Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Labyrinth of Chaos

A Shade Closer

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

in which the searchers are caught... and released

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Fantasy - Published: 2017-06-02 - 27326 words - Complete

Chapter 12 – A Shade Closer

Just like clockwork, Sarah had another of her annoying nightmares her first night in Amber, but – thankfully – she had only woken up with a gasp instead of screaming like she always had previously, and before she had any time to think about it Ghost was there, faintly glowing, his orb hovering above her. Afterwards, she could only vaguely remember, but she knew he had been visibly pulsing at a very specific rate…and the next thing she knew she was waking up with the natural ambient light from the sun, streaming in through the curtains. She snuggled deeper under the covers, reluctant to get up - even just waking up here felt good – but she finally shuffled off down the hall to get ready for the day. It felt downright bizarre just how blank of a slate this week was; she had gotten rather used to having all of her time scheduled down to the nth degree, although the concept had initially been almost repellent to her. Now that she was away from Chaos and her life there, she had the leisure to finally reflect on the fact that a lot of that busy-ness had merely served to keep her from thinking about the situation too much – a sneaky but admittedly reasonable tactic given the circumstances. Mandor had always been frighteningly reasonable; it really was his one unique strength. Well, that and food; she already missed his ‘cooking’, even if his method was a little cheaty – that still took considerable knowledge and natural talent to consistently pull off.

But that was the past now, Sarah reminded herself, washing up very quickly; how could there be that little hot water?! The real question was what in the world to do about the present. There was hardly any plan involved in this mission, which struck her as genuinely suspicious the more she thought about it, now that she was here. Granted, she had Ghost to help her, but how were they supposed to even go about looking for this girl? What if she wasn’t even here? Weren’t there half-a-dozen close shadows in the Golden Circle? Sarah had been so glad to be escaping her situation in Chaos that she hadn’t even thought to question this when Merlin initially brought it up, but in the cold light of day the proposition was simply nuts. Then again, so was just about everything else she’d done up to this point…

Donning her same clothes (she would have to get a couple other outfits while she was here), Sarah ducked back into her room quick, grabbed some smaller change (she had a better variety of coinage now), locked up and headed downstairs for breakfast. She was surprised to hear what sounded like a heated debate before she even smelled the food. Rapidly rechecking her story should anyone ask, she came down into the large main room, nearly tripping over a gray tabby cat that darted past right in front of her!

“Hello! I didn’t see you last night,” she said softly to the tom, bending to let him sniff her hand; he rubbed against her leg, then sauntered off in the direction of what she presumed to be the dining room, and she followed him in. Sure enough, there were five other guests in varying levels of ‘historical’ garb, seated together on benches at a long table – all unpolished wood, but beautifully carved along the fat edges with stylistic botanical designs. Meals here were clearly communal; there was a decent breakfast-type spread on the table and an empty place-setting between two women on the left – hers, she guessed. Two gentlemen on the other side immediately stood upon seeing her, interrupting their conversation.

“Good morning!” the proprietress swished in behind her, all bright scarves and clanky jewelry, carrying a fresh metal teapot and going round, topping off mugs. “I trust you slept well. Sit down, sit down and eat!” she said as much to Sarah as to the men who were still standing awkwardly on protocol. Sarah quickly climbed over the bench into her designated spot, quietly greeting the ladies on either side of her; both were dressed in daringly ‘new’ fashion (for these people) – Jane Austen-ish empire-waisted morning dresses, with everything to match the time-period. But the young lady to her left had long, wavy bright-green hair - and green lips!

“Everyone,” the proprietress announced, standing directly behind her, “this is Miss S’Aiya of Begma, just arrived yesterday, and she is learning the art of acting,” she added with an audible touch of pride, filling Sarah’s mug with piping-hot tea. “I’ll just leave you all to make your own introductions – I only allow first names in my house, and no titles. Not at the table, puss!” she scooped up her cat with her free arm; he had hopped up onto the right end of Sarah’s bench and had been sniffing the lady’s plate! She disappeared as quickly as she’d come.

“If you truly wish to be an actress,” the young lady with the green hair addressed her, “you simply must see the Players of the Unicorn while you are here; they aren’t afraid of giving important, meaty parts to women like some others I could name,” she glanced accusingly at the black-haired man sitting directly across the table from her. “In fact, we were just discussing the place of women in the more modern arts right before you came down.”

“If one can call such stubborn refusal to see or acknowledge any opinion but one’s own a discussion,” the man good-naturedly rejoindered. “I’m Joas of Kashfa and this is my wife Eliaz.”

“Nice to meet you,” the light-brunette woman to his left added sweetly; they both looked Elizabethan.

“We’re just sounding off, then?” the swarthy, bearded man on the other side of Eliaz queried. “Right. Dhakor of Eregnor, here on business but staying on the colorful side of town for a change,” he rakishly grinned with a fast sweeping glance about the room, “and definitely out of my depth around all these artists!”

“It is not like you are going to be ousted for lack of imagination,” the slight, auburn-and-gray older woman with decidedly sharp features to Sarah’s right laughed. “I’m Graëtza of Deiga, performance artist – multimedia – and the rest of them are all your fellow actors, I believe, albeit in different styles, hence the quarrel,” she confided. “Best choose a side quickly.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the flighty young woman with the seemingly natural wild colouring to Sarah’s left suddenly interjected, “forgot to tell you my name: I’m Láre of Rebma – I know, not much of a trip compared to the rest of you, but the theater scene down under is so stuffy and formal that I simply must come up for air periodically, if you know what I mean. And then straightway I run into this!” she gestured toward Joas. “I mean, what era are we living in here?”

Sarah had to work very hard not to laugh at this offhanded comment, hiding her smile behind a swallow of tea before dishing herself up – it was far funnier than the girl would ever understand. Or perhaps it was only Sarah’s Earth-centric upbringing and worldview that made it seem so – a rather unexpectedly jarring thought. She didn’t have much time to ponder the implications, though, finding herself immediately plunged into a serious aesthetic debate between a rather headstrong young actress (who might’ve been only a couple years older than Sarah herself) and a stage company director whose ideas about female propriety seemed to date back to Shakespeare, complete with men-only onstage! Of course, Sarah took Láre’s side, even letting slip that the reason she wanted to act in the first place was because of her mother. It took some fast mental footwork to come up with the story of how her seaworthy father had found his wayward bride in a distant shadow along the trade routes, but it came together far more easily than Sarah thought it would. In fact, the longer she rambled on about her fake life, it was almost a little worrisome to her just how easy it was to so blatantly lie to all of these people, but she rationalized it was part of her job here; she had to provide decent, believable cover for herself. The rest of the conversation was right up her alley, though, and it really was fascinating hearing about the arts traditions of such different, far-flung cultures like the deadly sand-scorpion dancers of the baking desert wastes of Deiga (both creatures lovely and dangerous to all but the most casual observer) and the preternaturally graceful, floating, slow-motion underwater menageries traditionally staged in Rebma, ‘The City in the Bay’, as it were, Amber’s first cousin of a shadow, hidden deep beneath the waves just offshore and to the west. Sarah had only fleetingly heard of Rebma in her studies and she was at once both surprised at how physically normal Láre seemed (she had half-expected its denizens to be merpeople) and terribly curious, wishing she could ask her much more about her homeland, knowing that she couldn’t; such queries would instantly single Sarah out as the stranger and alien that she was. She had to simply content herself with listening to the girl speak of what she would during the course of the conversation, but when she suggested to Sarah that they should go together to the theater she had mentioned before, Sarah jumped at the chance; it would be nice to have some human company once again. Well, humanish at any rate. The rest of the meal was rather uneventful (including the food – she really had gotten spoiled. It was hearty and filling, though; one certainly got one’s money’s worth here) and soon enough it was time for her to head back out. Making a fast trip upstairs before she left, she thought to check in with Ghost in the safe confines of her room.

“Anything I need to know before we try again today?” she whispered, knowing perfectly well he would hear and answer.

“I must advise against your being so free with your disinformation; try to only give out what you are directly asked for in future dealings here. That was quite a complicated line you came up with just now. I can only hope you don’t have any trouble remembering it all.”

“I suppose I did get a little carried away,” Sarah admitted, “but that was so easy! You remember it all too, though, right?”

Ghost hesitated. “You’re asking me to serve as a prompter?”

