Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Labyrinth of Chaos

The End of the World as We Know It

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

In which the roadtrip takes a turn for the worse, with a light garnish of genetically altered chocolate and just a hint of PTSD.

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Fantasy - Published: 2017-05-24 - 10124 words - Complete

Chapter 3 - The End of the World as We Know It

Morning came far too soon for Sarah’s jet lag. She was awakened gradually by the sound of a male voice repeatedly calling her name softly and experienced the distinctly disorienting sensation of waking up someplace strange. Reluctantly opening her eyes, she saw an entire universe of stars falling away in the dim light and was instantly jolted alert, the memory of the previous day flooding back now. She glanced to her left and saw the source of the voice she had heard: singularly distinctive ageless features, a shock of shoulder-length white hair and bright, intelligent blue eyes met her own. She exhaled in relief, closing her eyes again.

“Mandor,” she named him.

“That’s right.”

“What time is it?” she yawned, rubbing her left eye with the heel of her palm.

“Dawn, and your breakfast is on the dashboard. I know it’s early and I hate to force any of my guests to rush a meal, but we must make haste if we are to keep the light long today; from here on out the day will be significantly shorter. By early evening we should reach the trump point I have in mind.”

Very little of what Mandor had just said made any logical sense but why should he start now, Sarah reflected a little sarcastically; he had a perfect record of telling her exactly what was happening without really explaining any of it. It really was an art form. In spite of how groggy she felt, the food smelled fabulous. She stiffly sat up and grabbed her plate, which had a generous slice of vegetable herb frittata; a glass of mixed citrus juice was in the Camaro’s cup holder on her side.

At least I’m not going to starve out here, she thought a little wryly, diving into another of Mandor’s impeccable creations. Between bites she noticed that he was busy fiddling with a couple of his metal spheres, as if calibrating something. “We didn’t get anything trying to sneak up on us last night, did we?”

“Thankfully no. I further scouted out our vicinity this morning. This shadow would appear to be completely uninhabited,” he commented, putting them away. “When you’re finished, there’s a small alcove in the rock just a few paces that way,” he pointed left, “where you can freshen quickly. Then we need to be on our way.”

Sarah finished wolfing down her breakfast, prepared for the day as best she could in such primitive circumstances, and they were soon on the road again. The landscape was uniformly barren now; no plants grew except for some brightly-colored moss and small unearthly fungi. They wound around bizarre black-and-green rock formations for what seemed like hours. The fact alone that the land wasn’t changing as much suggested to Sarah that they must be getting closer to what Mandor wanted to see. The sky, however, was quite another story. They had commenced driving at first light and the dawn had gotten brighter and brighter until it was fully day, but there was no sun! The realization was a bit of a shock, the effect downright eerie; sourceless light flooded the dark desert worlds they cruised through. At times it almost seemed to coalesce but then they would make another turn and it would be directionless once more. The sky was slowly taking on bands of different bright pastel colors - he seemed to be trying to stack them somehow - but the formula kept changing and when they suddenly got some real greenery around the next bend and not just colored rock he pulled over with an irritated sigh.

“Would you mind taking the wheel again? It appears I have to concentrate more fully than I can when I’m multitasking like this.”


They quickly switched seats again and recommenced with Sarah driving. There was so much black out here and what wasn’t was fluorescently garish; she could see why he had been having problems - it was difficult for her just to stay focused on the road! They went over a small hill and when Sarah saw the other side she smiled: he had inverted the colors of the road so it would stand out plainly against the alien landscape - bright yellow with black lines down the middle.

“There, that should be easier to follow,” Mandor noted offhandedly. He was right, of course, and soon Sarah felt confident enough to pick up a little more speed. On cue, the theme song from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ started playing in her head and she had to squash the impulse to start giddily singing along.

Follow the yellow brick road, follow the yellow brick road…

Her eyes almost drifted closed for a moment as she imagined it… and suddenly the road they were driving on got so bumpy and uneven that she was forced to slow down. Looking at the condition of the pavement ahead, she stopped completely and just gaped, dumbfounded: from where their car was parked to the far horizon there was a canary-yellow cobblestone road! Mandor looked every bit as shocked as she was, then turned to face her with the beginnings of a slow, conspiratory smile.

“Perhaps it is best if I drove after all. I forget that we haven’t really tested your own powers just yet, although I must say I am impressed; you shouldn’t be able to do that at all without any training.”

“I didn’t mean to,” she apologized feebly, but he just shook his head, waving it off.

“Don’t ever apologize for displaying a talent you never even knew you had,” he stated simply and seriously, getting back out of the car so they could change seats again.

Mandor navigated her creation for a short distance with a smirk, but in a single turn their way was smoothed again and they continued on as usual. Only they were definitely leaving the desert and the fact seemed to be annoying Mandor, who appeared to be having a private internal argument with the universe at large and losing. But that was the least of what was concerning Sarah, now that she knew she could at least nominally shift shadows.

“Mandor?” she broke his tense reverie; rather than being irritated he seemed relieved at a rational excuse for diversion.


Sarah tried to form her question carefully. “That trick you do with the trumps - the communication and transport thing - can it be done using anything else, like, say, a mirror?”

“It’s theoretically possible, I suppose, but it would take immense power, talent, and decades of training in the general occult. The trumps are comparatively far easier. Why do you ask?”

Sarah swallowed, her throat suddenly dry.

“I think I’ve done it.”

Mandor looked incredulously amused. “You’ve done it?” he repeated, the tone of his voice indicating that he didn’t believe her at all. Even she had to concede the claim sounded outrageous.

