Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Labyrinth of Chaos

The Sword Cuts Itself

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

discoveries, paranoia, mutiny

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Fantasy - Published: 2017-05-29 - 20369 words - Complete

Chapter 8 – The Sword Cuts Itself

“Well, well, well, look what the raptor dragged in.”

Sarah registered the familiarity of the cultured male voice as the shock of being forcibly hauled through into a drastically different dimension wore off, and with a start she suddenly realized what had actually just happened. And who was addressing her…

“Sorry, wrong number,” she managed to answer the Goblin King coolly without her voice shaking as she went to retrieve her deck of trumps from her pouch, wrenching her right arm free of his grasp. It would be a heck of a jump to get back but maybe she could make it if she leap-frogged through a couple of other shadows first.

“Excuse me, what did you just say?”

It was not until this very moment that Sarah finally noticed that he had been speaking to her in English – and she had been replying in High Chaosian Thari! It took her a moment to find the correct words; her native tongue felt almost a bit foreign from total absence of use.

“I said I hadn’t meant to come through like this, your Majesty,” she practically threw the title at him, “I was just trying to contact-”

“Hogsbreath?” he rudely interrupted. “Yes, I know, I heard your inept calling just now. I had him…relocated further in so he has fewer opportunities to be a nuisance. I do not tolerate unwanted parties infringing in any way, shape or form on my private domain,” he uttered darkly. Then took a deliberate step back, brazenly raked her form with his eyes, and gave a scoff of a laugh. “I see they wasted no time in recruiting you,” he taunted her in flawless Chaosian Thari, “the House of Hendrake, correct? Trying to make you over into a little hellmaid, are they? I seriously doubt that even you are athletic enough to make that cut.”

The sound of the language, familiar as it was to her ears by now, coming from that golden throat nearly left Sarah’s brain in a lurch! She quickly recovered herself though, the leather pouch of cards now in hand, giving her confidence.

“Nope – Sawall,” she continued in English, not certain of the depth of his vocabulary in Thari. “Not that it’s any of your business,” she muttered, doing her best to ignore him as she rapidly picked out a trump of one of the practice shadows she was allowed to go to and began to concentrate…

Both of her hands were suddenly empty – the trumps were gone!

“Mandor,” he growled out of gritted teeth.

“Hey! You don’t want me here, I don’t want me here - give those back! I was trying to leave-”

“Not so fast,” he calmly countered, looking almost amused.

He really was an arrogant bastard, Sarah reflected as he began to stalk around her, examining her much more closely than she was comfortable with, as if he was actually looking for something. She suddenly wondered how her Logrus power would react with its originator so close-by - literally just on the other side of the wall not ten feet away - then thought better of it, remembering Mandor’s warning about Jareth’s extreme level of power on his home turf. Besides, the jerk had just lifted her entire trump deck; she had to get it back and she had the distinct sinking feeling that that might never happen at all if she truly succeeded in pissing him off.

The Goblin King suddenly stopped in his tracks and lifted her left hand for inspection; she swiftly pulled it out of his grasp but not before his peculiar eyes lit up at what he saw there. He chuckled low in his register and his knowing expression made her decidedly uneasy.

“So, the old devil’s gotten his claws into you already,” he quipped. “And you still defend him.” He just shook his head with a cold, sharp smile.

“What exactly are you implying?” Sarah crossed her arms. She wasn’t sure what game Jareth was playing at but she didn’t care for it at all.

“Have you ever even tried to take off that ring your precious benefactor has seen fit to bestow upon you?”

“No, of course not! I’m wearing it for a reason!”

“You’re wearing it because it’s a tracking device,” he answered flatly with a note of honesty, “and I for one would be extremely surprised if that’s all it’s doing. Try and remove it.”

“Oh, yeah, right, so you can steal this, too!”

“I swear I don’t want it, Sarah.” He was deadly serious, all teasing gone. “Just humor me.”

For one moment Sarah’s confidence faltered – oh, this was insane! But if a test was what it would take to satisfy Jareth’s petty paranoid queries so she could get on down the road… She went to take hold of the ring, but as she did so feelings of warmth and security took her brain by storm…

And it suddenly dawned on her that she couldn’t even touch it! Before the shock fully registered, Jareth stepped forward, grabbed her hand and gingerly yanked the thing off himself!

The change was as drastic as it was immediate: the full psychological and emotional brunt of everything that had been happening to her, everything she had been subjected to over the past few months, just popped up to the surface and she instantly screamed in abject terror, her knees nearly buckling as her body threatened to collapse. Jareth looked thoroughly disgusted as he roughly forced the ring back on over the knuckle.

“Ow!” Sarah protested. And noted that she was now eerily calm and happy once more. “Oh my gosh,” she breathed, wide-eyed, covering her mouth with her hands.

The Goblin King nodded grimly with a slight smirk. “You certainly aren’t the first person he’s tricked into servitude in this manner and it’s highly unlikely that you will be the last. I just wanted you to see that, to know,” he held out her trump deck for her; she cautiously took it from him. The set of magical artifacts made her unaccountably nervous now. She glanced up at him, her eyes full of questions.

His teasing expression returned. “Let me give you one free piece of advice, little girl: trust no one. Present company excluded, of course,” he smiled sardonically, elegantly gesturing to himself. He suddenly stopped as if remembering something, his bright eyebrows raised in slight surprise. “Actually, I take that back – come to think of it, there is one idealistic fool out on your end of the spectrum who might be worth trusting if you can ever manage to get him on your side, a regular knight-in-shining-armor type,” he uttered as if the very notion made him sick; he proceeded to follow this statement with a few rudely immature gagging gestures and accompanying sound effects.

Sarah rolled her eyes; considering some of the obstacles she had seen that appeared to be his level of ‘taste’, the behavior really wasn’t that surprising. “And who exactly would this be?” she asked, as if the information couldn’t mean less to her, hands on her hips. It couldn’t hurt her to have a few decent contacts. She had often rued the fact that she knew virtually no one out here; maybe there was the vague chance that this interview wasn’t going to be so pointless after all.

Jareth hesitated and smiled again, more serious this time. “Lesson #2: good information is always intrinsically valuable,” he subconsciously fidgeted with a glove. “If I divulge this, I will be in an ideal position to ask for something from you that I desire,” he purred menacingly, advancing on her.

Sarah could just barely manage to keep thinking and hold her ground. “If you actually think I’m going to sleep with you just to get somebody’s name, you’re crazier than I thought!”

He suddenly barked a sharp little laugh. “Why would I ever want a snotty little snip of a girl like you for a bed-partner? Dream on, child.” He strode right on past her as she gaped – it was totally nuts, but she felt insulted! “No, I’m afraid what I would require of you is far more valuable than a mere fleeting joyride, and as unbelievable as it is to me, you are in all likelihood the only person in the worlds who might even consider helping me.” He gave a deep sigh, suddenly sounding very tired. Very old. “I’ve come to loathe this shadow, what little of it there is. I’ve become the bloody genie of the lamp!” he suddenly exclaimed, making her jump slightly. “What good is all the power in the world when I can’t even go anywhere to use it? I was better off before! I long to roam Shadow with my so-called ‘betters’ - I’ve earned the right a million times over, damn it! No son of Chaos has ever walked any version of the Logrus as I have, as I do - continuously – without ever reaping the true benefit!”

There was a distinct note of real desperation in his voice. Sarah turned to look at him; his eyes were wild.

“I’ll be trapped here in his hell forever without someone’s help,” he hoarsely whispered. “No matter how it appears on the surface, we’re both prisoners, Sarah. The personage in question has the power to free us!”

Sarah considered him very cautiously, feeling much more rational again, thanks to the ring. She had to warily admit that until he had just now pointed it out to her she had actually forgotten that she was even wearing the thing, but…

“So far all you’ve really proven is that I’ll probably suffer a nervous breakdown in the absence of a piece of magically charged jewelry,” she answered him carefully – and suddenly remembered her brooch still sitting on her nightstand and nearly slapped herself for not wearing it! Oh well, two out of three, she thought, still grasping the smooth black leather of the card pouch. “If you want me to actually believe you – not that I don’t entirely – I’m going to need more concrete information to go on. Let’s say I hypothetically buy this idea that you’re trying to sell me. How would it even work? Surely the Fixed Logrus that’s literally sitting within earshot of your deprecations is going to fight you on this one,” she glanced momentarily at the wall.

Jareth smiled bitterly, crossing his arms. “Cruel but very true, child. And the Pattern of Amber wouldn’t dare to manifest here, let alone work via proxy; the very ground we’re standing upon is an anathema to it. However, there is a third option, one I doubt you have even been told of: the Second Pattern, an island of Order deep in the fields of Chaos, drawn relatively recently by a Prince of Amber in a time of great cosmic reckoning, albeit prematurely and out of panic. Neither Power knows what to do with it; it stands in opposition to both! It is enough like the True Pattern that it reviles the Logrus – the black coils of the Serpent have already tried to shake its foundations once and failed – and the True Pattern views it as a direct rival to its own supremacy of Order and also wishes to undo it. The prince is gone, vanished – most likely lost in the new universes of his own creation – but the Second Pattern itself has generated an artifact of him, a sort of a ghost – you have heard of these?” he interrupted himself.

Sarah nodded, all ears. She had learned that both of the true Powers were capable of creating temporary point-in-time copies of anyone who had ever traversed them – all their experiences, memories, and abilities at the time of trial manifested in the physical world with a believable semblance of a solid body. They were an affront to reality.
Or, rather, they were part of a still deeper version that she had a terrible time wrapping her mind around and usually just tried not to think about.

“Initially it was formed to guard the Second Pattern against outside threats,” the king continued his narrative, “but according to my sources he no longer there. In fact, he may be in a bit of trouble himself and would be…shall we say, grateful to any who would assist him. On my own I cannot. His original, while almost virtuous for the House of Amber, would never trust any shadow-being even vaguely in league with Chaos, but his ghost might be more inclined to be sympathetic to your cause, if not mine. And, by virtue of what he is, he has a direct link back to that Pattern. If I could walk it successfully, the Logrus could no longer hold me here. I would be free! But in this matter I cannot act directly for myself. It would be in your hands to tell him of me, that I told you to rescue him. You do so enjoy being the hero, Sarah,” he smirked.

Sarah just stared at him. “In exchange for the same.”

“Well, yes, that was the general idea.”

Sarah was still extremely dubious of the whole plan, including most of the potential results. “How do I know you’re not going to just run amuck in the outside world as soon as you’re out of here?”

Jareth shrugged. “You don’t. But considering the caliber of almighty assholes you’re casually dealing with on a daily basis, a shadow like me is the least of your problems; I can arrange to be. What do you say?” he smiled again persuasively.

Sarah eyed the sandy ground, seriously considered the matter. As far as propositions went, this one was rather sketchy at best and pretty darn risky at worst. But, as he had unknowingly reminded her, Jareth was virtually powerless outside of this shadow – a crucial fact that he was totally unaware that she knew – and she had power, a kind she could use wherever she wished. It did seem odd, now that she thought about it. Must’ve had to do with the fact that he had been something of an unwelcome, power-hungry interloper that the Logrus had felt the need to keep under Her black thumb, as it were. And who knew whether this Second Pattern he had been rambling on about would accept him at all, let alone let him survive the trial. Sarah was genuinely surprised that she found the thought mildly amusing. Definitely been living in Chaos too long, she soberly reflected. And if he became a nuisance in the meantime, she could deal with him herself. Whether he made it or not on his own crazy, self-destructive quest afterwards was technically none of her concern. Whoever this prince-guy was, she got first crack at him; Jareth could practically be an afterthought. All she had to do was mention him – and she could give the ghost plenty of warning. The information was worth it. She glanced back up at him with hardened purpose.

