it would be three days and a little over an hour until enough time had passed outside. He seems to have a good feel for that sort of thing.

Luke decided to use the time to glad-hand as many people as he could. He started with Suehprom, which seemed pretty safe to me. In fact, it was almost a perfect couple. Except that they lurked around the Doctor, who was sketching some things that looked a little like circuit diagrams in the sand of the beach. I hoped that wasn't going to become a problem.

We'd actually made it to late on the first day when Anna came to the cave chamber I'd picked as mine. She brought some cool water in improvised cups. I'd been spending a lot of my time resting in the cave, thinking about things and trying to decide just how to go forward. It's harder to decide that when you have an infinite range of choices, and I had been learning recently that infinity is a lot larger than I'd though.

I took the water from Anna, but didn't drink any right away. I'd decided that one of the things I needed to do was figure out just what her role in things was. I didn't buy the whole thing of her being a randomly picked (whoops... sorry about that pun) bodyguard and I'd seen a few things that made me wonder if she wasn't something more than she seemed. And I'd only find out for sure by snooping into her past or asking. And snooping left open the possibility that there really was nothing but that she'd find out I looked, which wasn't promising.

Not that the "ask" option was easy. Damn it, she was a perfect bodyguard and a good assistant investigator. She knew what was going on and helped me figure things out, but she also knew when to stand back and let me do what needed to be done, even when it looked unusual. She was also a very handsome woman. Not stunningly beautiful, like Kat or Florimel or even Lady Alron. But there was something about her, something I couldn't quite pin down. And now seemed as good a time as any to try.

"Anna, I think we should..."

"I say, Scout, old boy, are do you have a moment?" Steed's voice boomed in from just outside my little hole in the rock, echoing probably more loudly than he'd intended. It certainly shook me, and I dropped the cup I was holding. 

"Yeah?" I said, and he entered as I tried not to look at the puddle of water on the stone floor.

"Hello, Anna," he started, turning to her with a slight bow that was probably a reflex action and ten times as charming as my best behavior. "I... regret the events that brought you here against your will."

She nodded to him and stood silent. I'm getting used to her doing that. He must have accepted it also, because he turned to me.

"Scout, I realize you have been busy on some mission; probably from Random. I am often sent on them, so I won't pry. I tried to contact you earlier, to see if you needed any help. Emma and I had some free time then. If you do, let me know; we will be available. If not, I understand. After all, we are 'family'. The reason I am here is that I went to see Fiona. I asked her for a favor and I thought of you."

"I don't see the connection," I said, because I didn't and also didn't see the harm in admitting it.

He paused, clearly considering his options. "Do you know who your Amber parent is, mother or father?" I was almost ready to answer when he cut me off. "No, don't answer that. It is your business; I am not on a 'need to know' list. Since you have just arrived to Amber recently, I didn't know if you found out yet. You will tell us, 'if and when' you are ready. The point is, I asked Fiona to 'observe' Flora from this Shadow. To see who my father was. The methods we discussed are tricky and possibly dangerous. To observe 'without' affecting history is - risky." He paused to dust an imaginary speck of his hat, a habit I'd noticed in him whenever he was nervous. "I decided that it was not worth the risk and we were discussing other options as well. One in particular that may be intriguing. It involves the Jewel."

He paused again, trying to judge my reaction. I tried to keep it to the minimum, but as soon as he mentioned that rock everyone was so hot to have, I had no choice but suspect he was up to something. I thought he was one of the safer ones, too.

"It may be the only opportunity for either of us to 'know' for sure," he added, once he saw I wasn't nibbling just yet. "The information may be hidden or removed by any of us with Pattern, quite easily. Any information from the elders is only as accurate as they want them to be, not totally reliable. Shadows can be altered, documents and memories of Shadow dwellers are unreliable. Nothing in our time line can be trusted for facts. I have tried for over fifty years, there is 'no' way to know with complete certainty. The Unicorn knows that the Pattern can't solve every problem, you may have learned that already.

"If I am wrong in my assumption and you are not searching for 'information', then forget my words. But remember that I will be available, if you need help. That Jewel you wear 'must' be protected at all costs. Anna is here because Random knows that, if I am any judge of my uncle. Emma and I are part of that protection, whether Random mentioned it or not. Whether you accept it or not."

He offered a smile that would have been more at home on Luke. "I almost forgot, do you still have the Trump of my room? If you don't think you will need it, I could definitely use it."

Clever. Change topics and get me in the habit of agreeing. Fortunately, I'd attended some spiels on vacation time-shares before, so I knew the trick. Still, I did give him back his card.