“Well…I had just come home from my trip through the Labyrinth,” she forced herself to say the word this time, forcing down the feeling of oddness that came with it, “and I was in my room sitting at my vanity putting some things away and I heard my name being called from within the mirror, and one by one all the friends I had made there said goodbye inside the reflected mirror image of my room and…and I was just overcome and I wished they could all be there for real, and the next thing I knew the room was just full-to-bursting with all the creatures I’d met there! It was a huge party and a small miracle that my parents didn’t hear! I think I must’ve fallen asleep because I don’t remember anyone leaving. The next morning they were all just gone and I started wondering if it had happened at all when the dreams started.”

As Sarah talked, she watched as Mandor’s expression changed from almost parentally patient and polite to something pensive and terribly serious. The gravity did not follow to his voice, however.

“I can see how you could get that impression,” he began amiably enough, “but chances are what really happened was that the portal that Jareth drags with him when he attempts to shadow-travel was left partially open for a while in the general vicinity of your house and had not yet fully closed at that point.”

It was a decent, logical explanation, and yet Mandor remained serious, almost as if he questioned it himself, and he silently edged down on the accelerator a bit. If this unlikely power of hers was truly that great and uncontrollable, he needed to deliver her to Suhuy with all due haste. Untrained, she was a danger to herself and anyone around her.

The picturesque rock formations and gently sloping hills suddenly fell away. Looming up ahead was a mountain range that ran from horizon to horizon; they were crossing an open lightly vegetated plain toward it. Think thunderheads roiled darkly over the peaks and periodic lightning flared out, rumbling in the distance. Mandor abruptly broke the silence.

“I had been trying to avoid this place but it’s been dogging us for half the time we’ve been on the road today. These are the Dancing Mountains, the official dividing landmark between the shadows of Order and the shadows of Chaos, and we are being forced to traverse the pass. The road is no difficulty - I can make it wide enough to accommodate our vehicle - but that storm,” he pointed, “is no ordinary cloudburst. It is a Shadow Storm, one of the permanent fronts natural to this area. Once we pass into it, you must close your eyes and keep them closed until we are through. It is not anywhere near as harrowing as a hellride through shadow but it may still be rather disorienting and I don’t want you taking any unnecessary risks, all right?”

Sarah nodded. Mandor closed up the car and they began to climb. There wasn’t much of a view at first but it was a relief to be seeing trees again, all evergreen though. Up and up they went, back and forth, around hairpin curves, laboring up the side of the mountain; Sarah’s ears popped twice. Rain then snow battered the windshield and just before the clouds enveloped them she closed her eyes as she had been bade but she could still hear. The weather outside the car seemed to follow no predictable pattern: bright light and deep shadow and all manner of precipitation lumped together randomly. Sometimes she thought she heard voices or animal cries, but then it would just be raining again; this continued for some time. Sarah couldn’t be sure but she thought they had begun to descend again when there was a blindingly bright flash of light and the car came to a screeching halt. She opened her eyes in surprise, momentarily forgetting Mandor’s warnings, and simply couldn’t believe what she was seeing: the entire world had gone grayscale like an old black-and-white film and they were parked in the middle of an open smooth volcanic rock valley! The sky was pure white, cloudless.

Considering everything she had been through, perhaps it was natural that Sarah did not automatically panic at this, or perhaps her sense of reality was already starting to bend and twist at the edges, the surrealness overwhelming her logic into calmness. In any event, she didn’t even realize they were in trouble until she looked over and saw Mandor furiously fighting with the ignition switch, trying to get the car to start again, failing, producing one of his spheres to try to force it, failing. That’s when Sarah finally panicked.

“What’s wrong with it? Please tell me we’re not stranded out here!”

She was even further bewildered when her companion began to answer her very nonchalantly in a language that was complete gibberish to her and stopped mid-sentence as if he had just realized it himself! Belatedly, Mandor noticed that he was not speaking English but, rather, unfiltered Thari, and was suddenly aware of just how dire their circumstances might actually be. He brought out his entire pouch of metal spheres. All were dead, including the one he had been using as a translator. His trumps were just cards - no coldness, no magic. No electricity. Nothing. He inwardly cursed his overconfidence: they had been very neatly shepherded right into one of the notorious dead zones of the wastelands at the Border. It would be possible to shadow-walk out of here provided it wasn’t a deliberate trap, but the feat wouldn’t be easy. And, he remembered, he had to do it quickly because the longer the ring he had given Sarah was out of commission, the greater the risk of her accurately assessing the danger of her whole predicament and freaking out on him. He did his best to outwardly remain calm and confident, putting his magickal accoutrements away.

Sarah was getting more nervous by the second. She didn’t have to be told to know that the car was dead and Mandor’s powers weren’t working properly. She just hoped he had some kind of a backup plan or they were probably going to die out here. She was watching him intently as he unbuckled and she quickly followed suit when he motioned for her to do the same. He put their remaining water bottles in a material sack she hadn’t seen stashed behind his seat and got out of the car. She grabbed the overnight pouch and went to get her books but he stopped her, shaking his head with a smile. They disembarked.

It was painfully awkward not even being able to ask him what was going on; as far as she knew, Mandor’s natural English was virtually nonexistent. She pulled the sleeve of his jacket lightly to get his attention and pointed at the car.


Sarah was relieved that he actually seemed to understand the word as he emphatically shook his head no, but he struggled for some seconds to come up with the correct response.

“Block,” he finally managed thickly, putting down the sack a moment to show the idea in pantomime with his hands. What he was trying to communicate suddenly dawned on Sarah.

“Oh, you mean there’s some kind of interference that’s screwing with everything here? Sheesh.” The thought was very sobering. “We’ll be okay, you think?”

He could tell by the delivery, the look in her eyes, that she was asking whether they were going to make it. She had no illusions; her survival was entirely in his hands. He wanted so badly to explain but he simply lacked the vocabulary, so he answered in his own instead, keeping his tone soothing and assured. Then laughed at his own deficiency and shrugged.

“Small English,” he said at last in his foreign pronunciation, holding out his right hand for Sarah to take. “Come.”

