Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Labyrinth of Chaos

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

In which we relax into the strange...and the strange outgrows our comfort zone.

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Fantasy - Published: 2017-05-28 - 12716 words - Complete

The soft pink-tinged light filtered gently through the drooping leaves and blossoms of Sarah’s tree, dappling her face as she lay on the therapeutic long-grass in languid, thoughtless ecstasy. After a relatively uneventful period of finally getting a decent night’s rest on a regular basis, she had begun to get bad dreams again within the last few days. The odd thing was that these ones involved her home Shadow now, with harmless things and people turning scarily evil on her. It wasn’t impeding her rest in that it was waking her up often, but the pattern was a bit disturbing. It was a relief to have this tiny alcove of oblivious happiness to run off to in her spare time, which there was more of of late; Suhuy must’ve about exhausted every conceivable topic she was suited to learn by now, although her Thari vocabulary was still improving a bit. She had ceased to even think in English anymore for the most part.

Her reverie was suddenly interrupted by what sounded like the recording of a human female voice chanting in monotone; she cracked open an eye and spotted Sofi perched up in the branches above her, eyes closed, her strong corvine voice projecting away.

“Hey there,” Sarah greeted her lazily; the bird could be slightly annoying at times, but she was genuinely grateful for the companionship on the whole, although she wasn’t entirely certain if such a forced vassal relationship could ever really technically extend to true friendship. Oh well.

“Oh, forgive me for disturbing you, mistress!” Sofi rapidly apologized. “I was merely attempting to commune with you in your quest for sacred nothingness; it is indeed a blessing that my master has provided you with such a wondrous tool for the journey.”

“You really do have a thing for Eastern philosophy, don’t you? I’m not deliberately meditating down here; the relaxation is just a side benefit of the use of the organism.”

“Eastern, mistress? Why should such thought hold fast to any cardinal direction? It is beyond them all.”

“Has to do with Shadow Earth global culture,” Sarah sighed, not really feeling up to this sort of discourse right this second. “The idea of giving up the self to join your consciousness with something bigger or just plain obliterate it is historically Eastern. Or ‘New Age’ now, come to think of it. Whichever,” she said flippantly, closing her eyes again.

“It is the founding school of thought of Chaos,” Sofi flapped down to the lawn beside Sarah, stalking closer, “and yet even after all this time you hold out against it,” she observed, sounding amused. “There is still much Order to be found in your mind yet.”

“I was made in Order,” Sarah answered simply. “I’m probably made of Order. The result is sort of inevitable.” She rolled onto her side so she could look the raven in the eye, stifling a small sound of pleasure at the feel of those thin, verdant fingers slowly caressing her neck. “It seems a curious conscious choice to me to so diminish the importance of the individual when, from what I have seen myself and been taught, the worlds of Shadow and their inhabitants depend so heavily on our conscious perception of them.”

“Then perhaps we can perceive you strongly enough to enlighten your mind,” Sofi lightly teased her. “Is not your session here about ended for today?”

Sarah groaned; she always hated when this was over and she had to get back up and go face the strange some more. To her surprise, the strong grass started to tickle her – hard – shocking her fully aware; with a gasp of involuntary laughter, she quickly rolled off the patch herself. Then looked back down at it with a note of caution.

“It shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Sofi pecked at an errant blade that instantly recoiled away from her razor-sharp beak. “The organism is probably ingesting miniscule amount of your bioelectricity because you spend so much time here. Perhaps it will weaken once more if you pace your sessions at wider intervals, but if the behavior progresses definitely speak to Lord Suhuy of the matter; he has very detailed knowledge of shadow flora and fauna. The phenomenon might be a sign that the organism is beginning to revert back to a more natural state. Or perhaps my master thought the slight effect harmless enough and did not wish to make you needlessly concerned.”

Sarah conceded that the latter hypothesis had the ring of truth to it as she stood back up, straightening her long skirts. She had nearly stopped wearing pants altogether unless it was actually required of her for an activity; she had simply adjusted to this minor social aspect of Chaosian culture completely by now and had no real reason to look back.

Of course, full assimilation would have been easier without certain basic hindrances, namely restricted magic use (involuntary) and denied exposure to that world at large (allegedly involuntary, but she had never seen believable proof to support this stance, given that even native Chaosians spent most of their lives safely indoors and one could often get from point A to point B without having to go out into that ‘natural’ chemical smog.) If her life was somewhat limited here, it was fairly pleasant on the whole and now she had an entire world to run wild in besides. There had been so many instances already that she wished she’d had a camera. The landscape was simply gorgeous out here, lush but with the otherworldly coloring; it looked like a sort of fairyland, especially when the breeze made the grass glitter like sunlight on water. Little furry alien creatures of varying description tended to follow her about when she meandered down to the stream in the meadow; they weren’t terribly intelligent but all were sweet-natured and docile as house pets – she’d been naming them. Those bright little birds would come and perch on her head and shoulders, even sitting on her fingers like trained parakeets, and would sing for her. In time she learned how to mimic their speech enough in whistling to facilitate a form of basic communication, although Sofi often interrupted her in this, jealous of the attention she gave them.

True to Mandor’s word, the raven practically lived and breathed complex topics of conversation, delighting in goading Sarah into highly intellectual discussions on practically every subject imaginable, sharpening her wit with logic conundrums and riddles. Sofi was entertaining in her own way, prone to pedanticy but generally good-natured with a decent sense of humor, although she personally fell far short of a human girlfriend. Sarah couldn’t blame her for this – it simply wasn’t in her nature - but there were times that she longed to speak of simple, unimportant, mundane things and Sofi sensed this from her mistress’ demeanor and attempted to oblige her. Certain habits die hard, however, and now that she had the space to herself again Sarah took to bringing books of literature and plays with her to the field, reading out scenes with the raven and even acting out a few just for fun. While not Sofi’s cup of tea, the change in itself was of interest to the bird and in time she told her master as much; she knew it was technically a waste of time – as was much of what the girl did on that shadow – but nevertheless he seemed pleased. She ultimately dismissed his reaction out-of-wing as purely sentimental; the old Chaos lord had a penchant for a certain amount of frivolous activity himself and he was obviously fond of the child after a certain sense. If Sofi had heard even a whisper of the truth, it would’ve left her in serious moral quandary.

For Mandor Sawall was deliberately using this time Sarah spent away in rest as a carefully calculated counterbalance to the psychological conditioning that Suhuy was slowly starting to perform on her unconscious mind. With most of the possible curriculum out of the way, they needed to start preparing her for the immediate future of her being a Chaos agent on Shadow Earth, a very different sort of training altogether. Granted, some of what would be expected of her would come relatively easily since she was a native to the shadow, but it would take considerable time to instill the proper instincts, the basic stealth-level-operation skills, the mindset necessary for her to be of real use to them. Really, it was not unlike training a service animal for war purposes, although there was often better payoff for the inductees at the initiate level for Chaos, including direct access to backup forces in the Courts on top of the Logrus’ power being at their disposal. By the time she was ready to return home, Sarah would be even more scarily formidable than she had already become, to the point that – in the unlikely event that it actually became necessary – she would automatically turn on her own kind without a second thought and no immediate remorse. Her loyalty would be conditioned now, pushed to the limit; it was a dirty job but it was theirs to effect. They would take their time; rushing the process would simply ruin the desired outcome. And in the meantime Sarah had to be brought to associate some modicum of recognizable Chaos with pleasure and happiness greater than she had found in her own world. Mandor certainly hoped it wouldn’t come to this but she had to be willing to die for the Courts by the time she left them.