“…no, I guess not,” she shrugged off the idea. “It looks pretty bad if I have a hard time remembering my own life! I’ll take notes if I have to, but I shouldn’t have much more to add to it from here on out, as far as I can tell. Any last-minute ideas of things I should try to do today? Places we should go? How are we ever going to find this kid?!” Sarah finally asked exasperatedly; the whole prospect was ludicrous.

“You can leave the locating to me,” Ghost reassured her, “just try not to talk yourself into knots. Go be a tourist! Stick to Temple and the Concourse for right now; if I haven’t located her in two-days’ time you can start ranging further. Linger, meander, go places that would have interested you a few years ago had you been here. I’ll have a much better feel for what I’m up against by nightfall. Have fun and try not to worry; it’s not your fault if this quest fails – it’s my dad’s. Talk to you tonight!”

And he winked out.

If felt almost belittling to Sarah just how small of a role she had been assigned to play in this escapade, and she suddenly resolved to rise above it, to find the girl herself if she was here to find, feeling the need not only to be useful but to be able to prove herself. Easily taking the flights of stairs back down, she was out the door almost too fast for the proprietress to even wish her good day; the gleam of the hunt was in her eyes.

Alright, if I were that brat, where would I be hanging out? Sarah mused to herself, striding quickly down to Temple. The outrageously dressed denizens and patrons didn’t faze her today as they had yesterday and she was better able to concentrate on the task at hand. Heading further downhill to the Concourse, she began trying to memorize the streets – which shops were where (most of them were grouped by category.) Once there, she purchased a cheap map of the city proper and a small writing implement and started making notes in earnest whilst unobserved. The showy police force was still slightly unnerving for her, but she was getting better at outwardly taking their presence in the stride, going so far as to boldly wish a rather bored-looking old retainer good day just to see what would happen – practically nothing, it turned out. They were far too used to being casual with the general populace, which set her mind a little better at ease. She proceeded to spend the entire day leisurely strolling Concourse and Temple and partway down the central portion of Vine, taking in the sights, perusing the wares, sampling the medievalish street food. The novelty was slowly wearing off, the general pervading sense of eclectic ‘normalcy’ starting to creep into her bones like a warmth; it would have been a genuine relief save for why she was really here. All the horses (and what all accompanied their presence in the city) took a bit longer for her to get used to, though; while the northern, colonial-dated suburb of New York City Sarah had grown up in had been relatively quiet, it wasn’t so far out in the country that anybody had horses. This was something new (specifically, watching where she was stepping.)

A few of the businesses were uniquely Amberite enough to genuinely distract her from her self-appointed task, however, especially one pet shop in particular on the corner of Vine and Temple that specialized in only one type of animal: miniature dragons! An extremely far cry from the towering menace that was currently circling south of the bay, the saurian reptiles bred for sale here were closer to skinny, wingless monitor lizards, albeit far more intelligent and highly personable; they came in a staggering variety of scale-colorings. The whole shop was simply buzzing with their whirring, chirping, clicking speech; they were communally caged according to subspecies in large enclosures somewhat off the floor, but this didn’t hinder them from ‘sniffing’ Sarah with their long tongues as she wandered past. A pair of larger, brilliant-violet ones had the run of the place and followed her about the entire time like spoiled puppies! The utilitarian-dressed middle-aged blonde woman who owned the establishment clearly knew her work and her prospective clientele: she very nearly tricked Sarah into buying one, a blaze-bright hatchling that was yet so small that Sarah could hold him in one hand; he was so cute she could just die. But, of course, she couldn’t get him.

“I’d love to take him home,” she sighed, “but my parents would simply never allow me to keep such a pet.” Although it would almost be worth the heart-attack it would give Karen, she thought ruefully, stroking him under his little chin and down his soft belly, as she had been shown; his big liquid-golden eyes were closed and he was vibrating.

“Then you’d best hand him back,” the lady replied a bit irritatedly, “they imprint quickly at this age.”

Sarah’s heart almost broke as she did so: the little creature immediately commenced making tiny crying noises, looking back in her direction longingly as the owner took him from her, stroking him to calm him back down. “It’s not your fault; she liked you,” she cooed in his pin-sized ear-hole, carefully placing him back into the warmed hatchery box, shutting the lid.

“Sorry for being a mean tease,” Sarah added; there was a single, muffled chirp in response from inside.

“Next time get your parents to come here with you; we’ll bring them round,” the owner replied conspiratorially. “Now, it’s treat time for Jewelblaze and Wisp - if you don’t indulge them, they literally won’t let you leave the shop!” She gave Sarah what appeared to be two chunks of dried fish and had her gingerly hold them high, one in each hand; at a predetermined signal, both violet dragons leapt up fluidly, snatching them from her fingertips!

Sarah had just finished wiping her hands clean with a provided wet towel and was back on the street when she saw something that nearly made her stop breathing: she had just caught a glimpse of her own face in the crowd! It was a younger version, but the resemblance was uncanny – the girl’s sable hair was plaited back in a complicated braid, leaving her features extremely visible; she was wearing a deep forest-green dress…and she had just ducked into an upscale candy shop!

Sarah ran down Temple, apologizing to people and rapidly excusing herself as she went; no one else was going into or out of the store, the kid was as good as hers! She arrived in a matter of seconds and burst through the door, nearly ready to try to summon her Logrus if possible to hold her…

But there was nobody there! The place was empty, save for a redheaded man behind the side counter, laboriously cranking a manual taffy-pull machine; upon hearing her, he had automatically looked up from his work in surprise.

Sarah blinked. It was impossible. Unless the girl had just snuck out the back…

“Can I help you, miss?” he asked, wiping his hands off on his white apron.

Sarah had to think fast. “I thought I saw my little sister dart in here,” she gasped, “she got away from me farther back up the street – wearing a green dress. Looks a lot like me – about eleven years old. No?”

The man just shook his head, smiling, coming around to the front counter where there were tall, circular stools. “I wish she had; I’ve had few customers today. Here,” he poured a small glass of soda water from a tap, adding a shot of flavored syrup, handing it to Sarah, “on the house.”

Sarah walked over - nodding her thanks, catching her breath - and downed it thirstily; it was mint!

“You are a visitor here yourself?”

Sarah nodded again, polishing off the glass instead of answering him more directly, handing it back. “Thanks.”

“Well, there’s a toyshop just a few doors down from here that she might have found,” the man stated with obvious worry, “but perhaps it would be better to get one of the City guards to help you look for her – Temple Street is no place for an unsupervised child.”

Sarah nearly startled at the suggestion of directly involving Amber’s law enforcement, but she managed to stifle the outward reaction, shaking her head. “She can’t have gone that far; I’ll find her. Where did you say that store was?”

“Just eight down on the west side of the street. Are you certain you don’t want assistance?” he asked dubiously, removing his apron.

“We’ll be fine – really,” Sarah quickly reassured him, making for the door, “but thanks anyway. Maybe we’ll come back in sometime!” And before the well-meaning owner could object any further, she was out and speeding down the street. She located the aforementioned toyshop easily enough but, as she suspected, the girl was nowhere to be found. What the heck had just happened back there?! Later on back in her room at the inn, she asked Ghost about the incident and was even more baffled by his own reaction.

“I knew you thought you saw something from your energetic course of action, but there was nobody there!”

“What? Oh, come on!” she whisper-shouted. “She stood still right outside of that shop for five whole seconds! She’s the spitting image of me right before I started middle school! How could you have possibly missed her?”

“Sarah,” he began again carefully, “I was simultaneously scanning the entire street at the time. No one at all was in front of that store. Nobody. Are you certain it wasn’t just your imagination? You have been terribly concerned about this ever since we arrived.”

“I know what I saw,” Sarah indignantly rejoindered, crossing her arms, leaning back in the soft, comfy chair, but the whole affair was rather unsettling. Had she imagined it? She didn’t think so – the girl had been standing right there clear as day and looking more than a little sneaky. Sarah hadn’t been thinking of her at all when the incident occurred. It might’ve been a trick, she was finally willing to concede, but whose? “Ghost,” she asked right before heading back down (Láre was waiting for her in the main room; they were going to grab a quick dinner then head up the hill to see the Players of the Unicorn that night), is it possible for someone to cast an illusion spell that you can’t detect?”

“Oh, to fabricate an artificial phantom that wouldn’t scan, you mean,” he quickly caught onto her train of thought. “I don’t think so. I suppose it’s a remote theoretical possibility, but a stunt that powerful would be far beyond the means of any child of Amber, especially untrained. It’s an interesting idea, though, unless she’s… no, nevermind.”