At least he seemed to have a plan; that was something. The ground was wavering slightly in the light like a mirage but it wasn’t hot. Perhaps it would be enough to work some small changes. Sarah just couldn’t get over what Mandor’s natural voice and language sounded like; she had been conversing with him so extensively in English that she had nearly forgotten it was only by a trick. His native tongue sounded like many foreign languages all at once, almost as if every last language she could possibly imagine had one common ancestor, and he spoke it fluently. It sounded like water tumbling down rocks in a streambed; she could hardly separate the words.

As they walked, the valley floor began to noticeably narrow, arguably her companion’s work; she’d seen this once before and now it gave her hope. She still wanted to ask what he meant to do about the car but wasn’t about to break his concentration for such an exercise in futility when he was clearly doing his best to save their hides. Dense low foliage had begun to grow around them, thicker, taller, still gray. At last at a certain point in what had by now by now become a rock wall to their left, a large crevice appeared; he stepped inside with a smile and motioned for her to follow. This was it, their ticket out; she could feel it. He tightened his grasp on her hand as total blackness closed in. The floor of the cave was unnaturally smooth; even in the dark Mandor seemed sure of where he was going. After a while he stopped and, with a slight spark, she saw he had produced an orb that was glowing a faint blue - some of his magic was beginning to work again! Before long, what she had predicted turned to reality; there was not only light but color streaming in from the exit. Sarah let go and ran the rest of the way to the mouth, almost half-expecting what she saw: they had come out on the opposite side of the mountain range. A large vermilion sandy desert spilled out ahead of them. Mandor sighed with relief as he walked out into the light, rechecking his arcane instruments and reactivating the translator.

“I really am terribly sorry about that,” he resumed his artificially fluent American English, “but I believe that roadblock may have been deliberately placed for me. There are pockets of magickal ‘dead zones’ in certain areas of the Great Divide where the two powers are equal to the point that they cancel each other out. We were lucky enough to be able to just walk out of one. Hang on, I’ll get the car.”

He took a few paces out onto the sand and began to concentrate. The inky blackness of the Logrus appeared as it had the first time in her room, and Sarah watched as Mandor sunk in his arms up to the elbows as before but lower to the ground this time. After a few seconds of searching around in there, he seemed to grab something and, crouching and backing up, began to pull the front end of their own black-and-white Camaro out of the abyss; the top was down. He managed to get it out up to the driver’s seat, hopped in as if there was nothing unusual about this, powered it up, and drove it the rest of the way out of the void. The portal closed of its own accord. Sarah walked up to it cautiously but then recognized the altered reptilian leather and the stuff in the backseat. It was their car, all right.

As the Camaro screamed across the sand, leaving a large red cloud in their wake, Mandor reached over to the stereo dial and turned it on for the first time in the entire trip. They were greeted with radio fuzz.

“Why don’t you try to find us something to listen to?” he invited her.

Sarah balked. “I thought there weren’t any people out here!”

“There are a handful of frequencies that will come and go. It can be a useful barometer for telling when we’re in shadows that support intelligent life.”

It was an interesting prospect. Sarah grabbed the radio tuner and began slowly flipping through the AM dial. Mandor glanced over and was glad the idea had appealed to her; the closer they got to Chaos the easier shadow was to manipulate and he thought it wisest to keep his itinerant little protégé good and distracted so she couldn’t accidentally interfere with the necessary changes again.

Sarah almost got one station that sounded like articulate speech for a brief moment but it was soon gone and she switched over to the FM. To her surprise, a cluster came on immediately, three frequency bands so close together it was difficult to tune any one of them clearly. A few more miles and two of them dropped out, leaving a music station of sorts; the song that was currently playing had a decent fast rhythm to it but the instrumentation was just downright bizarre and the vocals were screechy. She quickly turned it back to static higher up the dial. Nothing else right now; she clicked it off. Looking back up, she saw how much ground they had covered so quickly and rapidly came to the conclusion that he was deliberately attempting to keep her preoccupied so she wouldn’t notice. Well, she could help that, too.

“Mandor, what was that language you were speaking when the translator went out? I’ve never heard anything like it.”

He smiled. “You wouldn’t hear it on Shadow Earth. That, child, is Thari, mother-tongue of the Two True Worlds and about two-dozen shadows near both of them, the ones close enough for commerce and trade. There are a handful of dialects and pronunciation variants, although High Chaosian Thari is supposed to be purest. You’ll be hearing plenty of it soon enough.”

Why am I not surprised? Sarah mentally rolled her eyes. Are we there yet?

“I wasn’t just wasting your time when I mentioned the radio,” he continued.

Good grief, can he read my mind, too?!

“We’re only about fifteen miles out from the second stop; you should be able to gage the distance by how many stations pop up, regardless of quality,” he smirked slightly.

And so, Sarah continued to search the dial, and gradually she began to come across a growing cluster on the FM - mostly talking but a little frenetic rustic music as well - that did indeed seem to signal the presence of some kind of civilization. Those voices were deep and the language was paced in comparison to Mandor’s Thari, with distinguishable words here and there, not that any of it made sense to her.

“Will you be making it so I can understand them again?”

“Yes, but only once we’re there. My reserve translation spell is a simple device that won’t last as long.”

They had left the red desert behind ages ago but the route they were taking was still relatively arid regardless of whatever shadow it happened to be at the time. It was obvious Mandor was trying for the black-with-phosphorescent-lichen look again. Sarah was starting to have a hard time looking out the windows; she was beginning to feel slightly color-ill, as if she had been in the fabric store for too long, and eventually just shut her eyes against it. She still felt the movement; they were going over and around hills again. The motion was almost lulling and she’d nearly fallen asleep when Mandor suddenly exclaimed,

“Aha! Look!” He pointed out the front window and she was jolted to alertness just in time to see: they were about to drive down a steep hill into a sparsely populated shanty-town below that couldn’t have been more than four city blocks square on either side of a short main drag. She also spotted the radio towers on a nearby hill and there was a watchtower, too; a large black flag with an erect dragonesque red serpent was flying from the height and a long wailing trumpet blast seemed to announce their presence. The locals were running out of the buildings to line the street.

