Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Labyrinth of Chaos

The Ball Keeps Rolling

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

formal dinner, discoveries, emotional goodbye, and an unsettling thought

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Fantasy - Published: 2017-05-31 - 13908 words - Complete

Chapter 10 – The Ball Keeps Rolling

A semi-formal society dinner nothing - that meal of Mandor Sawall’s was made of the stuff of legend. It was an entirely Chaosian feast, a full seven courses, but with small enough portions that the experience was enjoyable and not an exercise in gluttony or discomfort. Even the actual presentation of each course was nothing short of simplified elegance as wave after wave of dishes emanated down from the head of the table; various decanters literally flew about all evening, refilling glasses as necessary. But the food itself was probably the most surprising feature for Sarah: she only now realized just to what extent Mandor had heretofore catered not only to her Shadow Earth tastes, but also to her relative comfort levels. Some of the flavors – while exquisite – were almost too bold for her to handle. She literally had to watch her dining companions to know how to eat certain things, special utensils and all. And – delicious as it had been, as much as she tried not to think about it later - she was fairly certain that the fish course had not only been sushi-grade raw but nominally still alive!

She had had to demurely endure some rather curious scrutiny at first, even one dark-haired woman who’d had the gall to will Sarah’s eyes to meet her own across the table in the attempt to silently read her, only to discover that she was too well warded magically, giving her a rather fake publicity-style lip-smile before returning to the artistically-assembled hors d’oeuvres. But once they were past the soup course, everyone started breaking off into little pockets of private conversation, so she was able to talk fairly freely with the people directly next to her relatively unnoted. Both Gilva and Despil had obviously been thoroughly briefed as to what topics could openly be discussed here and what couldn’t because they were too perfectly on the same page, largely sticking to certain aspects of Sarah’s training and her impressions of Chaos. Gilva carried most of the conversation with Despil only interjecting at certain points; he was rather unobtrusive, mostly just quietly listening to the two of them as he ate. While Sarah had initially found him charming, the longer she spent in his company the more she began to have an odd, funny feeling that there was much more to Despil Sawall than met the eye and ear, something dark, only half-hidden behind that disarming, secretive little smile of his; it was in his mundane mannerisms, the way he carried himself, the way he spoke. It was probably a strictly instinctual reaction, but somehow she just knew.

It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for, she reflected, feeling his almost scientific level of attention though he wasn’t even looking at her, sensing the gears in his head whirring away. It also struck her for the first time that, in a society where what could easily be categorized as black magic or occult activity in other worlds was not only officially sanctioned by the state but condoned, it could be rather difficult to pinpoint individuals who had the potential of becoming problematic if not downright dangerous to that very society. The line was that thin.

But, at present, he was simply being polite and easy company, doing his best to fulfill the relatively simple task of being a social (and physically literal) buffer between Sarah and the dignitaries to her left, while Gilva pressed her for details on her martial training upon hearing that Sarah had taken up the sword for exercise while at Mandorways.

“Of course, basic technique cannot be overemphasized or rushed,” Gilva was practically gushing, “but have you gotten to handle any of the heavier swords yet? Or are you still just on the foil?”

“Foil only,” Sarah replied between bites of a citrus sorbet that had an oddly astringent, clean tang to it that made it feel tonic. “Lord Mandor has hoped I wouldn’t ever need anything more than that.”

Gilva gave an amused, rueful little lip-smile. “He would never be so uncouth as to say so aloud, but privately I’d be willing to wager he deems the practice of a woman bearing substantial arms unladylike. If you ever have the opportunity to learn the broadsword from a well-seasoned ‘man-of-arms’, so-to-speak, by all means do so; it’s wonderful for building your upper body strength as well as your confidence. And there are few experiences in life more satisfying than actually wielding one in an honorable cause; it’s a rather heady feeling.”

“…I think I’m going to just have to take your word for it on that one,” Sarah laughed a little nervously, reaching for a roll to sop up the bloody, complexly-seasoned juices on her plate from the roast…whatever-it-was; the meat course was thankfully not served whole with the head still on, as the fish course had been. Gilva looked past her.

“Anything to add to that, my lord the eternal pacifist?” she jestingly queried Despil. “You’ve been silent as a stone night-dragon over there for some time now.”

“Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just enjoying hearing you two ladies chat,” he answered quietly with a note of mild amusement. “It isn’t every day one has the opportunity of hearing a woman of Hendrake casually expounding upon the inherent joys of hacking people to pieces on the battlefield. And over dinner, no less.”

“Now, that right there,” Gilva sighed in annoyance, “is the exact stereotyped mindset that my kinswomen have had to fight since time-immemorial. Make no mistake, Sarah: for as far as the shadow-worlds inbetween may have evolved, it is still a man’s world at both far ends of the spectrum. But don’t ever let them cow you; the only appreciable difference in ability that cannot be breached is strictly reproductive – and we have the edge on them there,” she smirked proudly, taking another sip of wine.

In short, the woman was simply astounding, and as the evening progressed Sarah found herself rather admiring her, hoping to one day be even half as capable and self-assured. She could well understand what Merlin saw in her; they might’ve even been similar in age.

As unbelievable as it was by now, Mandor had obviously saved his best efforts for the last: Dessert was a lavish work of art that actually garnered some brief applause upon its presentation. Thin fountains of aqua-blue flame briefly poured over an outrageously delicate construction of hard sugar and meringue, caramelizing it, breaking it down over deep grooves in a lush dark torte, the unearthly fire flowing down to terminate in a moat at the base of the elaborate serving tray, where it died down to a faint glow. And Mandor personally sliced it up with a thin, double-handled knife nearly long enough to be a sword!

I know this! Sarah thought as a small dessert plate floated to her place and neatly settled before her. Sneaking a taste confirmed that the exotic concoction was similar to that thin, rich little slice of heaven that he’d left for her that catastrophic night that he’d had his mysterious date. Had he discreetly appropriated it from their own dinner? The thought had never crossed her mind. This one was sweet caramel with tart dark berries, though, versus the fudge with sweet. More sophisticated.

As soon as everyone was served, all conversation stopped on a dime as the accompanying compulsion to slowly savor a culinary masterpiece their host had no doubt spent a lot of time planning out and setting up kicked in. And nobody minded – it was that good. Taste was clearly Mandor’s favorite sensory stimuli.

Espresso service came around afterwards and of course Sarah had to accept a cup; it would’ve looked very odd if she hadn’t. From the snippets she was hearing around her, it seemed to be a rare novelty for these people – then she remembered Merlin’s comments in the Thelbane about coffee being difficult to get out here and realized that he must’ve requested this. She had only tried plain espresso once – just a sip from her mother’s cup at a fancy restaurant during a cast afterparty – and had instantly hated the bitterness. But when in Rome…

It’s barely over half-a-cup, she rationalized, raising it to her lips, anticipating that first acidic sip… then closed her eyes in surprised pleasure, taking a swallow instead: Mandor had spiked her portion with that private-reserve cacao of his, and just enough sugar to turn it bittersweet! A quick glance around the table showed no one else in the throes of chocolate-induced ecstasy, and a surreptitious look at Despil’s cup as he lowered it reinforced the fact that hers did look slightly different, but not so much so that anyone else would notice, especially over the strong collective aroma in the room. Was it just a concession or was it also a private message, a very deliberate attempt to try to make her feel nostalgic? Probably both, but she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing that it had worked as she finished it off, fighting the urge to lick up the remnants; in all likelihood, she’d never taste that particular genetic variant of chocolate ever again.

That’s what it is, she thought suddenly, look what you’re leaving behind, who you’re running from. He may have been too big to hold a grudge, but there was still a good chance that she had actually hurt his feelings at some level. But it was too late now, and, everything considered, she wasn’t very sorry for this outcome; she would’ve otherwise still been biting her nails back over at Mandorways while he attempted to make the process of her ‘training’ endurable with any number of small diversions. Oh, fine, he’s definitely succeeded; might as well go and thank him, she thought, starting to scoot her heavy chair back. The good feeling from the meal itself was only starting to hit her but it had obviously been hurried along by the modest amount of alcohol for those who had been drinking; the few remaining side conversations sounded much more relaxed now than they had been earlier during dinner.