“Deal. Who’s the guy?”

The Goblin King formed one of his signature crystals and lightly tossed it to her; she caught it easily. “See for yourself. His name is Corwin Barimen but remember it is the fabrication you seek, not the original.”

Sarah could barely make out the man’s features it was so dark wherever he was – was that a grimy stone wall in the background? There was no window, no light source of any kind; the crystal alone had to be making this visible. The fact that the man she was looking at wasn’t real was clear enough: in spite of his seeming predicament, his features were not only clean-shaven but actually clean! He suddenly seemed to sense that he was being watched and turned to look in the direction of the scry. Sarah instantly felt sorry for him: he had distinctly mouthed the word ‘Corwin’, almost as if he thought his original was trying to communicate with him via trump. The more she thought about it, the whole thing was just too strange – how was he still alive so cut off from his progenitor power? More to the point, how did Jareth even know about any of this?! Was he really that powerful here? Granted he did appear to have nothing but time on his hands, but still…

The king took the crystal back, extinguishing it. “I’ve no idea where that was precisely, but I can tell you with certainty that the true Logrus is very close to wherever that cell is - I can feel it. I believe he is currently being held captive within the system of connected Ways of the Courts of Chaos itself, possibly standing in for his original, whom I wouldn’t dare look in on in that cavalier of a fashion.”

Sarah exhaled and nodded. “Well, it’s a long-shot, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled for him and do my best to listen around, for his sake at least if not for yours, and if I do ever run into him I’ll make sure to bring up your name and location. Is that good enough for you?”

Jareth sighed, crossing his arms again. “I suppose it will have to be.” He scrutinized her eyes for a moment with an emotion that didn’t quite wash as personal concern but could have been on anyone else, an expression that oddly reminded Sarah of Mandor. “I know you either don’t or can’t believe me – perhaps he’s already gotten too far into your head, he’s good at that – but you must know that Mandor Sawall is manipulating you to his own selfish ends with no thought for what may become of you, just as lords of Chaos and Amber have manipulated shadow-people for hundreds of thousands of years. And no matter what sweet lies he’s spoon-fed you, don’t for a moment think you’re so precious to him that he wouldn’t hesitate to dispose of you somehow if retaining you is no longer of direct benefit to him. I’m serious.”

Sarah nearly laughed at his sudden dire warning. “If you can understand the axiom, your Majesty,” she addressed him without the usual scorn, “isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black? It just strikes me as almost comically odd seeing you even vaguely concerned about me like this, especially when you are so obviously considering a similar course of action yourself.”

Jareth gave the slightest of shrugs, just a brief tilt of the head. “I can’t be better than my original, more’s the pity. At least I’m not above admitting it to your face.”

Sarah blinked – she’d never thought of that!

His wicked grin returned. “And it gives me great pleasure to be able to bring discord directly under his long, aristocratic nose if and when I can for what he’s done to me in trapping me here. In any event, you’re going to be used badly, little girl - that much is inevitable at this point – but don’t allow yourself to be used blindly. Now, you’d best run along home before your dear guardian starts wondering where his favorite little pet human has wandered off to and decides to check his end of the tracking device,” he teasingly reprimanded her.

Sarah’s eyes widened in panic: she’d completely forgotten the immense time-difference; it might be too late already! Rapidly shuffling out her trumps, she wasn’t certain she even had enough time for the graded shadow-jumps she had planned on initially. She had technically made it here in one (albeit with unwanted ‘help’) but the odds weren’t good for doing the same in reverse on her own even with the decently made trumps, but she had to try. With trepidation, she pulled out the Library trump and started to concentrate.

“Allow me,” the Goblin King placed a hand on her right shoulder, adding his immense power to the gateway; it instantly flared to life. As she ran through the portal, she heard him call out, “I don’t want to see you here ever again unless you have him in tow!” before it closed. Somehow she didn’t think he was speaking of Mandor.

Mandor! Suhuy! Shit, what time is it? Thankfully neither of them were present, but the library was awash with light, the artificial sun up and climbing – it was late morning already! At least twelve hours had passed here during that ill-fated five-minute conversation – yikes! Glad that Mandor wasn’t here to see this, Sarah wolfed down her breakfast (chiefly a fluffy Florentine omelet, but who had time to care?), raced to her room, changed her clothes, quickly spruced her toilette, and ran back out the door literally seconds before Suhuy walked into the library for her morning lessons, demon-formed! She inwardly sagged: this was going to be a really, really long day. At the very least from her body’s point-of-view the exercise would be welcome; she had just been forced to polish off two sizable meals in only three hours. It would have been too suspicious to have leftovers (there were never any) and while she was getting better at opening those small Logrus portals, she still didn’t quite have the knack for controlling where they went, which made the prospect of any sort of disposal a little too exciting for her taste. It had been bad enough having to break into her own bathroom from the outside – the door had still been locked from the previous evening!

She and her tutor set out almost immediately, not even a preliminary lesson; whatever the day’s itinerary was, it was obviously going to take a significant amount of time. Sarah had grown rather used to these sorts of daytrips by now and initially thought little of the variation but upon seeing their destination she was rather glad she’d had that extra cup of tea: it was this side of a humanoid steeplechase course! The world they had come into was yet another of Suhuy’s practice shadows, this one designed literally from the ground up to sharpen both her wits and her reaction time. Short, grey-shrouded servants handed her a full-body black unitard and thin but sturdy boots, and she was informed that this battery course would be replacing precisely half of her fencing lessons from now on, to be embarked upon first thing in the morning three days a week. As she rapidly shot through a seemingly endless variety of obstacles both physical and mental, Sarah briefly reflected that her tutoring was shifting noticeably from an esoteric Honors Society curriculum to a bizarrely cerebral basic training of sorts. By the end of the session, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised to hear Lord Suhuy tell her to drop and give him Nietzsche’s theory on the nature of the superman! After being allowed to sort of clean up (a weird, alien procedure that literally sucked the oil and sweat right off her suited-up body in seconds) she was rather surprised to learn that she had been out in the course for four linear hours; the span had felt significantly shorter, maybe twenty minutes – a positive sign that the Logrus was better assimilating into her, forcing her static form to flow, granting her unnatural speed and enhanced dexterity of body and mind. Taking on the next shadow – one they had been using regularly for some time now as a ‘real world’ danger simulator – it was clear to Suhuy that some of her personal reactions were growing steadily colder, more detached, as they had to be for her to be a successful Chaos agent.

It wasn’t until she was in her rooms changing back into her regular clothes just minutes before the promised ‘late lunch’ that Sarah belatedly remembered the screaming child – had it been injured? She had simply flown by without so much as a glance or a single thought of concern. That alone should have been frighteningly sobering and yet she was appalled to find that she was barely fazed by the brief flash of memory.

The ring. It has to be the ring. The Goblin King’s warning – dubiously biased as it undoubtedly was – quietly gnawed at the back of her mind as her stomach gnawed at her while she sat at the table glancing through a relatively easy book, awaiting Mandor. It had taken several hours but she was finally beginning to feel the fatigue of eight-hours-worth of sleep deficiency starting in about half-an-hour ago and was practically praying that he wouldn’t notice in spite of the light circles starting to form under her eyes and the fact that she had to keep stifling yawns.

Her guardian casually breezed into the room soon enough (just as soon as Suhuy had ostensibly retired to go attend to something else), as mild-mannered and genteel as ever but – to the trained eye – in just a little too good of a mood.

“Ah, Sarah!” he hailed her as he commenced crossing the room, “I sincerely hope you have not been waiting there long. I’m sorry that Lord Suhuy is intent on running you ragged, but he seems to believe a more varied level of physical activity will be beneficial to your overall learning process here and I am not about to question his methods; apparently he’s done this before,” he said, seating himself in his usual spot at the table; a split-second later their meal arrived. Sarah was surprised to see that the protein du jour was a cut of game meat – something Mandor never served before dinner.

“You looked as if you might be in need of a little more iron,” he observed. Then stopped to examine her face a bit more carefully. “Or perhaps the proverbial harmless little rodent was having a bit of fun in the guaranteed absence of her usual predator last night?”

Sarah reflexively glanced up at him, fork frozen in mid-stab. If he had truly figured this one out this fast she was about to be in hot water up to her eyeballs!

His young ward’s instinctive panic spoke volumes, but, to her obvious profound relief, he looked more amused at the wordless confession than irritated, commencing his own meal.

“I suppose your age has to be taken into consideration,” he sighed with a frowning smirk. “You’ve been very good and cooperative with us on the whole up to this point. When we’re finished here, go ahead and take a nap; I will allow you to make up for your absence this afternoon with an extra credit essay of Lord Suhuy’s choice, to be turned in first thing tomorrow morning.” He looked up at her again for emphasis, a little sterner. “Just don’t make a habit of this.”

“Of course not!” she immediately blurted, almost fast enough to raise Mandor’s suspicions as to what she had really been up to, but he ruefully reflected that he’d rather not go into the details of his own ‘night off’.

“So,” Sarah began awkwardly, barely believing her luck as she speared half a roasted Brussels sprout with garlic, “did your… meeting with the foreign ambassador go well?”

Mandor didn’t answer right away; Sarah glanced over at him and caught the tail-end of one of his fleeting, secretive little smiles.

“Let’s just say that none of us rested well last night; I merely hide physical fatigue better than you do.”

Unbidden, the blood rushed to Sarah’s face again as she remembered her reaction upon putting that freaky two-and-two together the previous evening.

Mandor’s expressing immediately changed to one of profuse apology. “Forgive my blunt joking, Sarah – as I said only moments ago, I must keep in mind your relative youth and inexperience.”

“I’m not totally ignorant!” Sarah suddenly protested, still beet-red and unable to look him in the eye, “it’s just…how you…”

“It is alien to you,” he nodded in understanding. “Can’t deny that. Well, if you ever actually feel up to hearing my version of ‘the talk’ – or anything else for that matter – I’m always right here for you, Sarah. But unless you bring up the subject again personally, I will refrain entirely from speaking of it in your presence. Is that all right?”

Sarah nodded, feeling stupid but grateful. He really is a halfway-decent father-figure, she thought with just a touch of admiration.

“Good,” he pronounced quietly, deliberately ignoring her fading, childlike blush. “I’m rather more interested in hearing about where you were today. Lord Suhuy is famous for his built-from-scratch shadows but he gets rather protective of his more temporary environments; he hasn’t so much as allowed me to set foot in any of your practice shadows. I have to admit to being a little curious: what does the new one look like?”

It was a rather obvious topic change but Sarah obliged him, describing the colorings and the landscapes, fake animals and people-ish constructs that never really acted fully conscious, as if they had no will outside of Lord Suhuy’s. Periodically Mandor would suddenly nod as if in understanding, but he made no meaningful verbal comments beyond gently prodding her to continue. After a while, Sarah more than half-wondered if she should’ve been telling him any of this at all if Suhuy didn’t even deem to, but one thing was dead-certain at this point: one way or another, she had to keep Mandor on her side if she was going to have any real security out here.