But Sarah knew nothing of this. Mandor still smiled upon her benevolently, fed her exotic formal meals, helped her with her homework, and (in most other ways) became for all practical purposes the father she had always longed for. There were still times that he seemed a little odd and enigmatic, but Sarah simply wrote it off as a quirk of his Chaosian nature and never fretted over the tiny inconsistencies. Of course, the chemical compound emitted by the flora of her private shadow was helping with this general mood also.

Nevertheless, for all his cunning, planning, and at times covert reconnaissance, Lord Mandor didn’t know everything. He had known for some time that she spent extra time in the gymnasium but he had never actually asked her why; he had always assumed she was exercising not only her body but exorcising her general frustration with her relatively cooped-up existence, however temporary it was, and he was willing to leave the matter be as long as she took care of herself afterwards.

The truth was that she was covertly spending time looking out of those immense, thick-but-not-quite-thick-enough plates of transparent material into the beautiful, icy wasteland beyond, often at odd times of the night when she awoke. It rubbed the wrong way against a very human instinct to never be able to look out of the window and see where she really was. Even with the knowledge that this single room alone was on this particular shadow, it didn’t diminish from the sense of grounded reality that she got from this exercise. It served to overemphasize just how terribly alone she was out here, though. She desperately missed normal human companionship; the humanoid forms of the two Chaos lords hid little when one knew them in truth. That and an Earth-biased sense of time: linear 24/7 – no bells-and-whistles, no inexplicable periods of technical retrograde, honest-to-god day and night instead of the anti-Copernican dome of the heavens that swung back-and-forth limitedly on a vertical axis, which she only viewed undiscovered in this room, often around Orangesky (the colors followed no logical chromatic order, either.) It was a stark reminder that the safe little celestial display Mandor had made for her in her normal rooms was strictly artificial, an offering to aid her physical human weakness.

And the view from here was pretty – majestic, desolate, but pretty nonetheless. She was always careful to put on her thick leather fencing glove before even touching the drapes. The gym would’ve looked spectacular with them fully open but she understood all too well why Mandor never did it: even having just one slightly looped back made the room notably cooler in a matter of minutes. Really, it was an interesting private blunder on his part when she thought about it. Lord Mandor Sawall – her guardian, she mentally added fondly – was an outrageously powerful sorcerer and almost scarily intelligent, but it was comforting to know that he had his limits, that he still made mistakes on rare occasion.

She was not, however, prepared for the one she ran into by sheer blind chance late one ‘night’ in that room. She had woken up not remembering why and, feeling restless, she had taken the usual walk to calm her nerves and wound up in the gym again. She had been taught how to make spirit-light – an orb of blue luminescence that sat in the palm of her hand at will – so there was no need to ‘turn on’ ‘the lights’. It had been nearly a month since the Shadowmaster had been by last to stabilize the walls. Mandor had asked her just the previous evening over dinner if she would mind camping out for only one night on her shadow so the job could be done (clearly she was not going to get to see the Ways of Sawall any time soon.) After a little play-pouting, she easily agreed; if the moons looked that spectacular during ‘daylight’ hours, it was nothing compared to the Technicolor stars do-si-do-ing away out in that proto-Chaosian cosmos at night. And Mandor knew it, providing her with compact high-definition binoculars on the spot with a knowing smile.

Walking past those suits of armor in the dark was always just a little creepy; the play of cast shadows from a singular light source did wild things in that hall. She was always careful to edge by that last suit in particular – even sitting innocuously by itself in the case, she swore she could feel that malevolent thing watching her intently as she inched by. Once inside the gymnasium, however, all was perfectly still and unnaturally quiet save for her light footfalls, and, once the far right drape was opened, lovely.

She was just making her way across the large open room to the window in question when an unexpected sound made her freeze in her tracks: the faint but definite sound of a man talking! She shook her head a moment but it was no dream… and it was coming through the ceiling, over by the practice equipment on the left side. Was it Mandor? It could’ve been from the vocal register but she couldn’t honestly tell; the speech was too faint and muffled by the barrier besides. Consumed by sudden terrible curiosity, she briefly considered listening in, using his own trump to amplify it, but quickly discarded the idea; the magic involved was too darn obvious - he would know immediately and seriously question what she was up to in here in the first place. That left physical means - getting close enough to hear but not close enough that he could feel her presence. Of all the tricks he could do with those spheres, she envied his ability to levitate most of all. It was infuriating at times how little magic she could perform on a small, practical level!

And then an idea hit her. Carefully removing her slippers, she quickly tiptoed back out of the room, then ran to get one of the floating stair-risers from the library, grinning at the thought that she could actually fake this one. Until she tried to get it past the door with her – it was easily small enough to fit through the physical portal but for some reason it simply wouldn’t come through, as if it had the magical equivalent of locking shopping-cart wheels so it couldn’t leave the room. Oh well, it was worth a shot, she thought, letting it float back to its normal position in the staircase before re-entering the gym herself.

What to use? The sound of the voice had gotten a bit fainter, moved farther back closer to the heavy exercise machines. Noiselessly padding over, she scoped the individual pieces out for ease and practicality of climbing. Her choices were scanty at best: not enough footholds, not tall enough, not sturdy enough to support her full weight without breaking. Then she remembered the practice dummy; the black stuffed figure was about six-and-a-half feet tall including the base, rather heavy, and could be locked into stationary position. If only…

Sarah had never actually tried to animate the thing before, and while she held a certain logical trepidation over the course of action she knew she could get higher up on it if it actively helped to support her. Reaching for the Logrus, she ‘felt’ the dummy construct through the black tendrils: it carried no less than three imbedded spells - one for organic movement, one for a sense of automatic danger so it would fight, and a very primitive sense of honor so it would fight fair. All hinged on activating and deactivating a magical trigger mechanism, rather like fitting a key into a lock. Could she manage to pick only certain tumblers without the rest of the system falling into place? Very tentatively she began to lightly ply the surface of the first spell to see if it would give…

And the dummy saluted as if it had sword in hand and struck a rather convincing en garde!

No! I’m not here to fight you! She frantically willed to it. See? I’m unarmed – I’m not a threat.

Her breath caught in her throat as the automaton dropped the formal starting position, head tilted to one side as it slowly pointed to her, almost a questioning gesture.

It’s alright, I won’t hurt you, she bravely took a step closer. Simple commands would probably work best; she had no idea how much of a brain it had, if any. Can you help me stand on your shoulders? Just hoist me higher so I can climb up on you. It’ll be okay.

The dummy slowly reached out its great arms toward her, unsure of the precise physical command being asked of it. Sarah took a deep breath and gently placed the padded hands on her waist, bending them to close on her. Try to lift me up, she suggested.