"Thanks, I hope it was of some use." I didn't comment, and he took that as a chance to jump topics again. "That reminds me, I still have Luke's Trump deck. He shouldn't need it until we get home. Our decks are in Shadow Earth and we didn't have time to get another from the Library. With Werewindle gone as protection, Fiona can keep a tight rein on him. If he behaves, I will return it to him. I never asked Luke, but I would be surprised if Luke isn't attuned to the Jewel, since Coral retained possession of it. There is no reason to assume he hasn't taken advantage of the opportunity. He may have followed you here, through the Jewel."

There was a possibility I didn't like. Neither did he, if his fading smile said anything.

"Scout, if he has the chance, he will make a break to change something - important. Consider this, what would happen if he prevented the attack on Coral? What events have occurred since the removal of the Jewel? As fond as I am of Coral and Luke, it may not be prudent to prevent the attack. However, if it were me, I would do it and damn the consequences. And be damned anyone who got in my way." His smile returns, but that doesn't lessen any worries he was planting. "As I said earlier, it is just a matter of... perspective. Just something else to ponder." He tapped his bowler in place, another odd affectation of his. "Interested in hearing my plan?"

"What do you have in mind?" I asked, which wasn't really an answer. I was trying to get in that habit.

"It may have a few holes in it, but my plan is not as elaborate as one of Suehprom's." We shared a smile there, and I hoped he was telling the truth. "Follow me on this. As you know, the Jewel created a Pattern ghost of me to help on its recovery. It follows that it may be able to create ghosts of anyone attuned to it, like yourself. Or, specifically, like Eric. How much of his memory would reside inside the ghost, would depend on when he attuned himself to it. I'm betting that the attunement was around the time of the Patternfall War, not years before. Let's take that a step further... If the Jewel works that way, if the memories are available for a ghost, then where are the memories stored? The Jewel itself must hold the information. I would like the opportunity to summon those memories directly from the Jewel, if it can be done."

That almost made sense. If the Jewel could generate duplicates, it had to be storing things somewhere. Or at least have access to that storage. And if we could get to that, pick out just what we needed... Sure, I was already fairly convinced Random was my father from what I'd seen, but a little certainty never hurt. "I think I'm with you, so far. You do know I can't let you have the Jewel, right?"

"I don't want it," he said, too quickly for me to completely believe him. "Retain control of it. I will just look into the Jewel and ask for the information, while you hold it and monitor my actions. I may need your help anyway. Anna can hold a knife to my throat, if that will make you more comfortable. If I waver from inquiry, she can stop me." He grinned and tilted back his head, just enough to show his neck. "You can even hold my bowler, brolly, and Trumps as insurance for my cooperation."

I hoped he didn't think I needed that sort of assurance. It was a little insulting. Then again, most anyone else in the family would have demanded it. I just nodded, very slightly, and let him decide what it meant.

"Any inquiries you may have, if applicable, we can access them as well," he continued. "Corwin may help us, if we need more people who are attuned. Fiona is the only other person aware of my inquires, I think it should stay that way. None of the others should know what we learn, until we know if the information should be shared."

He smiled and clapped his hands, clearly proud of his sales job. "Well cousin, that's the plan. We can work out the details as we go; after all, we haven't tried this before. Shall we start? No time like the present."

Anna looked dubiously on, but I had to consider the possibility. This did have a chance of working, I couldn't see any reason to pass that chance up. As long as I had a little of my own kind of insurance.

"Sounds like a possibility," I said. "If this thing really is self-contained and if it lets us get to what it's holding." I wasn't entirely convinced of either possibility, or of Steed's complete trustworthiness, but life is a series of gambles. "I don't like the idea of inviting this thing to make more of those ghosts. The ghost version of you was nice enough, in a bloodthirsty way. But Eric didn't strike me as the kind to ask first when he wanted a transfusion. I'd rather not have to saddle Anna with guarding the both of us against that."

"Unless..." I walked over to my coat, which I'd hung on a bit of rock in the wall, pulled out the one-time alter stone. It glowed even more like a miniature Jewel than ever. "Anna, you could use this thing to get an early warning. If it buzzes or tingles or anything, something's about to hit the fan and you pull us out. Sound solid?"

He agreed, so the two of is took our places, facing each other, the stone held between us. By the chain. I wasn't going to touch the thing while anything weird was going on. At least, not if I could avoid it. I didn't even want to look at it, really. But that wasn't easy to avoid.

It started to glow, then to pulse, in time with my heartbeat. In time with Steed's as well, particularly after he reached up with a single finger to touch it. Anna caught my eye, held the smaller stone toward me. It was glowing as well, pulsing in time with its full-sized version. I turned away, trying not to get caught up in whatever was happening.