“Let me get that, Sarah,” Despil said, standing and pulling her chair out for her in one fluid, practiced move. “So this would be goodbye, then? A pity. And just when you were getting to like me.” He made a point of kissing her hand again, a playful twinkle in his stormy eyes.

Alright, maybe it’s not general malevolence, Sarah thought, just a private garden variety. Still…

Gilva cleared her throat.

“What?” he asked her. “I’m not about to let Jurt have all the fun, especially in his absence.” His voice dropped to a barely-audible murmur. “I hear Shadow-Earth girls are worth going after,” he managed without moving his lips, making Sarah lightly blush, averting her eyes. He glanced past her again, resuming his normal tone: “Or was that a signal that you desired assistance as well, my lady? I would never offend you by presuming you needed any help at all without being expressly asked,” he stated in all seriousness.

Gilva gave him a frowning smile, shoving her chair out as if it were no heavier than wicker, and, standing, pushing it back in easily with one arm, showing her true physical strength. “Good save,” she acknowledged, “although the flirt does have a point,” she addressed Sarah; the woman towered over her. “I, too, am sorry that you must be leaving us so soon. If you ever have occasion to return to Chaos, look me up and we’ll have a vigorous fencing session together. In any event, never forget it’s up to us to show some of these self-inflated lords and princes what a woman is truly capable of,” she gave one final conspiratory smile and Sarah found herself smiling, too. There really was a version of hardcore feminism out here at the Rim; it was funny, thinking of a few rather belligerently vocal far-right commentators from her own shadow who would be screaming ‘I told you so!’ right now.

But the moment was over; Sarah politely said her goodbyes and carefully worked her way across the room to Mandor, where he was practically surrounded by his guests. She was just a little bit surprised to discover that the king had already disappeared very discreetly, almost like he didn’t want to have to answer any questions. A quick glance behind showed her Gilva and Despil speaking close together and looking rather serious. Comparing note on her? Probably. She didn’t put anything past these people now, having experienced a bunch of them on their home turf, so-to-speak. Sarah highly suspected that Merlin had had a secondary reason for making certain that she was engaged in active conversation in this environment: it kept her from being able to pay too close of attention to the outrageous conversations going on around her. But she had heard enough anyway. Chaosian high society appeared to operate rather like a game, like a bizarre hybrid of mental chess, charades, and Russian roulette! They talked circles around each other in vagarities, trying to tease out each other’s secrets and weaknesses for direct personal gain, even going so far as to openly congratulate someone for getting the better of one on a previous occasion! She could well-imagine Lord Suhuy not wanting her exposed to this impromptu exposé on terribly callous, jaded casual interaction; he was notably missing from this little gathering also.

And speaking of interaction, there was absolutely no way in Chaos that she could speak privately with Mandor now; he was simply too well hemmed in on a few basic levels. Even she had been having to deliberately ignore some fielded questions from rather curious total strangers (really she should’ve rehearsed better for this.) She did briefly catch the Chaos lord’s eye, however, but how he responded initially threw her for a loop: he had made eye-contact, then pointedly glanced at a specific point behind her to her left, then back at her again with his statesman’s smile, effortlessly continuing his half of the conversation straight on through! His intimation quickly dawned on her, though – he had just pointed out the exit she could take. Checking out the wall behind her to her left, she easily located the tension of the way, and, taking in the sight of the room and all those resplendent people one final time – she caught Despil toasting her with that dangerous, quiet smile – she inconspicuously slipped away…

…into a small, rough-stone hallway with a cylindrical ceiling, the close hall lit with green-fire braziers. Just on the other side of both walls she could hear a hurricane-force gale roaring away, pounding against the small chamber! Suddenly ill-at-ease and worried that she may have accidentally taken a wrong turn, Sarah quickly unfolded her map: where she appeared to be was nowhere within the safely-marked passageways and rooms. In fact, this hallway wasn’t adjacent to the dining room at all! She was officially in no-man’s land. Starting to panic a little, Sarah tried the way that she had just come through, only to discover that it only opened in one direction – how she had gotten in. There was no going back through that wall. She briefly considered trumping for help but almost immediately decided against it. This was a real rookie mistake on her part; if she had to go crying to Mandor now it could seriously undermine the king’s personal judgment in choosing to actively use her as he was planning on. Not that she wasn’t questioning it herself at this point, but all the same…

She shuffled out Mandor’s trump anyway (this was so embarrassing) and kept it firmly in hand as she put the rest of the cards and the map away; if she got in serious trouble she had to be able to reach him instantaneously, but she was seriously hoping it wouldn’t come to that. Basic training reminded her to summon up her version of the Logrus – which she did – and to have it precede her down the hall; she doubted hers would be useful this way but the normal ones would alert if danger was ahead. It was worth a shot. With any luck, her bravado wasn’t going to get her killed.

Advancing slowly and carefully, she made her way down the thin, cramped hall (which was nearly making her feel claustrophobic by now); turning left, she navigated a short flight of stone steps down, feeling for ways to make sure she didn’t get sucked through unawares – there were none. The staircase terminated at an open doorway hung over on the inside with a long, thick tapestry. Tentatively lifting it aside, Sarah was relieved to see familiar surroundings: it was the room they had set her up in for the night! She jogged through the way and collapsed in relief on the large mattress. Then curiosity got the better of her and she got back up and lifted the tapestry again (it was of a panorama of the Sliding Mountains with the dancing stars above) only to find solid wall behind it. Pressing her ear up to it, there was silence on the other side. Genuinely intrigued now, she took the map over to the work table; upon very tedious examination, it finally revealed that the tiny hallway she had just emerged from was most likely a specific small section of one of the back service passageways that honeycombed the outer portions of the compound. Mandor had most likely gone to the trouble of hurriedly tacking this one where it was to connect the dining hall to her room so that she could make it back here relatively unobserved. She wondered if anyone else could come through in like fashion for a moment, then dismissed the idea out-of-hand. She knew that was why he had done this; it would have defeated the entire purpose of the exercise otherwise. Well, all right, then, she shook her head, refolding the map and putting it away.

What to do at 9:00 p.m. (roughly) on a Saturday night in Chaos? Actually, she had no idea what day of the week it might’ve been, and, besides, nobody bothered to measure time like that here; they were lucky just to have ‘days’ and ‘hours’. There weren’t even seasons as such this close to the Rim.

While her room was definitely clean, it had obviously been sparsely finished at the last minute; only things that were physically necessary for her short stay were in here. Not even anything to read, save the notes on Amberite Thari that she herself had jotted down only hours ago. And now that there were extra people wandering about the Ways of Sawall, she probably shouldn’t go out again. She sighed and went to sit on the shaggy, black fur rug in front of the hearth, watching the golden flames artistically weave and crackle. She still had almost no idea of what tomorrow would bring except that she wouldn’t be here for most of it. She would be ostensibly on her own, trying to blend in at the other pole of existence.

Sarah never in her life would’ve believed that she was going to miss Chaos, but now that her departure was so close she was starting to feel that loss. These worlds were simply crazy but there was just nowhere else like them. Time felt synthetic here, its passage less marked. Any place, anything you could imagine, was within reach – literally. Scary or intimidating things and creatures weren’t necessarily evil out here, the way their shadow-counterparts could be farther away from the Rim, far from their full history and cultural worldview. And then, of course, there were the people. True, her personal experience had been rather limited, but it seemed that a handful of the nicest individuals in the known universes were located at the edge – and the worse the stereotype, the harder they worked at being nice. It couldn’t possibly be true across the board, but the phenomena had certainly made an impression. Sarah already missed Sofi and was hoping that she hadn’t gotten the demoness into trouble, that Mandor would take good care of her for many years to come; it briefly occurred to her that she still had the trump of that play-shadow, but then she realized that she had no way of knowing whether Sofi was still stationed there, or if Mandor was even bothering to keep up the place now that she was leaving. It might not even be safe to look in on.