The thing had absolutely no sense of touch and wound up holding her too tightly, but she managed to clamber up onto its broad fake shoulders with a couple more short commands, and – with the hands firmly supporting her legs – stood on them, her arms out for balance.

I won’t be long; just keep me steady and don’t move again until I tell you to.

The black featureless head nodded slowly once.

If only she had gotten something to work sooner! The conversation sounded as if it was nearly ended but now that she could finally sort of make it out, she could hear that it was only one-sided; obviously a trump call. It was a really good thing she had decided against listening in! What remained of the call still sounded very odd to her, though.

“…yes…of course I have, do you think I’m new at this? It’s just…look, I know you’re right but be gentle; she doesn’t exactly spring back easily…right…anytime, whatever suits you…very well, you may commence planting the hooks; I’ll bring them to the fore one by one later once they’re good and anchored…yes…I think she would appreciate that…” There was momentary laughter. “That sounds fairly accurate. Until tomorrow then…”

He was obviously wrapping up; nothing more to be learned here. She could speculate on what it all meant later but first she had to get back down in one piece. Slowly bending her knees, crouching into a squat with her arms out in front of her (those fencing lessons had done wonders for her leg muscles), she gripped the shoulders tightly in preparation.

Let go of my legs, she instructed the dummy, who quickly released its vice-like grip on them. She’d probably have a few bruises from this idiocy but at least it would be easy enough to hide them until they faded; all of the clothing that had been provided her was beautiful and form-flattering but modest in the extreme with almost no exposed skin whatsoever. Swinging her legs back down, she would’ve made a clean landing if her socks hadn’t been so slick on that floor; she slipped at the last moment and landed hard on her tailbone – thankfully on a wrestling mat – but that had been far from silent. As she rallied against the pain, she belatedly realized that that upper room was dead quiet now…and it suddenly occurred to her that he might have heard it! If he had, she didn’t have time to run and her trump deck was in her room – why did she never have them when she needed them?! She then noticed the dummy with its arms still raised.

Drop your arms to your sides! Thanks! Goodbye! She hurriedly willed, yanking the proverbial power cord just as it did so. She shuddered against the feeling of the receding Logrus, but right before it disappeared what was left of it empathically warned her that Mandor was moments from coming through into the room! Like lightning she got behind the weight machine with her shoes, lying on the ground facedown, extinguishing the spirit-light. Between her long sable hair and her long black nightdress she was as indistinct as any shadow in that darkness, but if he spotted her she was a sitting duck!

To complete Sarah’s surprise, she heard his boots enter the room a mere twenty feet beyond where she lay prone – he didn’t use a Logrus portal; he simply walked in straight through an unmarked wall! The true door must be there, she thought, wishing she could risk a glance up but didn’t dare to as she tried to breathe as noiselessly as humanly possible.

Mandor had indeed heard a dull thud come from this room mere seconds ago. His personal sense of vigilance might have seemed odd to a casual observer outside of the Courts, but in a world practically teeming with things that not only went bump in the night but did so on a regular basis, they knew better than to do it here. Most of the serving staff had already retired for a period of rest. It was practically impossible for intruders to break into Mandorways, but the incident struck him as genuinely strange for some innate reason and he decided to satisfy his own curiosity; worrying was silly and infantile when one could directly deal with one’s problems. Heading down in his green-flame form, he passed through the ‘natural’ door - reflecting that it needed to be closed again - and took a quick scan around the room with his blazing eyes, then brought up the Logrus in order to look through it. Something definitely felt off in here but he was surprisingly hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly what…until he spotted a length of fandon that had crumpled down from a snapped wooden fixture in one of the cases along the wall. That was technically heavy enough to have made that sound. He would have the display repaired at Redsky tomorrow; there was no rush. It still felt strange, almost Patternish in the room… He shook himself of the absurd feeling, stepping back out.

If Sarah hadn’t already been lying on her face on the floor she would’ve physically collapsed in relief – that had been far too close! She went to get back up, starting to feel stiff and not just from the minor injury, when the thought that Mandor might be lying in wait just on the opposite side of the wall occurred to her and she froze, knowing that the portal was probably thin enough to see straight through! She proceeded to mentally list off all the Noble Houses of the Courts, their respective heraldries, and their current politically and socially active members in order of rank for fifteen linear minutes before daring to get up again, hightailing it back to her room. She noted that the blade of the Amberite broadsword in the historical curiosities case in the hall seemed to be shining faintly from some inner light as she ran past it in the dark; it hadn’t been before.

The following day held an even bigger shock when she was casually informed by Mandor over breakfast of the seemingly freak incident that – completely unbeknownst to him – had literally saved her hide. Everything had looked normal to her when she had initially walked by the functional weapons case in the gym last night! It was positively chilling thinking that there might’ve been someone or something hiding in the dark in that room while she had been there, and Sarah resolved to scope the place out more carefully from now on if she was ever in there by herself again. A pretty view wasn’t worth getting ambushed.

Outside of that incident, life in general seemed to be holding normal (such as it was.) Her dreams, however, were continuing to get stranger and much more frequently she awoke in the morning feeling oddly rested but slightly emotionally disturbed without comprehending why. That peculiar snippet of overheard conversation plagued her brain. Had Mandor actually been speaking of something to be done to her? Or had it been another completely unrelated matter entirely? From what he had told her of himself, he did sort of lead a weird life (as far as an Order-shadow would think of it) in certain aspects. There was no way of asking about the incident without incriminating herself, though. To say that her guardian would be displeased was a severe understatement; indiscreet intentional spying on any noble in the Courts was technically a punishable criminal offense here (nothing like privilege laws to further protect the already heavily protected elite class.) But she couldn’t just let this eat at her indefinitely, either. Finally one day - with her post-lunch lessons and Suhuy safely out of the way - she forced herself to stop waffling on the issue and dug out Mandor’s trump. She’d no idea where he was but it would be only the third time she had ever called him in this manner for any reason at all and the cause as she planned to present it was decent; he wouldn’t be angry with her. She just had to be extremely careful of how she couched the subject. Concentrating on the image of the seated, calculating man, at length she saw the lines waver and suddenly found herself viewing the genuine article: he appeared to be walking outside in an eclectic cemetery of all places - he saw her also.

“Sarah, this is indeed a surprise! There is trouble at home?”

“…kind of, but I guess it’s not a matter of life-and-death. If you’re busy it can wait. Sorry to bother you,” she shook her head, about to sever the contact.

His expression changed immediately to patiently schooling. “Whatever it is is bothering you sufficiently that it couldn’t wait two linear hours to see me at dinner. Give me your hand.”

He reached out his right hand to her and somehow Sarah saw her own pass through the trump; he clasped it firmly and she stepped backwards a few paces, pulling him through. Mandor glanced about; the library was still standing.

“Not difficulty with a spell?”

“No, nothing like that.” She was beginning to feel acutely embarrassed about bothering him like this.

“Then why don’t we sit and you can tell me what is troubling you so,” he warmly offered, lightly resting his hand on the back of her shoulder, guiding them toward the large couch by the fire.