“It’s something that I instantly realized is completely impossible. Go enjoy your show – force the other young lady to do most of the talking this time. I just have to devote some of my circuits to a little extraneous homework while you sleep tonight.”

And Sarah couldn’t pry anything further out of him. It was positively infuriating that he might be withholding vital information from her, but there really wasn’t anything she could do about it at present. Resolving to find a way to shake him down later, she grabbed her hooded cloak and soon the two girls were swallowed up in the glorious commotion that was Temple in the bright summer evening. Performers that didn’t even busk in daylight hours made a killing in tips from well-dressed aristocracy out taking in the evening air on their way to the galleries, the theaters, the nightclubs (there were a handful but Sarah wasn’t about to venture inside of one to see what they were really like; the ticket people at the doors looked positively scary in an almost kinky sort of way), along with the more regular throng, which was in equally high spirits and out for some fun. Láre opted for a sidewalk café just kitty-corner to the Unicorn, and they scarfed down their dinners while watching an impromptu act with a fire-eater and a woman having an existential argument as five completely different people (or did she just have multiple personality psychosis? Clearly no one cared either way – at least she was getting tipped well whether it was an intentional performance or not.) Sarah tossed her a couple obols, too, and they crossed the street to the theater.

She had been genuinely curious as to what kind of plays would be staged here in the ‘One True City’, whether the content would strike her as more historical, mythological or modern. This one in particular was extremely modern, an almost psychological futurist drama – but with an intermittent chorus like an ancient Greek tragedy! The spectacle was thoroughly engrossing and thought-provoking but some of the covered subject matter did nothing to help Sarah’s quiet anxiety about her own situation – not just in Amber, but as she was now, period. How could she ever go back to a normal life when this was over? Would she ever again be fully content in the static world she belonged to? What would happen with her new powers? Would she have future missions for Chaos? Why had she even been chosen in the first place? What did it all portend?

Láre noted her companion’s sullen countenance upon their exiting the building. “Did the performance rub you the wrong way, S’Aiya? I know that was pretty high-brow/cerebral stuff, but nothing could be as bad as ‘A Conversation Between Two Chaosians’; some patrons demanded their money back for being forced to watch two black-costumed individuals stare at each other without blinking for two hours!”

Sarah stifled a laugh and ruefully smirked, shaking herself of her current mood. “Oh, it’s nothing, just got me thinking is all. Existence is just too mysterious…” she trailed off wistfully, looking up at another perfect, stationary night sky.

“And yours isn’t mysterious enough?” the other girl ventured playfully.

Sarah had to quickly remind herself of her role, her alleged background; it had almost been too tempting to just relax – she genuinely wished she could. “My life had been downright boring up until this week!” she forced herself to laugh. “If I may be perfectly honest, yours sounds far more exciting. And you don’t have to do anything fancy to get here – you can just walk!”

Láre smiled a little patronizingly. “I suppose that part is a privilege, although I fear you would find my daily existence very mundane as well, aside of the elemental difference. About the only ‘excitement’ we endure every once-in-a-blue-moon are the great dragons that come to fish in Amber’s rich waters. Most of the beasts know that a direct attack on Rebma means a grizzly underwater demise, but there have been rare exceptions that have warranted the hunt. Even with their close proximity, Amber seems to never be troubled similarly by them.”

“Alright, that’s an excitement I think I can live without,” Sarah laughed nervously, looking out in the direction of the bay again. And I’m definitely going to have nightmares tonight! “What do you think of that one that’s been circling out there?” she pointed. The moonlight faintly highlighted a distant pair of gray-webbed, scaled wings, floating almost effortlessly in the night sky.

“She is a strange one,” Láre conceded, “hasn’t even descended to feed yet, almost like she’s waiting for her mate to join her. Hopefully it is not the beast Amber’s army is currently tracking in the Arden near to the border of the outlying farm country; if he is killed, she may prove difficult to dislodge from the bay. But enough of our local troubles – you’re here on holiday! Have you given any further thought as to what else you might want to do while you are here? Tell me you will participate in the improv night at the inn!”

“I plan on it,” Sarah replied easily as a string of brightly jingling dancers wound on past them, “just sort of playing it by ear for right now.”

They got back to the inn late; only a few candles were still lit, the fire in the main room was banked down. Sarah was dead on her feet by the time she had climbed all those stairs and had gotten ready for bed. As she staggered into her room, she saw that her nightlight that wasn’t really a nightlight was waiting for her. For a brief moment she was reminded of those balls of light people used in lieu of Tinkerbell for Shadow Earth stagings of Peter Pan.

“Sarah,” he said quietly once she’d closed and locked the door, “I’ve been thinking.”

“That makes two of us,” she sighed, flopping down on the mattress, crawling under the nice, thick covers; it did get chilly here at night.

“If you see that phantom girl again, signal me and I’ll run intensive arcane and shadow-dragging scans of where both of you are. I believe that you really did see something and for whatever reason someone wants either you or the general public to at least think that she’s here; if I can track the construct back to the sender it may be even more informative than finding your original herself. There’s even the slight chance that she may not be at all aware that her likeness is being used this way. It wouldn’t be the first time that a totally innocent descendent of Oberon was taken advantage of simply by dint of what they were.”

And the girl might not even know… Sarah shuddered at the thought.

“Sorry,” Ghost suddenly apologized, “I forgot you’re sort of in that boat, too. Shouldn’t have brought it up.”

Sarah gave a sad little lip-smile. “None of us is really worth more than the sum of our parts, are we?”

“What brought that thought on?”

“Oh, just thinking about my own predicament. What it’ll be like going back, after…” She just shook her head.

“You should talk to my dad again before you go home,” Ghost stated decisively. “I think he’s been though some bouts of existential questioning himself, although I concede the difference in situation. Talking to him has always helped me with my problems, too; he’s a good listener.”

“As are you.”

“Thank you; I’ve been learning social behavior from his example for some years now, but I know I have a ways to go yet before I will fully sound passably human.”

“Being human isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either,” Sarah folded her arms behind her head. “Goodnight – Ghost?”

He had automatically dimmed down already. “What is it, Sarah?”

“You know how you were…flashing, last night?”

The ball of light floated over. “That frequency rapidly induces delta rhythms in the human brain – deep sleep. You want for me to do it again?”

“I just can’t afford to wake up screaming here. I’ve been plagued with recurrent nightmares ever since my trial with the Logrus; I was really lucky last night. And I was just told something rather graphically disturbing about dragons in Rebma not half-an-hour ago.”

“Oh, yes,” Ghost sighed in assent; from his tone of voice Sarah could tell that if he’d had eyeballs he would’ve just rolled them. He descended closer; the visual pulsing immediately commenced right above her face. “Think of that warm, golden Amber sunlight sparkling on the water, Sarah,” he said quietly in his deeper Merlin voice.

And within moments it was sparkling behind her eyelids. It’ll be okay, she thought driftingly. I’ll find that stupid girl if it’s the last…


But in spite of her resolve, the following two days proved to be frustratingly fruitless, and it certainly wasn’t for any lack of effort by either party. Sarah had people-watched by the hour at various sidewalk cafes all over the city. She had frequented shops that would’ve peaked her interest had she been in Amber in the fifth grade with a handful of drachms burning a hole in her pocket. She’d even started hiking around different neighborhoods. Nothing – not a single glimpse, not an energy or spell blip. Nothing. It was starting to irk Sarah just how rashly she had handled that first sighting – she may have inadvertently bungled their one chance at catching her original, as much as Ghost kindly tried to convince her otherwise. The only thing that was nearly as troubling to Sarah was the fact that out of all the known scions of the throne of Amber (granted, according to at least one reputable source, there were nearly three-dozen illegitimates still unaccounted for – Oberon had been a prolific cheater in his heyday), the only one that bore any resemblance at all to either of Sarah’s biological parents might’ve been Princess Deirdre – and she’d met her end unexpectedly in the Patternfall War some years ago, literally dragged over the edge of the Pit of Chaos by none other than the mad traitor Prince Brand as he fell to his death. Not that Sarah thought that such distinguished personages were her own literal parents, but if she was a shadow with an original in Amber, at least some of her immediate family tree would have to superficially follow suit. Sarah had mentioned as much to Ghost and he had managed to show her one of the princess’ old portraits from the Castle; there was a peculiar kind of a likeness after a fashion, but really it was too vague – and the similarity was more towards Sarah than her mother. Unsettling.