And I felt the now-familiar twinge of a Trump contact. Not now, this is not a good time. I fought against it, pushing both it and the Jewel away, but I couldn't resist both. The Trump was powerful, which probably meant Kat or Fiona, since the later was supposed to have set up barriers to keep out Trump calls from those not in our little circle of time travelers. I let that bit of resistance fall.

The man who stood in my mind's eye was someone I hadn't seen except in illustration. Red hair, thin, sharp features, dangerously intense eyes. This was the guy I'd just arranged to have Delwin and Sand watch out for, to have them make sure he died when he should.

Brand, who, by all accounts I'd been offered, was the insane would-be universe destroyer of the family. And he was reaching for me... or was it the Jewel he wanted? It wasn't a hard decision. I mentally put myself between him and the Jewel and asked, "What do you want?"

"I came to talk." He was a cold one, level and steady. None of the fierce demanding of your attention that Bleys, Corwin or Eric tended toward. No, he was much, much more subdued, more subtle. That worried me.

"I'm busy. We can't talk later?" It was worth a try.

"Due to the barrier my sisters have created and the nature of the shadow..."

I cut him off, since maybe if I could control the flow of the dialog, I had a slight advantage. "Sisters?" I emphasized the plural.

"Sand here, on the outside, Fiona on the inside."

"Okay," I said, supposing it should be true. "So, talk."

"You need to give the Jewel to your father."

Oh, great. So now he was the Unicorn's reminder service? Why did that not fill me with confidence? "Right." After all, I already knew that.

"It won't be easy."

"Yeah?" Like that was news either. Or helpful.

"You'll need to use his Trump."

"Okay, thanks," I said, hoping he'd take the message. He'd delivered his message, after all. And, to be honest, that last bit was actually a good-sounding suggestion.

"There's more. He'll need it soon." Okay, so that told me job one when we got back to the present. Hopefully job two wouldn't be hunting down Brand, because he seemed much too well informed. How would he know me when I wouldn't even be born for two or three hundred of his years? How could he know what was happening to Random centuries after our conversation? It didn't connect up well, and it made me worried.

"Anything else you'd like to know?" he asked

"Not at the moment, no," I lied because everything I wanted to know I didn't trust him to tell me.

"Good. Do it as soon as you get back. There are difficult forces at work." Yeah, he was being helpful. I don't like being treated like a kid. "Also, watch out for your brother. He may not be much, but he has powerful allies."

"Yeah, I've noticed." I couldn't hide the sarcasm. Martin's friends had been bad movie critters, certainly nothing to frighten me now that I was getting used to it.

"Not them. Much more powerful."

I smiled. "I was hoping. Otherwise, you were kinda making a bad joke there."

He didn't smile. "Believe me, I stabbed him for a reason. Only wish I'd killed the little bastard."

Such a loving family I'd discovered for myself. "Okay, well... thanks for the call." I didn't mean that either.

"One more thing," he said. "Give my regards to both my sons. They're in the shadow with you."

"Sure." Damn. I knew about Luke, but who else here was Brand's son? I didn't like that mystery one bit.

I noticed something odd as Brand pulled away from the Trump contact. He wasn't really as powerful as he'd felt on the way in. Not that overwhelming at all. But he really knew how to use what he had, that I could tell.

My musings were interrupted when Random walked into the cave. "You're not supposed to be here," was all I could manage to say.

"I'm not here," he said, without smiling. When he wasn't smiling, he looked more king-like. The smile took years off his age.

"Right... Look, it hasn't even been long enough for you to be you yet. We're two, three days from then, and that's two, three hundred years for you." I'd learned how to say that sort of thing by watching the Doctor. I think I managed to keep a straight face.

"This is all an effect of the Jewel and the defenses of this shadow." I didn't want to know how he was so certain of that. Maybe being part of the effect told him.

"It didn't set off the alarm... Did it, Anna?" I turned to her, and found her facing into a strange, glowing energy pattern. Nothing overtly hostile... In fact, it was familiar. It was what she had looked like when Flora had summoned her using that ring. That gave rise to questions I didn't have time for right now.

Anna didn't look away, she just murmured a response "err... no."

Her answer let me turn back to Random and leave questions of her nature for a later time. "So... this is the Jewel trying to defend itself? Or the shadow?"

"Seems to be an interaction of effects."

So accurate and so unhelpful. Were those the only sort of answers this family knew how to give? "Should we pull Steed out, then?"

He shrugged, as if it didn't really matter to him. "Not just yet."