Sarah desperately tried to get her thoughts lined up as they walked over. She sat down on the left side, placing a pillow in her lap and holding it. Her guardian lounged comfortably on the other end, angled toward her, one leg on his knee, resting his arms on the back and side of the couch. It was a very purposeful, casual, open stance to put her at her ease, and he knew she knew it.

“I’m all ears. What’s going on?”

Sarah stared down uncomfortably in spite of it, then gazed at the purple flames flickering and crackling in the grate; even basic elements could be different chemical colors here. “I’m having bizarre nightmares again. I hadn’t had any at all for over three months – I really thought I was past this – and then they just started again out-of-the-blue last week. I can’t even think why I’m getting them and I feel so ashamed bringing this up now, when you offered before…”

Mandor quietly exhaled. “The human subconscious often initially represses a painful event only to suddenly release it later on. I knew we would have to eventually deal with your trauma in coming here, but I have to admit to being amazed that you held out this long. You have an unusually strong will but keeping these memories is clearly unhealthy for your mind. You have no reason to feel ashamed; I told you to bring this to me if it became too much for you to bear. We can remedy the situation easily right now – lie back,” he instructed her, getting out one of his spheres.

Sarah emphatically shook her head no, aware of what he was about to do! “But it’s not that – that’s precisely what worries me! These are entirely different. I can’t explain why, but in all honesty I don’t think they’re related at all!”

Mandor stopped cold, turning to eye her with a startlingly intense level of scrutiny. “Different? How?”

Sarah faltered a moment; she wasn’t used to seeing him like this. “They…they’re dreams of weird – evil – things being done to me in my life on Shadow Earth, perpetrated by people I care about. It’s horrible!” she shuddered. “You’ve got to believe I’ve never had dreams like this before in my life! I don’t have any idea of what could be causing them! What’s happening to me?!”

Mandor’s expression softened considerably as he thoughtfully looked away from her, idly fidgeting with the small metal sphere in his hand. He seemed to be considering something but quickly came to a decision, for which Sarah was rather grateful; it was difficult trying not to think of that fateful night right about now and who knew what he was picking up from her at present! He nodded to himself. “Come closer,” he said quietly, patting the cushion right next to him.

I’m done for, Sarah thought but did as he bade her. Turning fully to face her, he raised the sphere, carefully resting it against the third-eye region of her forehead, just above the bridge of her nose, and clicked it on. He understood all too well what the trouble was but couldn’t tell her; Suhuy was clearly attempting a shortcut by only using dream sequences instead of going to the trouble of actually burying the necessary information in her unconscious, and the process was quickly making a mess of her waking mind. She was attempting to hide her thoughts from him but she seemed to have made the educated guess that the cause might be artificial – a wonder in itself, but one he could not afford for her to entertain even briefly at this stage of the game. He could fix this minor botch-up, however. Slowly turning the upper-half of the sphere counterclockwise with his thumb, he first dialed back her distress – the tension just melted out of Sarah and she sighed in relief; he smiled – then kept turning it, fading away the memories of the new dreams while maintaining the tentative beginnings of distrust of the Order-based worlds, culminating in erasing her memory of why she had even called him here in the first place. It was as if it had never happened at all; he put the sphere back in his pocket, carefully watching her now-vacant expression. He discreetly clicked it back off.

Sarah blinked, shaking her head clear. What had just happened? Mandor was seated beside her, looking a little concerned.

“Are you getting adequate rest at night, Sarah? You seemed to have nodded off there for a moment. What was it you were asking me? Something to do with your coursework, I believe it was.”

Sarah felt confused – she couldn’t even remember sitting down here, but even that was beginning to fade in the onslaught of so much replacement information in the immediate aftermath. She had to concede that she had been up a lot at night lately for no particular reason; maybe her circadian rhythms were finally rebelling on her. Just what I need, she thought a little sarcastically.

Then she actually did remember something that she had genuinely been meaning to ask her guardian, even though she had a feeling that the answer would be an automatic ‘no’. But it didn’t hurt to try.

“Now that I’m further along in my studies, do you think I could finally learn to draw? I want to practice landscapes on my shadow – there are so many beautiful things there and I know memory will not preserve them all for me.”

Mandor stood back up before she had time to register just how close they had been sitting for no apparent reason, a wry little smile playing about his lips.

“You are under no circumstances to be taught to draw a trump, and don’t think for a second you can wheedle me on this – I know you far too well,” he lightly teased, turning to face her again, leaning against the right side of the mantle. “Having said this, I see no harm in your learning the basics for pleasure’s sake as long as this much is understood and observed. Convincing Lord Suhuy may take a little more work, but you leave it to me to bring up the subject. At any rate, I need to speak to him privately about some of your upcoming lessons. If I am unused to dealing with humans in general, he is exponentially so; to my knowledge he has never left the Courts for any reason at all, and I believe some of the remaining coursework and training could be made considerably smoother for you if it is tailored to better fit your species.”

What Mandor meant by this cryptic statement Sarah never truly discovered, but before the week was out she had been provided with a set of artist-grade pencils, both color and varying hardnesses of graphite, and a nice hard-bound drawing tablet. Suhuy had outright forbidden her from toying with the paints – the normal medium of the permanent trumps – but was willing to let her tinker with the ‘lesser’ art supplies, if only to satisfy her curiosity on the subject.

They all quickly discovered, to Sarah’s extreme disappointment and the Chaos lords’ profound relief, that all the worrying had been in vain: she was a terrible artist. It wasn’t just beginner’s mistakes, mind you; she really, seriously, could not draw. Her perspective stayed bad, her shading lacked uniform touch, she couldn’t make so much as a straight line without something to guide it. It was terribly frustrating for her to fail after all that time spent hoping, waiting for the right chance. In the back of her mind the Labyrinth still loomed large and, well, yes of course Mandor had been right on the money with his suspicions; she had secretly wanted to attempt rendering a trump of the place. Obviously it wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

Persistent, continuing failure didn’t stop her from trying, however; it just made the practice more secretive. She still took her tablet and pencil bag with her to her shadow often enough and would attempt at least one sketch per visit. The quality remained shoddy regardless of the subject matter or the amount of time she spent on them. She even attempted a portrait of Sofi one day and it turned out so embarrassingly bad that Sarah crumpled it up and tossed it away with a cry of aggravation, lying down face-first beneath a silver willow on the grass, beating the ground once with her fist. It was too much.

Sofi was slightly startled by her mistress’ sudden outburst but she retrieved the ball of paper and deposited it beside the discarded drawing pad, carefully approaching her.

“Why do you allow this one weakness to torment you so, Mistress Sarah?” she asked sympathetically. “You have many strengths and talents. If it is a further talent in the arts you desire we could try music, just you and me; no one else need know. If it would please you, I can teach you to sing.”

Sarah sat back up and regarded the large charcoal smudge of feathers and beak that she couldn’t draw correctly if her life depended on it.

“I guess you could say this is a matter of personal pride; it’s just something I need to be able to do.”

Sofi flapped once and lightly hopped onto her shoulder. “But pride also has no purpose or meaning, mistress; it accomplishes nothing.”