Her time spent in Amber wasn’t a total waste, though: it gave her a chance to mentally decompress from her time living in isolation in Chaos, which she was beginning to suspect was Merlin’s real motive for sending her here ostensibly to relax for a week-and-a-half before sending her home. She was getting used to the idea of furniture that didn’t float of its own accord again as well as a world that generally behaved according to Newtonian and Euclidean physics (the jury was out on Copernican in Amber-proper). Her interactions with the general public were steadily getting easier as she resumed a more natural social mode of life. Just being outdoors was definitely beneficial to her physical and mental well-being. The whole process could pretty much be summed up as gently reacquainting her with an Earthlike world before it was time for her to plunge back into the real thing – well, figuratively-speaking, anyway.

The afore-advertised improv night at the inn proved to be rather popular and well-attended in comparison to some of the other artistic gatherings that had been staged that…week? (the concept didn’t exist in Amber). The audience was well-acquainted with the style of theater and the brave volunteers performed both comedy and drama sketches, not a few of which were on loan from the Players of the Unicorn that night - both S’Aiya and Láre took their turns during the comedy parts; Joas had refused. Sarah had thought that this was going to be fairly easy – she was used to doing improv exercises in theater class at school, she was actually pretty good at them – but to her consternation she quickly discovered that her Shadow Earth knowledge and experience were almost a dangerous handicap here, and it wasn’t too long before the other players could tell she was self-censoring too often, trying to think of what she could legitimately say here without getting herself into any trouble, and she was kindly allowed to join the audience again with words of encouragement for her art, that she would get better the longer she worked at it. The incident had been embarrassing, but really it could have gone a lot worse; she had been very lucky. On the whole, the show was still pretty enjoyable.

The more mundane aspects of this trip, on the other hand, were actually going rather well. On top of the seemingly mandatory ‘sightseeing’, she had gotten to do a little extraneous shopping; it turned out that she had been allotted more than sufficient funds for the mini-vacation once she realized that it was normal to haggle down prices in the marketplace. So far, besides the cloak and an extra dress (mixed pastels and princessy with very long, draped sleeves – something she could probably wear to a renaissance fair afterwards) she had gotten a new green-leather journal with old-fashioned pressed paper, a billowy sky-blue silk blouse she knew she could wear with jeans and incidentally drive her stepmother crazy with (oh, she did not miss that woman!) and a small pendant necklace from the city’s only tourist shop: it was delicately and ornately carved out of a piece of real amber rosin in the shape of a heart. She couldn’t resist; it was like their version of I [heart] NY.

And then, on the morning of her fifth day in the city, without any ado, the ominous dragon that had been tarrying above the bay for weeks suddenly turned and flew away south beyond the horizon and didn’t return: it was safe to go down to the beach again! With Ghost on the lookout but no further active plans (between the two of them they had combed the entire city; Ghost had taken to venturing through private residences and the harbor districts while she slept), Sarah had managed to goad Láre into going down to the coast with her, which really took some doing because what she really wanted to see was the staircase down to Rebma, the famous Faiella-bionen, far to the west of the city.

“I’m not about to get all briny again until it’s time for me to go home,” Láre had laughed, “but I’ll watch you get soaked to the skin. I’ll warn you the lady of this house charges extra for laundron duties – I got gauged upfront and I’m fairly certain I arrived with even less luggage than you; land-dwellers wear far more clothing than we do down below.” It was customary for people who even approached Rebma to wear their regular clothing in spite of the possibility of water-damage as a sign of respect, however – this was no snorkeling expedition!

The girls split the fare for a breezy horse-drawn cab to take them down past the harbor most of the way out to the marker stones at the beach; the crowd dropped off the farther they went until no one else was left. The sand was pink striped with black and the ocean was so, so blue.

At least the sky isn’t purple, Sarah thought with an odd note of humor, remembering that dream. They disembarked a little further on and walked the rest of the way; there were too many boulder-sized rocks and chunks of bright coral out here for the carriage to be safely driven over. The cabbie had been instructed to come back to where he had let them off in about an hour, and his lone chestnut horse pounded away with the open vehicle back up the surf. There were caches of large shells washed up here and there along the strand, and it was still early enough in the morning that the sea breeze was a little cool even though the sun was already hot; it was a beautiful day to be out here. Láre made for a manmade rock formation up ahead – circular, natural stones stacked in the shape of a pyramid – and pointed down into the water.

“Well, there’s your destination,” she stated, seating herself atop another rock outcropping, “don’t be all day down there. Whatever you do, stay on the staircase – off of it, the cumulative water-pressure could easily kill you. There’s no point in trudging all the way to the bottom unless you have a particular interest in topless guards with tridents and spears who won’t let you into the city, but you can make out the top turrets of our highest buildings about two-thirds of the way down. Have fun,” she added a little sarcastically, and Sarah reflected that this was probably the last thing she had envisioned doing on her vacation and resolved to be quick; she was no pearl-diver and could only hold her breath for about five minutes tops anyway. She also felt a slight unease about leaving her trump-pack on shore in her purse (along with her leather shoes) with a relative stranger, but the girl seemed fairly trustworthy or she wouldn’t be here at all. It was probably okay as long as she didn’t know what all was in the bag.

Commencing her descent, Sarah was immediately struck by the fact that the water wasn’t buoyant; she was solidly walking downwards exactly as if she were on land – the gravity was the same, her movement was only slightly impeded a little by the heavier medium. Weird. The smooth-but-not-slippery steps were long at first but they were followed by shorter, steeper ones, followed by more long. By the time Sarah was fully submerged, she could finally see just how far down this thing actually went: the wide, banistered staircase literally vanished into the black depths of the sea, obscured with the blue of the water. There might’ve been light much further down but it was indistinct. She paddled upwards with some difficulty through the strange liquid and broke the surface with a gasp.

“That was fast!” Láre remarked from the shore, sitting up. “Did you change your mind?”

“I had no idea it was that deep and murky!” Sarah called back, swimming towards the shore. “I can’t hold my breath for that long!”

“But you don’t! Just breathe!”


“Oh, for…”

And before Sarah even realized what the girl was doing, Láre casually stripped down to her lace knickers and swam out to her!

“Were you taught nothing of us in Begma?” she asked incredulously upon reaching her, “Or did you think we were fish-people with gills in our necks? The water on Faiella-bionen has extra oxygen in it, same as Rebma – you can breathe it directly, it won’t hurt you in the least.” And Láre dipped under the surface and fully exhaled and inhaled! “See?” she said, still submerged, looking up at her; it made the girl’s voice sound a little funny, but Sarah could still hear her clearly. “Just exhale as hard as you can before breaking the surface,” and she did so, inhaling air once more, “it’s less of a shock on the lungs that way. Now you try – I’ll stay right here with you.”

Sarah was working very hard not to notice that the Rebman girl’s more intimate parts were the exact crazy shade of green as her lips and hair as she dove under the surface again, with Láre standing beside her bold as brass, holding her hands. Sarah managed to exhale a teensy bit in the water, but almost instantly broke surface again.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t force my body to do it! My diver’s reflex is too strong!”

Without any warning, Láre swiftly yanked her back under and tickled her hard, making Sarah laugh and gasp automatically. The girl stopped just as suddenly, holding her arms steady with a triumphant grin. Sarah’s eyes went wide in disbelief, realizing what the Láre had done – and what she was now in consequence doing! And they were standing on the stairs, three feet below the surface.

“There,” Láre said, “see? Inhale. Exhale. Simple. Now, I’m going to go bake dry on that nice warm beach. Stay in the very middle of the staircase if you can help it and take your time – remember you have to walk the distance both ways. You’ll be fine,” she admonished a bit teasingly, then swam away, back to shore.

Exhale. Inhale. Wow. This was the first time since she’d left Chaos that Sarah had thought of Mandor’s ring – but of course it was back on shore with everything else she didn’t want destroyed by saltwater. Her heart was pounding as she recommenced the long flight downwards. This was surreal! She could now see that the staircase and banister were both carved out of what appeared to be a pale-watermelon tourmaline – just like the turnstile in the main hallway in the Ways of Sawall! Some property of this particular stone had to be conductive to transportation magic work, she mused, walking farther and farther in slow motion. She could see what Láre was getting at: this was a heck of a long trip down and there really wasn’t much to see along the way besides schools of small fish. Plankton and organic sea detritus fogged her vision periodically and it finally became so dark that there were huge, miraculously burning green sconces lighting the way every so many stairs, keeping the otherwise frigid waters surprisingly warm with their radiant heat. Much, much farther down, she could just barely make out what had to be the Gates of Rebma at the very sea-bottom, well-lit, but there were other lights as well: pale, tall towers gleamed faintly in the murky depths, and many pastel-colored hexagonal windows beautifully illuminated the oceanic midnight. It was like something out of a dream. And, as also forewarned, the hike back up was a lot harder - Sarah had to stop to catch her breath twice before being able to continue on – but she eventually made it back to the surface, sopping wet and nearly feeling like an idiot for not stripping down a little herself anyway, coughing up the remainder of the seawater reflexively even though she wasn’t actually choking on it.