"Just let him ride it out, huh?" I wasn't sure I wanted a solo chat with the man I'd learned was my father right then, and Anna hardly counted, given that she was barely even noticing us here. An excuse, any excuse, would get me out of this.

"Unless things get a little too dangerous here, then we might have to try. I'm worried what effect that would have on him." He didn't look worried. Or even all that interested.

"Okay... so you just want to stick around here, hope it doesn't go too bad?" I was losing hope for a distraction, so I may as well get the conversation out of the way.

"You got a better idea?"

Hundreds. Let's go save the universe from... oh, about anything. Let's go find out if we let anyone else sneak through time. Let's find out how Brand knew what is going to happen years after his death. All this, I though. "Not really," I said.

"Give us a chance to catch up... on old times."

There was a chance. A bit of conversational misdirection. "So are you... ummm... 'you' from near the end or... one of those ghost things, from when you first used the Jewel, right? No, were you even king then?"

"Technically, I'd just gotten it from the unicorn."

So that's how it worked. I'd wondered how one of the younger sons, with no clear sign of military skill or unusual guile had taken the throne. "So you're you from then?"

"No, I seem to remember more than that."

"Okay..." That did it in. Now, it was time to just get the big question out of the way. I managed to say it, but only indirectly. "So how often did you visit LA?"

He got the real question, but was nice enough to stick to the illusion of a different topic. "Quite a few times. A good jazz scene. What did you think of LA?"

"I usually got to see the bad parts," I said. "Goes with the job." And with being raised in institutions, without anyone to take you to see the sights except as part of a mob scene.

"Oh. Believe me, I know about job duties."

That did seem to be true. He didn't seem the sort to even want to be king, from what I knew. It probably meant he had to do a lot of things he'd rather avoid. "Yeah, I guess..."

There was an uncomfortable silence, almost a minute of it. Then he decided to up the ante. "How's your mother?"

I tried not to pick up a rock and throw it at him. I don't even think I glared. He hadn't even bothered to check up on her. "Never really met her," I said, without telling him anything he clearly didn't care to know. "Where was she from, anyway?"

"A shadow not all that far from Earth, really. More magic, not much different otherwise."

Not very different? I had to question his perspective for that, but only indirectly. "From what I picked up, she was pretty out of it."

"Can't say I'm too proud of that one. She wanted to see the worlds... I showed her some of them, moved on..." He was silent for a long moment, a slight frown giving him a more regal look than I'd seen from him before. "I never claimed to be a nice guy."

"huh..." I didn't know what to say. I really wasn't ready for him to bare his soul on the issue. Someday, maybe, I'd want to know about my mother. Today... simply wasn't that day. "So," I said, by way of changing the subject, "you remember enough to know what just happened to you? Last thing we've been able to track, you went checking out jazz records, headed home..."

"Actually, the last thing I remember is kind of weird. A glowing area, a big blue box with smoke coming out of it..." He didn't have the background to put that into context, but I thought I did.

"You were going into a Trump call, weren't you?"


Score one for me, I was right. "That makes a heck of a lot of sense, I'm afraid. That box is the Doctor's favorite toy. Apparently, he dumped it between Trumps and blew it up."

"'Between Trumps'?" He looked plenty confused by that description. Can't say as I blame him.

"That's what Fiona said. It didn't make any sense to me either."

"Hmm... I've been learning Trump, but that must be a more advanced lesson..." 'Learning Trump'? I wonder who was offering classes. Not that I've ever been much of an artist, but I'd like to get some basics in the limits so I know better what to worry about.

"So did you get a Trump call, answer it and that happened or what?"

"Yeah, like that."

"Musta got sucked in..." I was trying to re-assemble events, but how someone could get dragged through a contact without someone on the other side to do it was still bothering me.

At least until Random offered an answer. "As a matter of fact, I was actually going through the Trump. Your bother wanted to talk to me."

Martin. Maybe just a coincidence, but I wouldn't bet the farm on that. "Weren't you just with him, at that record store?"

He seemed surprised that I knew about that. I'm glad I didn't have to tell him I'd just stumbled into that fact. "I... visited the record store, a while back. But he said there was something else I needed to know about."

"Oh. Sure it was him?" After all, I'd seen two very different Martins and I wasn't entirely convinced one wasn't a fake. Unfortunately, the nice one was more likely to be the fake.

"Seemed like him."

I decided to fill Random in, just in case this came up later. "Because I've run into a... well, something sorta like him. He seemed like a pretty nice guy, not like the one who's been sending things, trying to kill me. Who looked like him."