Sarah sighed. Sofi was genuinely trying to console her in spite of the fact that she didn’t even understand what was wrong and thought Sarah was being stupid – bless her weird little avian heart – but could she actually trust her with this? Sarah looked down and picked up a fallen blossom from the grassy carpet, playing with it idly. “If I tell you what this is really about will you promise not to relay the information back to Mandor?” she asked very quietly.

The raven had the nerve to gasp in shock as if scandalized by the idea. “Why, mistress! What would ever-”

“There was no way he could’ve possibly known what my favorite fruit is from this shadow; he never comes here himself and he can only pick thoughts from my head close-range that I’m actively thinking at the time,” Sarah answered levelly. “I know you tell him things about me.”

Sofi hesitated a moment before responding. “I cannot deny that periodically he comes here while you are absent and asks me certain questions, but I am not a recording service; I do not repeat all that we converse in private, for this was part of my predetermined function in serving you. I cannot make such an open-ended promise of secrecy without first knowing the subject matter,” she lightly preened Sarah, making her smirk, “but perhaps you’d best tell me anyway – it might make you feel better just to say it aloud. I will not immediately pass judgment on you, if that is what you fear.”

No, actually what I’m afraid of is Mandor catching wind of this, Sarah thought. Sofi probably wasn’t the most reliable confidante but in all seriousness, who else did she have? She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, hoping against hope nothing else was listening too closely, either. “I’m trying to get good enough to be able to draw a trump of a specific shadow-place from memory.” She opened her eyes and glanced over at the raven on her shoulder; she showed no obvious emotional response but then again it was difficult to display any emotions with a corvine face.

“You are attempting to leave us, then?” The simple statement held a surprising level of emotional pain.

“No, I’m not running out on you, Sofi,” Sarah reassured her, gently stroking her feathers. “Eventually I will have to go back home, though. I promise I’ll give you plenty of warning before it’s time. I’ll miss you, too, but somehow I don’t think you’d ever be truly happy in Order.”

“You are most likely correct, mistress,” Sofi replied, sounding herself once more. “At any rate I doubt my master would allow me so permanent a state of leave. Still, for your own sake I must strongly council against what you intend to do; surely you have been taught the extreme danger involved should the device fail.”

“Oh, don’t worry, that’s been drilled into me pretty thoroughly,” Sarah rolled her eyes. “I have no plans of trying to walk through the thing. I just want… need… to talk to someone, about…something.”

“I see,” Sofi said quietly, hopping back off her shoulder onto the lawn.

“It’s not like that!” Sarah protested, “It’s just that… well… to the best of my knowledge Mandor owns you somehow, and while I really do enjoy talking and spending time with you, I think I’m going to need an outside, unaffiliated third-party opinion for this. I’d been meaning to try this for ages anyway, but…” Sarah just shook her head, looking away.

Sofi wandered back over. “I give you my word I will not give my master reason to ask – it is the best I can manage – but may I inquire as to what spurs this desperate, covert course of action?”

Sarah looked the raven right in her red eye. “There’s something very strange going on here – it’s a vague feeling, I guess you could call it animal instinct. I sense that something big is starting to change, something fundamental and sweeping. The fact that I can’t figure it out at all is beginning to concern me a little; I clearly can’t do this alone. And I’ve got a very pragmatic friend just this side of the Divide who might have enough secondhand experience with magic and mind-games to be able to see my situation for what it truly is, if it’s anything. I get the feeling it would be the apex of foolishness to ask either Mandor or Lord Suhuy. Thinking back…” she closed her eyes, furrowing her brow in concentration, “for some reason – it doesn’t make any sense – but I have a faint, lingering impression that I’ve asked Mandor already. But I don’t actually remember doing it.” She opened her eyes again, looking straight at Sofi. “I know I did! Do you see why I have to at least try? I know they’re doing their best to help me - that they’re both doing what they think is best – but there’s a subtle part to this equation that I simply cannot see and I’m afraid it may be crucial that I can. My gut is just railing against this feeling and has been for ages. It might even be that the Logrus is trying to warp me to fit Herself better; She tried something similar early on when I first got here. Or maybe I’m just going stir-crazy in the total absence of other member of my species, I don’t really know. What do you think?”

The raven bowed her head, gravely pondering the presented conundrum. “Perhaps there is some slight wisdom in what you seek to accomplish; the Id is at times more trustworthy than the Ego, and it is good that you allow yours input without mastery.” She looked back up. “On the other wing, you are being actively trained to live as an agent of Chaos deep in enemy territory – indeed your home Shadow – and I know not what is technically necessary to accomplish this end, either. I understand well that this is no doubt a biased sentiment colored by my own experience and inbred loyalty – precisely why you wish to seek council elsewhere – but before you attempt anything rash I would impart this one thought: please do not fear my master. Remember that he speaks to me of you, also. He genuinely wishes you well and desires you to be not only high-functioning in the Logrus but happy. You may not always fully understand everything that he does on your behalf, but I truly believe you to be safe under his wing. All right?”

Sarah nodded with a small smile, looking down at the grass; really, she couldn’t have expected much else, all considering. Still it was vaguely reassuring to hear. She also deftly caught the line of conversation that Sofi had carefully eschewed following: Lord Suhuy might be the less trustworthy of the pair. That one Sarah could actually see: he was at least three times Mandor’s age, much more powerful both in the Courts and in the Logrus, capable of far more subtle forms of magic. In fact, she had all but been warned to watch herself around him by none other than Mandor himself at the very outset; so much had happened since then that she had nearly forgotten all about it. She would have to pay much closer attention to see if anything happened differently depending on who was in the room.

“I shall refrain from asking you to divulge the location you have in mind, but is the view you must capture a natural vista or something more artificial, something architectural perhaps?”

“A long wall – straight, no crenellation, but with obelisks and half-moon divots every few feet; some slight foliage in front and then a lot of built-up structures farther back. Why?”

Sofi began to pace. “I believe your reliance on tracing implements should not hinder you in this as long as your concentration remains uniform, but I am no expert. Forget the grand distant horizon,” she glanced up at Sarah with a conspiratorial glint in her eye. “The wall should be enough if you render it well thus.”

Sarah could’ve hugged her – it was so stupidly obvious! She had been so fixated on that grandiose vista Jareth had bowled her over with initially – the turrets on the Castle Beyond the Goblin City gleaming in the rising sun over the insane complex of the… Fixed Logrus – that she had entirely overlooked just how easy this could really be! Just a length of the outer wall, some scribbled-on thin climbing flowers, maybe the small brackish square pool, make sure she got the coloring right… it might actually work! She would have to do a few mock-ups first to get the size, the composition right.

Sarah had the sense (and the conscience) not to involve the bird any further than she already had and only worked on the project in the privacy of her apartment in the late evenings after her homework was finished, when she was less likely to be interrupted. After three rough sketches, she finally decided on a long-across portrayal rather than tall and thin like the usual trumps and, mustering her nerve, set a tentative date for the attempt - a night Mandor had told her in advance he would not be in attendance for dinner, having been invited to a private party of sorts (which usually meant that she wouldn’t see him until the following ‘morning’.)