Mandor. If there was ever a mystery of a man, he was it: genteel, genuinely pleasant and slightly retiring on the outside, with only powers-knew-what going on in that head. She had seriously thought she had really known him, only to have his dark, dangerous side paraded out this morning by the king just to gauge her reaction (she was fairly certain that was why Merlin had told her all of that; he hadn’t needed to.) Now she didn’t know what she should think or feel towards him; he was an oddly mixed bag in himself. In a weird, messed-up sort of way, she found that she still kind of admired him, but it was something that she wouldn’t as readily admit to anyone anymore.

Or did that only mean that he was that good at playing the game? Sarah closed her eyes a moment, shutting out the world. As distasteful an idea as it was, there was the distinct possibility that it was the truth. These people seemed to live so long as to outgrow any subjective sense of how to treat each other. Even if this were the case, he still wasn’t entirely to blame, but…

Her train of thought going nowhere productive, Sarah got up and changed back into the other outfit (there hadn’t even been any nightwear provided, but this was technically comfortable enough) and got ready for bed, deciding to make an early night of it. There was probably going to be tons to do in the morning before she could leave for Amber.

Amber – now there was a thought. The reality that her own native sense of reality ultimately hailed from. The City of the Unicorn, ancient rival of the Serpent of Chaos, the power of Ordered Intelligence itself – Herself, she should say; Sarah wasn’t certain of the Pattern of Amber (harbinger of that great Order) but the Unicorn physically manifested female. In some bizarre fashion, She was literally the progenitor of the royal House of Amber. Which really made all of those warring, conniving princes and princesses the heirs of the powers in a way that Sarah didn’t quite know how to think of at all, let alone deal with. They were no respecters of persons and least of all each other, as it had been with their father and his deceased siblings before them; there was more than enough power for all to share, but not with any level of comfort or safety. The War had served as a bitter reminder as to where their first allegiance lay, however – to Amber herself – and (for the most part) the active in-fighting and animosity had been laid aside for the time being. But history dictated that it would not remain so, not in the long run anyway. There was even a movement in the Courts that was quickly gaining popularity that was in favor of just letting the House of Barimen self-destruct, coming in later to clean up the mess, as it were; the way things looked they seemed to have a good point, but that was a battle of attrition that could very well take eons to fully play out.

Their amazing health and longevity aside, the Unicorn’s grandchildren more-or-less appeared and behaved rather like normal human beings, or at least like Chaosians with very little magic to speak of, magic being an irrational power and hence almost non-existent over there in comparison to the Courts. By some whim of fate or destiny, the youngest son, Random, had been handpicked (horn-picked?) by the Unicorn Herself to succeed Oberon Barimen after his death at Patternfall when he repaired a flaw in the original Pattern at the cost of his own life; even before this, Oberon had been missing for so long there had nearly been civil war between the princes for the throne. But then they had had their own problems with the Courts during that time of internal weakness, hinging on a mad traitor from their own ranks.

And, somehow at some point in time, one of those people (more likely an errant prince) had hooked up with somebody else (goodness-knows-who), and the result was Sarah’s original, and the ripple-effect of Amber reached down through time and shadow to create Sarah as she was right now. It was almost too much to even contemplate, but she kept thinking about it anyway in bed, turning it over and over in her mind until total exhausted bewilderment led to sleep and dreams.

…she was in a beautifully lush primeval forest, verdant green for a change and not purple or orange; the smell, the sounds, the light filtering down through the tall, strong trees seemed almost Earthlike, save that the colors were still more vibrant even if the spectrum was technically ‘correct’. She simply wandered for what seemed a long time, lazily exploring old footpaths and wagon tracks, noting that she seemed to be wearing a brown-and-cream medieval-style peasant dress, when she suddenly heard a hunting horn give a single long, clear blast far in the distance, followed by the sound of dogs baying and yapping. And many horse-hooves pounding the ground – they were getting closer. A falcon screech tore through the still air, and only seconds later an adult male chimera leapt through the foliage in a full-run less than a hundred yards away – and made straight toward her! Sarah screamed and took off, running as hard as she possibly could, faster than any human should be able to, and still the beast seemed on the verge of closing in on her, she could feel it’s hot breath at her back. The world blurred away all around her, changing, until the trees of the forest had turned to copper and steel, the soft loam beneath her bare feet replaced with hard, polished tile, the chimera would be on her any second now…

…but a glance back showed nothing but a hall – nobody there! She was alone...

Except the chimera came around from behind a metal tree just a few yards ahead of her, upright on his hind-legs, and changed into the form of a man before her very eyes. A man with hair as crazy as the lion’s mane of the beast, as dangerous; he leaned casually against the tree with one booted foot resting against the bole, spinning three clear crystals around in one hand. He was turning to face her with a nasty-sounding chuckle…

Sarah awoke with a gasp in the partially-lit stone room; she hadn’t been able to manually snuff out the high candles in the black-metal candelabra hung from the ceiling, but she wasn’t sure about using too much of her magic in this place anyway and had decided on just leaving them lit for convenience sake; she hadn’t found any matches in here, either. It figured that she’d have at least one stress nightmare like this right before she left on assignment to Amber.

And then the sudden realization of what it really was and meant fully hit her and she sat up and gave her pillow a good pummeling before burying her face in it to muffle an aggravated scream! If Jareth had been here right this instant she would’ve throttled him! It was all so blindingly, stupidly obvious! He had personally ensured that she would develop a sufficient level of paranoia to get herself kicked out of Mandorways! But had he had any motive beyond petty revenge on both her and Mandor, though? Had he thought that she would have a better chance of finding Ghost-Corwin if she were being shuffled elsewhere in Chaos? Was that what it meant?

Sarah rolled over with a groan. There was only one way to find out; hopefully she wouldn’t get into any more trouble for doing this than she already was. Getting up, she got a fast drink of water, pulled back her hair, pulled on her boots, grabbed her cleaned gasmask, and strapped on her trump pouch, heading out and down the hall to the turnstile this time. Zipping about it backward counterclockwise four times, she came back into the main hall, which was dark now; even the fire in the ornamental fireplace had been allowed to bank down a little. Producing a small spirit-light, she double-checked the map before heading off the plush blue runner-carpet, and, reaching a certain way, sank straight through the floor, coming out into a larger, more modern-looking hallway. She would have to be very quiet in this passage; many of the adjacent ways from here were frequently traversed and led to numerous parts of the ‘house’. The one she was looking for should be very small and thin. It took a little careful deduction but she finally located it - the emergency shortcut out of the art maze - and took it, letting it pull her through into the presence of that garish jabberwocky skeleton again. The fact that somebody had even found one gave her the creeps; she would never look at Lewis Carroll’s literary works quite in the same light ever again!

Walking through the wall to the rear of it, she quickly strode down the gallery hall with purpose until she came to the section with the hammered metal trees once more – where Jareth had been in the dream, where her whistler had seemed to be hiding. The lighting was the same as ever but this place felt downright spooky at night – was this night? There was no way of knowing. It was always night here somewhere.

“Hey, Chim-Cheree, you still here?” she boldly called out in English. “Sorry I had to run before – didn’t have a choice!”


“Hello? Bert?”

Still silence. Maybe she was just being stupid – who knows what she had been hearing before dinner; it could’ve been anything from some unspeakable creature hiding out in here and playing games to a latent spell somebody had left lying around as a prank. Maybe this was a really bad idea. No response was probably unbelievably lucky on her part. Sarah was about to turn on her heel and run straight back to her room while she still had the chance when she heard a faint voice from directly above her, distinctly male.

“Up here.” In English.

Nothing more.

She stopped. “Who are you?” she ventured.

“That depends. Get up here and see.”