At least for now…

Hours later on her private shadow, Sarah slowly awoke to bliss, lying on the special grass in the soft, dappled light of the lavender moon. She stretched, feeling worlds better – all of her problems seemed a lifetime away – when the suspicious thoughts of the ring popped into her mind again completely unbidden, out-of-the-blue, like the mental equivalent of an itch from a mosquito bite. Reluctantly rolling off the gently undulating patch and sitting up, Sarah tried to just touch it with her pointer finger and quickly discovered that she couldn’t even do that; feelings of warmth and being cared for just wrapped about her like a thick, fluffy blanket. She nearly succumbed to the powerful urge to just lie down and go back to sleep and wound up having to use the Logrus to shove the persuasion away, which left her feeling just a tad jittery but clear-headed and fully alert.

Then the answer hit her: she couldn’t touch this thing, but the Logrus could! Very, very carefully, she summoned it again, willing those thin, ink-black tendrils to manifest in the real world and encase her right hand like a gauntlet. She swallowed against the visceral feeling of Her presence and begged the tendrils coming from each fingertip to lengthen, to become very fine, firm but flexible and soft. Taking a deep breath, bracing herself for what was almost inevitably going to happen if she was even moderately successful, Sarah got those hair-like filaments wedged under the ring, then delicately hooked around it on all sides. She felt no different but, to be fair, it was more that a little hard to tell with the Logrus practically on top of her like that; even bespelled, She always made her instinctively nervous. With painful slowness, Sarah commenced to prise the ring off, stopping after she cleared the first knuckle. She was already beginning to feel a bit panicky, her breathing and heart rate had noticeably speeded up, but on the whole she remained incongruously happy. After sitting like this for about a minute, she realized that the panic was actually beginning to subside just a little bit and she decided to try for the second knuckle. This time the effects were much more obvious and immediate – she had to grit her teeth to keep from screaming – but she gutted it out, forcing herself to count the seconds. It might have just been the adrenaline pouring into her veins but she felt far more alert and aware. And, in spite of the almost overwhelming black terror, she remained bizarrely joyful for no reason at all! The feeling was rather disturbing; perhaps without occult mediation she was truly going insane. But she honestly didn’t think so; too many of her mental faculties appeared to be completely untouched by this. Something felt very strange here and she was dead certain it wasn’t her. The ring wasn’t entirely off – it hovered around the tip of her finger – but the reaction was bad enough that she knew she had to stop right where she was. But the condition was just barely tolerable.

She quickly slid it back into place and banished the Logrus, collapsing back into the waving leaves of grass, panting in relief. Okay, so it was bad, but not as bad as it had been the first time. Sarah began to suspect that at least part of the extremity of the initial reaction had been due to the fact that she was experiencing months’ worth of outrageous trauma all at once; the device had managed to suppress the worst of her natural reactions completely. She knew the situation reminded her of something but she just couldn’t for the life of her think straight lying where she was – and for the first time realized it was happening! Sitting back up, the memory flooded back immediately: it was like trying to open a soda-bottle that had been badly shaken up. Doing it all at once would make the whole thing explode but doing it in tiny increments at reasonably spaced intervals would release the accumulated pressure safely. She seriously wondered if the same could be true for her and resolved to give it a try.

You and I are going to get to be good buddies whether you like me or not, she deliberately thought at the Logrus - and felt Her cold, alien smile.

How do you describe the breakdown of a reality you barely understand? It would have been so unspeakably easy for Lord Suhuy to trap Sarah’s mind in any of the lies or half-truths she was being shamelessly barraged with on a near-daily basis now, had it not been for that lingering, persistent barb of doubt – a fear, a pain she grew to crave, to cling to by her fingernails. Every day she would steal away alone and do her darndest to get the ring off. The initial terror was slowly morphing into a massive roller-coaster-like adrenaline rush, the clarity a shocking, glorious punch in the face. After just two-and-a-half weeks, she could stand to have it all the way off; it made her heart race like mad the first time but at length she finally got it under control with breathing techniques. The Logrus had been only too willing to accept her primal fear and Sarah gripped Her for dear life like a monstrous hand. For all the amazing things she had mastered and learned within the last half-year, this was the very first thing that felt like a real accomplishment. It got to the point that she could actually leave it off for short periods of time. At the beginning she worried that this might be the point where she would be caught; the details for the monitoring mechanism of the artifact remained perceptually vague to her and she wasn’t about to commence tampering with it internally. At the very least it could totally overwhelm her if it did nothing else. So far so good, though; Mandor hadn’t made a single sign that he was aware of this new development. After a few more days Sarah concluded – correctly – that as long as she just kept it on her person somehow he would never be the wiser; she didn’t have to actually have it on her finger for that part of the spell to work. That fact alone made her considerably leery of the rest of it, however.

Without it on, even the library and her rooms seemed a beautiful, awe-inspiring surrealist…dream? Nightmare? The labels hardly mattered anymore. She couldn’t get over just how cool that purple fire in the grate looked now; so many of her sensory reactions had been blunted for so long. Probably so this place and her ‘training’ wouldn’t scare her to death before she had had the chance to get used to this new, expanded version of reality. It was still almost too much to swallow unaided but she forced herself to only think of small bits of it at a time this way. Certain concepts remained impossible for her to wrap her natural mind around and stay sane, though, and actually withstood a little mental modification. No more of this ‘shadows’ shit - they were dimensions, separate dimensions; that she could handle. Her powers, such as they were, worked fine whether she thought of how they really mechanically operated on a quantum level or whether she thought of just waving a wand like she was the Tooth Fairy. The fact that such basic things held here despite changes in observation was proof enough that at least some of this experience was substantially ‘real’; that helped.

In comparison, other parts of her life felt really submerged now; she was scrupulously careful to wear the ring to all her lessons and whenever there was even the barest chance her guardian could be present, the memories sustained from this state were dreamlike. It almost saddened her a little that she had never been allowed to know Mandor without this mediation; there were always questions – some totally unimportant, just about him – that she only thought to ask when the ring was off. And consistently forgot again the moment it was back on. She never voiced them but nevertheless started taking notes of what they were and under what circumstances they arose. The thorns of mistrust had successfully been sown, but they would be fertilized by none other than Mandor himself – as the Goblin King had foreseen.

The longer Sarah toyed with this perception shift, the more it became apparent that Mandor Sawall had deliberately hidden more from her than just his private life. The most obvious discovery came early due to the fact that she had mostly performed her first experiments on her shadow in the few instances of Sofi’s absence: every last flowering plant there seemed to produce a similar chemical compound that induced a mild euphoria, although the effect was markedly more concentrated in certain areas, especially parts of the orchard and under the willow that had the special grass. True, those pale little blossoms were a far cry from the Wicked Witch of the West’s magical poppies, but the effect was enough to make her take pause. She had granted Mandor carte blanche to make this world as he saw fit within specific parameters: she had wanted a beautiful, restful place that she could be happy in no matter what. This secured the desired effect very efficiently and reliably – in fact, it was more acute if she was antsy or stressed out - but still… The substance did not appear to be addictive, even in her more alert state; she even stayed away completely for four consecutive days just to make sure and felt no craving or withdrawal whatsoever. It was totally inert, harmless of itself. The experience did give her a slightly better feel for the subtle, quiet cunning of her guardian, however, and put her a little more on edge when it came to his magics.

If Mandor had not used such a ruse, perhaps the rest would not have been discovered so quickly, although, to be fair, Suhuy had a hand in this as well, but very obtuse in comparison. Sarah was often too tired after her new ‘lessons’ - both physically and psychologically - to go traipsing all over her own world afterwards, and while ring-less one day she suddenly remembered that while the floating stairs were ‘locked’ into the library, she had actually never tried to take one through a trump; this succeeded at once. She shocked Sofi into croaking as she sailed on through the portal, riding one.

“Mistress! What in Chaos are you doing?” the raven cried as Sarah swooped circles about her in midair, laughing.

“You’re not the only one who can fly! This is a riser from Mandor’s library staircase that I’ve been toying with for ages indoors. I seriously can’t believe I never thought to do this! Then again…” she stopped, hovering about four feet off the ground.

Intrigued, Sofi landed on it and examined it. “If I am not mistaken, you will have to reupholster it before you leave; it is beginning to show undue wear. Is he aware that you are larking about in this crazy manner?”

“He is,” Sarah sighed with a light smirk, remembering him that first evening flying along the ceiling on it at top-speed upside-down with altered feet – clawed – so he could cling to it, with a huge grin on his face; it was their little secret. “Although I had to promise him up and down I’d be careful and not fly too high. I swear Lord Suhuy is trying to work me to death! I didn’t even feel up to walking down to the creek today, but now that I’ve got real transportation I want to see just how far this place goes.”

Sofi looked slightly taken aback. “Goes, mistress?”

“Yeah – I’ve only walked so far here; there’s only so far you can walk in a day. I want to see this world from your point-of-view. How far it is as the crow flies, as we would say back home,” she smirked.

Sarah couldn’t honestly tell whether Sofi was pleased or not – the bird was incapable of physically smiling - but the raven was holding her head a bit higher as she gracefully took to the air again, swooping close by Sarah’s face.

“Then let’s see if you can keep up,” she teased good-naturedly but with an edge of pride, taking off ahead of her.

She was hardly bragging – it was all Sarah could do to keep up with her! They kept relatively low to the ground as per Mandor’s wishes but on they sped, past the trees and fields, past the stream, past the orchards and another bright clear stream further on, more silvery weeping willows coming up, each standing alone with the little verdant alcoves underneath. There went another orchard…but wasn’t that just like… another stream…and more trees. No, wait!

“Stop!” Sarah shouted and disembarked, running down the gently sloped hill to a willow that looked eerily familiar. Shoving aside the curtain of thick-drooping fragrant branches, she saw the lightly flattened areas of grass where she usually sat. The therapeutic long grass waved and undulated off to the left.

Sarah shook her head and blinked a few times, then looked again. It was impossible.

Sofi almost scared her to death as she silently landed on her shoulder; Sarah had been too preoccupied to notice her and just about jumped out of her skin when she landed.

“Oh, forgive me for startling you, mistress!” she gently apologized, preening her. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Sarah glanced over at the bird rather suspiciously. “You had to have been leading me in circles; I just saw the exact same landscape three times in a row! This is where we always hang out!”

“It is indeed where we have come, but I flew straight and true.”

There was something odd in the raven’s voice that made Sarah wonder. She was superficially telling the truth – Sarah had sensed no directional change herself - but there was obviously more to this than she was telling. Perhaps more than she was allowed to tell. It was then that Sarah remembered what Suhuy had told her a couple months back about the warping of space-time, that it was not only possible but common at the far reaches out here; she had simply never experienced it firsthand. There was a chance that she could go further straight by flying in circles but Sarah had a bad feeling that wasn’t the case here. Walking with determination back out to the riser, Sofi flapped off her shoulder as the girl lay down flat on her stomach, hugging the carpeted board tightly to herself, willing it to rise.

“What are you doing, mistress?” Sofi called up in concern.

“Just seeing if I can get a better view; I promise I’ll be right back down,” she yelled back. Sarah carefully levitated to treetop height, then higher, higher up past the hills until she was high enough to truly see and she made the board rotate slowly so she could best take in the panorama…

Sarah tightened her grip as the shock quietly set in. It went on forever in all directions – the same trees, the same stream, the same orchards, she could swear she just saw the exact same alien doe bound across fifty or more separate meadows at once in different directions!