Drawing a functional trump was enough of a challenge for an initiate of the true Logrus (or, indeed, the Pattern, where the idea had technically originated – this was the only occult art form that had come to them from the other side; all else of magic Amber ultimately derived from Chaos through Dworkin Barimen) although an old adept like Suhuy could churn out a good one in as little as half-an-hour. In theory, one could be created in any medium – even engraving – but for whatever reason the only ones that remained permanently active had to be painstakingly painted true-to-life. The others could mostly be reused but only for a handful of times by retracing the lines before they stopped responding. Really rough ones might only work once at the time of their immediate creation, and regardless of the quality they had to be completely rendered in one continuous sitting – hence the reason Sarah wanted to ensure that she had plenty of time to work. As little as a single interruption in concentration would ruin it and the averaged time of completion ran a couple hours at least, sometimes longer.

The reason behind this immense level of conscious effort was at once both simple and very, very difficult: each image had to have one of the Powers – the Logrus or the Pattern – carefully inscribed through it to render it functional. The process was allegedly slightly easier to execute using the Pattern since It was a simple, unchanging form, literally burned into the memory of all who walked It. Conversely, drawing one with the Logrus meant that every last line had to be thought of as one of those long, thin tentacles of filament, reaching throughout the entire tableau from a predetermined off-center nexus. The practice was as much a form of ritual meditation as it was an art. Among other more basic concerns of technical ability, for Sarah there was also the inherent danger of the Fixed Logrus - ‘fixed’ stationary filaments that might not only get stuck in place but become sticky like a web – forming a series of completely random built-in traps that the user had to studiously avoid like the plague even if the trump was decently executed otherwise. Sarah hoped that the true Logrus – that black alien amused presence she still felt in the back of her mind – wouldn’t look too unkindly on her gangly effort and would deign to let it work sufficiently at least the once.

Gathering all the materials she could possibly need – including a tall glass of water – Sarah sat down at her worktable; she had tried using it tilted during the sketch phase but quickly decided it was easier for her to work with it flat. Mandor was safely out of the way for the night. Her homework was done. She had all the time in the world to get this right. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes, stilling her mind, then summoned forth her memory of the outer wall of the Labyrinth, still slightly in the shade because the sun was just coming up warm on her face – oh, the sun! How long it had been since she’d seen it in truth and not just as a clever radiationless fabrication; her skin had grown very pale in its absence. She opened her eyes and carefully began to draw the base line of the wall with the aid of a thin metal ruler when something started swirling in the very upper corner of her right eye. She looked up at the source and sighed, irritated at being distracted so quickly.

While she had to concede that the large op-art painting in her ‘sitting room’ was a fun way to let her mind drift in the absence of television, its presence was obviously going to prove a nuisance here. But what to do about it? She had no idea how it was mounted and wasn’t about to try to move it herself; it was probably very heavy. Perhaps she could drape something over it for the time being. Rummaging through her closet, Sarah found one of her long black skirts that actually had enough fabric that it might just cover it if she spread it out all the way. Coming back into the main room, she carefully tucked the edges over the top of the painting lengthwise: it was barely long enough but it didn’t look as if it would immediately fall off – good.

Sitting back down, she turned the page to a clean sheet and went through the whole process of starting again. She had made a paper stencil shaped like the obelisks and had her compass set at the precise radius for those half-moon divots; all had been carefully measured to precision in the planning stage. Graded shades of tan, stone gray and khaki slowly began to flow across the heavy-weight paper from right-to-left, the heart of the Logrus concealed in a single while flower blossom on a creeper halfway up the wall in the right-hand corner. Sarah could feel definite resistance at points – the ‘fixed’ parts – and at moments had actual physical trouble just propelling the pencils forward, but she willed her way through them, carefully taking note of where the dangerous areas were. The image was gradually changing, morphing – she could feel it, feel the clean crisp air, smell the dried vegetation. The green pencil nearly seemed to have a mind of its own as the rest of the creepers organically scaled those ancient walls, her speed quickening. The Logrus filaments bent, curved, snaked about each other, shot off in sudden straight lines, beginning to bridge the immense void; two-thirds complete now. On an instinctual impulse she commenced simple shading about the obelisks, finding the task remarkably easy now. The depth perception angling of the square pool was simplicity itself, with pointillistic dots of slightly darker color playing through the alkaline sand –

There was a sudden knock at the door, sharply jarring Sarah out of her reverie.

“Sarah? I know it’s late but are you still decent?”

It was Mandor! There was no time! Sarah hurriedly turned the drawing pad to a different sketch she had attempted a few days ago.

“Yes.” It took considerable effort not to sound disappointed or angry – she’d been so close! Who knew if she could ever do that again? At least she wasn’t having the more severe reaction to the Logrus-working this time. “Come on in,” she said, getting up.

Her guardian opened the door by magic – his hands were full of a large parcel, a box wrapped in colorful paper. The door closed behind him of its own accord. He appeared to be in high spirits and was still dressed resplendently to the nines from wherever he’d been – his normal mode of dress, really (a modernist hybrid of an 18th century formal), just finer fabric and more ornamentation.

“If you could just clear off part of the coffee table for me…”

Sarah quickly complied; whatever it was he had brought in looked more than a little heavy. He carefully set it down, stretching his arms as he sat down on the couch, making himself at home. And suddenly noticed that the painting was covered.

“Was the illusion finally beginning to get too mesmerizing?” he asked a bit sadly. “I can remove it if you wish.”

It was so tempting just to play along at this point but Sarah knew he would quickly figure out that she was lying.

“It was just a little distracting while I was trying to work,” she admitted in all honesty, carefully removing the skirt draped over it, putting it back in her bedroom; at the very least she wasn’t going to have time for a second attempt tonight. “How was the party?” she asked from the other room, quickly trying to change the subject.

Mandor smirked at both courses of action.

As she came back into the room she was just in time to see the end of a Logrus portal: Mandor had a length of thick black cloth in his arms – the same silk velvet as his jacket, actually – which he draped over the arm of the couch.

“So you don’t have to raid your wardrobe in the future,” he gave a small conspiratory smile. “Lady Chanicut is bitter as ever about losing her son during the last wave of succession assassinations but is still in fine health herself; it was a relatively small company for a change. There are certain times I sincerely wish my father was yet living for the sole sake of taking the brunt of being the titular head of Sawall; it’s a nuisance having to put up with certain empty-headed daughters of noblemen with political aspirations, hell-bent on wedding their way higher up the ladder regardless of who they have to latch onto in order to accomplish the feat,” he said, sounding tired. Then quirked a smirk. “But the old game still has a little entertainment value – and we come off rather well-represented. How about you? Have you found some form of amusement this evening?”

Sarah made the terrible mistake of hesitating – and he spotted her drawing pad on the little worktable. Again. He sighed.

“Do us all a favor and pick a different hobby, Sarah; that one has never suited you well. I truly sympathize with your frustration over this, but there comes a time to stop beating one’s head against the proverbial solid wall. Aren’t you even just a little curious as to what I’ve brought you?” his expression lightened as he sat forward, offering her a small pocketknife to open the parcel with.