If this wasn’t foolhardy, Sarah didn’t know what was. Still, the fact remained that there did indeed seem to be a real person in here that had at least trivial knowledge of Shadow Earth. If it wasn’t just a trick. Summoning up her version of the Logrus for protection (better safe than sorry), Sarah looked around for a way to get up into the fake tree. There were no footholds, nothing to hang onto down here, and it was far enough from the others that she wouldn’t care to try and jump over from one of them. Just to the left and back of this display was a collection of long weapons, some of which looked strictly decorative, but they were all still pretty sharp on the whole and she certainly didn’t want to risk falling into them. If only there was a way she could just float up, it would be easy to see if anything was really hiding up there…

Her hoverboard! But it was still back at Mandorways along with some other stuff (she’d have to ask Merlin about retrieving the rest of her personal affects in the morning.) Could she pull it through from there herself? Technically-speaking, it wasn’t that far away. She’d never had much luck with pulling objects through Shadow - it seemed like a real strain on her power and she always paid for it afterwards either physically or mentally – but she had to try. Bracing herself, she reached toward her Logrus, watching the center become an inky pool blacker than black, and steadied her nerves and her breathing as her hands sank into two tendrils nearly up to the elbow as she concentrated on the form of the object she desired – long, hard, thin, flat, white, footholds – and eventually she grabbed something hard and quickly hauled it through the portal…

It worked! Sarah briefly hugged the familiar board tightly to herself, waiting for the panic attack to elapse as she stood there with her eyes closed, breathing deeply. After a couple minutes it had subsided sufficiently for her to mount the board and will it to lift her up slowly. Even at ceiling-level she couldn’t see anything through the thickly-leaved copper branches. Probing the top of the tree with the Logrus tentacles revealed a hidden way, however; most of the top was an immaculately-crafted illusion, she should be able to sail straight through. Sarah flew in closer and took a deep breath, holding the gasmask tightly up to her face…

…and suddenly found herself inside an artificially-lit small stone chapel! Sailing back into the way again, she instantly re-emerged in the art maze: it was a safe two-directional way, and she headed back in. This time she eased up on the mask a bit, taking a small tentative breath with her eyes winced closed; the air in here seemed okay, and she lowered it. Staying on the board for fear of stumbling through hidden ways in here, she glided up a very short aisle of pews and huge unlit black candles to the altar, which was a kind of shrine setup with wax remnants of burned-down silver candles from a long row of screw-in holders, a sheathed saber with the belt attached, and a single silver rose in a tiny vase; the flower actually looked real, not just more worked metal – beautiful.

But above all of this was the real showstopper: there was an exquisite two-by-three-foot oil painting of a handsome man rendered to just below the waist, possibly in his early forties, with dark hair and the greenest of eyes, dressed in fine black-and-silver cavalier period costume, with a silver rose clasp at the throat of his cape. Sarah’s breath caught – it was the man from her dream earlier that day! Down on the floor beneath her board a few feet back and to the right was an odd tableau, partly in tile, partly inscribed directly onto the floor: an unmistakable representation of the Pit of Chaos at one end, another that had to be Amber on the other, and a pentagram set between them with more remnants of wax at the points. The whole place looked and felt abandoned, like nobody came here anymore. What it had all been for originally she could only guess at. She fingered her trump pack a little nervously.

“Okay, Bert, I’m here,” she announced, trying not to let her voice shake.

She nearly dropped the gasmask as the portrait instantly came to life! Its principle only studied her for a second or two, but that intense forest-green gaze made it feel much longer. Undoubtedly sizing her up.

“What’s a young Patterner like you doing here with the legions of Chaos?” he asked imperiously and with such a level of authority that Sarah was nearly apologizing before she collected her wits! He certainly seemed to ‘fit’ up there on that altar!

“One could easily ask you the same question, sir,” she carefully replied, not about to be ‘cowed’ by a show of force but not wanting to be offensive, either. “It’s not entirely my choice if that’s what you’re getting at. Hopefully, I’ll be able to go back home soon.”

He crossed his arms. Those eyes were terribly cold, as judging as some foreign god. “To what purpose?”

“To live the rest of my life. That’s all.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Training,” she sighed. “I did something real dumb and wound up with a lot more than I bargained for, than I could deal with on my own. I needed help badly and I got it unsearched for.”

“And you hold no animosity toward Amber or the Order-shadows? Answer me truthfully.”

Sarah suddenly found herself saying, “I do not,” almost before she realized she was even speaking! She gasped, wide-eyed.

The figure in the painting relaxed just a bit but his expression was still guarded, almost a little quizzical. “You got a name, kid?”

Sarah was really leery of him now! “Sarah,” she stated definitively. She wasn’t about to hand him her last name. Not like this.

He lightly smirked at her reaction. “Where’s home?”

“Shadow Earth. Downstate New York.”

His expression lightened even further. “Big home,” he gently teased. “Alright, you’ve seen what’s worth seeing in here, now move along before you get into trouble for just being here. Don’t mention to anyone that you actually saw or spoke with me.” He stopped. “By-the-way, how did you get up here?”

She checked the floor right below her with a Logrus strand – it was safe. “Hoverboard,” she smiled a little, hopping off of it, holding it up to show him.

The man just rolled his eyes. “Get outta here, kid,” he waved her off, “this isn’t any place for you to be fooling around,” he began to turn to brush strokes again. “Get back to Earth, stay there and prosper in peace. The cult-figure has spoken.”

“Wait!” Sarah had the feeling that once that painting returned he wasn’t coming back! “You never told me your name! Is it Corwin?” she dared. That question was probably really dangerous but she knew she’d never have another chance.

The figure stopped in mid-transformation.

“And what if it was?”

“Then I’m here to rescue you.”

The man burst into hardy laughter, coming back fully; the sound of his rich baritone voice made the little chapel ring.

“That’s the richest thing I’ve heard in ages! Do you even have any inkling as to where you’re currently standing?”

“No, but if you’d stop mocking me for a second and tell me how I can help you, I’d be willing to try!” Sarah responded indignantly, putting her free hand on her hip.

That garnered raised eyebrows. “You would actually be willing to free me, not knowing who I am?”

“I saw a man in a dark cell briefly. He said the word ‘Corwin’.” She hesitated. “He looked a lot like you. If you’re not just an elaborate illusion.” She extended a Logrus tentacle toward the painting to examine it.

“Don’t do that!” he suddenly shouted, “You’ll set off the alarm! It took me ages to get this blasted image-transfer spell to work from the inside; if you even touch it with that we’ll be cut off!”

“Sorry!” she instantly apologized, banishing her Logrus completely.

He just stared at her for a moment, no longer smiling. “You are in earnest.”

“Of course I am.”

He seemed to seriously consider her for a minute. “What’s your price?” he finally stated.

“Excuse me?”

“Altruism is dead,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Some itinerant wizard didn’t just send you looking for me out of the kindness of his heart. You obviously know nothing of this business. Who sent you?”

“I know I’m addressing the Pattern-ghost of a Prince of Amber,” she whispered irritatedly, “and if I tell you who showed you to me, you’re going to have to promise you’re not going to wink out on me until I’ve had a chance to fully explain the situation.”

Shadow-Corwin heaved a great sigh, crossing his arms again. “I’m not going anywhere, kid. Start talking.”

And Sarah did – all about Jareth, his vague cosmic relation to Lord Mandor Sawall, his self-inflicted predicament, and how she knew him; she even ventured slightly into her own training – just enough for him to know what she was capable of. The guy obviously had serious doubts on this point but, annoying as it was, she sort of understood his misgivings about her with where he was coming from. He had a lot of questions she simply couldn’t answer, but she did her best all the same.

“Now, let me see if I’ve got this straight,” he eventually stated, “this crazy asshole ‘freed’ you from the stifling care of Lord Mandor Sawall so that you could ‘liberate’ me, and I in turn, out of eternal gratitude, am not only supposed to free this renegade but take him on as an apprentice?! I’m not even sure gaining my own liberty is worth that kind of hassle. And he really is a second-rate sorceror if he thinks you can spring me all by yourself.”