“That was incredible!” she gasped, beaching herself on the shore, panting. Láre was still sunbathing topless, about as self-conscious as a sea lion; clearly the radiation never altered her ivory skintone one bit.

“Oh, it’s home,” she sighed. “I really prefer being up here in the warmth and the light but I suppose we all want certain things because we can’t have them,” she observed, slowly sitting up and brushing the sand off herself before slipping her camisole and pale Regency dress back on, along with her thin shoes.

The articles of clothing really seemed like a costume to Sarah now; the girl probably wore next-to-nothing in her own world. These people didn’t have nylon or spandex, and any normal cloth would probably just rot down there, not to mention being bulky and awkward to move in. Now if only there were some handy anatomically-sized scallop shells… but it looked like the big shells on the beach were all conches. Still… the partial nudity had to be cultural.

The cab was just returning but it was still a fair distance away; Láre had spotted it, too, and had bent down to give Sarah a hand up, but she waved her off.

“You go on ahead, I’m not quite ready to leave just yet. Thanks for showing me this place; I realize this was probably the last thing you planned on doing during your time away.”

Láre quirked her bright-green lips. “It is rare to find a Lander who is actually excited by the prospect of that road, let alone eager to tread it. I think you may be more adventurous than you have been given the opportunity for as of yet. But are you sure you do not wish to return to town with me? It’s a two-mile walk just to get to the harbor from here, and it’s going to get considerably hotter in about another hour. Next time bring provisions and take the cab in the other direction if you want to go explore the sea caves.”

Sea caves? Sarah thought, suddenly wishing she had actually purchased one of those overpriced tourist’s destination maps back at that one shop. Or at least asked Ghost far more questions. “I’ll be alright, I don’t plan on being too long. It’s just so stunningly beautiful out here.”

“I keep forgetting this is your first trip to Amber,” the girl replied with a distinct note of good-natured humor. “Just be careful not to get sunstroke. I’ve got an invite to a literary salon for lunch and I need to go freshen up so nobody complains of yet another Rebman reeking of seaweed and chum!” she laughed, running out to the approaching carriage. “I’ll see you later then!”


Sarah watched the cab recede back up the beach, eventually turning up onto Harbor Road, vanishing from view. She was alone with the sun and the birds and the gentle lapping of the deep sapphire waves, the perfect compliment to that brilliant turquoise sky.

And Ghost. “For goodness sake, put your trumps back on, Sarah!” he almost immediately scolded her; they were still secreted in the bottom of her carryall.

“We couldn’t exactly have them getting all wet, now could we?” she easily rebuffed him, sitting up and slipping her dress up far enough to strap the hip-level leather hollister back in place, smoothing the material back down over it.

“But you left them with that girl!”

“Would you prefer I’d left them at the inn?”

“I would have preferred that you had given them to me for safe-keeping,” he finally replied a bit more calmly, “but I suppose that’s neither here nor there at present. Sorry for getting on your case; you just worry me when you take risks like that.”

“You know, it’s actually okay for you to suggest ideas to me.”

“I wasn’t entirely certain on that point; it wasn’t made explicit in my list of directives in dealing with you. I was under the impression that my dad wanted you thinking for yourself with as little outside interference as possible.”

“Oh,” Sarah answered a bit awkwardly. Silence. Waves. “So…still no luck?”

“I’m starting to think that your initial hunch may have unfortunately been correct – that she’s in another shadow, possibly even in transit between here and there somehow. We would have located her by now had she truly been physically present here.”

Sarah sighed, closing her eyes. Of course she’d been right: this trip had only been orchestrated to discreetly help her reassimilate into Order. The only weird thing was that she really didn’t believe Merlin had been lying about this situation, either. Maybe there was some covert operation going on out on this side of the spectrum, but the odds of her running into it blindly…

Were one-in-one, apparently; Sarah had just caught a glimpse of someone or something watching them from behind one of the larger rocks down the strand; dark-brown hair and mischievous green eyes peeked out for only a moment…then again from behind a different rock further on!

“Ghost!” Sarah hissed, pointing.

“I can’t see it!” he whispered back. “Wait, I have an idea. Can I metabolize just a fraction of your bioelectrical output for a second? I think the phenomena is deliberately using you as an antenna to make the visual signal stronger for you.”

“I guess so – hurry, there it is again! Just beyond that ledge!” She felt a slight momentary weakness that left almost as soon as it came.

“Oh, there you are – I see her now; the frequency being used for this is obviously very faint. It was probably drowned out by the background bioresonance of all the people in the City before. Stay right here - I’m going to fly on ahead and see if I can get a clearer scan of her; now that I know what frequency to utilize, I can synthesize harmonics for it. Back in five!”

And he winked out. Sarah stood up a little shakily, brushing the excess sand off of her dress, trying to shake her hair clean; she really needed to ‘freshen up’ herself. Donning the cross-body bag, she paced along the shore in nervous excitement – this could be the break they were waiting for at long last! She only hoped that the apparition wouldn’t turn out to be just that once again, hoping that they would have more to report back than just a vague confirmation of suspicious activity. Sarah itched to trump Merlin right now to let him know what was going down, to ask him for advice, but in all likelihood the call would never even make it to its destination without Ghost’s added power on the connection and he was busy at the moment.

But his familiar ball of light abruptly flared right in front of her again, startling her a little.

“It turns out both of us were right, Sarah; there really is something there, but it’s just a very tentative construct made to resemble some version of you. The thing is nimble at teleporting this close to Amber, which definitely suggests real strength behind the design, though, whatever-it-is. I chased her all the way across the beach and she just entered the caves; I think we’d better follow to see what she’s up to. Most of them are relatively shallow, but a few of the deeper passageways farther in actually link up with the lower dungeons of Castle Amber, excavated from the bowels of Mount Kolvir! The Pattern’s down there, too! You’d better arm yourself – she was phasing in and out the whole time. Hang tight!”

And before Sarah even had time to ask, Ghost effortlessly whisked her into the caves! Apart from his own light (which he had dimmed) it was really dark in here and obviously going to get even darker. Collecting her wits, Sarah quickly summoned her version of the Logrus into readiness (not quite as easy to perform in this place – had to have had to do with the proximity of the true Pattern) and cautiously followed Ghost’s darting light down the passageway. It certainly smelled of the sea in here; there was yet a little sand underfoot, but it quickly changed to gravel and then solid rock. On she walked, trusting that Ghost could sense this fellow apparition, but she hadn’t spotted her at all since they…

A young Sarah-face had just glanced back at them from a hundred feet ahead! Ghost shot off after her down a side corridor and Sarah followed as best she could, using a faint spirit-light to see by, but after a few more turnings she was fairly certain that she had lost both of them in the branching tunnels and momentarily wondered whether it wouldn’t be safest at this point just to stay put and wait for Ghost to come back for her; she wasn’t even certain she could find her own way back out at this point!

Then on a whim she decided to try the Logrus – what harm could it do just to see where the girl was? It was incredibly difficult to perform here, but Sarah just barely managed to don the black tendrils like gloves and was reaching out into the darkness…reaching…in her mind’s eye she noted Ghost and passed him…her own young visage looked back at her and pulled an immaturely rude face in mockery…

And Sarah accidentally walked straight into an armored guard! He yelled in surprise and lifted the lamp he was carrying to see her more clearly; the blackness of the Logrus fled along with her broken concentration and her spirit-light.

“What in Amber and you doing sneaking about down here?!” he bellowed, his eyes, nearly as wide as her own.

For a moment Sarah was so surprised and frightened that she couldn’t think of a single thing to say as she stood there like a statue, suddenly ice-cold, staring.


“I…I was…looking for someone, and I got lost,” she faltered, feeling very small and vulnerable, especially without Ghost!

The guard gave a clipped, annoyed sigh, relaxing a little. “Didn’t anyone teach you not to wander in so far from the beach?” he scolded, taking her by her right upper-arm. “You’re extremely lucky you ran smack into me as you did - you could’ve been lost in here for good!” he exclaimed, leading her back down the passageway she had just come out of, turning right. Probably leading her back out. “You’re obviously a visitor; locals know better than this,” he grumbled. “Where are you from? What ship did you come in on?”