“This small outpost was constructed at the behest of the noble houses of Chaos shortly after the fall of the Black Road in the aftermath of the Patternfall War, as a way station to serve those of us traveling out into Order and coming back from it,” Mandor quickly explained. “These people are not native to this shadow. We searched for recruits who would willingly emigrate here for a ‘higher cause’. Admittedly, the concept and setup is strictly Amberite and the unmerited adulation does tend to annoy me on principle, but it’s hard to argue with a system that has proven to be so effective for our rival power,” he sighed as he switched on a politician’s glossy smile and commenced waving to the enthusiastic, cheering crowd as they slowly rolled into town.

Sarah immediately wished they were back in Lizard Land: even at their genial best, these creatures looked positively predatory. They were once again upright and the average height of men, but all had terribly bloodshot eyes, shiny tight gray skin, and very sharp-looking teeth set into protruding jaws with a pronounced underbite. The effect was almost reminiscent of barracuda. She also noted, as she tried to smile and wave without looking as nervous as she felt, that those splayed fingers on display were very long. In fact, each finger had an extra joint and the backs of the hands bore large, weapon-like spurs like a rooster! She had a feeling that this race had been chosen for more than its loyalty - she would certainly not want to be up against one!

Two-thirds of the distance down the street there was a refueling station and Mandor made for it. As he pulled in and parked, he raised his right hand toward Sarah and spoke a single word of Thari. Immediately, she experienced a cool, tingling rush over her head and throat just in time for the attendant to come over and greet them.

“Lord Mandor of Sawall!” the barracuda-man hailed the driver. “This is indeed an unexpected honor!” he bowed momentarily, his elongated dangerous-looking hand placed over his heart. “We see you so seldom. How fare the worlds on the Order side of the Divide?”

“As predictable as can be expected; stable and unsuspecting,” Mandor smiled again, but genuinely this time. As accustomed to him as she had become, this interaction between confederates from the ‘other side’, so-to-speak, left Sarah feeling slightly uneasy. “I did have some difficulty crossing the Dancing Mountains, however, of a kind I almost must speculate on. Tell me, has there been anyone else to come through here in the last few days?”

“Indeed there was, my lord - a hooded, cloaked rider on a strong blue Chaos mount. Naturally, we would have loved to converse with both of them but the rider motioned us silent and signed for us to feed and water the animal only.”

“And which way were they headed?”

“They left in the direction of Chaos.”

Mandor sighed. “Then it is as I suspected. Did you get a look at the rider’s face?”

“Alas no, he was well-shrouded and had no other distinguishing marks that I could see. Had I but known that his identity would be needful for such a distinguished personage as yourself I would have fearlessly unmasked him at once. Forgive me,” he bowed his head in shame.

“You could not have possibly been expected to so brazenly breech protocol by manhandling him thus; there is nothing to forgive,” Mandor offered magnanimously. “However, the fact that someone is clearly attempting to anticipate my further movements means I cannot afford to dally here long. Quickly refuel the vehicle and see to the needs of the girl and you will have my gratitude.”

“With haste!” the man nodded enthusiastically with a grim smile that made Sarah’s skin crawl; those needle-like razor teeth took up nearly half his face. He walked around to the other side of the car and opened the door for her with the surprising flourish of a trained chauffer. The gray adobe building behind the fuel pumps appeared to be his own house and two other creatures received her at the door with great joy and homage. She didn’t even realize until they spoke that they must be female: the build and the face structure were slightly thinner, but these were the only physical differentiations she could see. None of them had any hair and they all appeared to be wearing a kind of uniform, once again black and blood-red (surprise, surprise.)

This place is like Jonestown waiting to happen, Sarah thought as she stepped inside, where she did her best to ignore their unsettling mixture of programmatically worshipful praise and curious scrutiny and managed to ask about getting cleaned up. She managed to take a lightning-fast shower using a pipeless facility equipped with a five-gallon bucket of warm water while Mandor took the break to restock their supplies via shadow. He could’ve just purchased them or even had them for free, knowing these people, but the lack in quality according to his exacting standards simply wasn’t worth it.

Sarah had just dried off and was starting to get dressed when the doorknob turned and a small creature in a plain undyed jumper-dress peeked in - and was instantly grabbed by someone else in the hall as the door slammed closed with a sharp retort. This was followed by the sound of a hard slap and the oddly familiar dialogue of a child being lectured but with the added severity of the threat of personally offending a goddess by viewing her naked.

Oh brother, Sarah rolled her eyes. She would be glad to be leaving this place. Upon quitting the room, she was immediately confronted in the hall by the female she took to be the girl’s mother; the child was hiding behind her, her bright eyes wide in terror.

“A thousand apologies, my lady!” the woman supplicated in her higher but still husky voice, her hands clasped together pleadingly, “she was in before either of us even saw her-”

“Easy,” Sarah interrupted her, almost sorry for this woman’s self-perceived plight, “she’s just a little kid, right? How old is she?” The female notably relaxed and her look of undying gratitude was almost unbearable.

“Three cold seasons. She has just been named Arigáhe,” she said, looking down with a fond smile at the child still clinging to her, peering out from behind her legs. Sarah crouched down to be at eye-level with her. “Come forward! She wishes to see you!” the woman addressed her daughter sternly, and the girl bashfully inched toward her, openly staring at Sarah in wonder. She was almost cute in a weird sort of way. Those full-sized red eyes set into that tiny, softer face looked enormous. Her long fingers were painfully thin and delicate, almost like a baby’s, and there were only blunt lumps of bone on the backs of her hands where the spurs were to develop.

