The Shroudling And The Guisel

The Shroudling and the Guisel
by Roger Zelazny
October 1998

Preface from _Realms of Fantasy_: This story takes up the affairs of
Merlin, son of Corwin, from where I left him at the end of _Prince of
Chaos_, the 10th and most recent book in my Amber series. As a Prince of
Amber on his father's side and a Prince of Chaos on his mother's, Merlin has
some problems—not the least of these being that he finds himself in the
line of succession for the recently vacated Throne of Chaos, a position he
is not anxious to assume. He had felt himself well-protected from it by the
number of claimants ahead of him. Unfortunately, they have been dying off
most rapidly, generally by means other than the natural. He suspects his
mother, Dara, and his half-brother, Mandor, of having a hand in this. But he
recently faced both of them down in a magical duel, and they seem to have
had second thoughts about his tractability, should one of them manage to
seat him on the Throne. Time will tell. In the meantime, he went off to one
of Mandor's guest houses, hoping for a good night's sleep.
_

I awoke in a dark room, making love to a lady I did not recall having
gone to bed with. Life can be strange. Also oddly sweet at times. I hadn't
the will to destroy our congress, and I went on and on with what I was doing
and so did she until we came to that point of sudden giving and taking, that
moment of balance and rest.

I made a gesture with my left hand and a small light appeared and
glowed above our heads. She had long black hair and green eyes, and her
cheekbones were high and her brow wide. She laughed when the light came on,
revealing the teeth of a vampire. Her mouth held not a trace of blood,
making it seem somehow impolite for me to touch my throat seeking after any
trace of soreness. "It's been a long time, Merlin," she said softly.

"Madam, you have the advantage of me," I said.

She laughed again. "Hardly," she answered, and she moved in such a
fashion as to distract me entirely, causing the entire chain of events to
begin again on my part.

"Unfair," I said, staring into those sea-deep eyes, stroking that pale
brow. There was something terribly familiar there, but I could not
understand it.

"Think," she said, "for I wish to be remembered."

"I…Rhanda?" I asked.

"Your first love, as you were mine," she said smiling, "there in the
mausoleum. Children at play, really. But it was sweet, was it not?"

"It still is," I replied, stroking her hair. "No, I never forgot you.
Never thought to see you again, though, after finding that note saying your
parents no longer permitted you to play with me…thinking me a vampire."

"It seemed so, my Prince of Chaos and of Amber. Your strange strengths
and your magics…."

I looked at her mouth, at her unsheathed fangs. "Odd thing for a family
of vampires to forbid," I stated.

"Vampires? We're not vampires," she said. "We are among the last of the
shroudlings. There are only five families of us left in all the secret
images of all the shadows from here to Amber—and farther, on into that
place and into Chaos."

I held her more tightly and a long lifetime of strange lore passed
through my head. Later I said, "Sorry, but I have no idea of what a
shroudling is."

Later still she responded, "I would be very surprised if you did, for
we have always been a secret race." She opened her mouth to me, and I saw by
spirit-light a slow retraction of her fangs into normal-seeming dentition.
"They emerge in times of passion other than feasting," she remarked.

"So you do use them as a vampire would," I said.

"Or a ghoul," she said. "Their flesh is even richer than their blood."

"'Their'?" I said.

"That of those we would take."

"And who might they be?" I asked.

"Those the world might be better off without," she said. "Most of them
simply vanish. Occasionally, with a feast of jokers, only parts of some
remain."

I shook my head.

"Shroudling lady, I do not understand," I told her.

"We come and go where we would. We are an undetected people, a proud
people. We live by a code of honor which has protected us against all your
understanding. Even those who suspect us do not know where to turn to seek
us."

"Yet you come and tell me these things."

"I have watched you much of my life. You would not betray us. You, too,
live by a code."

"Watched me much of my life? How?"

But we distracted each other then and that moment came to a close. I
would not let it die, however. Finally, as we lay side by side, I repeated
it. By then, however, she was ready for it.

"I am the fleeting shadow in your mirror," she said. "I look out, yet
you see me not. All of us have our pets, my love, a person or place of
hobby. You have always been mine."

"Why do you come to me now, Rhanda?" I asked. "After all these years?"

