"The Center"

by Ghen-ki Tseng

 I knew that I was dying.  My own body writhed in response to the disease that the enemy had released as they had fled the shadow.  It was chaos born, and as it slowly changed me from man to not, I remembered my first fencing instructor.  He had told me that an injury that left you screaming and crying was nothing.  It was the ones that left you quiet that you had to worry about.
       I tried to scream, but didn't have the strength to anything but gasp.
       A bad sign.
       I blinked a few times and lulled my head to the side.  It was the most I could do to take in my surroundings.  The warrior I had come here to aid was tending to me on the now deserted battlefield.  I could not focus but her form was obvious.  Red fire continuously fell forth from her head spilling down over a muscled black obsidian form.  It scorched the ground where it landed but did not touch me.  I could neither feel the heat of fire or the touch of her clawed hands, sharp as glass.
       Another bad sign.
       The bioweapon that had taken out the remainder of our army had crippled my body but my mind was still keen and clear.  That was except for the blinding pain.  I knew that whatever it was that the warrior was actually trying to do, it was also a rather poor attempt to save my life.  I also knew that only one option remained to me but I found it difficult believing I could manage it in my condition.  I also found it difficult believing that I would be in any better condition to try it later on and so I closed my eyes and began.
       I tried to focus on its unique geometry.  Each and every curve I had memorized. From beginning to end I knew the pattern like the back of my own hand, and it in turn knew me.  It would put me back together again.    Hmmm, something about horses and men.  It occurred to me that due to the nature of the beast that the back of my hand may very well be different than I remember.  I didn't open my eyes to check.
       The pattern came to my mind with a shock.  My body twisted again as if the disease knew what I was trying to do and would oppose me.  It was trying to hold me back, this chaos but could only destroy my legs physically.
       In my mind, however, I took a step.  The pattern became alive as if I had completed some circuit and I continued forward.  With each pace the power of order and stability ran through me searing at the infesting chaos.
       My hopes faded as I felt the resistance that preluded the First Veil.  It was different from its physical equivalent.  Here the opposing force quite literally was all in my mind.  In a way it was easier.  Unfortunately, I had used much power in the battle and was already mentally  exhausted as well as physically soon to be jello.  Each step here reminded me of how unlikely it was that I would see the center.
       One step after another, I knew each time that the chaos grew weaker.  I knew it would lose and be purged from my limbs.  The strength of the thought pushed me forward and past.  I almost stumbled as the resistance faded and I smiled slightly.  A piece of me had won.  Only a small piece... and old.  It was...
       ...a black and blue sky.  As if the world itself were bruised and battered.  Another shadow torn apart and created anew.  I witnessed this armageddon a hundred times in my vain attempts to find her. I approached my second home, its huge spires towering over me as a small boy.  My father had revealed our natures to me and brought me to this place that would never share the same fate as my home shadow.
       Each step they assaulted me, these memories.  Benedict and his harsh lessons that I could not keep up with.  The subtle look of contempt of each new queen as I was hailed as legitimate as their own children.  It was a curse that we all shared at some point.  But most vivid of all that came to me was... her.
       A silhouette against a rain spattered window.  She was a shadow with color, a perfect contrast of grey skin and red lips according to the dull illumination of the moonlight.  It poured in, distorted by a watery lens as the million droplets streamed down the carrage window backdrop.  Such pale blue eyes.  I could just see her gaze from my angle and I sorely envied my brothers view as he was sitting across the cabin from us.  He had told me not to stare, but I could not help it nor did she even notice.  She was only a foot or two away as we headed down the city's 1st avenue, five miles from the train station, but might as well have been only in my imagination for all of the possibility that I could have reached out and touched her.  It was awe and longing, but also fear that kept me fixed in that stare, as if I would blink one too many times and she would have disappeared.  I felt so small (well I was small, but I felt even smaller) and she was like a goddess.
       At some point I did catch her reflection in the glass.  It almost seemed like she was staring at me then.  They were sad eyes and she gazed out the window almost as if she could see all she had lost and given up in those rain drops.  That sadness broke my fears momentarily and I forgot myself.
       "Why are you so sad?" I asked her, but that look was gone by the time she turned to me.