“Hello there,” Sarah said quietly.

“Hello,” the girl answered shyly, then, seeming to screw up her nerve, “Can you do magic?” she asked with a hopeful, expectant look, eying Sarah’s brooch, which was emitting a warm amber-gold glow.

Sarah’s blood ran cold. If these creatures figured out she was powerless, she was probably dead meat!

“Do not push the serendipity of her goodwill,” her mother reprimanded and Sarah knew she was off the hook, but the girl looked so crestfallen she had to say something.

“I don’t have time right now,” she answered in all truth, “but if I come back through this way again I will, I promise.”

Arigáhe’s mock-fearsome features lit up with glee and she ran off down the hall. Her mother looked near tears.

“I cannot thank you enough for your leniency, my lady,” she began to bow and scrape but Sarah was already headed toward the door, sick to death of the cultlike atmosphere. Annoying nothing - the level of personal veneration here was positively obscene! In seconds she was once again in the safe haven of the Camaro and they quickly pulled out of town, with the general populace crowding the street behind them, tearfully waving goodbye. Five turns later the place was gone and Sarah exhaled in relief, closing her eyes.

“You have gotta give me better advance warning the next time you’re anticipating a situation like that,” she pulled a hand over her face; at least she was decently clean now.

“And have you all tense and worrying about how to act and what to say when a calm, natural reaction will serve better? I think not,” Mandor replied with a cool smile. “Although I did warn you that the general attitude is a bit much to take, especially when you’re not used to it.”

“Not used to it?!” Sarah echoed incredulously. “You’re telling me there are powerful assholes out here who do that on purpose and then live there?”

“Of course,” the Chaos lord answered matter-of-factly, “but most of them are on the other side of the Divide. Besides, that was our last civilization stop. From here out, we have only about two more hours on the road and we’ll gain the trump point. We could be there quicker but I am going to try for a more obscure path to shake the man who’s been dogging us.” The land began to shift spectrum again.

“But there’s really no way to know who it is at all,” Sarah suddenly thought out loud, “not if they were that well-covered. It could’ve been a man or a woman.” She glanced at him. “Or neither.”

“I know, the thought occurred to me, also, to say nothing of the fact that they could have been shape-shifted. There’s also a good chance that the blue Chaos horse was a decoy simply to gain entrance to the town.”

“But why on earth would they do that? I mean, those people are definitely deluded but they’re terribly observant and the person didn’t do anything worth noting.”

“Wrong,” Mandor stated darkly. “They announced their presence by doing that, knowing that I’d find out about it in a day or two local time. I’m fairly certain now that what happened to us in the Dancing Mountains was not an accident but rather a taunting warning that someone who thinks themselves powerful is about to try to challenge me.” He gave a cold, sideways grin. “They had better pray they’re up to it.”

The fact alone that Mandor seemed so confident about facing an enemy that strong did nothing for Sarah’s growing sense of just how alien this manlike creature was that she was riding with, but at the same time it eased her nerves a bit. It was good to have a scarily accomplished sorcerer as your bodyguard.

Sarah belatedly turned off the radio; it was all fuzz again. Where they were traveling through currently had plant life that looked like something straight out of a stoner’s daydream: plastic-looking daisy-type flowers in bright colors that grew as tall as trees and black-and-purple shrooms big enough to be tool sheds lined the dirt road as far as the eye could see - which, admittedly, wasn’t that far. The view was obscured by a heavy pink mist and Sarah saw that Mandor had just hit the ‘recirculate cabin air’ button.

“If my pursuer is stupid enough to try to track the car through here, the fumes will quickly persuade him or her that they’ve unexpectedly achieved a Nirvana-type state and will blissfully wander this overgrown garden for the rest of their lives - which probably wouldn’t be long,” he noted as they had to wait for an absolutely monstrous-sized centipede creature to cross the road in front of them. Down a steep ravine, the air began to gradually clear until the toxic exotic flora was completely gone, replaced with vaguely more normal flora, and they could once again roll down the windows.

“There, that trail should keep them busy for a while. Are you getting hungry yet, Sarah?”

“A little. I’m presuming you got us food in that settlement, then,” she glanced at the backseat, seeing another basket.

“Put it together there, yes - procured it from the locals, no,” he gave a wry lip-smile. “Those people are noted for their intense loyalty, sickening bravery and considerable fighting skill, but their food - while technically edible and nourishing - leaves something to be desired. It should be safe to pull over soon. Ah, yes, here we are,” he said as a pristinely kept photo-negative park came into view. Mandor pulled off the road and parked on the bright red grass. Such a sight would have once disturbed the Sarah of Shadow Earth, but she had been quickly forced to learn to take reality as it came. Now the scene only made her think of brilliant autumn colors, just exploded all over everything. He took the basket and she took the blanket and together they walked over to a nice shady spot beneath a large deciduous tree, the light reflecting beautifully like stained glass through its red-and-orange leaves. Setting up, she saw it wasn’t just sandwiches this time: there were china plates and real silverware and everything in there, including two covered dishes, which he carefully lifted out.

“Wow, what’s the special occasion?”

He looked up for a moment with a small smile.

“To my knowledge, you will be the first human to ever set foot on Chaos soil. I believe that’s worth celebrating,” he stated as he filled her crystal water glass, then his own and raised it to toast. “To Chaos, the Eternal City, and your enriching stay with us.”

“To Chaos,” Sarah repeated, feeling it was expected. The glasses clinked.