“Hey, I know I’m young, but I’m far from incompetent!” Sarah protested. “I made it through the worst of the Fixed Logri in one piece, I beat Jareth at his own game on his own turf. What is it that you think I’m incapable of? You’ve obviously been in there long enough to figure out just how you’re imprisoned, how the system works. Can’t you just talk me through what needs to happen here?”

“It’s not that easy,” he shook his head. “I’ll tell you, but you can’t come in here from out there or you’ll be trapped same as me. Worse, actually – nobody even comes here with food anymore, haven’t in years. My captor most likely considers me dead; I assumed I would’ve dissolved by now myself, but this very place has been unintentionally feeding me energy, keeping me alive. Structurally-speaking, I physically have more in common with these tentative walls than I do with either you or my original. Will you promise me you won’t go tinkering with this, to just stay where you are and then to depart?”

Sarah sighed; so much for this brilliant idea.

“I promise,” she answered dejectedly.

“It’s for your own good, Sarah,” he smiled a little sadly. “There’s a hidden way in the representation of Chaos on the floor in the corner, but don’t go anywhere near it; since the time that I got my original out, the way has been altered to be single-directional for security reasons – it’s still easy to get in, it would even be easy to let me out of my cell, but you would find it impossible to return as you came to the room above or to shadow-walk out. Bet nobody even taught you about the trumps, with all the showy sorcery that goes on in the Courts.”

“Of course they did!” she replied a bit indignantly. “I even carry my own pack-”

She suddenly stopped short; a very odd light had just come into his eyes that instinctively made her extremely wary.

“Show me them.”

The command sounded every bit as authoritative as his initial accusations of her, but the phrase seemed to hold more weight, more power, and for a moment Sarah couldn’t think, couldn’t look away, her right hand drifted toward the pouch on her hip of its own volition…

And the next moment she was mentally wrestling him for control, her gaze wrenched aside, just barely able to stop moving, frantically reminding herself that Mandor once said she had a very strong will outside of any power. It was all she had now – she couldn’t afford to divert any attention at all to recall the Logrus!

“They won’t help you!” she managed through gritted teeth, her own hand muscles about to betray her, on the verge of opening the pouch. “They’re all practice shadows designed by Suhuy and Mandor! They’re impervious to shadow-walking!”

The pressure suddenly let up and she did a full-body shiver, catching her breath.

“Damn,” he sighed. “That would’ve been too easy. You know, I had fully planned on taking you with me in the same manner so you wouldn’t be left holding the bag nor be personally responsible for my escape; claiming innocent victimhood would be automatic in that kind of case and anyone would believe you if questioned. How much of an asshole do you take me for?”

“To be honest, I really don’t know,” Sarah bitterly observed, summoning her Logrus into readiness once more. “You’re sort of killing my general goodwill here. I’m starting to think there’s a legitimate reason your original was in there if he’s anything like you.”

“My original was caught unawares and trapped here due to a far more powerful lady’s fear,” he countered easily, “but it was never his – or by proxy, my – intention to harm her or any of her house without due cause, then or now. He had actually made the mistake of loving her once.”

Her? But that could mean… oh, wait a minute…

“How in the worlds are you even managing that trick?!” Sarah asked, flabbergasted; princes of Amber weren’t suppose to have power like that! “I’m warded against magical attacks on my person; I saw it work less than half-a-day ago!”

Ghost-Corwin surrendered a small smile. “Not all psy phenomena is magic-based; the more reliable forms are entirely dependent upon sympathetic brainwave transmission,” he casually lectured. “My original has never had much luck in initiating such subtly coercive exchanges without inflicting real psychological damage, but then again I suspect he hasn’t thought it would get any easier with practice, either. I, on the other hand, have had nothing at all to do for years but to hone my latent mental abilities in here, although I had hoped to have better occasion to use that one. You appear well-meaning – I’ll grant that much – but you’re still far too inexperienced to be of any use to me. Tell your ally to come himself if he’s a taste for a smaller prison than the one he’s already in; it could be entertaining for yours truly even if nothing else comes of it. Keep practicing, kid; for a full-blooded human that was actually a fairly impressive display.”

He commenced disappearing again.

There was one trump in Sarah’s pack that could potentially help him, but she had hoped she wouldn’t have to bring outside help into this socio-political dilemma. But if this was the only way…She swallowed her pride.

“Would you rather talk to your son Merlin instead?”

The image stopped changing midway, the expression dubious. His eyes had flashed wider for a second, though; that was telling.

“What did you say?”

Sarah averted her eyes, unable to hold that intensity, then sighed, defeated. “I have his trump; I’ll let you speak to him if you want to. I’m certain he’d know what to do. He doesn’t even know you’re in here, does he?” Without another word, she produced the cards of her own accord and, thumbing through them, pulled out Merlin’s, the familiar tableau of the Earth-businessman gracing the face-side. When she looked back up and showed it to him, his expression was nothing short of astounded, almost moved. Then he closed his eyes against it.

“No. He once knew that I was here for he was with me when I exchanged places with his old man, but he has no idea that I have remained here. I will not burden his conscience with my folly; the choice to do this was entirely mine – he would have prevented it. Put it away.”

Sarah cautiously did so, terribly aware that even with him caged, if he so chose it was completely within his power to do whatever he wished with her! After a few seconds he opened his eyes again.

“How did you come by that? How do you know him?” The concern in his voice was fatherly enough.

“I guess you could say I’m working for him right now,” she gave a small tentative smile, “he’s got one short assignment for he and then he’s going to send me straight home. I really like him; he seems like a nice guy,” she added, hoping to lighten his mood a little. It was true, though.

Ghost-Corwin just shook his head with a rueful smirk. “You don’t need me for anything at all. You were duped into looking for me in the first place. I am glad that you are in such capable hands, however, but the sooner you get out of the Courts the better; the king is rumored to have eyes and ears everywhere, patrolling his own nobles like they were enemy spies. It would be a small act of fate if he is not already aware of your existence.”

“But… Merlin is the king,” Sarah faltered awkwardly, “you didn’t know?”

His eyes widened in dawning comprehension for a moment before that jaded smile Sarah had seen in her dream graced his countenance.

“So they caught him anyway, after all that. You wouldn’t happen to know how it fell out?”

“I gather from listening to him talk that it was the lesser of several evils and he chose to take the fall to keep the peace. I think it still bothers him, though; he seemed kind of stressed out when I met him yesterday morning-”

“He’s only known you for a single day and he gave you a trump of himself?!”

“Yeah, well…it’s kind of a long story,” Sarah demurred.

The jaded smile persisted. “He’s getting you away from his foster-brother. And possibly his uncle.”

“It would appear so.”

He stopped smiling and just held her eyes for a few seconds. She could feel his mind gently probing her own…then it stopped; he nodded, the cold amused expression softened.

“You do have a good heart. I will never forget this, but nevertheless I wish for you to forget me. Don’t worry about me; one way or another I’ll be all right. Now go and get some rest.”

“But if I can help-”

“How would you even return here, let alone get in?” he asked incredulously. “You certainly can’t shadow-walk this far – I don’t think even my original could do it unaided.”

“But if I could do it somehow,” Sarah pressed him, “would you help Jareth?”

Ghost-Corwin laughed at her persistence, shaking his head. “If by some miracle the Logrus ever grants you that kind of power, you can personally consider me at your service – for a little while, anyway; I do have to get back to my post guarding my Pattern; my reliever is probably ready to kill me for leaving him stuck there for so long by himself. Beyond that, aiding and abetting the lunatic who set you on my trail falls under the category of supplication,” he only half-teased. “Light a fresh candle to me and I’ll consider it,” he crossed his arms, turning aside, looking as imperious and presumptive as a demigod.