She looked away.

"Mayhap you will die soon," she said after a time, "and I wished to
recall our happy days together at Wildwood."

"Die soon? I live in danger. I can't deny it. I'm too near the Throne.
But I've strong protectors—and I am stronger than people think."

"As I said, I have watched," she stated. "I do not doubt your prowess.
I've seen you hang many spells and maintain them. Some of them I do not even
understand."

"You are a sorceress?"

She shook her head. "My knowledge of these matters, while extensive, is
purely academic," she said. "My own powers lie elsewhere."

"Where?" I inquired.

She gestured toward my wall. I stared. Finally, I said, "I don't
understand."

"Could you turn that thing up?" she asked, nodding toward the
spirit-light.

I did so.

"Now move it into the vicinity of your mirror."

I did that also. The mirror was very dark, but so was everything else
there in Mandor's guest house, where I had elected to spend the night
following our recent reconciliation.

I got out of bed and crossed the room. The mirror was absolutely black,
containing no reflection of anything. "Peculiar," I remarked.

"No," she said. "I closed it and locked it after I entered here.
Likewise, every other mirror in the house."

"You came in by way of the mirror?"

"I did. I live in the mirrorworld."

"And your family? And the four other families you mentioned?"

"We all of us make our homes beyond the bounds of reflection."

"And from there you travel from place to place?"

"Indeed."

"Obviously, to watch your pets. And to eat people of whom you
disapprove?"

"That, too."

"You're scary, Rhanda." I returned to the bed, seating myself on its
edge. I took hold of her hand and held it. "And it is good to see you again.
I wish you had come to me sooner."

"I have," she said, "using the sleep spells of our kind."

"I wish you had awakened me."

She nodded. "I would like to have stayed with you, or taken you home
with me. But for this part of your life you a certified danger bringer."

"It does seem that way," I agreed. "Still…Why are you here now, apart
from the obvious?"

"The danger has spread. It involves us now."

"I actually thought that the danger in my life had been minimized a bit
of late," I told her. "I have beaten off Dara's and Mandor's attempts to
control me and come to an understanding of sorts with them."

"Yet still they will scheme."

I shrugged. "It is their nature. They know that I know, and they know I
am their match. They know I am ready for them now. And my brother Jurt…we,
too, seem to have reached an understanding. And Julia…we have been
reconciled. We—"

She laughed. "Julia has already used your 'reconciliation' to try to
turn Jurt against you. I watched. I know. She stirs his jealousy with hints
that she still cares more for you than for him. What she really wants is you
removed, along with the seven in the running with you—and the others who
stand ready. She would be queen in Chaos."

"She's no match for Dara," I said.

"Ever since she defeated Jasra, she's had a high opinion of herself. It
has not occurred to her that Jasra had grown lazy and lost by a trick, not
by a matter of power. She would rather believe her own strength greater than
it is. And that is her weakness. She would be reunited with you to put you
off-guard as well as to turn your brother against you once again."

"I am forewarned, and I thank you—though there are really only six
others in the running for the Throne. I was number one, but a half dozen
pretenders have recently turned up. You said seven. There's one I don't know
about?"

"There is the hidden one," she said. "I do not know his name to tell
you, though I know you saw him in Suhuy's pool. I know his appearance,
Chaotic and human. I know that even Mandor considers him a worthy antagonist
when it comes to scheming. Conversely, I believe Mandor is the main reason
he removed himself to our realm. He fears Mandor."

"He inhabits the mirrorworld?"

"Yes, though he is not yet aware of our existence there. He found it by
a near-impossible accident, but he simply thinks he has made a marvelous
discovery—a secret way to go nearly anywhere, to see nearly anything
without detection. Our people have avoided his awareness, using curves he
cannot perceive let alone turn. It has made him considerably more formidable
in his path to the Throne."

"If he can look outeven listenthrough any mirror without being
detected; if he can step out; assassinate someone, and escape by the same
route—yes, I can understand it."

The night suddenly seemed very cold. Rhanda's eyes widened. I moved to
the chair where I had thrown my garments and began dressing myself.

"Yes, do that," she said.

"There's more, isn't there?"

"Yes. The hidden one has located and brought back an abomination to our
peaceful realm. Somewhere, he found a guisel."