       She smiled and said, "Because soon I will not have you to watch over anymore".  I think she was lying but the moment passed and I was again speechless.
       That was the first time I ever knew her.
       It was not much later that the world ended.  Armageddon was brought forth by Lords of Chaos looking for new real estate.  Primal planes.  Places of substance were such a precious thing out in shadow.  She had died then.  Crumbled to dust as all shadow stuff that did not fit into their new paradigm
       My stumble steadied and more steps followed.  On and on I made it around corners and arcs as the resistance slowly but massively came upon me again, like getting hit by a semi in a slow moving dream.
       The end of the world made for a nice sunset.  Black and blue, the sky was like bruised cosmic flesh.  I had seen building fall up from the ground high into the sky a thousand stories.  I suppose it was just as much a beginning of a new world but I hated it for taking her away from me.
       I knew the Second Veil by the wall of molasses that I was trying to walk through.  The resistance I knew was only as great as I thought it was in my mind, but I needed that resistance.  It was the reordering of my being.  It was that same resistance that opposed the chaos and so I imagined as much as I could.
       I pressed on...
       She was what drove me to walk the Pattern before I was ready.  When I was still a boy, it had almost killed me.  I had lain uncouncious at the center for hours before my father had finally come down and fetched me.  Dierdre had been watched me and had thought I was dead.  I think she might have been crying, but the most she admitted to later was that she was worried.  But I had done it.  I had walked it a few other time when I was much older and always for the same reason.  They were the closest I had ever come to finding her again.
       ... and passed through.  Pain made walking impossible, so I dragged my feet.  Fatigue made pain impossible, so where did that leave me.  Thinking about her still.
       Always I would find her with a new name.  A new world with different rules.  They all only kept one constant.  She died in each and every one.  I felt like an unwitting death riding atop a horse he had not realized was so pale.  The last had been a century ago and she had died in my arms.  I had held her head in my lap as she muttered her last words.  They all seemed to know me.  Some had even been looking for me in some way.
       I turned a few more corners and began to anticipate the final straight path of the maze.  The Final Veil would be my last chance to fail and my only one to succeed.  If I finished I would live on with my hatred and loss.  If I couldn't I would die with it.  Neither option was agreeable.  I decided to latch on to the hatred and approached.
       I was walking buried in sand.  I could feel my body so tensed in the effort, but then again I could feel.  It was a surprise that almost took the last of my energy.  Sensation not pain.  Or at least along with pain.  But it was so much more that I had.
       The battlefield where I lay was hot and so was her breath on my face.  I opened my eyes and drove myself through to the end.
       From the center of my pattern I regarded the world around me once again with clear eyes.  A primal plane, a shadow of substance close to the Courts of Chaos themselves.  The sky was grey due to the heavy clouds above.  None of the world rending colors I had so come to expect and dread in my shadow experience.  The barren land I lay on continued off into the horizon where it met with the grey clouds in all directions.  I knew this world could be healed.  The damage done by chaos here was not permanent this time, nor could it have been.  Not here where there was so much reality.  It would take time though.  It would have to be guarded and fortified lest the enemies return to do battle again.  My presence would help if I chose to stay.  That was the nature of those with the blood of the Pattern.
       The warrior still knelt above me.  Her form no more the creature of battle that it had been before my walk.  Her red lips and pale skin the perfect contrast according to the dull illumination of a cloudy sky.  As she looked into my eyes I saw that hers were heavy with tears.
       "Finally, this time you did not die." she said to me.  I could tell ger voice had carried so much loss as it reminded me of my own.  Her hands were warm as they held my head in her lap.  It drowned out the pain of my torn body.  Even for a prince of Amber I knew I would take years to recover.  The shadow perched on the edge of the abyss, and the Lords of Chaos whom I had learned to hate for so long would surely be ever present.  Through the center of my Pattern I knew that she herself carried with her that power of Chaos.  She was no reflection, no shadow of the real.  She was one of those I had labeled "enemy" so long ago.
       I found no anger of hatred left in me, however, as my eyes closed and exhaustion finally took me.  My walk had shown me everything I needed to know and in the end hatred was nothing compared to finding her at last.  From the center of my Pattern I chose to stay.