Well, I guess this is about the only thing I haven’t done yet, Sarah thought, ruefully amused. It might’ve been mildly blasphemous, but she only had to go through the motions; it wasn’t like he was making her pray or anything. It took about a minute to locate the supplies – what little was left had been hidden away in a small side cabinet that blended in perfectly with the upper part of the shrine – but Sarah found five of the little silver candles and screwed one into the holder near the center. There were no matches, but concentrating hard for about a minute she just managed to magically generate a spark with her fingertips, making the little taper glow bright and warm in the weirdly-lit room.

“Nus a dhabshun dhuilsha, Sarah.”

Sarah looked up in surprise – he had just formally blessed her in Amberite-inflected Thari!

But the canvas was only paint once more. Ghost-Corwin was gone.

She said a short prayer anyway, not to him but for him, unsure of who she was supposed to be addressing anymore, then got back on her hoverboard and got the heck out of there, not bothering to disembark until she was safely in her rooms again, the terrible responsibility of what she had likely just initiated falling heavily over her shoulders. She had to save him somehow. She had to. She would find a way to do it if it took her the rest of her life to figure it out. It felt that important.

Stashing the hoverboard behind one of the thicker floor-length tapestries (with any luck it wouldn’t be discovered until she was long gone), Sarah went back to bed, knowing it would be ages before she could fall asleep again.

The following morning was every bit as hectic and hurried as Sarah had anticipated. She was awoken by the same serving woman she had seen previously the day before; she was carrying a breakfast tray, which she sat down in front of Sarah, then proceeded to lay out a nice but modest peasant-looking dress ensemble at the foot of the bed, whilst basically admonishing her, as demurely as possible, to get her rear in gear – the king himself was already downstairs, waiting for her! As much as Sarah wanted to savor this last meal of Mandor’s, she knew there wasn’t the time, and, once she was cleaned up for the day, she wound up scarfing down the egg-and-exotic-vegetable mélange and rich-grained toast with spicy-sweet citrus preserves as the serving woman rapidly helped her to dress and fixed her hair for her. Sarah polished off a final perfect cup of tea and was on her way down.

This was it! She checked for the umpteenth time to make sure that she had everything with her; she had been provided with a medium-sized brown-leather cross-body bag so her hands were free, and her brooch had been artfully pinned to the inside of her dress, right above her heart (there was some slight ornamentation on the outside right there, so the tiny sliver of gold-tinted metal didn’t show.) She could easily reach her trump pouch through a hidden slit in the skirt, as on many other dresses she had worn here. Her leather shoes were sturdy but comfortable. The visual effect struck her as positively mundane after all that sleek, dark-colored Chaosian fashion she had become accustomed to wearing during her tenure here: clean, natural cream, earth tones, and a rusty crimson with slight embroidered embellishments. She had everything just right. The serving woman had all bur shoved her out of the room, anxious to be about stripping the bed and washing the sheets and towels. Sarah momentarily worried about the hidden hoverboard, then firmly put it out of her mind, walking purposefully down the hallway left to the etheric turnstile, heading round to the grand entrance. If and when Mandor was informed of the discovery, he would only think she had been up to a little silly horsing around last night for old times’ sake; he didn’t need to know any more than that.

Upon reaching the correct room, Sarah nearly froze upon seeing the large, sinister-looking, lavishly-robed demon-formed figure pacing up and down the blue carpet-runner, but as he turned and saw her his savage bestial eyes brightened with a sharp, toothy smile, well noting her hesitation.

“Remember me, Sarah? The guy who employed you yesterday?” he asked teasingly in Thari.

And at that she relaxed again, recognizing the voice – it was Merlin! He looked every inch the King of Chaos in this form.

“Of course, your Exalted Excellency,” she smiled with a curtsy, then walked over to join him, “I just hadn’t expected…” she let the sentence hang, suddenly unable to think of a way to finish it that wouldn’t be considered gauche.

He smirked. “If you were staying here I’d say you’d better get used to this; it’s rather uncommon for Chaosian lords and ladies to show their more physically vulnerable forms except in private with those they know well. Shall we?” he offered an arm. She took it, feeling how enormously muscled it was beneath the loose-fitting garments, and together they walked to the waypoint in the floor and sank through into the modern corridor. Choosing another way to the left, they emerged in what appeared to be a parlor of sorts: lots of jewel-toned chairs and sofas, a couple small floating end-tables carrying various glasses and carafes, and a collection of musical instruments along the back wall. Sarah briefly recalled Mandor’s passing comment about only listening to live music; he had to have performers in here occasionally and she rued that she had never gotten to hear it.

The king chose the deep-blue lounge – Sarah instantly recognized it as the one from the portrait – and they sat down. Even sitting, he towered over her in his power-form.

“Well, ready to go get that big beautiful world?” he asked, sensing her excitement. “Amber’s quite a lot like Shadow Earth in many mundane physical aspects, just a lot more pristine, and due to how hard it is to shadow-shift out there the populace is still pre-industrial, but none the worse off for it on the whole. The pace of life is definitely slower in consequence – not a bad thing in and of itself. Just being on the True World (as the locals call it) has been known to add years of life to anyone who goes there, the elements are so healthy, and, as I stated before, many do go there on vacation; Random has really opened up the country to certain controlled sectors of the outside world, and especially with no immediate threats coming from Chaos anymore.”

Sarah smiled a little bitterly. “Except for those you send there.”

Merlin gave a slight frown. “Petty reconnaissance for the purposes of keeping the peace is hardly a threat, Sarah. Unless you see yourself as one – did my brother and uncle radicalize you more than you let on?”

“No!” she laughed.

“Then for as long as you are there, if anyone asks – and they will ask at least at any respectable hostelry or inn – your name is to be S’Aiya Naylor from the shadow of Begma - that’s the closest member of the Golden Circle - and you are on your first short holiday in the city funded by your tradesman father Clorindo on the occasion of your coming-of-age – that’s easy enough to remember, isn’t it?”

Sarah nodded eagerly.

“Now then,” he continued, drawing a glowing rectangle in midair and commencing a rough sketch, “as to finding your original: considering both her probable age as well as the time of the year there right now – early summer – you might have the best luck if you concentrate most of your time and attention on Temple Street; that’s the city’s arts, entertainment, and novelty shopping district all in one place, most of it anyway,” he said, adding in a long, sinuous streak just east of the fortress-box that demarcated the castle, running smack through the center of town, “but you should be frequenting the Main Concourse also – that’s the rest of the major businesses,” he made another line that paralleled the first; it terminated at the castle itself. “Just stay away from the waterfront and the ghettos over here,” he circled a swath of the southwest corridor, “and you should be fine. In short, I’m officially giving you carte blanche to enjoy yourself for a few days, but nevertheless keep your eyes peeled. If you do locate her – trust me, you’ll know, although Ghost should be able to verify at that close of proximity – you may follow her, albeit it very discreetly and at a distance, and if she appears to be doing anything even remotely suspicious-looking, you are to get someplace private and contact me immediately, do you understand?”

“Of course, your Excellency.”

The map vanished in a poof of cobalt-blue smoke that dissipated quickly. “Maps of the city can easily be obtained there, but you shouldn’t need one if you stay where I’ve advised and at least keep to the main roads. A hike about the nicer residential sections can’t hurt, but it’s probably unnecessary; everyone comes to the shops regularly, even some of the nobility. Do yourself a big favor and stay away from the country areas, though; while the flora around Amber is gorgeous, the wild fauna native to the area is mostly dangerous if not outright deadly. There are a ton of poisonous and constrictor-type snakes in the woods, which our Serpent must find amusing as hell if She has any sense of humor at all,” he warned with half a wry smile.

“She does,” Sarah replied to his surprise, and she roughly told him the dream she had the night before coming to Chaos; it seemed to be an odd thing to be reminded of at the moment.

Maybe that was the point…

The king stood up again and Sarah stood also.