"What is a guisel?"

"A being out of our myth, one we had thought long exterminated in the
mirrorworld. Its kind nearly destroyed the shroudlings. A monster, it took
an entire family to destroy what was thought to be the last of them."

I buckled my sword belt and drew on my boots. I crossed the chamber to
the mirror and held my hand before its blackness. Yes, it seemed the source
of the cold.

"You closed them and locked them?" I said. "All of the mirrors in this
vicinity?"

"The hidden one has sent the guisel through the ways of the mirrors to
destroy nine rivals to the Throne. It is on its way to seek the tenth now:
yourself."

"I see. Can it break your locks?"

"I don't know. Not easily, I wouldn't think. It brings the cold,
however. It lurks just beyond the mirror. It knows that you are here."

"What does it look like?"

"A winged eel with a multitude of clawed legs. It is about 10 feet
long."

"If we let it in?"

"It will attack you."

"If we enter the mirror ourselves?"

"It will attack you."

"On which side is it stronger?"

"The same on either, I think."

"Well, hell! Can we enter by a different mirror and sneak up on it?"

"Maybe."

"Let's give it a shot. Come on."

She rose, dressed quickly in a blood-red garment, and followed me
through a wall to a room that was actually several miles distant. Like most
of the nobles of Chaos, brother Mandor believes in keeping a residence
scattered. A long mirror hung on the far wall between the desk and a large
Chaos clock. The clock, I saw, was about to chime a nonlinear for the
observer. Great. I drew my blade.

"I didn't even know this one was here," she said.

"We're some distance away from the room where I slept. Forget space.
Take me through."

"I'd better warn you first," she said. "According to tradition,
nobody's ever succeeded in killing a guisel with a sword, or purely by means
of magic. Guisels can absorb spells and lashes of force. They can take
terrible wounds and survive."

"Any suggestions then?"

"Baffle it, imprison it, banish it. That might be better than trying to
kill it."

"OK, we'll play it as it's dealt. If I get into real bad trouble, you
get the hell out."

She did not reply but took my hand and stepped into the mirror. As I
followed her, the antique Chaos clock began to chime an irregular beat. The
inside of the mirror seemed the same as the room without, but turned around.
Rhanda led me to the farthest point of the reflection, to the left, then
stepped around a corner.

We came into a twisted, twilit place of towers and great residences,
none of them familiar to me. The air bore clusters of wavy, crooked lines
here and there. She approached one, inserted her free hand, and stepped
through it, taking me with her. We emerged on a crooked street lined with
twisted buildings.

"Thank you," I said then, "for the warning and for the chance to
strike."

She squeezed my hand.

"It is not just for you, but for my family, also, that I do it."

"I know that," I said.

"I would not be doing this if I did not believe that you have a chance
against the thing. If I did not, I would simply have warned you and told you
what I know. But I also remember one day…back in Wildwood…when you
promised to be my champion. You seemed a real hero to me then."

I smiled as I recalled that gloomy day. We had been reading tales of
chivalry in the mausoleum. In a fit of nobility I led her outside as the
thunder rolled, and I stood among the grave markers of unknown
mortalsDennis Colt, Remo Williams, John Gauntand swore to be her
champion if ever she needed one. She had kissed me then, and I had hoped for
some immediate evil circumstance against which to pit myself on her behalf.
But none occurred.

We moved ahead, and she counted doors, halting at the seventh. "That
one," she said, "leads through the curves to the place behind the locked
mirror in your room."

I released her hand and moved past her.

"All right," I said, "time to go a-guiseling," and I advanced. The
guisel saved me the trouble of testing the curves by emerging before I got
there.

Ten or 12 feet in length, it was, and eyeless as near as I could tell,
with rapid-beating cilia all over what I took to be its head. It was very
pink, with a long, green stripe passing about its body in one direction, and
a blue one in the other. It raised its cilia-end three or four feet above
the ground and swayed. It made a squeaking sound. It turned in my direction.
Underneath it had a large, angled mouth like that of a shark; it opened and
closed it several times and I saw many teeth. A green, venomous-seeming
liquid dripped from that orifice to steam upon the ground.