Mandor watched her over the rim of his as they drank; the sentiment had sounded quaintly hesitant on her part, but only in the way one might be hesitant before entering the storm. Dinner, however, was no cause for any qualms whatsoever. He lifted the lids and a hot seafood pasta dish with shrimp and bay scallops and a vegetable-heavy antipasto tray were revealed. Sarah took the quiet hint to eat her greens and made sure to take a fair amount of artichoke hearts, olives both green and black, and marinated tomatoes along with a generous helping of the main course. The scene she found herself in was sensorially idyllic: the gentle early-evening light, the warm colors, fresh woodsy air, and strange birdsong all mingled with the complex scents and flavors of their repast. She still had far too many questions, especially now that they were nearly at their destination, but the meal was so exquisitely delicious that she couldn’t seem to stop eating even long enough for the briefest conversation until her plate was nearly empty. Mandor didn’t seem to find the silence objectionable and had proceeded in like fashion; periodically she caught him glancing briefly at her with a small, secretive smile.

“Save room for dessert,” he instructed as she was on the verge of taking seconds, casually dropping the dirtied dishes into a small Logrus portal and pulling out two custard glasses of a rich, citrusy blood-orange gelato with grated dark chocolate shards. It only took one taste for Sarah to recognize it was the same fabulously addictive bean he’d served her two nights ago as hot chocolate.

“You’d better not let me have this stuff too often or you’re gonna have a junkie on your hands,” she laughed.

“Everything in moderation,” was the prompt reply. It would’ve sounded parental if it hadn’t been for that sly note in his voice. “Glad you like it.” He savored a spoonful of his own.

Sarah was only halfway through her cup when she heard rustling coming from some large bushes back behind the car. The foliage parted in several places and she nearly dropped her custard glass, her eyes wide in fear: there were six leonine beasts padding onto the lawn! They had immense human faces proportional to their size and gigantic scorpion stingers where their tails should’ve been! She couldn’t tear her eyes away and nearly jumped out of her skin when Mandor placed his hand on hers to stop her from trembling. She looked up at him automatically; his expression was calm as ever.

“Don’t move,” he said quietly but sternly, “I’ll handle this.”

As he slowly rose to his feet, Sarah saw him stealthily get out a couple metal spheres with his left hand, readying them behind his back as he casually paced a few steps forward. The male of the manticora pride strode ahead of the others also and addressed him in Thari.

“Do not let us interrupt; finish your sweet. Our master told us to allow the human girl to enjoy her last meal should she be eating when we caught up with you. You are rumored to be an excellent chef.”

“And who might be paying me such a compliment before attempting to destroy me?” Mandor asked as if the answer couldn’t concern him less. The manticore gave him an blood-curdling smile; its teeth were like a shark’s!

“That would be telling.”

“Pity. You could have kept your life.”

“You mistake my intentions, Lord of Chaos. You are not our mark; the girl is.”

“She is only a human shadow-creature,” Mandor rejoindered, “what interest or threat could she possibly be to your master?”

“Our master does not take kindly to the forces of Chaos making inroads into the Order worlds. It is a matter of principle, you see.”

“Then he would stand to gain far more by providing transport and safe haven if he wishes to recruit for the Pattern of Amber. Loyalty, too.”

“It is too late for that,” the manticore replied darkly. “She bears the mark of the Logrus. She is defiled beyond any repair. Therefore, she must die.” He began to advance and so did the others, growling low. Mandor stood his ground.

“You realize, of course, that I cannot stand by and let you do this; I have been charged with her protection.” He brought his left hand forward, revealing the spheres.

“Then I regret to inform your lordship that you will be joining her,” the manticore snarled. “The girl’s death will be swift and merciful compared to yours for this impedance. I will relish separating your limbs from your body and feasting on your flesh while you yet live.”

Mandor was on the verge of attempting to paralyze the creature when a spark of intuition intervened. Something didn’t smell right here. It was physiologically unacceptable that these creatures could have followed them through that noxious garden and not been dazed into la-la-land. Not to mention how unusually intelligent they seemed; manticore could speak but a specimen was hardly ever this eloquent, and training them, let alone keeping them, was unheard-of. The Fire Angels bred in Chaos by a few crazy lords were more predictable than these monstrosities, native to the Forest of Arden just outside of Amber. True, they were semi-magical and could shadow-walk unaided, but how had they even lived to get this far out? Unless they had been trumped in…

Thinking fast, he wasted a shielding spell as the male manticore lunged for him, and, making a lightning-quick adjustment, activated both spheres simultaneously and hurled them back toward Sarah with almost a discus-type throw.

“Get away from the tree!” he yelled over his shoulder as he began to shift forms, the pride of manticore throwing themselves against the temporary wall that was already dissolving!

Sarah was instantly on her feet and running for her life out into the clear - and suddenly screamed in surprise as she was catapulted sixty feet straight into the air to hang suspended, hovering above the melee! The two spheres he had thrown were orbiting in opposite directions around the level of her feet at approximately four circumferences per second! Far below, Mandor had morphed into a seven-foot being of green fire. The shield was gone but it mattered little; one of the female manticore had obviously tried to jump him and had simply passed through his body; she was currently on the ground, furiously rolling to smother the flames and her charred fur.

Spells bright and dark were flying out of Mandor’s hands now but few seemed to be having any effect whatsoever. He felt he wasn’t so much up against a pride of man-eaters as he was locked in standoff with a grouped paradox. Any one of the powers he had been leveling at them should’ve been enough to kill the lot instantaneously and yet here they stood, circling him in, swiping, gnashing their great teeth. It was almost as if they were protected somehow and yet they wore no detectable magical protection as such. They couldn’t be confused, controlled, frozen, drowned, impaled, baked, or smothered. Even the Hand of Death Heart-stopper stopped no one. In fact, the only weakness any of them had shown at all had been toward the Electric Hedgehog - a powerful spray of blue lightning that left five of the beasts twitching and convulsing at his feet. He looked up to Sarah, thinking his work nearly finished.

“Enjoying the show?” he called to her, his demonic eyes blazing merry.

