Into the Abyss
a Chronicles of Amber fanfic
Notes: Written for amberite in the Yuletide 2011 challenge.
Martin rolled awake, hand already slid beneath his pillow for the dagger, eyes scanning the shadows for movement. He had not meant to fall asleep in the middle of the day, drifting off still fully dressed. But the dreams had been coming again: Brand calling him, stabbing him, bleeding him. Even now, after all this time, he still had nightmares.
He still had a hole above his heart.
His pulse beat loud in his ears, even though no danger loomed, only the familiar outlines of his rooms in Castle Amber: acoustic guitar propped in one corner, rock posters in their glassy frames. His reflection stared back at him, cheeks pale, eyes wide.
He felt it then, the touch of a Trump contact. The thing that had woken him. He could block it if he chose. He had learned how.
The sensation came again, an insistent push against his mind. Someone was calling him, and they were not taking no for an answer. Martin tried to lower his shields a fraction, to discern who it was, but they shattered like glass.
Reaching for him, framed by fire, was a silhouette whose shape he knew well, and the voice that called his name was the voice that haunted his dreams.
Martin. Answer me.
He went rigid. It had to be part of the nightmare. He pressed his thumb against the edge of the dagger; a line of red welled up, but he did not wake.
"You're dead," Martin whispered to the air.
Then what are you afraid of?
Martin gripped his dagger in one hand, but he reached out with the other, and stepped through the Trump to the other side.
He glimpsed a black cavern, aglow with hidden fires, and inhaled a breath of sulphurous air. But none of that mattered, because he stood face to face with a man who clasped his hand in an unbreakable grip, a man with foxbright hair and ironic eyes: exactly as Martin recalled, in all his ruthless beauty and terrifying brilliance.
"Hello, Martin," Brand said.
He moved forward, and Martin had an instant to thrust the dagger; but he hesitated, and Brand collapsed against him. Martin was too stunned to do anything but catch him.
"Brand?" he said, dagger held awkwardly to one side. No response.
Martin lowered Brand to the floor. His robes draped him like a dark shroud. Whatever colour his garments had been, they were blackened with ash, indelibly stained. His right sleeve had been rolled back, and his arm was streaked with blood from fingertip to elbow.
Martin stared, trying to control his breathing. This was real. He was here. He dropped to his knees beside Brand, who lay unmoving. Multiple cuts scored the length of his arm.
Martin contemplated Brand's filthy robes, then shed his own jacket, and the shirt beneath, tearing the fabric into strips for bandages, to stem the ooze of blood from the wounds. The cuts were not deep, but their edges were sharp. Martin thought of obsidian blades.
When he had done the best he could, he rocked back on his heels, at a loss. Before him was his enemy, at his mercy, and what had Martin done? Surely none of the rest of his family would have hesitated to strike. Perhaps that was why Martin remained an outsider among them.
He stood, finally taking note of his surroundings. The cavern walls were black and smooth as jet, save for tiny fissures that exuded a fiery glow. A horizontal rift split open one wall, through which air flowed. And, nearby, on the obsidian floor--
With shock, Martin recognised the lines of his own face, larger than life, sketched in glistening liquid. He bent to touch it, already knowing that his fingers would come away red.
A Trump of Martin, drawn in blood.
He remained staring, seized by the vision of Brand, methodical, deliberate, spilling his own heart's blood to recreate Martin from memory. Desperate measures, driven by desperate need. A knot formed in his chest, making it hard to breathe. But then, Brand had always done that to him.
The hairs on his neck rose. He turned. Brand was watching him, eyes slit open a bare fraction, irises reflecting the light. "Admiring my work?"
It took a moment before Martin could speak. "I saw you take an arrow in the throat."
"It will take more than that to slay a son of Amber. As well you know." Audacious of Brand to bring that up. Exactly like Brand to bring that up.
"Why did you call me? Of all people, me?"
"Why did you come?" Brand countered.
Not something Martin wanted to examine too closely right now. "I wanted answers."
"Then it would be ungrateful of me to deny them to you, wouldn't it?"
Martin had not expected it to be so easy. It couldn't be so easy. He fought down the urge to burst forth with all his questions, and instead tossed out, "Tell me then. How did you manage to escape the Abyss?"
Brand laughed, sudden and wild. A chill shot up Martin's spine. He lurched across to the rift in the wall, grabbing the side just in time to stop himself from going over the edge.
He stood in a jagged seam in the wall of a chasm black as night, bottomless descent below, no sign of heaven above. A demon wind howled with many voices, and tongues of infernal flame licked at the dark.
"Best get away from the edge," Brand said. "There are things that hunt."
Martin laid out the Trumps from his deck again, sitting cross-legged on the floor. He touched them one by one, focusing each time on the face upon it, trying to open a connection.
They might as well have been playing cards, for all the response he had.