"Hmm... I'll have to look into that." It actually seemed to bother him, the idea of Martin trying to kill me.

"Well, they weren't very good at it, so no real harm done. So what's he so on about, anyway?"

"The succession, I suspect," he answered, very quickly. "Don't worry, though. I plan on going on a good long time."

"Well good. I hadn't thought of that." I didn't want to think about that. Me, possible heir to a king? I'm a good old American boy, we grow up to be maybe-president not maybe-king. "He is older, isn't he?"

Random paused, then answered slowly. "No... But Vialle and I have legally adopted him and not you."

I let out a relaxed sigh. "Good. I'm happy with that situation. If that matters."

"Muddies the issue a bit." He shrugged. Easy for him, he's used to being royalty.

"Yeah, well, I kinda like things... Well, maybe not as they are, but I'm not sure I'm in for changing in that direction."

"It 's not sure either of you would ever take the throne. There are lots of other family members." He said that as if it was the most obvious transition of ideas possible. And, given what I knew of family history, I guess it was.

"Yeah, I'd just rather not be in the way in case any of them are all fired up on getting there."

"Given your parentage, I'm not sure staying out of the way is an option."

"Won't stay secret too much longer, will it?"

"That's up to you," he said, shrugging slightly again.

"That's a plus."

He was silent for another moment, and his eyes drifted to Anna, who was still all but immobile. She certainly didn't seem to be paying any attention to us. "You know, I almost told you when you came to me. After all that mess at the Abyss."

"Would have saved me a lot of work."

"I doubt that," he said. "The way you put things, about the Jewel. You would have just thought I wanted it back."

He had a point. Claiming to be my father then would have seemed like transparent greed. "Yeah, I guess so..."

"I didn't want it to be that way. I've made some mistakes..."

"Well, it's not like you could have proved it easily... Then, anything you could have told me, I wouldn't have known to check you against." 

"Some things you have to find for yourself."

I guess that was true. I certainly wouldn't have believed any of this when I started the search. Anna and I had found just enough evidence, and Random had meshed with every part of it, even as we had this conversation. Then a thought hit me, though. If he was as subtle as the family is alleged to be... "So, I said, "I guess you didn't tell her, either?" I gestured toward Anna.

He shook his head. "No, I told her. She needed to know."

"Okay... Well, I guess that made finding out a little easier." And just a bit more suspect. Something this clean had too good a chance of being a set-up. But I couldn't show that worry right now. "She did a good job of not letting on."

"Good. I did tell her not to interfere."

She hadn't kept that promise, but she'd only lead me when I'd gotten completely lost, so I didn't want to turn her in. "She did that. Or didn't do that, I guess. So, are you going to remember any of this after... whatever?"

"I'm not sure. The whole thing seems very dreamlike to me. I may or may not." It was a little odd to have him be just as in the dark as I was. Somehow, I expected the King of Amber to know how things worked, not be just as lost as the rest of us. Then I remembered that I was, by some readings, only a heartbeat away from that throne myself. Let me tell you, that's a strange feeling.

"Okay... We're probably going to have to pull you out or else push the Jewel to you where you are, since you don't already have it and I've been told you're going to need it. I'm learning to avoid time contradictions as much as the Doctor seems to like them." Fortunately, he didn't ask me who had told me that.

"One of these days, we'll have to have a long talk about that fellow." Among other things. But I wasn't ready for that yet. This had been more than enough for now.

"Not too long," I said. "At least not if it starts with 'don't trust him' and ends with 'keep an eye on him.'"

"Almost like family." He said that with a hint of sadness to his voice. That I can understand.

"That is the running rule around this place."

"Better to trust a stranger than a family member. With a stranger, there's a chance they won't betray you." He said it as if that cynical statement were a quote, a basic fact of life that had become a cliché.

"So," I changed the subject again, "I guess Steed's not done with his Jewel-quest, yet. If that's what's causing all this. I mean... There is more than you, right?"

"I guess so." Again, the lack of total knowledge. That was going to take some getting used to. I guess they drop the act once they know you're seeing through it. Or maybe Random didn't play the same game as the others.

"I mean, if you came out, there could also be... He was talking to Eric, so he's probably not out. A second Corwin, maybe..."

Random's eyes widened. "Dad. Please tell me Dad couldn't get out." That clearly frightened him. And I understood why.

"That could be bad. I guess I only knew Eric as him, but that was bad enough." I looked at the door, then remembered that I couldn't exactly leave. "I'm not supposed to leave here, because he needs the rock... the Jewel... or something might go wrong... But my arm's getting tired." I could take a tired arm, but doing the tough-guy act didn't make it hurt any less. How long had I been holding the Jewel for him, anyway?