“I’m from Begma.” Sarah was genuinely panicking now – that second question had never had an answer in her story! “I arrived only five days ago.”

“I’d guess as much from the looks of you, but on…which…what is that you’re wearing?” The guard stopped in his tracks: he had just noticed that something hidden in the front of her dress was glowing!

The brooch! Sarah had nearly forgotten – it hadn’t so much as sparkled ever since she got to Amber; she had assumed incorrectly that it was a property of true Order itself that cancelled out the phenomenon, not that she had performed no magic here!

“Just a silly trinket,” she nervously lied, “I bought it in the City.”

He held the light up again, scrutinizing her face more closely for a moment; he clearly wasn’t buying it. “May I see your papers, please?”

Sarah fought to keep her hands from shaking as she dug them out, handing them over; they had been good enough to fool the banks. The guard poured over them carefully – and suddenly furrowed his dark, bushy brows.

“I’ve got relations out Begma-way,” he started carefully, “and I’ve never heard of a ship builder named Clorindo Naylor. Never heard of anybody even named Clorindo. You never answered my question about what vessel you traveled here in. Surely you remember the captain’s name?”

“I’m drawing a blank at present. Your manner is making me nervous.”

“Then perhaps you can at least recall the last four bars of ‘The Ballad of the Water Crossers’ – common enough tune for a household in the mercantile fleets of the Golden Circle. How does it end again?”

He had given her every chance he possibly could. Sarah sighed, closing her eyes.

“I don’t remember.”

“And who did you say you were looking for down here? Or can you not remember that, either?”

Where the heck was Ghost when she needed him?! She couldn’t meet the guard’s eyes anymore; she just stared at the candlelight reflecting off his scalemail tunic. “My little sister. She’s about so-high and she looks just like me-”

“I’ll bet,” he answered darkly, his grip on her arm tightening. “Hey!” he called back behind him. “Get over here on the double!”

Two other guards rushed down from somewhere in the tunnels and presently joined them, hemming in Sarah on all sides. The first held her arms up while another searched her person, taking her bag; the third held an armed crossbow but didn’t currently have it aimed at her. The brooch they discovered immediately, but it proved to be her small collection of rare trumps that sealed her doom.

“What’ve we here?” one of the guards extracted the pouch out of the slit pocket in her dress; Sarah tried not to wince as he rifled through them like they were nothing more than a standard pack of playing cards. “These are Chaosian-made! High-ranking, too!”

“All right,” the first guard said, now sounding very much like the law enforcement he was, “I don’t know how you got here, but I know which boat you’re leaving on – the first one out of the harbor, with an armed escort to make sure you don’t come back! Move!” They commenced force-marching her back up the passage.

“But I can’t leave!” Sarah blurted in protest.

“You’re outrageously lucky to be able to,” the guard to her back with the crossbow ground out; it was certainly aimed at her now! “You should be doing a stint in the dungeon on the old political enemy row at least, but the Concord’s the Concord, and it’s far too lenient on foreign spies if you ask me!”

“But I have to see the king!” she thankfully remembered. The troop stopped.

“What?” the one with the lantern asked, raising it.

Sarah forced her breathing steady. “I was told if I was captured I had to speak to the king,” she managed a little more firmly, though she was shaking, and she held up the hand with Merlin’s ring. The guard grabbed her wrist, holding her hand to the light to better see… and instantly paled upon recognizing a personal token of the King of Chaos! But he presently collected himself, smiling coldly.

“Looks like she does get to stay with us for a little while after all, boys. Take her away! Watch yourselves – she could turn into anything given the chance! Put her in the magickally warded cell on the end of the block!”

“What?!” Sarah screamed as she was double-quick marched down, down, down into the depths of the mountain, into sections that were no longer carved by nature but by man!

“You get to await King Random’s convenience; you’ll have your ‘audience’ with him when he pleases.” They all laughed at that. Without any further ceremony, they emerged into an open, stone-columned hall with several adjacent tunnels; taking the first one, the company walked all the way down to a dead-end, past about two-dozen thick wooden doors to one made of steel without even a barred a window, just a hinged one-inch grate with thick mesh over it at the bottom. Shoving her inside, the guard with the crossbow roughly ripped the ring off her finger and the door slammed closed behind her!

Sarah stood there for about a minute, simply too stunned to move. It was pitch-black.

…she was trapped in the dungeons of Castle Amber?! How…why…that nasty little bitch! She suddenly thought: that phantom had led her down here on purpose, knowing full well that Sarah would be caught! And gotten out of the way…

She screamed in frustration: how could she have been so stupid?! Ghost would find her in here eventually, of course – there was a good chance he had heard her shouting earlier – but if what those guards had said was true, even if Merlin’s computer construct could get in, there was still no way for her to get out of here! And now they knew she was here. Taking a deep breath, Sarah rekindled her small spirit-light (at least that still worked) and took a look around. Her surroundings were hardly inspiring: there was a fairly thick layer of fresh straw covering the entire stone floor. That was it – no chair, not even a rough mattress. Just a pile of straw on the floor in a small metal-plated room with a metal door that had just a big enough vent in the base to let in air. It didn’t get anymore medieval than this. And it didn’t smell too clean, either…

Oh, gross! The point of the straw had just dawned on her: it was both latrine and bedding material! Rationalizing that no one would be so crass as to do their business in the middle of the room, Sarah piled together some of the straw that had been close to the center and sat down on it, shivering; it was cool down here and she was still wet besides. It was too easy for her to get down on herself for being clumsy enough to walk straight into this one, and when she could have gone free, no less! Although her current negative thought pattern was almost preferable to the other remembered traumatic impression that briefly flitted through her panicked mind when she was initially shut in: the oubliette in the Labyrinth. At least there weren’t any skeletons in here – or at least any remains were swept out regularly with the other refuse. In this cell, anyway. She was too nervous to sit still and got up, beginning to pace the tiny space. What would they do with her belongings, with her trumps? What if they found the first ring and the pill? Was it all already in the dustbin or the fire? She had no idea what the procedure was with prisoners here, how long she would be held before anyone so much as deigned to look in on her. Let alone feed her – yikes. For one crazy moment she thought of whistling a few bars of ‘Chim-cheree’ just to see what would happen, but quickly decided against it; there were much better chances of someone here knowing odd snippets of Shadow Earth culture. She sat back down with a sigh, the sound of her voice, her breathing, echoing in the audio-reflective room.

Corwin, she suddenly thought dismally: how the heck was she ever supposed to help him when she couldn’t even keep herself at liberty for a week? Perhaps a more pertinent concern was what she should tell the king – taking for granted that she would ever be allowed to see him. Merlin had appeared surprisingly blasé about sharing the information of her mission here with the ‘other side’, which, in and of itself, upon thinking back, should have struck her as rather suspicious right away. It was either a great show of trust in her own ability (highly unlikely) or a disturbing level of trust in the honor of his ‘opposite number’ (even more unlikely.) Maybe Ghost understood his dad’s intentions here a bit more clearly.

There was no way to keep track of time down here; Sarah honestly had no idea how much had passed by the time Ghost’s light zipped in through the grate in the door.

“Thank goodness!” he whispered in her ear. “It wasn’t difficult to track your energy until I got to the rows of cells – this one’s heavily warded both inside and out and I didn’t feel you immediately upon passing this way.”

“Where in Chaos were you?! I could’ve used a little help back there!” she whisper-screamed. “Weren’t you supposed to keep me safe?”

“I’m sorry this had to happen to you, Sarah,” he genuinely apologized, “but I think I’m starting to actually piece together what’s really going on and why exactly you were sent here. This was a most necessary step.”

Sarah’s anger was banking down a little already from curiosity. If there was a reason…. “Care to let me in on the secret? I mean, it looks like it’s my life on the line here.”

“It’s only my own personal rough conjecture and I’d hate to plant a wrong impression in your head,” Ghost demurred. “Here” – and a thick, gray wool blanket dropped around her shoulders; she wrapped up in it tightly in spite of the scratchiness. “It’s one of the blankets they use in the more permanent cells; I’d fetch you fresh clothing but it would simply look too suspicious. Do you need anything else, though? Food or drink? The political prisoners do get reasonable amounts of daily rations, but it wouldn’t be for several hours yet and the guard who put you in here was just relieved; I can’t exactly manifest before his replacement and ask him to look after you well.”