It’s like a funhouse mirror room, she thought soberly as she slowly descended. This ‘world’ was only a tiny pocket about a mile-and-a-half square, and the thought suddenly made her feel terribly claustrophobic. This was a room, just like the others she was confined to when alone, the only appreciable difference being that it was ostensibly outside. As she came within fifteen feet of ground level the feeling of euphoria grew strong again. She was almost on the verge of crying when Sofi caught her eye…or was it? The raven was waiting for her in the meadow; she was perched on a thick, gnarly stalk of dried plant material. A weed? Sarah had never seen any here. It blackened and crumpled to nothing under her claws. Did she just visibly waver a little?

The instinct that Suhuy had so carefully been honing in the girl kicked in automatically for the first time; before Sarah even realized what she was doing, she grabbed the bird with the Hand of the Logrus, forcing her to assume her true shape!

“No, Mistress! Please stop!” Sofi piteously cried but it was too late: Sarah watched in amazement and just a little honest fear as her friend, her confidante, grew and shifted into a being four-and-a-half feet tall with a humanoid torso and arms but legs that terminated into massive bird’s feet. She was totally black from tip-to-toe; her wings had shifted to her back, growing exponentially larger, almost reminiscent of an angel. She bent in half, cowering, as she covered her face with her scaly, clawed hands with only three elongated digits each.

“Please, turn away your frightened gaze, I feel it! My master strictly warned you were never to see me this way! He will cage me again when he knows! Oh, look away!” she wailed; she was shaking.

Sarah bravely got down from the board and walked toward her. Shapeshifting was something she had come to accept as a basic part of ‘normal life’ in this world but she had never realized that even little Sofi was more than she seemed. She should’ve guessed.

“I won’t tell him about this and neither will you,” Sarah stated with such gravitas and will that Sofi peeked up at her from between her fingers – her irises were still bright red. Then she hid her face again.

“Let me go,” she said a bit more calmly in a slightly lower voice, less raspy, “I wish to at least assume a face you will find more pleasing.”

“Oh, sorry!” Sarah belatedly realized she had forgotten to banish the Logrus; she thought she felt cold laughter as She withdrew. Sofi turned her back for a moment, still holding her face, and Sarah waited patiently as she adjusted her features to her liking, then stood up straight and tentatively looked back at Sarah over her shoulder.

Sarah’s breath caught – she was almost painfully beautiful. Sofi had assumed a humanoid face that could’ve been on a model, but the effect was rendered exotic by her inky complexion. It really made her red eyes pop. She had no hair, just downy little black feathers here and there.

“Hello,” she said quietly, turning all the way back around, still unsure of Sarah’s reaction. Her anatomy had slight muscle tone but no reproductive features. The rest of her was more scaled. Sarah realized she looked almost like a siren. Sofi quirked a hopeful smile. “Forgive me for saying this, Mistress, but it’s a bit rude to force a demon to shift like that. How did you even know? You never showed any sign of recognition before.”

Sarah raised her un-ringed left hand and showed her with a slow, bitter smirk; Sofi’s eyes widened in panic.

“Easy,” she reassured her, producing her trump pouch and showing her the ring shoved way down inside. “Mandor hasn’t even figured this one out yet.” She carefully put it back away, mentally fighting the soothing compulsion to put it back on.

Sofi just slowly shook her head, dumbfounded. “But how-”

Sarah put up a hand to silence her. “I won’t get you into trouble on this; it’s my secret. What I saw you doing – destroying that plant – do you do that often?”

Sofi sighed, looking away toward the usual willow. “Can we at least sit, Mistress? My leg muscles are unaccustomed to standing in this form, I use it so seldom anymore.”

“Oh - of course!” Sarah conceded at once – and forgot to breathe as Sofi took to the air in her larger wings, soaring down to their spot in a fraction of a second! The demoness glanced back at her - like ‘aren’t you coming already?’ - mischievous fire in her bright, fiery eyes.

It’s the same old bird, Sarah thought as she rode the riser down to join her. It was long enough for them to sit together on it like a bench and Sarah motioned her over.

“Thank you, Mistress, but I am more comfortable where I am,” she replied demurely from where she lounged upon her stomach, propped up on her elbows. It suddenly struck Sarah that this creature never got to properly recline in her raven form; this was a luxury for her, and she quickly followed suit, laying back on the silk-soft grass beside her.

“You desired to know what I was doing back there and why, correct? What I was doing was obvious enough but nevertheless I shall tell you why – you have guessed nearly all else. I was charged with the upkeep of this Shadow, small as it is. It had to be small; anything larger would have required more help. And since I was here anyway, well…” she glanced over at Sarah, who was listening intently; it almost struck her as slightly comical, “my master thought you might enjoy a little company.”

It was also clear that Sofi was unused to having readable facial features; her tone was pleasant enough but she was obviously lying through her teeth, although she was trying to be nice about it.

“He told you to keep an eye on me, too,” Sarah answered flatly. Sofi looked a bit ashamed as she glanced away.

“…yes. He was concerned about your being out here alone and he ordered me to casually watch over you in the guise you have come to be comfortable with. I have been a carrion raven for him so often the form is easy enough for me to assume.”

“I know this is going to sound incredibly stupid of me,” Sarah faltered, “but I seriously thought you were just his pet – no offense.”

That received a dry laugh. “I suppose I am in a way,” she shifted her flight feathers slightly.

“But…really…you’re his slave.”

Sofi ruffled; it looked so bizarre in her current form. “Say ‘servant’, Mistress; that is the proper term used here,” she uttered a bit tersely. “Although how you so indelicately couched it is unfortunately closer to the nature of the thing. I am bound to Mandor Sawall, body and spirit; I am compelled to serve, to do anything he asks of me. However, I have yet to see him abuse this power with any of us, and even though I am compelled to say this, it is still true: he is a good and fair master. He has never asked more of me than I can rightly perform, although he does not tolerate failure and neither should he.” She turned on her side to face Sarah. “Do not look so appalled, Mistress. This is the order of our society and has been for eons out of memory. Nearly a half of habitable Chaos would physically collapse in minutes without this structure. We are literally the foundation of their world,” she added with a touch of pride, a steely glint of purpose in her eye.

It was a lot for Sarah to swallow and just due to her American democratic upbringing alone; she was still having a hard time processing it. “I’m not trying to incite open rebellion or anything here, but I’ve got to ask: don’t you ever think about being free? Don’t you ever miss it? Or have you always…” she uneasily trailed off. It might have been an uncouth discussion but no one else had ever spoken of it so openly and frankly with her; even her textbooks carefully minced their way around the topic or just spouted superiority propaganda like this state of affairs was nothing.

Sofi’s expression slowly turned remote, alien as she stared up at the canopy of leaves and she was quiet for a time; Sarah almost rued having asked the question. “I have lived this way for too long,” she said at length. “I care for too many places, too many people, to return to the primal Pit of Chaos even if I could. I will never again be truly free. Do you understand?”

Sarah nodded, remembering her family and friends, remembering Toby and what she had gone through because she didn’t have the heart to leave him. There was a lack of freedom there, too, but it was hardly a bad thing. But this…

“Then with your leave, Mistress, I shall reassume my avian form; this has been quite long enough of a breech of conduct on my part,” she said, slowly rising to her feet, stretching her great wings for a moment. Sarah didn’t look away as Sofi collapsed down on herself, shrinking and shifting, as the beautiful faux face grew feathers and the mouth and nose fused into a large, sharp beak. Her eyes were the same, Sarah realized, just proportionally smaller, and she briefly wondered what Sofi’s real face had looked like that she had been so afraid to show her, remembering how hideous sweet-natured Gryll had been. Had to be a demon thing.

And then she found herself thinking of a man who could shift into owl-form at will…

“You never stop pondering, do you, Mistress,” Sofi rasped in her tape-recordery voice, giving her the eye from where she stood upon the grass.

Sarah sat up. “Alright, riddle me this, raven,” she smirked, “why would Mandor go to such elaborate efforts to deceive me like this? I mean, he glamoured up the library and my quarters at first so the move wouldn’t be such a horrendous shock to my system – I get that – but that ring I showed you kept me lightly sedated for months; it kept me from thinking of certain questions, especially around him, of questioning too much of what was going on. He seems bent on monitoring me as much as possible, even in my apartment; he managed to sneak in this teensy gremlin and I know that thing watches me; I can feel it! And now this…” she widely gestured around her. “Sofi, I’ve been through so many alien worlds at this point I seriously doubt anything this side of a hellride could shake me – and he didn’t even tell me about you?! And the longer I think about all of this, the more it’s starting to look like a big setup, like something is going to happen to me, and whatever it is I think it’s something I really don’t want to be a part of. You’ve obviously known Mandor for a long time – I mean, you know him. I’m asking you this as a friend: do you have any idea what’s going on here?!”

Sofi gravely stalked over and hopped onto Sarah’s left hand – a sign that she wanted to talk eye-to-eye. Sarah raised her up and nearly flinched: the raven that was not really a raven stared straight through to her core – she couldn’t look away!

“It is ponderous slow in its germination, but I see the beginnings of an immense…shift, in you – forgive the term, but I know not what the true one is.”

She blinked and Sarah lightly shuddered, freed. “I know, I feel it, too – it’s …there, just out of reach, beyond my conscious control. What I did to you just a few minutes ago, I didn’t mean to do that, honest! I’m so sorry I scared you like that, but it just happened. That was knee-jerk automatic!”

“But it worked well and cleanly,” Sofi calmly noted. “I observed no adverse reaction to your use of the Logrus in that instance.”

Sarah stopped, surprised – Sofi was right! She hadn’t even thought to notice! Whoa…

The raven casually climbed up her arm to her shoulder, sorting her hair out of the way. “If you will allow me to say something as your friend,” she spoke softly in her ear, “knowledge is not always going to be your friend, Sarah.”

Sarah glanced at her; it was the first time she had ever just addressed her by name!

“I know it sounds a trifle hypocritical coming from me,” she demurred, “but nevertheless. You were far happier before you knew any of this – more content – and I see no particular advantage to be gained if this only causes you strife and worry. In the long run none of it really matters anyway: all tends toward the entropy of the Abyss of Creation. It is best to simply enjoy the process as best one can on the way to the Great Reunification.”

Sarah only sighed. “Just keep telling yourself that nothing matters, Sofi,” she said sadly, reaching over to stroke her soft chest fluff, “whatever helps you get by.”

As Sarah sailed back into the library through the trump, she was too mentally preoccupied to immediately register that she was not alone. She hopped off the riser and commenced carrying it to its usual spot at the top of the demi-flight that led to her apartment – it hadn’t automatically returned this time. She hoped the spell wasn’t damaged; at least it still floated.

“Oh, Sarah.”

She heard Mandor’s familiar chuckle and whipped around on the staircase; he was standing there with his arms crossed; he had only been ten feet behind where she had come in! In a moment of panic, Sarah realized that her ring was still off in her trump pouch!

“It was really only a matter of time before you tried this, wasn’t it?”

He didn’t look angry – did anything anger him? Sarah decided to play it normal. It would be far too suspicious if she quickly retreated right now to put it back on. Practically praying the Logrus would make him oblivious for five minutes, she replaced the stair and casually walked back down to him.

“Busted,” she smirked, “although you have to concede Lord Suhuy’s been running me into the ground for three weeks. I didn’t feel up to the hike today.”