Sarah had received much from the Chaos Lord’s generosity but relatively few items had overtly been gifts. Taking the knife, she walked around the table and sat down beside him on the small sofa, proceeding to slash through the wrapping paper and the flimsy paperboard box. At first glance at its contents, she could scarcely believe her eyes.

“Is this what I think it is?”

“Probably not entirely as you remember it; strictly mechanical electronic devices simply don’t function out here.” Mandor reached over and turned it on; symphonic music after a fashion began to pour out of the side speakers. “It has no onboard mechanism for playing recorded music, but the tuner is actually linked to a strand of the true Logrus, so chances of you being able to locate a specific style of music are very good. The device also contains a tiny gremlin to keep its more physical components working properly. I have never really been in the habit of listening to music that is not performed live – go ahead, call me old-fashioned – but this was given to me by Merlin many years ago and I just recalled at the party that I had it and I just worked it back up to operational level again tonight; the spells hung on it had gotten too old and needed some adjusting, but the fix should last for a long time. It’s yours if you want it.”

Sarah really didn’t know what to say; now she almost felt a little guilty about going behind his back for a completely new reason. That he’d chosen to come home very early when he hadn’t had to, thinking of her alone and in silence and wanting to help…it almost made her a little misty. She leaned over and hugged him.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

He briefly returned it; when he pulled back to look at her his expression was that enigmatic satisfaction again.

“That was all – I won’t keep you up late. Lord Suhuy is planning on taking you for another set of excursions in the coming days and from what he’s told me, you’ll need to be well-rested,” he got back up and walked over to the door. “Until morning,” he said without even looking back, opening it.


He glanced over his shoulder. “Yes?”

“…thanks. For everything.”

His response was only a teasing lip-smile. “You can thank me by not toying with that contraption all night. Get some sleep.”

And then he was gone.

Sarah exhaled, turning the device back off. It was a small boombox of sorts, albeit one that seemed to only operate via a kind of radio transmission. That alone brought back vivid memories – of them driving through that red desert, mostly hearing radio fuzz and then the few transient alien stations that quickly came and went. He genuinely had peaked her curiosity just now about what could be received here at the edge of existence but it could wait until morning.

And then a very peculiar off-kilter idea suddenly hit her and it was so compelling she just couldn’t shake it: had he talked to Sofi recently? As in, right before he came here? The possible implications were staggering. If he had, she clearly hadn’t mentioned the trump business, but had she mentioned music as a possible distraction? It would certainly explain why he had only remembered the device ‘just now’ after all these months. Perhaps not an entirely altruistic gift, then. Which would also neatly explain his relatively blasé reaction to her rather emotional one; it was not an emotionally motivated choice at all on his behalf.

Sarah leaned back on the couch, closing her eyes, as the truth sank in. That staging had been absolutely flawless, completely taking her in, engaging her on a very personal level. Viewed this way in retrospect, it was almost the tiniest but scary that he could… well, perhaps ‘manipulate’ was too strong a word… so thoroughly understand how she operated, what made her tick, what she wanted, that he could play right into it. She opened her eyes again and glanced over at the abandoned drawing tablet with the half-finished defunct trump hidden inside; she needed to burn the roughs before they were discovered. His tack had certainly worked this time; she had nearly forgotten that thing - even in spite of her anger at being interrupted - in under five minutes flat!

It had been such a comfortingly nice delusion, though, she reflected sadly, one that had been thoughtfully crafted for the maximum joy of the recipient. He wants you to be happy, Sofi’s words echoed in her memory. Quite a lot of the things that he did for her – both real and illusory - were technically totally unnecessary. Perhaps in his own way he did.

But to what end purpose? If there was ever a time she needed to talk to Hoggle, this was it. That hapless dwarf had been dealing with the Goblin King for goodness knows how long; if anyone understood how to deal with convoluted psychology, it was him.

Which meant that she needed to reschedule the trump attempt. But when? It had been uncanny how Mandor had just shown up unannounced like that. It almost looked like he had been warned somehow without any further information to go on. Was that even possible? Would it ever be safe to try? She honestly didn’t know. Clearly it was time to fall back and regroup.

The following days brought many lengthy excursions with Lord Suhuy into shadows he had constructed himself – mental, emotional, and psychological obstacle courses, as it were.

“In the choosing of one Power, you must be prepared to deal with the displeasure of the Other,” he had told her, explaining that while any outcomes that affected these environments and their tentatively conscious inhabitants didn’t matter at all in the cosmic sense, her practice in dealing with them in a large variety of ways would immensely advance her abilities as a functional Logrus initiate. She had ceased worrying about what was ‘real’ ages ago but these pocket universes felt particularly artificial. In fact, it felt rather like a virtual reality action/adventure videogame: she altered landscapes, shifted to nearby shadows, covertly listened in on people, even practiced self-defense and single-handedly managed to dispatch a couple faux manticora (which felt really, really gratifying.) Invisibility still gave her trouble but she could manage an almost chameleonic effect to blend into her surroundings using the cloaking spell she already knew.

But the most notable change that was happening was so subtle she didn’t even consciously notice it: the ‘positive’ aspects of the Chaosian paradigm were gradually being reinforced in her psyche, to the point that certain nuances native to Order were actually starting to annoy her a little. Mutability was good; the flow and progressions were beginning to feel slightly more natural. Even the cold amusement of the Logrus Herself had ceased to bother her; the impersonal imperfection of this particular ‘higher power’ had become oddly comforting in a way she wouldn’t ever openly admit to, although she was fairly certain that at least Suhuy suspected as much, for he kept adding more arcane challenges to the shadows. Her personal reactions to the nuts-and-bolts use of the Logrus power still varied but she was gradually getting better at psychologically coping with some of the lesser side-effects, and some of her general abilities were finally showing slight improvements here and there.

The upshot of all of this, however, was that she was busier than ever; the previous relative lull in her workload almost looked like summer vacation by comparison. There was simply no time to even toy with the idea of the trump now; she was carefully being kept well occupied. Regardless of the initial motive behind the ‘gift’, the boombox was a welcome distraction at this point; Sarah had nearly forgotten how much she had missed listening to music, especially while she was working on her homework. It took nearly two weeks for her to finally notice, though: she just happened to be up getting a book from the coffee table and was just in time to see a tiny green gremlin about the size of a mouse climb out of the back control panel, silently do an odd little ‘rain-dance’ for a few seconds, then climb back inside, quietly clicking the panel compartment closed behind it! It was weird, disturbing, and bizarrely cute all at the same time! She briefly wondered what it was living on in there but decided she’d rather not know. She was careful not to leave the device on longer than an hour or two at a time afterward; whatever it was doing in there, she didn’t want to needlessly exhaust the little creature. Nevertheless, she completely failed to notice that the act of anything performing such concentrated labor for something so trivial didn’t even faze her now – the idea alone had once been highly repugnant to her.

Once of an early evening she was reading a novel in the library, seated at her place at the long table, awaiting Mandor’s regular appearance (he was due with dinner any time now), only to see him burst into the room in an obvious hurry, dressed in a high fashion she had never seen him in before: a long regency-style dinner jacket in a lavish royal-blue-and-black damask – Sawall colors! – with diamond-encrusted buttons, cufflinks, and an elaborately jeweled neckpin in the silk cravat. The ensemble was almost eerily familiar…

Mandor caught her expression with a note of amusement upon reaching her. “The blue over-accentuates my white hair, makes me look older, right? I’ve heard that before,” he lightly teased; she was still staring.