…and then one by one they all got back up. He couldn’t believe it! The male had an odd smile as he looked over his opponent’s shoulder and Mandor glanced back just in time to spot the missing manticore in the high branches of the tree, readying to make a leap at Sarah! A single bolt of orange lightning shot out of Mandor’s right hand and struck with perfect accuracy at over 100 yards away, knocking the enormous beast out of the tree. It fell crashing to the ground and twitched and twitched but just wouldn’t die. There was something unnatural in that repetitive movement…

And that’s when it finally dawned on Mandor just how badly he had been played. Before the others realized what he was doing, he’d readied two more spheres and shot into the air himself, shedding his flame-form as he did so, once again assuming his humanoid shape. The pride turned away to take out their vengeance on the Camaro instead, starting by slashing the tires.

“Mind if I join you?” Mandor called over to Sarah as his platform drifted towards hers. “I can conserve a bit of energy if we share one of these.”

“Of-of course,” she stammered, taking his hand as he reached out to her. The orbits intersected and two of the spheres flew back into his open hand; the remaining two served to support them both. “What the hell are those things?!” One of the female manticora was busy ripping up the backseat.

“That does seem to be the pertinent question of the day,” Mandor grimly smirked. “In outward appearance they are manticora, deadly mythical beasts out of Amber, but they’re far more resilient than they have any right to be. There shouldn’t be anything left alive down there but the grass. I wonder…

He tossed down one of the spheres in his hand. As if fell, it rapidly increased in size until it was as big as a boulder; it bounced once, leaving a light crater, and smashed the prone manticore that was still lying under the tree before crashing off into the distance. Sarah winced, turning away before she could see the carnage. Mandor gave an irritated sigh.

“Just as I thought: I can’t kill them because they’re not alive - they’re machines of some kind, look!”

Sarah dared a downward glance. All kinds of metal bits and pieces littered the ground where the sphere had squashed the creature flat - a convincing fur coat concealing an incredibly durable robot body. The giant metal sphere returned, growing smaller - and flew back up into Mandor’s hand!

“Well, one down, five to go,” she exhaled.

“It’s not that simple. The others won’t stand still nicely like that and I’ve already used up nearly all of my fresh spells. Beyond the size change, it’s almost impossible to control that maneuver; I’d probably hit the car.” He suddenly looked over and laughed, seeing its sorry state. “Not that it matters, I see. It’s really not as terrible a loss as it seems, just an inconvenient one. We were bound to lose it before reaching our destination; most motors simply don’t function correctly the closer one gets to the Rim and the…” he trailed off - the answer had just hit him! He quickly fished out his trump deck and thumbed through a few cards, the landscapes she had seen. He didn’t seem satisfied with any of them, however, and put them back in, paused in consideration, then squeezed the pouch in a certain way… and a slit appeared in the interior leather that was completely invisible to the naked eye; in it were three more cards. He looked at her sternly for a moment.

“Don’t tell anyone about this.”

Sarah nodded and he withdrew them. Meanwhile, the manticora had about finished off the Camaro and the male had moved on to the remainder of their gelato, the other four congregating directly below them. The first card was a heavy-looking iron door with a gargoyle knocker.

“Always be careful with your house-key,” he noted conspiratorially, putting it back. They were obviously still out of range. The next was of a beautiful woman with long fiery-red hair wearing a fur-trimmed cloak, a night scene in the background; the edge design of the card was drastically different, light green and far more delicate, as if it were from another deck. There was a sharp intelligence and strength in those green eyes, as well as something Sarah instinctively didn’t trust. Mandor tried to contact her for over a minute, then gave up and put her away gently. The last trump was of the mouth of a crystal-blue cave set into the side of a green, grassy knoll. He seemed to half-heartedly consider it, then put that one away as well. “The cave might actually shake them,” he stated finally, “but we’d have to backtrack too far off course to get there, and if my enemy knows enough about me to know that over 95% of the protective spells I carry on my person only work against an organic opponent I have no doubt that it would simply be a matter of time before he thought to look in a place well-known to block all magic use both inside and out if we just disappeared.”

“So you’re sure it’s a man?”

“Male at any rate,” he shrugged a little, then looked straight down at the remaining manti-bots in disgust. It would’ve been like shooting fish in a barrel if he still had a walling-in spell. As things stood, he only had two spells left, and a bloody-nose-hemophilia-inducement would do nothing to those automatons. That left a visual dazzlement spell, which might work well enough to give them a head-start if he deployed it effectively. The male manticore called up to him.

“You are only wasting time! We both know you cannot stay aloft indefinitely! The moment you tire, you will fall like the great orb you destroyed Creature Three with! Just drop the girl and we will leave you in peace!”

“Okay,” Sarah said a little nervously, “that translation spell you gave me wore off hours ago, what’s really going on here?”

Mandor sighed. He’d hoped to at least spare her this much but he saw now that the truth would help to further his own cause.

“They’ve been sent after you by some pawn of the Pattern. He’s asking me to drop you, but I’m not about to let you come to harm.” He carefully turned around on the small platform. “Climb onto my back.”


“Just do it. Piggy-back style, I think you call it.”

Sarah awkwardly put her arms around his neck as she mounted him; he reached back and gripped her thighs so her position was secure.

“Are we flying away like Superman or what?”

“No, if that were the case he would’ve sent something with wings.” He looked over his shoulder with a little smile. “I’m going to have to outrun them.”

Sarah gaped in shock. “You can’t possibly be serious!” she glanced down at the prowling pride. As real animals, she could almost imagine he had a chance but those robots were practically invincible!

“We don’t have much of a choice. I’m going to try to crash them in Shadow closer to Chaos. What I need you to do is hang on tight, stay down, and no matter what happens you must keep your eyes closed - traveling this fast through shadow isn’t called a hellride for nothing! If you can manage that much you’ll be fine. I’m going to shift into my ape-form now. Just close your eyes,” he prompted gently, “the nightmare will soon be over.”