“Do you have any last-minute questions for me before I send you off, Sarah? Any last-minute business to take care of? Anything at all? Once you’re there you’ll have Ghost to assist you should you need it, but my personal power and influence obviously doesn’t reach that far. There’s no point in even giving you money before you get there, it would be altered so badly by the journey. The outfit you are currently wearing has had the daylights magicked out of it to try and make it durable enough to survive that Olympian shadow-leap but you should probably buy at least once more while you’re there just in case; you’ll blend in better.”

There had been something, but what? She was too flustered to remember! But then of course…

“Do you think it would be alright if I just went and said goodbye to Lord Mandor?” she asked tentatively. “I haven’t even really thanked him properly for putting me up and…well… everything,” she nervously laughed.

Merlin just nodded. “I have no objection, but I’ll just look in on him quick – it’s still early, he might not be up yet.”

“Please don’t wake him,” Sarah protested, but a trump was already in the king’s gray, scaly hand.

“Hey, are you decent?” he asked the card after a moment’s concentration. “Somebody wants to say goodbye… alright, thanks, she’ll be down presently.” He severed the connection. “You can’t go where he is right now, but he’s agreed to meet you in a sitting room adjacent to the gallery here.” Another glowing map suddenly appeared in midair, showing the correct passageway – it was connected to the hallway she hadn’t taken that ran off to the right. “I’ll send you in via the spikard; when you’re finished, head back out to the Sculpture Garden and trump me from there.”

“Thank you, your Excellency,” she curtsied primly, “I shouldn’t be long. I just need to do this.”

“Hey, you don’t need to justify it to me, I understand,” he said with what might’ve been an amused smile (it was hard for her to tell on that face.) “See you in a bit.”

Sarah jumped slightly at the sudden flash – and found herself in the aforementioned sitting room. It was still dark save for a roaring fireplace; this ‘house’ had to be naturally cold inside from the number of them she had seen here. Of course! she suddenly thought: no central heating or cooling – none of these rooms were connected in any meaningful physical manner! There was a very thickly-paned round skylight in the ceiling, revealing only a sliver of black remaining, the rest overtaken by that emerald-green hue. Early ‘morning’.

And Mandor was there, human-formed, standing by that natural-colored fire which illumined his eternal, formal black-and-white ensemble, lending unnatural warmth to his pale complexion, his white hair. He turned and saw her upon her appearance in the center of the room. Calm and collected as ever.

“Good morning, Sarah,” he greeted her quietly, as if not to disturb the room itself, “I trust you slept well?”

“Yes, I…” She suddenly faltered, feeling terribly awkward; she had not anticipated being tongue-tied like this in his presence!

He politely ignored her nervous misstep. “Today is a rather important day for you,” he continued lightly, “you must be looking forward to your mission. It’s hardly an everyday occurrence that the King of Chaos orders someone on vacation,” he offered one of his easy, crooked smiles.

Sarah was almost surprised at how much that sight tugged at her heart. It also did not escape her notice that he had not budged from where he was standing – it made him seem less threatening that way – but presently she collected her thoughts.

“I didn’t get the chance to speak to you last night, you were so busy,” she finally said, walking over to him. “I…I just want to tell you before I leave that I know that you didn’t have to do a lot of the things that you’ve done for me – on my behalf – and I wanted to make sure that you know that I do appreciate all the effort you’ve spent on me. I can’t possibly ever repay you for most of it.”

His lip-smile looked just a little too formal to her eye, as was his slightly inclined head-bow.

“Think nothing of it, Sarah; it was a privilege.”

She hesitated, unsure of how to respond to that.

“It is not advisable to keep the king waiting,” he continued in the same tone. “The way you need is just to the right of that large vase,” he indicated toward the left wall.

Sarah turned and started to walk back across the room, but then she stopped. She couldn’t stand it. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that he had turned away, facing the blaze once more.

“I know I probably have absolutely to right at all to ask this,” she said tentatively, eying the delicately patterned rug she was currently standing on, “but I have to know.” She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. “How much of it was an act?”

He glanced back at her, a little surprised. “How much of what, Sarah?”

“You know what I’m talking about,” she answered levelly, turning to face him, looking dead into his eyes from across the room.

The silence that followed this remark was as palpable as his cool, momentary scrutiny of her; even in his other forms he had never looked so alien.

But the moment passed and he turned away again.

“Sorry I asked,” she responded a bit tersely, heading for the exit.

“You only caught me unprepared, Sarah,” he suddenly said; she looked at him, surprised. He was still faced away.

“My kind are schooled from an extremely early age on how to appear to the world – what to show, what to keep carefully hidden away. We quickly learn from our elders and our society that any true display of weakness – either rash, headstrong conduct or excessive tenderness and emotion – are not only personal liabilities but occasionally literally fatal, and we are adjusted accordingly. You will never find a Chaosian noble who will completely divulge to anyone fully what they are thinking or feeling at any given moment; it’s just the way of our world, it’s not personal. But I will admit that I have genuinely enjoyed some of the time that I have spent in your company over the past several months.” He looked at her again. “Is that the answer you were searching for, Earth-child?”

It hurt a little bit but Sarah had suspected something like this for a rather long time; she had needed to hear him say it. But that look…

You are not making this easy, she thought as she silently nodded. And then she caught the whisper of a sly smile starting to tug on the right side of his mouth: he wasn’t making this easy on purpose!

“Me, too,” she said quietly with a small smile of her own, fighting to keep from getting misty as she approached the wall.


She stopped.

“Enjoy the sunshine.”

“The sun!” she sagged, nearly melting at the thought, closing her eyes at the memory. She had nearly forgotten how fantastic it felt! And the real outdoors! And fresh air! She turned once more, and saw that Mandor was fully facing her now, smiling conspiratorially, and an immense relief rushed over her. “Oh, I’m definitely going to enjoy that!” she suddenly gushed, jogging back to him, feeling the wall between them down once more, “but I don’t know how much time I’m going to have for-”

Mandor still looked amused but he had put up a hand to silence her, shaking his head once with a frowning smirk. “Don’t tell me all the details of your top-secret espionage sting. Just go,” he lightly reprimanded, raising one pale eyebrow.

Perhaps it was only that she had been so preoccupied up until just now on so many levels, but it suddenly hit Sarah that she was probably never going to see him again. Mandor Sawall had been many things to her – mentor, father figure, slave-driver, and…oh fine, puppetmaster-wannabe – but she found that she was going to miss him terribly all the same. Without another word she crossed the short distance between them and caught him in a fierce hug that was far more eloquent and revealing than anything she could’ve said, burying her face in the smooth, soft fabric of his thin dress-jacket. For a second she could feel that all of his muscles were taut-stiff, almost as if he had anticipated an attack instead! But he presently relaxed – she felt his chest shake lightly with silent laughter – and he carefully returned the embrace, his right hand gently stroking her hair as he held her close. After about half-a-minute, she tore away from him just as suddenly and literally ran out of the room so that he wouldn’t see her crying. There was a little telltale moisture on the front of his jacket anyway. Heaving a great sigh, he leaned against the mantle, lightly resting his face in his hand. And laughed.

She’s still far too naïve for this work, he reflected, shaking his head with a jaded smirk that he was careful no one ever saw; if she hadn’t been as well-warded as she had been – and by the king’s spikard, no less – he would’ve not only been able to reap any and all information he cared to at that close of range, but also to plant any number of spells on her person! He stopped smiling as the gravity of the thought unfurled in his mind, and he went to lie down on a nearby couch, closing his eyes; it was still rather early, and especially after that party. Mandor knew that his foster-brother had made great strides on a very personal level of development since the time of his ascension to the throne, but he seriously wondered if Merlin really knew what he was doing here, trusting someone as green and inexperienced in the field as Sarah was with such delicate work right dead-center in enemy territory. Merlin was right about one thing, however: Sarah really was a good kid. It was a rather large part of what had made her relatively easy to use and train, of course, but the fact still remained. He had managed to coax her into developing a very deep, natural attachment to him and it seemed to be still working to their general benefit. He had not anticipated developing a kind of tentative attachment to the girl himself, but the result was a natural enough side-effect of such a psychological experiment performed over any reasonable amount of time. She had often been surprisingly enjoyable company even within the pretense of the situation; at her better moments, she had been genuinely nice to have around.