“…so a certain degree of magic does work in here?”

“Only very limitedly – I can squeeze things in locally through the grate but you certainly can’t shadow-walk or shadow-pull yourself out of the cell, let alone bringing anything else in. Actually, these walls and the general darkness were designed as a much more ‘mundane’ arcane deterrent, if there truly is such a thing: it keeps people from being able to etch trumps or other devices into the surface of the walls, floor and ceiling. My granddad Prince Corwin famously escaped in this manner from a cell down the next hall.”

Sarah smirked. “You know, the guys who threw me in here were terrified that I’d spontaneously turn into a monster on them; the Chaosian reputation certainly appears to precede one here.” Her smile dropped. “I suppose I am a bit thirsty.”

“I’ll be right back. And try not to worry – that ring my dad gave you not only guarantees your freedom but that the king will see you today.”

“I hope so; they took it.”

“They had to show it to him so he knows it’s the real thing – those are my dad’s calling cards.”

The light went out. Minutes later, a pewter plate piled with stale bread and dried meat slid through the grate, followed by a thin leather canteen of water. “I’m going to zip over to the inn quick to grab the rest of your money and place it in your bag; it’s highly unlikely that they’ll bother to search it again after digging through the contents so thoroughly the first time.”

Sarah perked up. “You mean my stuff is actually safe?”

“They took your arcane implements and your fake papers away someplace else – I’d be very surprised if my Uncle Random isn’t shown those as well in due course – but the leather carryall is just hung up on a big nail hammered into the wall right outside of your cell door. The other clothing that you purchased might be too tricky to confiscate openly, although I can try it if you want me to.”

“Don’t bother,” Sarah sighed dejectedly. “Just come back soon; I’ve no idea how long we’ve got before somebody comes.”

“I’d hazard a guess of at least an hour or more; the royals currently in the castle are about to be served luncheon upstairs. Plenty of time. Just take it easy and start practicing saying ‘your Majesty’ – Uncle Random doesn’t go in for a lot of the showier protocol, but he does insist on that much with seemingly hostile strangers. As long as you’re respectful and cooperative towards him, I honestly don’t think you need to fear him much – just keep in mind who and what he is. I’ll run.”

Ghost hadn’t really needed to hurry; they had to wait for nearly four hours for any sign of life at all – and then it was just a guard bringing a flask of water. While Sarah did her best to rehearse under the rather primitive conditions, Ghost, with nothing better to do (and not about to leave his charge again) proceeded with some of his normal cataloging operations, running basic remote scans of the castle and its current inhabitants right from where he was, comparing them with the inestimable wealth of general knowledge he already possessed.

“That is interesting,” he quietly stated out-of-the-blue after over two hours’ silence, catching Sarah off-guard.


“Oh, I’ve just been running some calculations, adding the personal chronologies of the Royal House of Amber to my private database. I just came across a matching date in the births to one I already have from my other sources: His Majesty King Random Barimen and Lord Mandor Sawall were born in the same year, approximately 1850 A.D. in your Shadow-Earth-based time.”

Sarah blinked. “But that doesn’t make any sense! I know King Random’s the youngest of Oberon’s kids but…oh, it has to do with the time-difference, doesn’t it?” she answered her own question.

“Sort of. Lord Mandor traveled extensively in his youth also, which further complicates matters; it makes him already Random’s senior by about four centuries. But it goes beyond that. They were born in the same month, on the same day, possibly within less than an hour of each other.”

Sarah’s eyes widened at the unbelievably immense, looming implication. “You’re not suggesting that…”

“I’m not entirely certain that’s what it means; I’ll have to ask Dad about it when I get home. I do doubt that whatever it portends it’s simple coincidence – even their given first names are anagrams of each other in Thari – but how they may or may not be connected beyond that would be pure conjecture at this point. I decided to tell you this much because I am curious to see your initial reaction to and impression of Random; I must admit to having reservations about both individuals for completely different reasons; I am hardly an impartial witness. You have also spent considerably more time with Mandor than I ever have, and under much less antagonistic circumstances on the whole as well. I am slowly learning that, on occasion, irrational, instinctual human psychological responses can be far more informative than all the formulas and statistics in the worlds. I suppose it would’ve been a little less biased if I had not told you beforehand, but I thought it best to let you in on the experiment since you appear to be a vital part of it yourself.”

Sarah looked at Ghost’s innocuous little ball of golden light with an almost dubious regard. “You really are learning operating behavior from these people, aren’t you?”

“Did I do something wrong? Was it better to keep you in the dark?”

“…no,” Sarah finally laughed, “although you may need to go elsewhere to learn a more normal code of ethics.”

She was propped up by the back wall with her legs tucked in underneath the small blanket - trying to take a nap out of boredom - when she heard the metal door of her cell creak on its hinges and saw it swing open; there was a different guard with an unsheathed short sword standing there.

“All right, on your feet,” he ordered.

Sarah stiffly rose, throwing the blanket in an…unused corner; she still smelled sort of briny but at least she was dry again. The guard grabbed her carryall and marched her back down the hall to the open pillared section again, then to yet another thick wooden door with an iron-barred peephole – this opened briefly when he knocked, so whoever was inside could see them – then she was quickly ushered through the portal; the lock audibly fell heavily back into place behind her; there were two other guards already in the room. They had come into a large stone chamber with a rough-carved wooden table and a small wooden chair, facing several larger, heavier metal chairs with multiple restraints directly across from it, and an extensive collection of rather unsavory-looking devices hung up along the right wall in order of unpleasantness, starting with a simple riding crop.

The interrogation room, Sarah thought with an involuntarily shudder, then forced herself to calm down - she had been expressly ordered to cooperate; nothing would happen to her. She was strapped into the center chair that directly faced the table though, secured at the arms, legs and waist. She heard the door open behind her across the room.

“Make them a little loose,” she heard a commanding, medium-tenor male voice say, “they can be tightened after.”

“Yes, sire,” the guard who had just finished strapping the belts nodded, loosening them all by at least a couple of inches.

Sarah’s eyes flashed wide in realization – the king was here! Hearing his thick-soled boots casually pacing towards her, her mind went flying in all directions, but she forced herself to breathe, trying to get her thoughts to settle in order.

While she had gotten used to seeing his visage on nearly all of the local currency, Sarah had never once been told of his stature, so it was a little bit of a surprise. To be blunt, Random Barimen was relatively short for a scion of Oberon - only about five-foot-five or six she would guess, seeing him standing there, and lightly built besides; out of those cavalier-heeled boots he was probably only an inch taller than herself, if that! He had bright sandy-blonde hair and well-tanned, clean-shaven youthful-looking features that were only betrayed by a small smattering of age and worry lines (and not a little sun damage.) His personal dress code seemed to be late 17th century European minus any frills but very high on quality and ostentation, chiefly in brilliant reds and oranges with just a little brown leather. He wore no crown or diadem of any kind, but there could be absolutely no question that this was the King of Amber, Lord of the Order Shadows. In light of Ghost’s comments, Sarah couldn’t possibly imagine anyone more unlike Mandor Sawall – tall, pale, and quietly studious and deadly, with a relatively tasteful sense of humor to match – than this burnished, incendiary spark of a man who currently towered over her only because she was seated! But then she dared a quick glance up at his sky-blue eyes…and found that she knew the expression that they held all too intimately indeed. She immediately reverted her gaze to his knee-high natural leather boots.

“I assume you know who I am,” he addressed her coldly - his Thari had the obvious Amberite accent but not as much as others she had heard here – “but I always make a point of learning just who and what I’m addressing. Shift now into your natural Chaosian form – you can’t possibly faze me in the least; I’ve seen all the types by now,” he put a kid-gloved hand to his hip.

“But…this is my natural state,” Sarah answered a bit awkwardly, starting to worry a little anyway.

Random forced a thin lip-smile. “Let’s try this again: if you expect me to in any capacity treat with you peaceably at this point, you’ll immediately comply with anything I order you to do. Now shift.”

“But I can’t!” Sarah blurted, starting to panic in earnest as the king turned and commenced a leisurely stroll toward that ominous-looking wall, “I can disguise my outward appearance, but this really is what I naturally look like and I can’t think of a single thing I could say or do to possibly convince you-”

“I will speak on her behalf – she truly scans human,” Ghost’s Merlin-voice sounded formally from above her, cutting her terrified rambling short.

Random stopped in his tracks and turned back, dubious curiosity clearly written in his features, his pale eyes searching the emptiness in vain. “Ghostwheel, is that you? If it is, you’d better show yourself right this instant.”

