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«To Rule in Amber», John Betancourt

To Rule in Amber

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Byron Preiss for making this project possible; his editor Howard Zimmerman, who has done a superlative job through a sometimes grueling schedule; and Theresa Thomas, Warren Lapine, and Lee F. Szczepanik, Jr. for providing commentary, criticism, and advice on the early drafts.

Chapter 1

Grayness surrounded me. Gray the color of morning twilight. Hours and days and years and centuries of gray. A featureless, all-consuming, all-encompassing gray that sucked the strength from your limbs and the will to live from your heart. So much gray that you couldn't take it all in no matter how hard you tried.

I fell through that gray, thinking of my crazy brother Aber, who had run out on me. Then I thought about my crazy father, Dworkin, who had left me guarding his back while he destroyed the universe.

For a while I wanted to kill them both. That lasted a long, long time. Then I wanted to hurt them. That lasted even longer.

Finally I didn't care.

And still I fell.

Uncountable ages passed. My mind wandered; I dreamed unhappy dreams. Now and again my father's voice spoke to me.

“Be patient,” it would say. “The end has come, and the beginning lies ahead.”

“What's in it for me?” I asked warily.

“Nothing,” he said. “You were a tool, nothing more, used and discarded.”

“No!”

I jerked around and tried to grab him, but my arms windmilled through nothingness. He hadn't really been here. I had imagined it.

Dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, imaginings. Call them what you will. They were one and the same.

And still I plunged through that gray, a never-ending sea of it.

Forever passed. At least twice.

The end came with no sense of motion. Had I really been falling? Aber would know, some distant part of me remarked. Aber knew everything about magic.

Frowning, I tried to remember something important. Something about having to kill someone…

I couldn't recapture the thought. My head hurt. My muscles seemed to groan and my bones to creak, as though they hadn't been used in a long, long time.

Lurching, I almost fell. Suddenly I had direction again: a clear sense of up and down, left and right, forward and back. Thick, impenetrable grayness still surrounded me, but something had definitely changed. Something big.

“Aber!” I shouted. The air seemed to swallow my words.

“Aber! Where are you?”

No reply.

Besides, I knew my brother hadn't done anything to save me. He would have gone… where? I frowned. Back to the Courts of Chaos, probably. Who else could help me, then?

A face, a name on the tip of my tongue…

“Dworkin?” I whispered. That sounded right. “Dad?”

Memories suddenly flooded back. Our flight from Juniper to the strange Courts of Chaos. Someone named Lord Zon trying to kill my whole family. My half-brother Aber, who painted magical cards called Trumps that could be used to travel between worlds… my half-sister Freda, who saw the future… and most especially our father, the dwarf I'd grown up calling Uncle Dworkin. It turned out he'd been lying to protect me. He really was my father, and he commanded magical powers I had only just begun to understand. Someday soon I too would command those magics. I knew it.

Dworkin had created his own universe, a huge sprawling place of Shadow-worlds, and in so doing had weakened the powers of the sorcerers who lived in the Courts of Chaos. So someone from Chaos—probably Lord Zon—had sent hell-creatures to kill our whole family and destroy the Shadows, along with the magical Pattern that cast them.

My head hurt just thinking about it.

Fleeing the Courts of Chaos, Dworkin, Aber, and I came to a secret place that contained the Pattern at the center of the new universe. Unfortunately, Dworkin hadn't understood the Pattern fully when he'd created it, and its very essence held a flaw. To fix things, he had destroyed the old Pattern and retraced it from scratch using his own blood. He had collapsed after finishing it, and I had fallen into a void.

Had it worked? Did a new and correct Pattern really exist now? I didn't know. How could I find out?

First things first. I needed a plan. Mentally, I made a list:

1. Get out of the fog.

2. Find the rest of my family.

3. Stop everyone from trying to kill us.

If I had time, I'd add:

4. Beat my father to a bloody pulp for getting us all into this mess in the first place.

The air flickered around me, brighter then darker, brighter then darker. Stretching out my hands, I squinted into grayness, trying to see my fingertips. Nothing. Was I imagining things?

The light flickered again, subtly. I couldn't tell whether I had dreamed it, but somehow it felt different.

I fought back a rush of excitement; no sense in raising my hopes. I had been disappointed too often. And yet a small part of me wondered—could dawn finally be approaching? Had something else happened?

Anything would be better than this gray fog.


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