“That is true,” he sighed a bit apologetically as she approached. There was something… different about her, but he didn’t really have the leisure to examine her properly to figure out just what it was. Her green eyes were slightly more intense; how odd. “Now, I know it’s your favorite toy,” he mock-scolded, “but I don’t want my poor staircase, oh, what’s the Shadow-Earth phrase? ‘Racking up frequent flyer miles,’ out-of-doors. Is that clear?”

Sarah sighed, nodding, looking away.

Mandor eyed her a moment longer, then made up his mind with a smirk. “Besides, I think this would be better suited to a rougher environment than a velvet-carpeted riser.”

Sarah turned back and saw that he was holding what looked like a white snowboard; he gave it a light push toward her and it slowly floated toward her sideways!

“It might take a little more practice to learn to maneuver it properly, but it should be a much smoother ride, and for Power’s sake use the footstraps!”

Sarah closed he eyes as she caught it with a smile. Whether it was a genuine gift or a deliberate distraction she didn’t really care at this point. She was surprised to find she could actually feel the residue of his intention on the thing (realizing that the ring had been blocking this small phenomenon also) – both intentions were present, actually. Whatever was going on here, he was thoroughly enjoying spoiling her rotten in the meantime. She opened her eyes. His expression was definitely analogous to what she had felt: it was the look of a devil in a generous mood.

“Thank you. I’ll just go put it away.” She started a measured, calm retreat up the stairs.

“Get cleaned up while you’re in there; you have some written exams on Chaosian philosophical history in about ten linear minutes.”

Sarah groaned. “It just never ends!”

“It will end soon enough,” her guardian replied, amused. Then ventured, “How are you feeling lately, Sarah?”

It was a casual enough of a question but it made her instantly cold. Could he tell? She had to wonder. Honesty was probably best.

“Kind of weird,” she answered over her shoulder, still walking.

“I know,” he nodded reassuringly. “Don’t worry, you’ll adjust to it. I’ll see you at dinner.”

He did notice that she hadn’t even slowed down to talk to him as she went into the adjacent room and closed the door. It wasn’t just him – that had been strange. If this continued he would have to have words with his uncle. Whatever the old Chaos lord was doing to her, it couldn’t appreciably affect her personality or she would figure it out; beyond that point was a kind of interpersonal no-man’s land he hoped they weren’t going to have to traverse.

But even in this Mandor proved too confident in the end. It took only two days longer for Sarah to discover the motherlode, as it were. She had been searching for reference materials on the ground floor sans ring late one evening when she finally noticed: there was a rather unassuming book six to the left from the one she needed that looked decidedly blurry - she couldn’t seem to focus on the spine no matter how hard she tried, her gaze literally slipped off it to the left or right! Feeling where it was instead with her hand, she pulled it off the shelf and stuck it on the pile she was taking back to her rooms.

If the cover had been dubious, the content was downright concerning: the entire tome seemed to be a treatise on how to control other people both psychologically and magically without their knowledge! There was even a section on tampering with food. Mandor’s characteristic notes were in the margins. She froze when she got to the chapter on plantable artifacts and saw the preliminary setup spells for a ring; she slammed it shut, not wanting to see anymore, Jareth’s mocking warning crescendoing to a roar in her ears.

But it was too late. Pandora’s box was open. She had to know!

Racing back out into the library with the book, one of her composition notebooks and a writing implement, she took a fast note of the title and where she had found it before carefully putting it back, then spent the better part of four hours scouring the entire library for other hidden tomes and making notes of what and where they were. Altogether, there were over two-dozen! Sleep did not come easily to Sarah that night; in the end she wound up on the couch in her ‘living room’, letting the op-art painting work its hypnotic magic.

It wasn’t easy hiding this discovery and it made her truly loathe wearing the ring, now that she knew what it really was. She hated to admit it, but the thing did make bluffing her way through her daily interactions with Mandor significantly easier even with the knowledge. She thought of Sofi’s confidential comments about ‘her master’ as he smiled at her over his fabulously delicious breakfast (the flavors most likely magically enhanced, she now realized, not to mention being laced with the light compulsion to eat whatever was set before her), making light conversation, refilling her glasses with an easy, practiced flourish. Even now she had a hard time imagining him as truly evil. He didn’t seem evil. He just seemed like the world’s most outrageously anal control freak, which conjured up even wilder inappropriate mental images that she had to use the Logrus to squash.

The following nights sorely tested even this relatively hopeful supposition. There were books on black magic, books on practical torture, even Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, translated into a clean but decidedly foreign dialect of Thari; that one had seen plenty of use. It was simply baffling that he had left all of this in here for just anyone to find, but she had to reflect that for all of his outgoing charm and apparent popularity in the upper social circles, Mandor Sawall was an intensely private man at times, notorious for having a reclusive streak a mile wide. Who knew when the last time had been that he had let anyone in here for any purpose at all, save light dusting? Suhuy obviously didn’t think much of this if he had bothered to pay attention (which didn’t exactly paint him in a favorable light, either.) And between the relatively light spell on the tomes and the limiting compulsions of her ring, her guardian had thought the extremely scattered titles safe from her curious eyes. Sometimes the best place to hide a secret was in plain sight; missing books would have been immediately obvious – he kept all of his shelves meticulously filled to capacity.

Not all of the material was sinister, though. Some of them were simply stuffed with technical information that her guardian had seen no purpose in plaguing his young human charge with; she felt like her brain was tying itself in knots just skimming through some of them! A couple of large, richly bound volumes she had dug off the top poetry shelf on the second floor she quickly admitted she was too young to read, returning them unopened past the first few pages each, cheeks blazing.

By the end of the process, Sarah was beginning to seriously second-guess her paranoia – in all likelihood, probably everybody here had a few books like these lying about someplace (it was Chaos, after all) – when she got to the fourth-to-final volume on a fifth-tier shelf near the fireplace. It looked relatively new compared to the others and perhaps not as well cared for, which was decidedly unusual for any of Mandor’s possessions regardless of age. In fact, it took some effort to get it unwedged from the shelf; it had been forced on, apparently with little difficulty from how evenly the spine was lined up with the other books, which was also strange. On the surface it looked like yet another arcane volume (surprise, surprise) but upon opening it, commencing the mandatory skim, she noted a rather different, scrawlier handwriting at the tops of just a few pages. Suhuy’s? It was possible - it looked similar enough to the old man’s script - but there was no way of knowing for certain. She was on the verge of re-jamming it back onto the shelf when a page fell open – it had obviously been forced open at some point in time, the spine was bent badly here, almost to the point of breaking. Mandor’s fluid handwriting was on this one. All over this one.

Upon reading what it was, seeing the occult diagrams and very explicit instructions, Sarah sat down on the floor right where she was in abject shock, feeling chilled to the bone in spite of the blazing fire only a few feet away.

She felt like she was in the midst of one of her nightmares. This couldn’t possibly be real. It couldn’t.

Hands shaking, she picked it back up and read it again carefully to make sure she had seen it right, then fought down a wave of blind panic, her heart pounding in animalistic fear, wishing that accursed ring was in her nightgown so she could thrust it on and forget what she had just seen.

But she couldn’t forget. Never, never, never. All this time they had been carefully prepping her for…

Sarah had never felt so terribly alone in all her life as she climbed back up the ladder and angrily punched the tome back onto the shelf before running back to her room to crash on the mattress, hot tears streaming into her pillow.

How could he?! How could he pretend to care for her that much – that well – when he was really planning on … she couldn’t even think it!

Sarah rolled over, drying her eyes on her sleeve. If she actually meant that little to Lord Mandor Sawall, she wouldn’t waste any more time in mourning what hadn’t been a real relationship in the first place. She had to start thinking of a way to get out of here right now! Yesterday, preferably. Her very life most likely depended on her escaping before her… ‘training’… was complete! The thought made her want to wretch but she ignored her stomach, her mind racing furiously. There had to be a way! Recollecting her wits and her nerve, she reentered the library, doing her best to stuff her breaking heart as she began to earnestly dig through the law books on the far side of the room to the left. Whether she liked it or not, these people played by certain rules; the trick was finding the right one.

Say your right words… For one crazy moment, Sarah giggled at the thought of wishing Mandor away to the goblins, but she knew Jareth would kill her for it if she did. Guess we’ll call that Plan B, she thought with a cold smirk, pulling a huge stack of thick books off a shelf and dragging them over to one of the study tables that she had grown accustomed to using as a personal desk in this room. If only she could find a legal loophole that would allow her to get herself out of this situation in one piece…

She had known for quite some time that the proverbial deck was stacked heavily in favor of the nobility here; whoever was head of the individual ‘House’ could literally make up the law as they went along in regard to underlings, which made this a much harder challenge than it should’ve had any right to be. The Crown almost never got involved with minor internal affairs, and certainly never if it was a matter of nobles versus anybody else. In her case, Mandor not only had the jurisdiction as her host but as the head of Sawall besides, which complicated things even further.

Wide-eyed panic alone was serving to keep her alert as she kept digging into the wee hours of the morning. There were laws and punishments for everything here! The books looked like they had only been slightly edited since Gramble Sawall’s death – the former duke - mostly just modification of certain severe punishments to streamline the time involved, some actually worsened in the name of expediency. The Chaos lord clearly had no interest in playing judge, but what this meant in her case remained ominously ambiguous. Not unlike Mandor, come to think of it, she reflected bitterly, forcing herself to continue.

Sarah’s adrenaline boost was flagging by the time she found a small passage that looked vaguely helpful, albeit a real Hail Mary of a long shot: if she could prove that she was being unfairly imprisoned, she could actually challenge him for her freedom. The wording was just awful and the context full of smoke-and-mirrors legalese with dozens of riders, but in all probability this was the best thing she was going to find. Quickly putting the rest away, she went over to the sofa by the fireplace to carefully read it though again, killing the ‘lights’. The text did not improve upon a second perusal, but it was clearly the angle she was going to have to take; she closed the book with a resounding thud and put it aside, staring into the purple flames.

Time – such as it was – was of the essence. There was absolutely no way in Chaos that she could possibly hide this level of distress from either Suhuy or her ‘guardian’ (that was a laugh.) Even the ring wasn’t that revisionist in coloring her thinking. This was, of course, her other big fear: that given half a chance, Mandor would simply make her forget. He seemed scarily skilled that way, went with the whole ‘control freak’ thing nicely; at this point she honestly wouldn’t put it past him.

She had to challenge him to a duel then, but what kind? A sorcerous duel, while a time-honored tradition and a highly respected art in the Courts, was obviously out of the question; it would be like a krill trying to go up against a baleen whale. He’d wipe her memory for sure and give her a new toy to play with when it was over as if nothing had happened at all. No, it had to be a physical duel. That thought alone was a daunting, depressing proposition. Native Chaosians were several times stronger than their human counterparts on average, although there was some variance in how much stronger they were individually. Mandor might have been approaching middle age (for him) but you’d never know it to see him fence; he still bested her regularly in their bouts – it was almost easy for Sarah to forget she was still fencing him with all the different visages he assumed for their exercise. She would need clever skill to best him, not brute strength. About the only saving grace she could possibly even see here was the fact that unlike the princes of Amber, who regularly lived by the sword and were supernatural Olympian athletes in consequence, Chaosians often favored sorcery over physical exertion, so he was actually not as strong as he could potentially be otherwise. It was still a pretty bleak outlook but she knew she had to try.