I waited for it to come to me, and it did. I studied the way it
movedquickly, as it turned outon the horde of small legs. I held my
blade before me in an _en garde_ position as I awaited its attack. I
reviewed my spells.

It came on, and I hit it with my Runaway Buick and my Blazing Outhouse
spells. In each instance, it stopped dead and waited for the spell to run
its course. The air grew frigid and steamed about its mouth and midsection.
It was as if it were digesting the magic and rushing it down entropy lane.
When the steaming stopped, it advanced again and I hit it with my Demented
Power Tools spell. Again, it halted, remained motionless, and steamed. This
time I rushed forward and struck it a great blow with my blade. It rang like
a bell, but nothing else happened, and I drew back as it stirred.

"It seems to eat my spells and excrete refrigeration," I said.

"This has been noted by others," Rhanda responded.

Even as we spoke, it torqued its body, moving that awful mouth to the
top, and it lunged at me. I thrust my blade down its throat as its long legs
clawed at or caught hold of me. I was driven over backwards as it closed its
mouth, and I heard a shattering sound. I was left holding only a hilt. It
had bitten off my blade. Frightened, I felt after my new power as the mouth
opened again.

The gates of the spikard were opened, and I struck the creature with a
raw force from somewhere in Shadow. Again, the thing seemed frozen as the
air about me grew chill. I tore myself away from it, bleeding from dozens of
small wounds. I rolled away and rose to my feet, still lashing it with the
spikard, holding it cold. I tried using the blade to dismember it, but all
it did was eat the attack and remain a statue of pink ice.

Reaching out through Shadow, I found myself another blade. With its
tip, I traced a rectangle in the air, a bright circle at its center. I
reached into it with my will and desire. After a moment, I felt contact.

"Dad! I feel you but I can't see you!"

"Ghostwheel," I said, "I am fighting for my life, and doubtless those
of many others. Come to me if you can."

"I am trying. But you have found your way into a strange space. I seem
to be barred from entering there."

"Damn!"

"I agree. I have faced this problem before in my travels. It does not
lend itself to ready resolution."

The guisel began to move again. I tried to maintain the Trump contact
but it was fading. "Father!" Ghostwheel cried as I lost hold. "Try—" Then
he was gone. I backed away. I glanced at Rhanda. Dozens of other shroudlings
now stood with her, all of them wearing black, white, or red garments. They
began to sing a strange, dirgelike song, as if a dark soundtrack were
required for our struggle. It did seem to slow the guisel, and it reminded
me of something from long ago.

I threw back my head and gave voice to that ululant cry I had heard
once in a dream and never forgotten.

My friend came.

Kergmathe living equationcame sliding in from many angles at once.
I watched and waited as he/she/itI had never been certainassembled
itself. Kergma had been a childhood playmate, along with Glait and Gryll.

Rhanda must have remembered the being who could go anywhere, for I
heard her gasp. Kergma passed around and around her body in greeting, then
came to me and did the same.

_"My friends! It has been so long since you called me to play! I have
missed you!"_

The guisel dragged itself forward against the song of the shroudlings
as if beginning to overcome its power. "This is not a game," I answered.
"That beast will destroy us all unless we nail it first," I said.

_"Then I must solve it for us. Everything that lives is an equation, a
complex quantum study. I told you that long ago."_

"Yes. Try. Please."

I feared blasting the thing again with the spikard while Kergma worked
on it, lest it interfere with his calculations. I kept my blade and spikard
at ready as I continued to back away. The shroudlings retreated with me,
slowly.

_"A deadly balance,"_ Kergma said at last. _"It has a wonderful life
equation. Use your toy to stop it now."_

I froze it again with the spikard. The shroudling's song went on.

At length Kergma said, _"There is a weapon that can destroy it under
the right circumstances. You must reach for it, however. It is a twisted
blade you have wielded before. It hangs on the wall of a bar where once you
drank with Luke."_

"The Vorpal Sword?" I said. "It can kill it?"

_"A piece at a time, under the proper circumstances."_

"You know these circumstances?"

_"I have solved for them."_

I clutched my weapon and struck the guisel again with a force from the
spikard. It squeaked and grew still. Then I discarded the blade I held and
reached—far, far out through Shadow. I was a long time in finding what I
sought and I had a resistance to overcome, so I added the force of the
spikard to my own and it came to me. Once again, I held the shining, twisted
Vorpal Sword in my hands.