"Forget those," Brand said. "This place has its own rules." He sat propped against the wall. Some of the colour had returned to his face.
"Then how did you make that work?" Martin gestured at the sketch on the floor.
"There is a power in blood. Especially the blood of Amber."
Martin had tried shifting Shadow, but it was impossible in the Abyss. Tech was dead here too, his neural implant picking up no signal through the aether. They were trapped. He shivered, even though he had wrapped his jacket around himself again.
Martin swept up his Trumps. He crossed over to Brand, crouching down beside him. "You didn't answer my question. Why call me? Why not your son? Why not your minions?"
"You're the only one I trust to do this."
Martin let out a snort of disbelief. "Why did you wait so long to call for help?"
"How long has it been for you?"
"Ah," Brand said. His fingers drummed. "Not quite the same for me. Time plays strange tricks here."
Martin wondered if it had been like yesterday, or if it had been forever.
Brand touched the silver rings threaded through Martin's earlobe. They jangled. "This is new."
"Souvenirs from Shadow." Martin kept his breathing even, resisting the urge to pull away.
"So I see." And Martin knew that Brand was mentally cataloguing the other souvenirs Martin had collected: orange mohawk, black leather, metal piercings. Recalibrating what he knew with what he saw.
His fingers slid further down. When he touched the neural implant in Martin's neck, static jumped, sending them both jerking away reflexively.
Brand gave a rueful half-smile, and tilted his head as if for permission to continue. When Martin did not protest, he traced his hand past Martin's collarbone, down his chest, to the jagged scar.
"That should have healed," Brand said. He gave Martin a sharp look, almost a rebuke.
All Martin could say was, "I know."
Brand skated his fingers across its rough edges. Martin sucked in a breath.
"Does it hurt?" Brand said.
Martin shook his head, voice caught in his throat.
Brand circled his fingers around the place where he had marked Martin irrevocably. His gaze turned still with concentration. It reminded Martin of other times he had seen that look on Brand's face. It made him remember things he had tried to push away forever.
"Why me?" he broke in, harshly. "You needed to spill the blood of Amber, but why me?" The question that had kept him up midnights. He had never had the chance to ask it, before Brand had been shot down in front of him, leaving Martin alone and answerless forever.
"What does not kill us, makes us stronger." A riddle. Brand was full of riddles. "To create a world anew, first we must destroy the old."
"So I was just a tool. Used and discarded."
"No! No. Not a tool. An instrument!" At Martin's flat look, Brand said, "A tool is a dumb object. An instrument is alive. It has purpose. It has meaning. All it wants is a guiding hand to wake it to its destiny."
"Destiny? To destroy the Pattern?"
Brand said, deadly serious, "You shall be king in Amber and Rebma someday."
Martin shook his head. He was an accident, never meant to be, not truly belonging in either realm, no matter how kind Moire and Random had been. He pulled away, Brand's fingers left trailing in empty air.
Marred origins, and now marred in body and soul. A bastard orphan child, whose mother had killed herself and whose father had abandoned them. When Brand came along, generous in sharing his knowledge and his art, Martin had dared imagine, at last, that someone saw him as special. And part of him, some treacherous needy part of him, still ached for it. Wanted to know that he meant something to Brand, who had been courteous and charming, enigmatic and alluring. Never was a man so well named. Martin hovered at the edge of the torchlight, fearing to touch the flame once more.
A shadow passed the cavern. Martin went for his dagger, but Brand knocked it away, surprisingly agile, and yanked Martin down. "Be still!"
They lay pressed together on the floor, heartbeats thudding. After long moments, Martin dared to raise his eyes. A vast dark shape beat its wings at the entrance to the cavern. Ramshorns coiled from its temples, and its eyes burned balefire, and its maw dripped red.
It swung its head, nostrils flared and scenting.
Then it was gone, winging away into the dark.
Martin stood up, shaky, as did Brand. To his dismay, he saw that Brand had the dagger. Before he could object, Brand slid it across to Martin, who curled his hand around it automatically.
"You wanted to know why I called you here," Brand said. "Because I would rather die by your hand than become food for beasts."
For a moment, Martin believed, staring at Brand in shock. Then reality came crashing down. "And how would I escape? Stop playing games. It's not your death you want from me."
Brand watched him, without fear, only expectation. Martin reversed the dagger, presenting it to Brand hilt first. "Go on. Take it."
"Martin," Brand said, a thousand nuances in his tone.
"This is why you called me here, isn't it?" Martin said. "Because you need my blood to draw your way out."
Their gazes locked.
"Very good," Brand said softly. "But if I could draw your Trump to summon you, why couldn't I simply have drawn some other Trump to escape this place?"
"I don't know. Why did you even need me to destroy the Pattern? You could as easily have shed your own blood and survived. I don't know why you do the things you do. I never have."