Tomorrow. How has it all come to this? she thought blearily. For one desperate moment Sarah tried to convince herself that it was all just a big misunderstanding, that Mandor would find her in here in the morning and make berry crêpes for breakfast once he’d heard what was troubling her, but in her heart-of-hearts she knew it was a lie. There had been a direct reference to her written across the top of that page in his own handwriting, specifically how to do it. The evidence against him was irrefutable, damning.

All thoughts of rest banished, she went back to her room and got dressed in a close-fitting blouse and slacks and her fencing shoes, then went to the gymnasium. Taking her practice foil out of an unlocked case, she ran through her positions and footwork for a while; never in her life had she thought she was going to actually need this. It was then that she remembered the trisps and how one of the fandons – the shield mesh - had fallen that other night she had been sneaking around in here. That ‘accident’ had inadvertently protected her; had it been meant as a private message as well? She could almost believe it now. The trisp and fandon were the traditional formal weapons used in a contest like this – showy and powerful but incapable of inflicting serious internal damage unless the duelers were really trying. Crossing back over to the cases, Sarah summoned a couple of thin Logrus strands and actually managed to pick the lock, pausing a moment in case Mandor had some kind of a magical security system; nothing untoward happened. Quietly opening the door, she slowly extracted one of the trisps and, careful to point it away from herself, activated the thin ‘blade’ – it flared golden at once. The handle with the trigger grip felt a bit odd to her, accustomed as she was to a reasonable facsimile of a ‘French’ foil – straight – but it was easy enough to maneuver. Almost a little too easy, actually; it was lighter and faster, harder to control, the golden flakes that flew off of it as it slashed the very air were beautiful but deadly. She practiced a single lunge with it, pulling the trigger, and watched in amazed trepidation as the liquid fire shot out half-a-foot farther, unnaturally extending her reach.

Quickly disarming it and putting it away, she managed to relock the case, confident that she could get in again, but as she was walking back out of the gym, she thought to deliberately stop in front of the ancient, sentient suit of demon-armor. She had been going out of her way to purposely avoid the wretched thing for months now, but she made no attempt to avoid it this time. She had to have changed since she first arrived here; she no longer scared easily like a small child at the slightest provocation. Its reaction to her was bound to be different by now; the phenomenon could be interesting to see.

Unabashedly striding up to the stand-alone case in the dark, Sarah noticed no change inside of it for about a second…then the armor commenced to glow in a dazzling myriad of phosphorescent colors, rippling, swirling about, transfixing her where she stood – then it suddenly shot a sizable blob of black poison at the front of the glass case, making her jump! She quickly paced back, shaking her head clear; the armor resumed looking decrepit and rusty. Only the poison remained at eye-level, oozing down.

“So you think I’m more distractible than a scaredy-cat now, huh?”

It shot more ooze at the glass. Sarah quickly decided against riling the thing up any further; there was acrid-looking smoke rising in there...

Going back to her apartment, Sarah couldn’t even sit still; she was pacing like a caged tiger in the ‘sitting room’. She knew darn well that that little gremlin was watching her from inside the speakers of her stereo and she had half a mind to just bring Sofi through so she could eat the wretched thing when she suddenly remembered.

Oh, Sofi…

Sarah had promised her she would come and say goodbye when she was leaving; it felt surreal that goodbye was coming so soon. She sadly retrieved her trump pouch from the vanity, strapping it on, and dug out the portrait of the world Mandor had purposely designed to keep her too preoccupied to figure out what was happening to her. The painting was of an idyllic daytime diorama, but the view turned to twilight as it rippled into focus and she stepped through, carefully pocketing the card before she lost it in the dark, conjuring a spirit-light to see by. The stars were dancing at the beginning of the night here; that alone brought up bittersweet memories.

“Sofi!” she called out across the meadow; her voice seemed to carry a lot further than the actual space they were in. “Sofi, are you there?”

“Mistress, is that you?” she heard off in the distance, coming from the direction of the orchard.

“Yes, it’s me! Can you come?”

“Of course!” the strong corvine voice replied, and soon Sarah spotted a black silhouette gliding across the night sky; it swooped down to land on her arm. “This is indeed a pleasant surprise, Mistress! Is my master having your rooms serviced again? It seems a bit soon.”

At this, Sarah finally broke down and cried right there in the middle of the field, crumpling where she stood.

“Mistress!” Sofi exclaimed, flapping off of her, “what is it? Shall I try to fetch my master here for you?”

“No!” Sarah screamed in alarm, looking back up, then reached out to her. “Oh, Sofi, I’m so sorry…”

“What’s the matter?” the raven repeated, climbing onto her, but she could get nothing further out of her for a long time but sobs. After about a minute’s concerted weeping, Sarah felt a thin, cool, scaly arm go around her shoulders… and she leaned into Sofi, letting her hold her for a while as all the pain spilled out of her.

At length, once Sarah had recovered herself somewhat, she told the demoness of her terrible plight, what Mandor and Suhuy – especially Suhuy – were trying to do to her. Sofi was initially incredulous, unwilling to believe anything so evil of her beloved ‘master’, but once Sarah told her of the book, the ritual, she suddenly turned deadly solemn.

“At least you finally comprehend the reasoning behind your forced seclusion,” she spoke softly after a few moments silence. “I know not how I should council you in this, other than to warn you in the strongest possible terms never to speak of this matter with another soul, no matter how trustworthy they may seem. There are those even among my kind who would be sorely tempted by such power; it could purchase much as a standing threat alone. Even personal freedom, I would wager.”

Sarah went cold again just hearing the words; Sofi’s red eyes caught her sudden fear.

“Please do not shun me, Mistress – I could not use you in such an impersonal fashion having known you,” she stroked her hair for a moment. Then hesitated. “I cannot speak for Lord Suhuy, but I believe my master would be of the same mind. Perhaps the idea was only solicited.”

“I don’t know!” Sarah groaned in consternation, looking up at the distant peach crescent. “From the looks of these notes I’d say he’s done more than think! If I’m right…” she trailed off, shaking her head.

“You may actually be in palpable physical danger,” Sofi finished for her. “I do wish you would simply confront my master with your evidence and your fears, but I believe I understand why you feel you cannot,” she sighed sadly. “You do not intend to hurt him?”

“No, but I have to make darn sure he takes me seriously! I can’t guarantee it’ll do any good but I’m not about to sit around waiting for somebody to just push my detonator button!”

Sofi took a deep breath and stood, giving Sarah a hand up; in spite of her relatively short stature and very slight build, she was remarkably strong. “Regardless of your course of action, you will not be terribly successful in anything without at least a few hours’ rest, Mistress,” she said gently, leading her down the hill to their old willow tree. “I can rouse you in time to eat something and intercept my master first thing in the morning, and I shall hope that clarity prevails over rash action once you’re feeling a bit better,” she knelt beside her next to the therapeutic grass, her avian knees bending backwards.

Sarah eyed the odd black pseudo-angelic figure a bit warily. Sofi might immediately fly off to tell Mandor everything the moment she was unconscious; she had admitted only minutes ago that she had a way of contacting him from out here.

Sofi instinctively felt her uncertainty and seemed hurt.

“Why are you grown so suspicious of me, Sarah? Have I ever given you serious reason to doubt my good intentions? Have I ever broken troth with you? For your own sake lie down, Mistress – I shall sing you asleep and stay by your side tonight. I promise.”

Sarah was immediately filled with remorse over how she had been acting just now – it was kind of strange, come to think of it; her paranoia was pointlessly spreading in directions it had no business going, like an infection. “I’m sorry,” she sighed tiredly, rubbing her eyes.

Sofi just nodded. “Things will look better tomorrow. Just take off your shoes and lie back; you have nothing to fear tonight.”

Only losing my nerve, Sarah thought as she complied, ripping off her fencing shoes and casting them toward the trunk of the tree before lowering herself down, trying not to think that it was probably for the last time. She didn’t have long to think about it; the grass quickly performed its old magic, shooing all thoughts from her mind, as Sofi sang an odd, monotonous tune in a language Sarah couldn’t make out. In moments she succumbed to a ponderous stupor, then true sleep.

The moment she was out Sofi stopped, and, resuming her raven form, flew up into the low inner branches of the tree to sit and concertedly ponder the human girl she had just rendered unconscious. She knew her first duty was to her master, the man whose pull on her heart and soul never left her in peace. She could summon him right where she stood; they could hold free converse without disturbing Sarah’s repose in the least at this point – the ancient lullaby of the Abyss was potent indeed, irresistibly coaxing the listener toward its own Nothingness. She could warn him of the girl’s fragile state of mind and keep her promise to her.

But she knew all too well that if she followed the right course of action here, her poor little mistress would never trust her again and with good reason. She might even stop coming. And after such a misadventure as Sarah was planning, she would need her confidante. Her real master might require her continued services to her in this manner as well. The old Chaos lord didn’t need everything spelled out for him, she reflected with just a touch of cold humor. He’d figure out what to do quickly enough first thing in the morning.

Plucking a blossom from the tree, she swooped down and placed it next to Sarah’s face; the girl absently smiled a little in her sleep. She would need all the good dreams she could get, Sofi thought sadly, flying up through the willow to settle into the top branches to rest where the setting moon would wake her.

“Mistress Sarah, Sarah awake! Rise and eat – your hour is upon us! Mistress?”

Sarah groggily rolled over, only belatedly noticing the flattened silky grass, the smell of the loam beneath her, the sound of gently running water. She suddenly recognized the voice and turned to see…

Sofi was there in her larger, more natural state, looking rather concerned. They were by the bank of the stream and a few pieces of freshly picked fruit were on the ground nearby. It was barely dawn, if such a time existed here; the lavender crescent moon was large now, hung low.

“Ah, Mistress, at last you are awake; I was beginning to fear I had sung your spirit to the ancestors and left your body mistressless! Here,” she took Sarah’s hands and pulled her up so she was sitting; she would have done more but Sarah shook her off.

“I can get up myself,” she snapped a bit irritatedly, the wakeup call about four hours too soon for her body. “How…how, did I get all the way over here?” she yawned, really looking around at where they were.

“I carried you hither; you may need all of your strength if you still propose to do this day what you were threatening to last night. Please tell me you will at least speak to him first!”

“I plan to,” Sarah crawled over to the stream and splashed the cool water over her face a couple times, “from a position I can defend myself if necessary.” She cupped her hands and drank deep.

Sofi frowned. “I feared as much. How is it that this place no longer soothes you at all? It was designed to…”

Sarah slowly turned to look back at her; Sofi averted her gaze.

“I know,” she stated flatly with a bitter smirk. “The flowers were the first dead-giveaway once the ring was off. He really planned on keeping me this oblivious; I’m calling him on it, see what…he…”

Sarah’s train of thought completely derailed as she saw a small furry electric-blue rabbit/badger-type animal lumber straight up to Sofi, then roll over on its back – and die! Sofi looked acutely embarrassed as she dared a glance back at Sarah, who was wide-eyed from the shock. “Did…did that thing just-”


“What was wrong with it? Do you know why it just keeled over like that? I’ve never even seen anything injured here, let alone die,” she said concernedly, getting up and walking over to check it out; it couldn’t possibly be but she could swear that little corpse was smiling. Had it been eating something it shouldn’t have, like the joy-blossoms? Poor thing.

Sofi looked up at Sarah a bit uneasily. “It is my daily repast, Mistress; all my kind are strictly carnivorous. I know you have treated many of the living creatures here like pets – as is your right in this, your own private shadow – but, to be fair, I kept track once: there were no less than fourteen consecutive of these animals in particular that you named Blueberry. They reproduce so quickly you literally never noticed the difference; there was no reason to mention it. However, I shall refrain from consuming this one until you depart, seeing as it upsets you.”