And that’s when some part of his brain, hitherto far too preoccupied with his personal responsibility for the girl, finally registered the oddity in the fresh respite of her absence: Sarah was nice. In fact, she was too nice – too nice to have an Amberite-dominant original! His eyes flew open at the thought. If her original was a true Amberite/shadow mix, Sarah should’ve had a much larger chip on her shoulder, an inborn sense of superiority and the attitude that went with it! But that could mean-

Mandor forcibly stopped his runaway train-of-thought. It could mean any number of things. It could mean he had just set Merlin on a wild zhind-chase, although he didn’t think so, especially since Suhuy had unequivocally agreed on the point. There was definitely something rather odd with this picture, but there was a surprisingly easy, reliable way to test his theory to see for certain just as soon as he got back to Mandorways. In the meantime, there was no reason to raise any alarm just yet, and certainly not if things were as he was beginning to suspect. Unlike the current king of Chaos, Lord Mandor Sawall did not suffer from divided loyalties. He would not trouble Merlin with any of this information unless it actually became necessary.

There were rather troubling trifles in this case that had never been unriddled, however, like that preliminary attempt on the girl’s life. He had carefully pooled his best reconnaissance resources with Suhuy’s but neither had turned up anything. That was the official report, anyway, but somehow it hadn’t seemed quite right. Lord Suhuy Swayvil had a longstanding reputation of general benevolence within the Courts, refusing to take sides on any divisive point, but he too was secretive and for good reason: the Keeper of the Logrus had to be well-acquainted with the proverbial (and literal) skeletons-in-the-closet of any who would avail themselves of his services in counseling sessions prior to attempting the great trial. Not to even mention the secrets of the Logrus Herself. Mandor had suspected that the old man may very well have divined what or who the true culprit was, but had not seen fit to enlighten him with the information, and in consequence Mandor had privately demanded that Sarah be taught how to defend herself from such an attack. Suhuy delivered admirably on this point and Mandor let the subject drop, but it still irritated him that the answer was within his possible grasp but deliberately placed just beyond his control. He only hoped that the choice was not a personal one. There was also a lingering discontent on his own part - that he could have done a better job in certain aspects of her training - but the matter was out of his hands now. His had been the task of getting the proverbial ball rolling and he seemed to have done that much thoroughly and well. He couldn’t help but worry a little, though; she was being released back into the wild, as it were, far ahead of schedule. Perhaps the Logrus had other plans that could not wait; Merlin had spoken to Suhuy about this also and he had had no objections dire enough to prevent her departure. Who could predict all the twists and turns of the Serpent?

There remained one thing left to do that was within his power: he could see her off properly, ensure with his own eyes that she made it to the capital of Order in one piece – even using the Ghostwheel, a jump that momentous was not without its dangers, but then so was puddle-jumping through two-dozen random shadow-worlds along the way where she could more easily be tailed. Merlin was probably right to attempt it in this fashion.

Coming back to his feet, Mandor stretched his arms for a moment, then headed out of the room himself, cutting through half-a-dozen ways – crisscrossing an expanse of no less than seventeen leagues as if it were nothing – finally coming into an occult workroom of sorts. The place had originally been his father’s and Mandor had never had much reason to disturb it after his old man’s passing. His own magickal facilities at Mandorways were far better appointed and much more organized, but convenience dictated the use of this room every now and again.

Illuminating the small, stone chamber, Mandor performed the necessary minor ritual that would allow him its use: Gramble’s presence had never diminished in here due to the fact that he had actually shaved off a sliver of his own soul and made it guardian of his magic, trusting no familiar. Upon the charm’s completion, the tension from Mandor’s entering the room quickly subsided.

“Greetings, Father,” he said quietly, sitting down at the rough wooden worktable. The place was literally littered with magical apparatuses of every conceivable form and purpose; some of Gramble’s long-standing spells were still in perfect operation. But the item that Mandor required was so mundane and commonplace even out here that he could’ve easily pulled one through from shadow had one not already been in the room. In the left corner of the table was a sizable crystal ball, protected with a deep blue velvet coverlet; Mandor carefully pulled it to the center and unwrapped it. Perfectly clear, the orb was artfully made to appear to be floating lightly upon a mesh of delicate Logrus tentacles – apropos on many levels.

Coalescing his own powers unto himself, Mandor commenced to concentrate far harder than was ever needed for a hellride. What he was attempting was so difficult that few could achieve it at all, let alone do it without passing out from the extreme effort: mentally reaching the full distance from Chaos to Amber unaided. The Amberite-style trumps ameliorated the otherwise perceptible difference in the passage of time surprisingly effectively (well, perhaps not-so-surprisingly; Dworkin Barimen was a son of Chaos no matter how virulently he hated the fact.) Doing this without such a filter was infinitely harder, a rather stark object lesson in everything from swift mortality to how terribly small they all still were in the cold face of the greater powers. There were reasons this was an unpopular pastime, the latter more than the former, actually. Even though he would never admit it to anyone, it had been Jareth who had piqued his curiosity sufficiently to pick the practice up himself, unwieldy as it was. Some part of him held the natural propensity for this kind of activity; it was unacceptable that the original be any less skilled than one of his shadows. There were few instances of useful application but this was a reasonable one. Reasonable to him, anyway – he never relinquished power without a fight, even if it was only a private affair.

It took nearly half-an-hour to establish any contact at all – his head was throbbing but he was subliminating the pain – when he suddenly picked Sarah’s indistinct form out of that ludicrous visual fuzz, and with a tremendous burst of effort forced it to sharpen a little clearer.


There she was, a nearly frozen expression of surprised delight over her features; it was impossible to see where in the city she had come through, his range of vision didn’t extend very far because he was concentrating on her in particular. It probably wouldn’t have been a coherently understandable image anyway, but it was likely a back alley, as close to the waterfront as Merlin dared – it had to at least vaguely appear as if she had just arrived on one of the merchant ships fresh in from Shadow. Even this much of a visual was proving difficult to uphold – nearly black-and-white and terribly grainy/blurry – but she was walking in an impossible-looking slow motion. For this extremely long Chaosian moment she was perfectly safe; it would take days local-Chaos-reckoning for her just to walk up to the end of the street, let alone start looking for a room at one of the downtown inns. In truth, time was moving normally for Sarah; the breakdown of relativity between these two points was that severe, causing the illusion. Her eyes were closing with painful slowness – a single blink.

Mandor stopped concentrating and collapsed back into the chair, panting, his own eyes closing as he massaged his aching temples. If anyone in Amber had the power to look in on Chaos similarly, if the effect of the brightly striated sky did not instantaneously strobe them unconscious, the very City would only appear as a blur of furious activity. Slowly recovering himself, Mandor reflected on the cosmic irony: that so much happened so very close to the event point where all action ceased, not unlike how swirling water going down a drain ran much faster the closer it approached the oblivion of that gaping hole. Entropy would devour them all in time, and yet, in spite of any loyalty, he felt he understood why some went to such great lengths to postpone the inevitable. Existence itself was in direct opposition to the Void.

Mandor slowly rose to his feet and shifted up into his ape-form, allowing the metamorphosis to engulf most of his current physical fatigue, and departed the room in search of the king; he had to bid him farewell also. His little foster-brother, the king of all Chaos – the thought never ceased to amuse him in a small, private way. That, too, had not gone according to plan and had still succeeded beyond almost any hope. As Merlin had once observed, albeit not in such language, sometimes simply the ongoing power of inertia would take care of the rest.
(Theme-sound for Corwin, something that oddly seemed to fit: Aqua, Aquarius, title track. This isn't their usual fare, movie soundtrack-ish, love the subtle horns in the arrangement...)
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