Sarah closed her eyes as tight as they would go and lay down flush to his back. She could feel he was getting considerably larger and far more muscular; within seconds his thick, coarse fur was tickling her nose and she turned her face to the side. Were the arms holding her legs not just longer but placed lower?

“Ready?” Sarah felt his new, deep voice rumble in his chest.


He gave her thighs a squeeze and with his third and fourth hands - he had two pairs of arms and legs now. He deployed the dazzlement spell and, with a roar, he hit the ground running at a terrifying pace on all-fours…er, sixes (his second pair of arms being otherwise occupied.) He had become a Chaosian octopal ape, a monstrous silver gorilla with amazing speed and strength and a powerful bite if necessary. He hadn’t told Sarah to hang on for nothing - if it wasn’t for him holding her legs in place with an iron grip, she would’ve fallen off miles ago! It was literally all she could do to keep her head down!

Sarah thought they had already gone through snatches of jungle at least five times from the way he always took to the trees when they were present. His animalistic panting was audible and she could feel his heart pounding in his chest like a hammer. Even with her self-limited sensory input, the rapid-fire changes were overwhelming and after a short period of time she had to simply try to ignore everything. It would’ve almost been easier if she didn’t understand what was really happening. The worst part was she could still hear their pursuers practically on their heels; they were well-matched in speed. Freezing, roasting, dark, wet, the sound of a crash behind, a vertical leap, light so bright it burned through her eyelids, earsplitting screeches overhead followed by angry roars that grew fainter with distance, back into the trees, on and on and on it went until Sarah could scarcely believe she was awake. None of it felt real. A train horn sounded out of nowhere and she heard another smash behind them along with yelling that was silenced in a split-second. It was like flipping through radio stations or T.V. channels. None of it was congruent. None of it made any sense. She was feeling giddy when Mandor made a tremendous leap and seemed to be falling…falling…it was a dream after all and she would wake up any moment now…

Sarah opened her eyes.

All around her reality was cataclysmically tearing apart and splicing back together, dimension upon dimension, melting and flowing in a way that made her instantly nauseous, shattering her nerves. Wildly looking behind, she saw the last mechanical manticore get grabbed by immense suckered tentacles and dragged down into a sea that became a sky that stretched and melted into-

She screamed her lungs out, her mind refusing to take in any more.

“Close your eyes!” she heard Mandor roar and the instinctive fear made it through her shock and she did so. She buried her face in his scratchy fur, desperately willing it all to go away. She couldn’t remember them stopping or Mandor changing back into his human form, only him holding her tightly to himself, stroking her hair, murmuring reassurances in her ear like one would with a spooked animal. She suddenly snapped out of it and belatedly screamed into his shoulder.

“That’s right, let it all out,” he continued, “you’re safe now… it’s all over… everything will be fine… let it go… it’s over now… you’re safe…” the soothing litany continued ad infinitum.

But it’s not over, Sarah thought, standing there with all of her muscles still clenched tight, shaking. It would never be over. Not now. Not if she lived to be a hundred would she ever forget the sight of-

There was a familiar metallic click and she suddenly sagged in his arms as he supported her totally relaxed frame. Sarah couldn’t seem to concentrate; her thoughts were blurred.

“It’s too much, isn’t it?” she heard Mandor’s voice, full of compassion. “I can make it go away, make it all vanish,” he intoned persuasively. Sarah could feel an inky blackness lapping away at the edge of the terrible memory like the waters of Lethe, the Forgetfulness of the Blessed, but for reasons that she couldn’t quite explain - and certainly not in this compromised state - the thought of him erasing the memory was almost scarier than keeping it. She mentally cast about for something to hold onto, something to stave off this calm oblivion, and, to her surprise, she found the Logrus. Rather than the menace she normally felt in Her presence, she felt a kind of cold, alien amusement as she reached out to Her in complete desperation. A single, thread-thin black filament extended and made contact with her, giving her a sudden jolt of strength, both mental and physical.

To Mandor’s complete amazement, Sarah stood under her own power and managed to push him arm’s length away, opening her eyes with a full-body shiver.

“No thanks, I’m fine now.”

Of course she wasn’t fine, he thought, and as a liar she was laughably awful, but there was only one way she could have possibly done that.

Sarah was afraid he would be angry with her for being so stupid or insulted for refusing his generous help when she seemed to need it so badly, but when she dared to look up at him, his expression was a more personable echo of Logrus’ own amusement and she had a sudden sinking feeling that, for better or worse, she had just unwittingly sealed her own fate. That smile was not unkind, however. He lightly grasped her shoulders, looking earnestly into her eyes.

“I will honor your decision this time, but you should be aware that there is no shame in doing this; hellrides are notorious for destroying the minds of shadow-beings. Should you find that you cannot live with the memory you must come straight to me, do you understand?”

It was a caring albeit authoritarian sentiment but Sarah mutely nodded agreement. She understood what she had been afraid of now: setting the precedent of passively letting someone else control her. She would be here on her own terms or not at all, in which case she would manage; she knew that much with an odd certainty. He released her.

“Do you need to rest a bit before we complete our journey or are you fit to continue?”

Sarah sighed. “Getting there just involves stepping through a card, right?”

“More or less, yes.”

“Then let’s just get this over with; I’m exhausted,” she blearily shook her head.

He nodded agreement. “Very well.”

As he procured the correct trump, Sarah finally thought to look around at where they were. In comparison to the places they had been traveling through, the color scheme here was remarkably dull; she couldn’t imagine a more barren, featureless gray plain, a gloomier slate-green sky, except there were faint stars in the dimming light of the evening, and they seemed to be dancing…
(the alien radio music: the final hidden track on Trillian Green's Metamorphoses. You'll see what I mean:)
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