Upset may have been the wrong adjective, but to say that Sarah was surprised and genuinely taken aback was probably an understatement. “No, it’s…it’s okay, if you need to, I mean, I normally eat meat, too,” Sarah stammered, “I just-”

Sofi shook her head with a smile. “It can wait. I know only fruit is not even enough breakfast for you; would that I could share this – it is always more than sufficient for sustaining my raven-form.”

Sarah sat back down as nonchalantly as she could manage, and brushed clean a fruit that might’ve once been related to an orange somewhere down the line; the flesh was bruise-purple but the rind was nearly white. She commenced ripping the peel off but her mind was still on the little animal lying there. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for them, now that she knew. It was probably a natural enough order here but she had never even liked nature shows on T.V.; just because some innocent creature got butchered didn’t mean she had to watch it happen. Besides, there was something kind of …freaky about this one. Like, Dracula-freaky.

“I have to ask,” Sarah finally broke the ice, separating the segments of the proto-citrus, “how did you do that? Was it psychic or a spell?”

“Neither,” Sofi replied, leaning forward on her palms, stretching her wings, “it simply came and happily gave its life of its own free will so I could live another day.”

Sarah stopped and stared at her. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I assure you it is no joke, Mistress. Small as this world may be, my master has crafted it as a thin slice of paradise. Everything here is happy all the time, even when separate existence must end to sustain the whole. Such harmony cannot exist in Order; the drive for selfish individual continuance is too great, and anything that would challenge it is immediately viewed as evil.”

Sarah wasn’t quite certain how she should respond to this and hurriedly stuffed her face with the fruit instead; the rest of what Sofi had brought her required far less preparation. She got back up and took a final drink of water; when she turned back, she saw that Sofi was holding her shoes out for her. Sarah knew that she couldn’t afford to get emotional right now, but as she sat back down and pulled them on she got a little misty anyway.

“Why Mistress, whatever is it now?”

Sarah just shook her head with a forced lip-smile, quickly drying her eyes. “Just being a bit silly, probably. Thank you for putting up with me.”

It was Sofi’s turn to look surprised. “It is my duty and privilege to serve-”

“Oh, knock that off,” Sarah interrupted the proscribed diatribe, “it wasn’t your duty to help me like this. I’ll never forget it. Or you.” Kneeling, she leaned over and embraced the creature, careful of her wings.

“What are you doing, Mistress?”

“It’s called a hug; a really basic primate way to show affection. I’m going to miss you.”

“Not for long – you’ll return this afternoon to tell me how it all went,” she replied cheerily. But they both knew it was a lie, and after about a second Sofi tentatively returned the embrace, saying nothing further.

Finally Sarah let go and stood back up, digging out the library trump. “Wish me luck,” she said quietly.

As she walked through, she heard Sofi’s retreating voice saying, “May the Serpent favor you…” and she mentally shook her head as she materialized back into the library. If she ever dropped any lines like that at home, her parents would automatically think she had joined a satanic cult. Maybe she had, she suddenly thought for a moment, but in all honesty it didn’t feel like it. Whatever the Logrus was, she didn’t worship Her.

Racing back to her rooms, Sarah did what she had to do to finish getting ready, grabbed the two incriminating books plus the law volume (the pertinent pages all marked), and made her way to the gymnasium with all due haste, feeling more than a little crazy that she was really going through with this. It didn’t feel any more real than finding that terrible arcane passage had. Picking the lock again on the middle case, she withdrew two trisps and fandons, snugly attached one of the latter to her left arm, got a trisp primed, then – with her hand slightly shaking – dug out Mandor’s trump and carefully angled it up so he wouldn’t see any of the equipment. This was it. She took a deep breath and concentrated…

The familiar form of her guardian wavered, then slowly came into focus: he was outside, leaning against a black marble balcony, the open sky behind him a vivid emerald green – she had timed this about right. He looked up and saw her.

“Sarah! You’re up and about early. What occasions this call? Did you want a head-start on breakfast?”

“Just meet me in the gym,” she managed to say calmly and severed the contact, then waited; he would undoubtedly try to trump her back after such an odd cutoff. And he did – she felt the forceful, probing contact reaching for her almost immediately and willed her mind to go completely blank. There were a few ways to block a call but this one was probably the most reliable. After about forty seconds’ intense pressure, she suddenly felt it let up and exhaled in relief, mentally coming back. One way or another he’d have to enter the room manually now. There was no time to waste – he would be here any minute! She quickly replaced the trump in her pouch, opened the books on the floor and armed herself with the trisp, giving it a couple practice swings; the golden light made the air crackle. Her heart was in her throat.

Mere seconds later she heard Mandor burst through the door at the end of the hallway, his boots swiftly striding up the passage.

“Sarah, are you all right in here? Your call died strangely and I-”

The words dried up instantly as he entered the gymnasium proper and saw her, his eyes widened momentarily in disbelief as he took in the tableau. “What in Chaos is this? Put that thing down immediately before you injure yourself!”

“You don’t seem terribly concerned about injuring me otherwise,” Sarah bit out coldly. “It took me long enough to figure it out,” she held up her naked left hand for him to see.

Mandor almost started for a split-second, then began to measuredly pace toward her. “What are you going on about, child?” he asked calmly but concernedly. “Just deactivate the trisp and-”

“READ!” she pointed down at the books with the live blade, leaving golden flakes of light in her wake.

Warily approaching, Mandor had only to glance down at the opened pages to know what they were. It was simply impossible that she had located these at all, let alone all by herself. The spell he had placed on her had been flawless; there had been absolutely no way she could have even minutely altered it one iota from the inside, or even known of its existence for that matter. Who had tampered with it? Suhuy? Even less likely. But the time for such queries was clearly later. The presence of the law book puzzled him, however.

“Oh, Sarah,” he sighed deeply, “I told you there was no purpose in your knowing this, that it would only serve to frighten you. I acted as I did to keep you safe for specifically this reason. It gives me no pleasure to keep you cooped up like a bird.”

“You did it to keep me in the dark until it was too late!” she exclaimed, backing up a step in the en garde. “You were learning how to destroy me yourself!”

“Sarah, I hold knowledge of many things,” he answered levelly, “call it a hobby if you would. I know how to conjure sufficient Primal Chaos to destroy an entire shadow-world, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do it casually just for kicks. Lord Suhuy brought this to my attention as an unfortunate possibility with you, but a possibility nonetheless; I had to become acquainted with the mechanism so I would not trigger it accidentally. There is no rift between us, Sarah,” Mandor continued smoothly. “Lower your weapon and let us go back to the library where we can discuss the matter at hand calmly and rationally over breakfast. Aside from your general paranoia, you seem to be functioning superbly without the ring; perhaps it was indeed time to remove it,” he carefully praised her, thinking to placate her thus, doing a fast mental catalogue of the fresh spells he had on hand, hoping he wasn’t going to need to use any of them to subdue her. What had come over the girl?

Sarah’s resolve faltered for a moment, but she remained in en garde; looking at the floor, she gave a short, humorless laugh. “You always make everything sound so reasonable,” she shook her head with a wan smile. “You’re used to talking me into everything, even a living arrangement tantamount to house arrest with periods of enforced isolation and mandatory bouts of brainwashing.” She looked back up with steely purpose. “I’m through talking.”

Mandor stepped over the books that lay between them. The fact that he was so collected even in the face of such a weapon seemed terrifying to Sarah, inhuman. Chaosian.

“Sarah,” he said sternly but quietly, “I am going to ask you one final time: drop the trisp and we’ll forget this whole debacle ever happened.”

Sarah grimly smiled. “I knew that would be your exit strategy. You really need to come up with something more original than repeated memory erasure.”

His expression had remained calm, but a coldness had crept into his eyes that she had hitherto only seen on his trump. She literally couldn’t look away…then realized that he was slowly reaching toward his lower-right coat pocket. For his spheres.

In a flash, Sarah brought her version of the Logrus up between them, freeing herself from his gaze, and a split-second later the trisp flared out, slicing open the base of the pocket, his metal spheres bouncing away across the floor! Viewing her handiwork, the strike had been flawless, not even penetrating the inner lining of the jacket!

The action initially caught Mandor off-guard, but he took a deep breath to maintain his composure. Whatever was going down here, she wasn’t going to come quietly as he’d hoped. “That was ill-done, Earth-child,” he invoked a subliminal reminder of their bond, “you were lucky none of those were primed; one could have easily crashed through the outer wall and you would be facing that deadly winter head-on right now,” he coolly scolded. “You have no inking of the far-reaching implications of raising a true weapon against me. Now stop this mad game at once.”

“You never keep your spheres primed,” Sarah countered, the look in her eyes wild, her adrenaline pumping now, “and I know exactly what I’m doing! I’m challenging you for my freedom – freedom of movement if nothing else,” she dared a swift glance at the law book to the left behind him.

“Ah, that’s what you think this is all about,” Mandor exhaled, crossing his arms. It was infuriating to Sarah just how casually he was taking all of this. “Then allow me to introduce you to a few finer points of the law. Firstly, any unprovoked attack on my person resulting in damage is punishable by the law – which is me – since you’re technically not only a commoner but an alien in Chaos, doubly so due to your current status as my ward. Secondly, the passage which you no doubt painstakingly wasted long hours in locating only applies to blood-Chaosians – which you’re not by a longshot – and I can freely inform you that there aren’t any provisos that could possibly apply similarly to aid you; your personal situation is, to the best of my knowledge, entirely unique, and, hence, legally unprecedented. You really don’t have any manner of recourse from this standpoint, as crude as that may sound,” he stated offhandedly, stooping to pick up the books and carrying them to the edge of the hallway; setting them down, then turning to the weapons cases. And glanced back at Sarah: she hadn’t move a pace, her current expression floating somewhere between ire and confusion. Consternation, perhaps – that was well. He really didn’t want to have to face her like this but he understood perfectly well that if he used any magic to diffuse her she’d never willingly cooperate with either him or Suhuy ever again. The scenario conjured up memories of his hot-headed baby brother Jurt – Dara’s youngest – and how he literally had to be worn down to calm him down on certain occasions; although Merlin had acted as his unwilling foil while they were growing up, Mandor had had to deal with him once or twice personally since. It was, sadly, always rather effective but never terribly pleasant for either party; the last time the Chaos lord had actually sustained a broken arm from the venture. The things one did for family.

Mandor removed his jacket, hanging it up on the peg on the wall, willing his spheres to fly across the room back in to the undamaged pocket before walking over to the weapons cases, unlocking a different one that usual and extracting two sheathed foils – real ones – followed by their usual fencing gear.

“However,” he continued, “I can see that your blood is up and you are in no mental condition to see reason at the moment. Considering both your self-perceived and legal predicaments, I am willing to indulge you just this once, but if you’re really going to insist on engaging in this lunacy, at least have the presence of mind to choose a weapon you are nominally proficient in. And I will not raise any weapon against you for any reason at all unless you at least put on your jacket and glove,” he uttered decisively, crouching and sliding the equipment across the floor to her.

Sarah’s eyes never left him, but kneeling where she was and carefully laying aside the trisp and fandon (and suddenly feeling rather vulnerable without them), she quickly suited up; her guardian was doing likewise over by the cases. She tested the suppleness of the blade.