Sarah blinked. “No, not at all! I’m just not used to seeing you wear any color.” She gave him a quick once-over. “Looks good on you, actually. What’s the occasion?”

Dinner for one instantly appeared before her on the table: a kind of herb-crusted fish tonight with a spicy vegetable mélange that was like a cross between a ‘salad’ and a chutney, butter rolls on the side, even a thin slice of a berry-truffle torte for dessert. In spite of the lavish evasive maneuver, she well-noted that he had done it at that precise moment to deliberately break eye contact.

“An extremely important foreign ambassador has unexpectedly arrived early – they have traveled a considerable distance just to be here – and I will be very busy tonight. In fact, I will be incommunicado; in the event of an emergency you will have to try to contact Lord Suhuy.” He glanced her way again, his expression a little more calm and collected now. “You’ll have to find something quiet to amuse yourself this evening – I will be entertaining them at Mandorways, and even though these walls are solid they’re still relatively thin. My guest cannot be made aware of your presence but I should have no trouble in keeping them out of the library. I shall see you at breakfast tomorrow.” He looked up a moment in thought. “No, better make that a late lunch.” A covered tray appeared behind her dinner dishes. “Don’t even lift the lid to peek until you are ready to eat it in the morning; keeping it closed will not only keep the contents fresh but at the correct temperatures,” he said, commencing the long walk back to the front door with no further explanation. Sarah followed after him, genuinely intrigued.

“Do I still have classes tomorrow, then?”

“Yes, of course,” he answered her a bit abruptly; he had just quietly murmured ‘am I forgetting anything?’ to himself only a moment before.

Sarah had never seen him so distracted. Something terribly important had to be going down to rattle his usually flawless demeanor like this!

“Mandor, what’s going on?” she asked him bluntly just as he went to open the door.

He stopped and slowly looked over his shoulder.

“In your vernacular? I have a hot date,” he grinned crookedly, unable to further conceal the devilish spark of delight in his alien eyes. “Be good,” he winked at her, “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

And with that he darted out the door so fast that even if Sarah hadn’t been stunned silent she still wouldn’t have had time to say ‘goodnight’!

She just stood there for a couple seconds, eyes wide – then spontaneously burst into laughter, her hands covering her mouth as she did her best to stifle the sound. As the initial shock wore off, several emotions hit her at once; thankfully jealousy was not among them. At least not that kind. But still…

Of all the crazy stunts, she thought, shaking her head with a smile, still quietly chuckling to herself at the memory of seeing him so flustered like that, as she walked back over to the table and her meal.

And suddenly some synapse of her brain remembered from biology class that native Chaosians sometimes involuntarily morphed into their power-forms during intimacy, and the unbidden mental image of that gigantic silver gorilla with extra appendages having sweaty jungle times with only powers-knew-what – probably a female that more resembled Godzilla – suddenly occurred to her and she did a full-body-shiver, her face beet-red! Okay, now there’s a visual I’m never going to be ready to deal with, she thought, falling into her chair at the table. “There went my appetite,” she said to no one with a sigh, pushing back her plate.

But, really, she should’ve known by now from experience that that final sentiment wasn’t going to stick in the wake of Mandor’s impeccable cuisine; in spite of her current revulsion the scent alone was enough to tempt her fork. Dinner was fabulous as ever and he had her portion preferences and nutritional needs down to a science. The meal was nearly enough of a sensory distraction that she didn’t think of much else until she was carefully scraping the last fudgy crumbs of torte off of her dessert place.

And then the implications of her current situation finally hit her with full force and she tore off to her own apartment! She had not only sufficient time but guaranteed privacy! She seriously doubted that he would be monitoring her in any manner at all if he was about to be that distracted! Her hands almost shaking from the excitement, Sarah rushed to get out her drawing supplies and covered the painting with the makeshift black curtain he had ironically provided, rapidly setting up, sitting down at her workspace. She had even had the foresight to make sure her deck of perfect trumps was on her person in case of an emergency. She had just focused her thoughts and commenced drawing the preliminary wall lines when suddenly she got the weird feeling of being watched – not remotely, but right here – and she turned around…

There was no one else in the room. It was impossible. She was totally alone.

It was then that she spotted two tiny mouse-like black eyes peering at her through the right speaker of the boombox; they vanished just a split-second later.

And that explains the rest of it, she thought a bit irritatedly as she packed up her supplies – her eyes never leaving the infernal device and its inhabitant – and moved the whole operation to her bedroom where she would have a little more privacy…

Then thought better of it and headed to the bathroom, telling her vanity bench to blockade the door after her and to knock against it if it sensed anything coming. Closing and locking it, she heard the piece of furniture scoot into position. Now, then…

The tiled bathroom floor wasn’t exactly comfortable and she had never tried to draw anything in here but she really didn’t have much of a choice. There was a first time for everything. Kneeling on a small black rug on the white tiles, she got to work. The basic composition came together relatively quickly this time; that many preliminary studies had obviously been more helpful than she had realized. The muted earth-tones gradually flowed across the piece, then the shading, then the details of the masonry, individual stalks of plant material added with a natural spontaneity. She lost all track of time – all that mattered was the lines, the colors, and that which underlay them. There were still difficult sections but markedly less of them this time. Sarah’s heart rate had increased; it was suddenly a physical struggle toward the end. For one terrifying moment her drawing arm was literally frozen in place but she mentally used a few functional Logrus tentacles to free herself…

… There! Just a few more quick brushes, a handful of the meaningless little details that make up a world-

She suddenly stopped. It was complete; she just instinctively knew. She put down the pencil in her hand and touched the paper – it was trump cold! Tearing the sheet off the main tablet, she lifted the drawing to eyelevel and focused. It took more concentration to activate than the trumps she was used to dealing with by now, but after several minutes she saw the dried grasses faintly stir in a gentle breeze, the image suddenly going live. Tiny fairies flitted by.

The feeling of the physical presence of that particular iteration of the Logrus was simply overwhelming now that she was attuned and could readily identify it; before, it had only been a vague sense of constant foreboding, which she had written off as the natural emotion one experiences when one enters a mythical being’s private sadistic playground. That Fixed Logrus was regarding her as well with a dark interest. Doing her best to ignore Her, she called out quietly, as loudly as she dared under the circumstances.

“Hoggle? Hoggle, are you there? It’s me, Sarah!” she called in English. “I swear this isn’t a trick, please don’t be afraid! If you can hear my voice, just walk over by the square pool and look up – you should be able to see me.”

Nothing. She waited about thirty seconds, starting to feel the exertion from keeping the portal open like this. She would try again.

“Hoggle?” she called a little more tentatively.

To her abject shock and surprise, a human-sized black-gloved hand shot straight through the drawing, grabbed her tightly by the forearm and bodily hauled her through the trump!

The piece of paper deactivated as it floated to the cold tile floor…
(Incidental music: Trash80, 'Impact of Silence')
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