"Martin. I would have told you everything in time. You remind me of myself, lost and alone, until I found my purpose and my power. It took me centuries. It can be different for you." Brand lowered his voice, gaze intent, like he was sharing a secret between them. "Creation and destruction are opposite sides of the same coin. Only we never had the chance to finish what we started."
The blood beat in his ears like a drum. Brand could still turn him inside out with a word.
"Then finish it now," Martin said. "Use me for your Trump."
Brand moistened his lips. "Do you even know what you're asking?"
Martin met his gaze. "I know exactly what I'm asking."
The silence hung between them.
"Take off your jacket," Brand said.
Martin unpeeled it from his shoulders, dropping it in a heap on the ground. He straightened, looking back at Brand.
"Come here," Brand said, a catch in his voice, and Martin went to him.
Martin watched the blood trickle along his wrist, to pool in his palm. He tried to think of it as ink, not his lifeforce draining away. How much blood could a man lose and live?
"You must do this yourself," Brand said. "I can only help."
Kolvir, Martin had decided. He knew its contours well. He had been able to see the mountain from the surface of Rebma, white and shining in the distance, symbol of Amber and all her dominion.
"There is no stopping halfway on this. It must be done all in one act."
Martin moved on his hands and knees, outlining the new Trump, taking care not to smudge what he had already done. Brand murmured in his ear, running a thumb across the knobs of his spine, as shapes flowered across the obsidian floor. It was like being inside a dream, everything in slow motion, intense and intimate.
Once, Martin had been the canvas upon which Brand had worked his art. Now, he was the brush with which Brand made his creation, moving as Brand instructed, mountains forming beneath his hands, forests unfurling down their slopes. Brand was lit with the strange ecstasy that seized him in these moments. He had wanted to redraw the entire universe, this world too small to contain his genius, his burning poet soul.
"Martin. Martin. Get up."
He became aware of cold stone pressed against his cheek. He tried to push himself to his elbows, but his hands would not support him. He was sapped of all energy, as though he had been navigating the Pattern, as though he had been hellriding through Shadow. "Rest a moment."
"You can't stop." Hands lifted him, relentless. "You began this thing. You have to finish it. Or you'll bleed out, and for nothing."
There had been another time when Brand held Martin, tied by a thread of blood, and he was unsure whether it was then or now. In his head, it became the same thing: drawn to Brand always, tattooed on his soul like the scar on his chest.
His vision blurred. Sweat dripped into his eyes. "Brand? I can't--"
Fingers caressed the nape of his neck. "Shh. You can. And you will."
His arm locked around Martin's shoulders, and his hand covered Martin's hand, so that Martin had no choice but to move with him, as they made this thing together.
Martin lay spent on the floor, exhausted beyond memory. Had it been like this for Oberon, aeons ago, when he first inscribed the Pattern with the Jewel of Judgment? Brand stroked his back, a pleased smile on his lips.
The wild beat of wings made Martin lift his head. Sulphur gusted into the cavern as the demon stepped inside, horns scraping the ceiling, claws gouging the stone. Others landed on the ledge outside, one by one, shuddering the floor. Martin struggled to sit up, seeking his dagger.
"Rest easy, Martin," Brand said. "He is an ally."
Martin didn't understand, and then he did. It had been a ruse earlier. They were working together. The bottom fell out of his stomach. Did Brand intend to lead these hordes through the blood Trump to Kolvir? Into the heart of Amber itself?
"We have a bargain, he and I," Brand said, in confirmation.
"You should know better by now. The most dangerous thing here is me." Brand added a beatific smile: an infernal angel, haloed in hellish light. "When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you."
"Brand," Martin said. "Please."
"What do you think, Martin? Shall I take my army and go? Seize Amber and conquer Shadow, leaving you here like this?"
Martin gathered himself. Another test. But he knew the answers now. He returned that unfathomable gaze with steady resolve. "What does not kill me, makes me stronger."
He would survive this, whatever happened. He knew himself now, knew his limits, knew they were expanding, like the borders of the universe itself.
Brand leaned close, eyes alight. "Oh, yes," he murmured. "And you have grown strong and fine. Grown into everything I had wished for." He caressed Martin's hair, then lifted him to his feet.
"I promised them freedom in return for their aid here. That's all."
Brand walked him to the Trump, and Martin leaned against him, and the demon hordes followed in their wake.
They appeared at the foot of Kolvir, the leaves of Arden rustling overhead. Brand settled Martin against the bole of a tree. Hounds bayed in the distance.
"Help will be along soon," Brand said, patting his shoulder. "But I must leave you here. I hardly expect I will be welcomed with open arms."
"Wait," Martin said. "I have something for you."
He reached inside his jacket. Brand tensed. But Martin drew out the old Trump of himself, and tossed it to Brand. It was still torn through with a knife cut. Martin had not the art to mend it. Only one person did.
As Brand recognised it, a stunned look appeared on his face. Martin shot him a crooked smile. "Call me."
- fin -