The whole affair seemed both ridiculous and oddly sinister to Mandor as he rapidly strapped into his own jacket, watching Sarah with just a little bit of honest concern. Perhaps Suhuy had unintentionally pushed her over the edge but she didn’t read right even for that; she still seemed largely in her right mind. And there was the matter of the spell gone wrong to consider. What he did sense was the lingering, acrid smell of deliberate sabotage; given half a chance to think, even Sarah seemed a little confused, hesitant of her own reasoning. It was almost like something was working in her that she wasn’t even aware of. Had she accidentally picked up an itinerant spell somewhere? All the possibilities he could come up with were so wildly unrealistic they didn’t bear considering. And there was no chance that she could’ve wandered off by herself into Shadow; she couldn’t draw a single trump to save her life and she had always been carefully supervised during her sojourns out. Or had she? He would know for certain soon enough.

They both walked out to the fencing strip.

“Before we commence,” Mandor assumed his ‘teacher voice’ again, “I’m going to insist on a couple of special ground rules for this bout. This must be a contest of disarmament, not touches; if you so much as accidentally scratch me I will technically be within my rights should I so choose. There will be no quarter; this is a real duel. My objective will be to disarm you as quickly as possible without either of us being injured, but I am fully prepared to keep parrying and beating your blade until you are exhausted on the floor, should it come to that. If, however, you do sustain any injury from this fool’s venture, the guilt falls upon your own head,” he saluted solemnly, suddenly looking all of his 600 years, “not mine.”

Had his voice sounded slightly hurt just then? Sarah didn’t have any time to think on it – he was awaiting her attack. She commenced with a few trial beats of the blade; Mandor retreated, then came back with an obvious attack – high and inside – which she easily parried. How were they even supposed to do this? Not that she had really planned on slicing him up, but he had all but handcuffed her with his stipulations.

Without warning, Mandor struck like a viper, using his gained proximity to her foible to his immediate advantage; Sarah felt her blade starting to wrench in her hand and just barely managed to parry the move, getting a safe distance from his forte again. But now she knew what he was up to.

They exchanged a few relatively pointless attacks the other could see coming a mile away, both trying not to hit each other, which in Sarah’s case was far easier said than done; she was having to fight a lot of ingrained training and reflexes to do this. Hoping he wouldn’t be expecting so risky a move, she cruised her blade further up his, then attempted to nab his foible similarly to the move he had just tried on her moments ago; he flicked her away with almost embarrassing ease and pure wrist strength, and immediately commenced fishing for her foible again. Again she felt the haft literally begin pulled out of her grasp but she just barely managed to hang on.

There was only one way he could disarm her as he wished: he had to get the forte of his foil against the foible of hers and circularly attack with such speed and natural force that her blade would be whipped away from her and thrown across the room. Even knowing to expect the move, it was unnerving how often he was slipping it in; he had nearly succeeded twice now and she didn’t care for the odds. Sarah began to mix in real attacks just to try and distract him; the tactic worked for all of three seconds.

Mandor, seeing that she was no match for such a stylized contest, started to press her, gradually increasing his speed, throwing in feints and double-attacks, following her suit.

In a bad way, the experience was exhilarating for Sarah – her first real duel after all that practice! She was fighting hard but she was holding her own for the most part. The worrying bit was the fact that Mandor could simply outlast her. There was a legendary, friendly duel that had occurred between two princes of Amber that had lasted from sunrise to sunrise normal-time, and could’ve kept right on going had other circumstances not intervened. Even at the peak of health and physical conditioning, native Chaosians weren’t half that strong, but against a shadow-being like herself a quarter-to-a-third of that strength and stamina was certainly sufficient to whip her. Now that he was in pretty decent condition in his humanoid form again (not that he had ever truly been that far out), Mandor could probably last about five hours like this without even getting winded, which was plenty by four hours and forty minutes.

And he was familiar with her as an opponent – that alone was a liability; he knew her weaknesses, the moves she leaned on, the moves that could be better. His attacks were deliberately sloppy and wide now, but each time he closed with her he got closer to ripping her foil right out of her hand, which was starting to ache from the previous attempts. And it was beginning to scare her that she wasn’t having any luck at all similarly. She distinctly remembered him drilling her on this move briefly for a single day, then moving on, never to use it again, and the thought suddenly occurred to her that the lack of practice might have been deliberate – that he wanted to be able to disarm her easily if it ever became necessary – a truly unsettling idea. On top of everything else, as she observed his technique, Sarah realized it looked almost as if he had done this before; he was eerily proficient in this peculiar dance. In fact, certain aspects of it were rather reminiscent of stage fighting.

The lightbulb quietly clicked on in Sarah’s mind. There was the slightest chance that she could use her acting ability to her advantage here; she had rehearsed plays for fun with Sofi numerous times but this was the one activity she had never done with him – he might not think to expect it in the heat of the duel. She still had the Logrus up between them as a safeguard against any further psychic interference on his part; technically he could read her through it, but only with much more mental effort than he could currently afford to expend. Her thoughts racing wildly, Sarah landed on a makeshift plan – it was worth a try, there was simply no time to come up with anything better. She began to parry reactionally, carefully drawing his attack by feigning the beginnings of fatigue, almost imperceptibly slowing down a touch (it wouldn’t be much longer before she was exhausted in truth; there wasn’t a moment to waste.) Registering the slight change in his expression – somber resolve, thinking the game nearly ended – she commenced a bizarre retreat, gently veering off the strip, almost toward the equipment cases; he kept right on coming, his strokes steady but varying more between high and low attacks to try to wear out her wrist and arm faster. He needed to think she might be trying to reach something over here, to distract him.

Come on, just a little farther…

Without any prelude, Sarah made a concerted attack low and outside that could’ve done real damage had he been unable to parry it; he did, but she saw the change had momentarily rattled him and she used his surprise, driving him hard and dangerously fast – fencing for real – giving him everything she had left. One stray filament of her Logrus flitted across the room, as Sarah desired…

Mandor scarcely had time to think when the real attack came, and when he did his first thought was that she had truly gone mad; Sarah was sporting a fierce grin as she whaled away at him. He didn’t dare attack her now; she was going so fast he might accidentally hit her! He had barely registered that they were all the way across the room sideways when Sarah did a beat-and-feint combination followed by a true lunge that would’ve run him clean through had he not leap-parried back – as she knew he would – dropping his balance arm behind him in preparation for the riposte…

And the delicate unprotected skin of the back of Mandor’s left hand made forceful contact with the exposed glass of the methane-chilled window! The physical shock was so intense that he couldn’t breathe for a moment – and the foil dropped from his sword hand. The point of Sarah’s was instantly less than an inch away from the hollow of his throat. She was no longer smiling at all as she stood there, sweaty and panting, catching her breath, her eyes still guarded, suspicious.

“That was a very dirty win, Sarah,” Mandor quietly scolded her, furiously trying to rub a little warmth back into his lightly frostbitten hand, “but I’ll concede it under the circumstances. Now put away the weapons and let’s talk.”

She didn’t move a muscle.

“Sarah?” There was a note of warning in his voice. “I said put it down,” he added authoritatively.

Sarah swallowed and very slowly advanced on him, bringing the tip of her foil under his chin. Forcing him to lift his head.

“Sarah, what are you doing?!” He finally sounded pissed but she heard a distinct twinge of fear. She carefully walked him backwards until he was nearly at the window; he could feel the biting cold emanating from it. She was obviously enjoying a little power-trip at his expense – at least he sincerely hoped that’s all this was – but it had just dawned on him that even with the magic he could still perform without his spheres and his Chaosian shiftable form and reflexes, there was absolutely no way that he could possibly move away fast enough; she was simply too close. If she actually forced him to press up to the glass, he would be unconscious from hypothermia in minutes, dead in twenty. And there was literally nothing he could do to stop her! If he lived through this catastrophe, something concrete would have to be done with her to ensure that she couldn’t become an active threat like this again.

As Sarah’s adrenaline rush came back down, she reflected on what she had to do next – she’d never get another chance: all she had to do was lift his trump deck and she’d be free as a bird! It never left his person; even now it was secreted beneath his fencing jacket. Naturally, other rasher courses of action had entered her mind as well, but once she got her nerves back under control…

…she couldn’t do anything. He was too proud to show real fear but she could tell that the old Chaos lord was sweating bullets, wondering what she would do. And she hated him for it.

Mandor saw her resolve suddenly melt away and felt the thick, velvet curtain slide down behind him.

“I can’t hurt you,” her voice broke on her, full of emotion; she blinked and tears ran freely down her face. She shook her head. “I can’t,” she sobbed helplessly, thoroughly humiliated by her own weakness, her fondness for him.

Her guard had dropped sufficiently that he could finally read her: ‘…even though you’ve hurt me more deeply than you’ll probably ever be able to understand.’ What Mandor understood only too well was the fact that the emotional conditioning he had done with her had in all likelihood just saved his life; he wouldn’t care to have to depend upon it in this manner a second time. But he did understand her: from her mildly warped perspective, some of his private actions toward her looked like a grievously personal betrayal of trust – and there was no way that he could think of to explain it any better under current conditions. Not until he could figure out what was changing her view of the full picture. One thing was certain, though: life couldn’t go back to the way it had been, not now – she’d ensured that. The girl really was kind of amazing in her own wild, haphazard sort of way. Chaotic, he thought with a bittersweet, inward smile. She was still crying.

“Put up your sword, Earth-child,” he said gently, heaving a great sigh, “I yield.”

Sarah could scarcely believe her ears. “What?”

“Well, that is what you wanted, is it not? Or at least what you purport to want. Now, if you wouldn’t terribly mind pointing that thing someplace else,” he slowly brought up his right hand and carefully eased the tip of her foil away from his throat with a couple fingers. Sarah lowered her foil as she backed up, still amazed, giving him room. Mandor simply watched her for a moment as she dried her eyes, then nodded to himself as if he had just come to some kind of conclusion.

“I have a few private calls I need to make if you’re going to do this thing properly, starting with Lord Suhuy; there’s to be no lesson this morning,” he stated rather matter-of-factly as he looked down momentarily, removing his fencing glove. For the briefest of moments Sarah thought she saw a whisper of regret cross his features, but it passed as quickly as it came. “I am certain you have noted by now the dark-blue evening gown in the very back of your wardrobe. I had originally meant to give you some kind of special occasion to wear it, but the Logrus had other plans,” he said quietly. He glanced back at her; Sarah was hanging on every word. Perhaps the cause wasn’t so lost after all. “Go freshen up and change into it; the shoes are hidden beneath. Then disguise your appearance under the ensemble – some variant on saurian will suffice – and meet me in the library in half-an-hour. Be sure to wear your brooch and your trumps. Do you still have my ring or did you try to dispose of it somehow?”

“…I still have it,” Sarah answered hesitantly.

“Good – don’t put it on but nevertheless bring it with you; however you’ve been carrying it will do.”

He turned away from her and procured his own trump deck from an inner side panel of his fencing jacket. Then turned back to her, slightly irritated that she was just standing there like a statue. “Just leave the equipment; I’ll put it all away. Hurry up!”

Sarah ripped off her jacket and glove as bidden, dropping the foil where she stood, and turned to go. And stopped: she had to ask.

“Where exactly were you planning on taking me?”

Mandor glanced over his shoulder; Sarah was putting on a brave front but he could tell that she was definitely nervous. As well she should be after that display, he thought. Then relented a little with a small, secretive smile.

“I think it’s finally time for you to meet Merlin Barimen-Sawall.”
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