Just then, almost as if on cue, Steed took a deep breath and turned to look around the room.

He seemed surprised to see Random and asked how he got here. I explained that he was a creation of the Jewel, probably not the real thing, and that our little experiment may have released everyone. Except Eric, of course, who he said he had been talking to, though without any significant results.

We decided to check on anyone else who might have snuck out, as I shook my arm to work the stiffness out.

And, before we could leave my little corner of the cavern, Blazer ran in, a wild look of fear in his eyes. Like Steed, he asked where Random came from, and I explained it was a Jewel thing. Then he explained his worry.

"Brand keeps wanting to talk to me," he said, unwittingly answering a question I'd had from my own talk with my (hopefully) now dead uncle. Blazer and Luke? You couldn't get much closer to opposites...

We decided we should go find him, especially after Blazer told us it was actually Brand and Luke who were after him. Random had to order Blazer to come along, but was able to since apparently Blazer had joined Amber's navy in the meantime. Anna and the strange energy thing that was surrounding her followed along too.

Outside of the cave was a four-lane highway. Last time I checked, there wasn't much more than moss here. This time, there was a superhighway and no sign of Brand or Luke. Blazer said he didn't see the road here on his way in, which just made things more confusing.

We decided to look for a Trump of Brand, but before I dug mine out, we saw something on the road. A large, black panther licking at something on the road surface.

"Weren't we supposed to have nothing but small plants here?" I asked, pretty sure of the answer.

"That's what Fiona told us," Steed agreed.

"That's a very large and frisky bit of moss, don't you think?" I pulled out my sword as I said this, then lead the way down the road. The panther really didn't fit the whole 'people coming out of the Jewel' theory, since as far as I knew, we didn't have any panthers in our family tree. I may not know all of it, but I'm pretty sure it was almost exclusively humanoid.

As we got closer, we could see that the panther was licking a familiar form, our very own, very feline (and, at the moment, quite well groomed in a feline way) Kat. But he was just licking her, it wasn't anything threatening... But what do I know about panthers?

As we approached, the panther stepped back from Kat, looking us over cautiously.

"You alright, Kat?"

She didn't exactly answer, for a while at least. "Yes, I'm fine." She shifted back to her human form, and the panther stepped between her and us, almost protectively.

"Who's your friend?" I asked, not entirely sure I liked her having one of nature's more perfect hunting machines as a guardian.

"I'm not really sure. I was napping in a tree and he just crawled up after me."

At that point, I decided I'd rather not know, but Steed pushed the issue. The panther was, it seems, Kat's father. And, at this point, I started to see a very messy alternate explanation for what was going on. If the Jewel and the shadow barriers were interacting, what was to say they hadn't somehow taken each of us, drawn out the same thing from us all, then presented itself to us as our fathers. Very realistically, too. Maybe even really. The Jewel did, I was told, have that sort of power.

But that doesn't force me to like the idea.

Nor does it explain why the energy field was surrounding Anna nor why Steed was clearly without any kind of attention at all. Though the answer to the first was easier to guess at than the latter.

A sporty car with mirrored windows pulled up, stopping smoothly just near us. The Doctor opened the passenger window and asked where everyone else was.

"We haven't found them yet," I said, as I tried to look past him into the car. If the pattern held, the driver was likely to be his father and that almost insisted that he was a person worth at least seeing.

"What's that energy thing, then?" he asked, pointing toward the field surrounding Anna.

"That's Anna," I answered, hoping he wouldn't press the issue. Sometimes even he takes a hint.

"Oh. In her Ty'iga form, I suppose." Today wasn't his day for hint taking. But I'd already come to much the same conclusion. I wonder how many others had reached it long before me.

The Doctor climbed out of the car, stretching and still not showing us the driver clearly.

"So, how do we get back to where we were?"

"You mean we left? We were just there at the cave..." I looked back and, indeed, the cave was still there.

"Sid, can I see a road map or something?" the Doctor asked back into the car.

"There's no maps for this road. It changes to often." I still couldn't see him, but the voice was strong and confident.

Just then, Steed's leather-clad partner in whatever it was he did in his spare time, Emma, walked up, and with her was a tall, bearded man in a long, white lab coat.

"Who's your friend?" Steed asked.

Emma just confirmed my initial guess by saying, "This is my father, Steed. I don't think you've met him, since he's been dead for a few years. It's all rather strange."

'You know," I said, to bring a few better-informed heads into my own way of thinking, "I'm starting to think this has very little to do with the Jewel."