I moved to strike at the guisel with it, but Kergma stopped me. So I
hit it again with a lash of force from the spikard.

_"Not the way. Not the way."_

"What then?"

_"We require a Dyson variation on the mirror equation."_

"Show me."

Walls of mirrors shot up on all sides about me, the guisel, and Kergma,
but excluding Rhanda. We rose into the air and drifted toward the center of
the sphere. Our reflections came at us from everywhere.

_"Now. But you must keep it from touching the walls."_

"Save your equation. I may want to do something with it by and by."

I struck the dormant guisel with the Vorpal Sword. Again, it emitted a
bell-like tone and remained quiescent.

_"No,"_ Kergma said. _"Let it thaw."_

So I waited until it began to stir, meaning that it would be able to
attack me soon. Nothing is ever easy. From outside, I still heard the faint
sounds of singing.

The guisel recovered more quickly than I had anticipated. But I swung
and lopped off half its head, which seemed to divide itself into tissue-thin
images which then flew away in every direction.

"Caloo! Callay!" I cried, swinging again and removing a long section of
tissue from its right side, which repeated the phenomenon of the ghosting
and the flight. It came on again and I cut again. Another chunk departed
from its twisting body in the same fashion. Whenever its writhing took it
near a wall, I intervened with my body and sword, driving it back toward the
center and hacking at or slicing it.

Again and again it came on or flipped toward the wall. Each time my
response was similar. But it did not die. I fought it til but a tip of its
writhing tail moved before me.

"Kergma," I said then, "we've sent most of it down infinite lines. Now,
can you revise the equation? Then I'll find sufficient mass with the spikard
to allow you to create another guisel for me—one that will return to the
sender of this one and regard that person as prey."

_"I think so,"_ Kergma said. _"I take it you left that final piece for
the new one to eat?"_

"Yes, that was my thinking."

And so it was done. When the walls came down, the new guiselblack,
its stripes red and yellow
was rubbing against my ankles like a cat. The
singing stopped.

"Go and seek the hidden one," I said, "and return the message."

It raced off, passing a curve and vanishing.

"What have you done?" Rhanda asked me. So I told her.

"The hidden one will now consider you the most dangerous of his
rivals," she said, "if he lives. Probably he will increase his efforts
against you, in subtlety as well as violence."

"Good," I said. "That is my hope. I'd like to force a confrontation. He
will probably not feel safe in your world now either, never knowing when a
new guisel might come a-hunting."

"True," she said. "You have been my champion," and she kissed me.

Just then, out of nowhere, a paw appeared and fell upon the blade I
held. Its opposite waved two slips of paper before me. Then a soft voice
spoke: "You keep borrowing that sword without signing for it. Kindly do that
now, Merlin. The other slip is for last time." I found a ballpoint beneath
my cloak and signed as the rest of the cat materialized. "That'll be $40,"
it said then. "It costs 20 bucks for each hour or portion of an hour, to
vorp."

I dug around in my pockets and came up with the fees. The cat grinned
and began to fade. "Good doing business with you," it said through the
smile. "Come back soon. The next drink's on the house. And bring Luke. He's
a great baritone."

I noticed as it faded that the shroudling family had also vanished.

Kregma moved nearer. _"Where are the others—Glait and Gryll?"_

"I left Grait in a wood," I replied, "though he may well be back in the
Windmaster's vase in Gramble's museum in the Ways of Sawall by now. If you
see him, tell him that the bigger thing has not eaten me—and he will drink
warm milk with me one night and hear more tales yet. Gryll, I believe, is in
the employ of my Uncle Suhuy."

_"Ah, the Windmaster…those were the days,"_ he said. _"Yes, we must
get together and play again. Thank you for calling me for this one,"_ and he
slid off in many directions and was gone, like the others.

"What now?" Rhanda asked.

"I am going home and back to bed." I hesitated, then said, "Come with
me?"

She hesitated too, then nodded. "Let us finish the night as we began
it," she said.

We walked through the seventh door and she unlocked my mirror. I knew
that she would be gone when I awoke.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License