"What were you doing with the Jewel?" the Doctor asked. "Futzing with it?"

"We were... okay, yeah, I guess we were futzing, a little. Nothing that should have caused..." I waved my hands at the whole mess we'd found ourselves among.

"I sense almost double the number of people here that should be," Kat said. "Almost, but not quite."

"Yeah, well there wouldn't be an extra for Fiona and Corwin, so that would save us one." Luke and Blazer would save us another, but I wasn't going to share that right then.

"Is there any reason why I shouldn't use the Pattern to check things out?" Steed asked Random.

"Hard to say," the thing that looked and sounded and for all I knew just might actually be my father and not a clever simulation said. "I don't think it would hurt that much. I hope it won't, anyway."

Luke came out of the brush beside the road, with Brand beside him. Blazer inched a little more behind me, as if to hide. "Oberon is coming," Luke said.

"We kinda expected he'd be around," I said, just to prove we knew what was going on. "You've been looking for him?" I sad, stepping aside and leaving Blazer unprotected.

Brand smiled, which wasn't exactly comforting.

"So you're Brand," the Doctor said. "I've heard quite a bit about you."

"So we know who got all the luck in this family," I said, mostly to myself. But I think everyone got the message. Blazer didn't seem to happy with the idea.

"Look," Luke said, "I'm a little more concerned with how Oberon's going to react to dad here, since when they last parted..."

"Yeah, that could be messy," I said, but it was too late, as Oberon approached, Corwin, Fiona, Suehprom and Delwin in tow. The last offered an ugly possibility that I really don't want to consider.

"Perhaps someone should conjure up a nice bar-bee-cue and some good stakes and we can all have a nice sit-down," the Doctor proposed, sarcasm dripping off his beard with each word.

"I believe that belongs to me," Oberon said, looking at the glowing red Jewel still handing from its chain, which was in turn still held tightly by me.

"Not at the moment, no." I already knew who needed this thing, and it wasn't him. If the Random in here's memory of where he was fit reality, the Jewel was probably what was needed to prevent the TARDIS from doing something drastically bad 'between Trumps'. Giving it away now might me we wouldn't have it when we needed it.

"I'm afraid, considering my surroundings, that I must insist." He glared at me with a few centuries of regal will behind cold eyes. Good thing I'm not used to caring much for things regal.

"I've got direct instructions from the Unicorn otherwise."

"And I'm supposed to believe that?" His gaze darkened, and he was clearly looking me over for how he could force my cooperation.

"I don't care if you believe it or not. Doesn't change anything." I had the Jewel's chain wrapped around my left hand, a sword in my right and I really, really wished it was a pistol. Sure, maybe it wouldn't even work here, but the car did so I had more than an even chance. And a .38 is often a significant equalizer.

Kat stepped between Oberon and me, then the panther between Oberon and her. He looked past both of them. "Don't make me ask twice."

"I don't care how many times you ask," I said, which won me some very apprehensive looks from Delwin, Corwin and Fiona. What, hadn't they ever seen anyone stand up to the big bully before?

Suehprom suddenly disappeared. That was just the sort of surprise this moment didn't need, but what else could we expect from Suehprom? He'd probably planned it.

A large, white-haired man, late 40's, dressed in a suit stepped out of the sports car. He didn't look like he was going to calm things down either. "I'm afraid I don't recognize you, sir, but I understand it might be bad if you take this gentleman's... bauble."

"It's not mine," I added, just to ease the tension. "I'm just holding it for its owner. But I know he's not the one I'm supposed to give it to."

"Looks like highway robbery to me," the Doctor commented, which seemed to set off a hint of anger in the man I had to assume was his father.

Then, suddenly, Suehprom re-appeared, right in the middle of things.

"I don't know your name, friend, but you'd be better off behind me," said the man in the suit. I didn't feel like arguing, and besides, he'd win me a minute to drop the sword and give my pistol a try.

"If you're going to oppose me," Oberon said, " I think you should know that I am Oberon, Lord of Amber, of the Pattern and of all that I chose to survey. That Jewel is mine and I will have it."

"Actually, I'm pretty certain this belongs to the current king of Amber." It wasn't really much a peacemaker's role I was taking, but I wanted to make sure my new defender, who still hadn't offered a name, didn't doubt my claim.

"It belongs to whomever I say, pup," Oberon said, eyes all but ablaze, hand reaching for his sword.

"I don't know that it works that way," I said, as he gave up on talk, drew his sword and advanced. His children stared on as if they were already sure I was dying in the next few seconds.

The man in front of my started to grow. His suit tore, his body shifted, expanded...

"I've fought and killed shape shifters before," Oberon growled as he approached. "By the hundreds." But I'd seen shapeshifting at work before, so I know that this looked different. For one, it was very, very fast. Before Oberon could reach us, there was a large, combat-ready dragon between us.

I was quite sure that the referee had finished giving instructions to the fighters and the bell would start round one very soon. I dropped the sword and reached into my pocket for a more familiar weapon. I also slipped the Jewel into the pocket, and held the handle of my pistol, waiting for a chance. I didn't pull it out just yet, I held it and waited for the best time.

Oberon came in low, sword swinging, but the dragon blocked that, returning with a slash of claws. It took little time at all for Oberon to bloody him with several slashes, but the dragon didn't seem to mind. In fact, he pressed his attack all the more, probably keeping Oberon from noticing that the panther was circling to take a position behind him.

I, unfortunately, could only catch glimpses of all this around the huge bulk of the dragon. I moved a bit, trying to get a line on Oberon. Only a wing in the way now, and that only most of the time...

I found myself a shot, so I took it. It passed through the thin membrane of the dragon's wing, which I was almost certain wouldn't really hurt him, and caught Oberon squarely. I was happy. For once, my gun actually worked.

I noticed that Steed was talking to Fiona, and she was lifting her hand, the one wearing that ring of hers. And the Doctor was pulling out a grenade, twisting a dial and yelled "Sid! Chronological distortion! Ride it..."

And it was later.

I'm not sure how I knew that, but I just... knew.

For one, I was facing in the opposite direction, firing my second shot off into nowhere.

I turned, and saw Sid, a single bloody talon resting just beyond the end of a long gash that opened Oberon's throat for public inspection. I looked for the bullet wound...

And Fiona said "Now."

And the shadow vanished around us, along with all the unexpected guests. The rest of us stood in an empty field of nothing, at least for a moment. And then a magical force grabbed us, dropping us...

We were in a large courtyard, unfamiliar. Kat, Blazer, Steed, Emma, Anna, Fiona, Corwin, Luke, Suehprom, the Doctor and I. No one else.

Suehprom asked "Where and when are we?"

"This is one of my places," Fiona said. "I needed somewhere familiar on short notice."

"Yeah, well... sorry about that whole mess," I said, deciding that since it had been Steed's and my 'futzing with the Jewel' that started all this, an apology was in order. "I don't know how any of that actually got started."

"I think it was a combination of the Jewel and the shadow barriers," Steed said, which wasn't really adding much information. "We drained that off and it all went away."

So that's what happened. It makes a lot of sense. Except for one thing. "And what was with the paternal themes?"

"Subconscious minds dwelling on certain problems?" the Doctor suggested, which seemed as good an answer as any. If not very satisfying.

"It's been my experience," Corwin said, "that getting through with an explanation is a lot to ask. Getting through is usually enough."

Fiona told us we were right about when we needed to be, because she'd used the energy she'd diverted from the shadow/Jewel phenomena to put us closer to when we needed to be.

"One minute," the Doctor said, licking his finger, sticking it in the air. Then he drew out a Trump and said "We're right about where we left."

I pulled out one of Random's Trumps, and called for people's attention. "We need to call Random really quick. Doctor, he's with your blue thing. The TARDIS."

"Really?" the Doctor said, looking skeptical. "What's he doing there?"

"Needing the Jewel. Trumps alone won't work, I've tried. I'll need help."

The Doctor, Kat and I tried together, but nothing.

"Touch the Jewel," Kat said.

"To the Trump?" I asked. "Is that safe?"

"Either that or hold it. You need it's help."

I slipped the Jewel around my neck, remembering that it tended to do more when worn rather than just carried, then started drawing on its power. It started glowing, pulsing...

With Kat's help and the Jewel's, we pushed through the unresponsive Trump, pushing harder, still nothing...

Then it gave.

I yanked off the Jewel, stuffed it forward. "Here," I said, as I felt reality quiver around me, Kat, the Jewel and what contact we had with Random.

Reality shouldn't quiver.

I don't want to ever feel that again.

"Leaving the party so soon?" Random said, as we took a step forward and were walking back into Fiona's courtyard. "We just got here."

He was holding the Jewel now, so I let go of the chain. I didn't remember anything between when the contact started to form and right now.

"You didn't see the TARDIS did you?" the Doctor asked.

"That blue box," Random asked. "Destroyed. The Jewel held everything else together afterwards, though."

I wasn't sure I'd credit him and that rock with saving everything too easily. But since we were here, he had very strong circumstantial evidence, so I wasn't going to argue right now.

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