A shower of golden light appeared, hovering over Sarah – she saw the radiance, looked up and gasped: he had never manifested so completely; his outer rings were spinning gyroscopically, a myriad of doorways and shifting points of brilliant light. “Hello, Uncle,” he added a little sheepishly.

Random quietly groaned with a small sigh, momentarily closing his eyes. “Tighten her restraints normally. Then you all may withdraw,” he suddenly addressed the guards; to a man they looked concerned but nevertheless did as they were bade, securing Sarah firmly to the chair, and, accompanied by a few assorted parting remarks of patriotic subservience, the door opened and closed again.

“Now then,” the king paced back over with his hands clasped behind his back with the beginnings of a frowning smirk, “before we go any further with this farce – Ghost?” he looked up at the spinning entity.

“Yes, your Majesty?”

He gave a short laugh at that. “Nice entrance, by the way.”

“Thank you; I’ve been working on it.”

Random grabbed the wooden chair from the table and carried it over in front of Sarah, just five feet away, and set it down, seating himself backwards in it with his legs over the sides, his arms resting on the back. “Ghost,” he began again in an oddly scolding, parental tone, “I know you don’t disobey Merlin anymore and you were probably just following orders here, but you need to give your ‘dad’ a personal message from me: I understand that spying on Amber is a celebrated, age-old Chaosian tradition, but if the current king actually wants to play this shitty little game with me, he needs to stick to the historically accepted points of attempted of entry into Amber as established by his predecessor – the darkest portions of the Arden Forest, the skuzzy side of the waterfront, crawling up the back of Mount Kolvir. I cannot countenance him directly trumping spies inside my walls – you appreciate this makes me look bad,” he gestured to himself.

“Sorry, Uncle; I’ll be sure and tell him.”

“Good.” His gaze dropped to Sarah. “And as for you, regardless of who you are, you can best stay in my good graces by truthfully answering some relatively simple questions.” He took her phony paperwork out of a side pocket in his jacket that she hadn’t seen, unfolding it, glancing at the contents with a light snort and a headshake. “Let’s start with your real name.”

“Sarah Marie Williams.”

“Better. From where?”

“Shadow Earth.”

He looked back at her. “Where on Shadow Earth?”


“Where?” he pressed. In English.

Sarah was torn – he’d probably know immediately if she lied to his face, but if he knew her actual location her future use as an agent of Chaos would be severely hampered if not outright betrayed. No quarter would be granted by that intense, merciless stare. She exhaled, bowing her head in humiliation. “New York,” she answered quietly, hoping he wouldn’t ask for more.

“It’s a wonderful town,” he replied in English with a note of humor; it didn’t read on his features though when she looked back up. “There. That wasn’t so hard,” he continued effortlessly in her mother-tongue, although his accent sounded somewhat older than Merlin’s. “Now, how did you come to be in the service of Chaos?” He had her trump pouch in hand and was carefully shuffling through its scant contents. “You appear to be unusually well-connected, to put it very mildly. Hello – what’s this?” He had just spotted the extra ring and the pill.

“That ring was a kind of control device she unknowingly wore for many months,” Ghost chimed in. “My dad has rendered it harmless. The other item is emergency provisions; that was my idea.”

The king’s eyebrows went up at the last part. “I don’t believe even I’ve ever been that desperate.”

“Neither has she.”

Random wryly smirked, putting them back. The trumps obviously troubled him, though; he lingered a moment over Suhuy’s before recasing it. “How did they recruit you?”

“I wasn’t recruited…well, not by anybody directly, not like that, oh how to put it… I guess I was tricked into walking one of the imperfect Logri in a very roundabout fashion, by a rogue shadow-guy,” she barely eschewed mentioning Jareth by name. “I was mentally going to pieces immediately after and… I suppose they literally saved me. Got the problems mostly under control now.”

“Who saved you?”

Sarah’s gaze shifted to the king’s gloved hands, crossed in front of him on the back of the chair. “Lord Mandor Sawall and Lord Suhuy Swayvil. But chiefly Lord Mandor.”

The king mused a moment, studying her. “You were under his influence for the better part of a year, I’d hazard, most likely either in the Courts or near them – and Lord Suhuy taught you about the Logrus.” It wasn’t a guess; it was a statement of fact. She nodded assent. “And, of course, the king knew all about this.”

“He didn’t - he wasn’t even aware of my existence until just last week! He’s been very kind to me.”

Random looked intrigued. “And how long have you been here in Amber?”

“Today makes my fifth day.”

A slow, impish grin spread across Random’s young face; apart from his eyes, he really didn’t look all that much older than Merlin, Sarah thought. It was odd.

“He got you the hell out of Perdition. Fast.”

“It would appear so.”

“All right,” he straightened up, “here’s the big question, are you ready? Why did he send you specifically to Amber? What were you supposed to do here? I want to hear his instructions verbatim,” he tapped the back of the chair with his pointer finger to emphasize the point.

Sarah hesitantly glanced up at Ghost, who was still hovering and shining above her like her own mechanical guardian angel.

“Go ahead, Sarah,” he reassured her in rather mechanical-sounding English, “I think at least one of the hunches I had today is correct.”

She nervously met the king’s eyes; his general demeanor had gradually changed during the course of the interrogation from direly serious and almost threatening to nearly amused.

“Mer- I mean, his Excellency,” she rapidly corrected herself, “is convinced that my original must have at least one Amberite parent…of the blood of-”

“The royal line,” Random cut her off with a sigh. “Why am I not surprised? Our late liege apparently had all the self-control of a dog in heat, and I suppose his children aren’t always perfectly careful, either,” he added with a sad half-smile. “If the claim turns out to be true, she’d be another illegitimate and nobody will want to own up. But why does he even think this? Surely other Orderers have walked the copies of the Logrus and lived – even the broken versions of the Pattern occasionally allow for this.”

Sarah shook her head. “I’m the only one as far as anybody knows. The stable Logri are progressively more perilous then the real deal, and I walked the worst of them and made it through with almost no permanent damage. I know there’s nothing particularly exciting arcane-wise about either of my birth parents. And Lord Mandor confirmed early on that there were dozens of…me,” she swallowed uncomfortably, “the closer he got to Amber.”

“The evidence you’ve got to work with would certainly seem to point in that direction,” Random conceded. “That little bit of extraneous legwork on Lord Mandor’s part was just his locating you?”

Sarah nodded. “And finding a double to take my place at home so nobody would know I was gone.”

He scrutinized her a moment. “That’s still quite a peculiar course of action on the part of the Logrus.”

“That’s what his Excellency thought – if the Logrus was that desperate to get me, what the heck is my original up to?”

“That actually might be worth worrying over a little. You were both obviously sent here covertly to find her. Have you yet succeeded in locating any evidence of her?”

“Not concrete, but I’ve seen this phantom of her twice now – the first time was outside of a shop on Temple Street, and the second was just this morning; she came into the sea caves and we gave chase. I had almost closed in on her using the Logrus when I accidentally literally ran into one of your guards instead,” Sarah colored a little, embarrassed. “That’s why I’m here.”

Random looked confused. “But Merlin knows the terms of the Concord as well as I do; he added his signature to the document upon his coronation, for crying out loud! Neither of us holds captured enemy spies anymore unless they’re actively committing crimes or seriously disturbing the peace. And you were actually told to make a point of seeing me if you were caught! What were his specific instructions concerning this?”

Sarah swallowed. “That I was to answer any questions you may have,” she stated as definitively as she could.

It wasn’t definitive enough. “And?” The king made a revolving motion with his right hand, like ‘keep it coming.’

It was so humiliating. She closed her eyes. “But not to offer more information than you asked for.”

Random was silent for a beat or two as the full implications of her predicament set in and he openly had a good laugh at her expense. Sarah’s face flushed with shame; the operation was a total failure.

“You’re no spy,” he said at length once he’d recovered himself.

She still couldn’t look at him. “His Majesty has made that point clear enough,” she answered civilly but bitterly. She would never hear the end of this from Merlin. She would never, never be given another assignment. Maybe Ghost could just make like she’d been taken prisoner or something so she wouldn’t have to talk to him directly – any story was better than this horrible fiasco!

“You’re a royal messenger,” he stated far more warmly; Sarah looked at him, clearly confused - he was genuinely smiling now without a trace of mockery! “And of course he couldn’t tell you, although you must concede that certain abuses are a universal hazard of the job.”

And the king of Amber rose, stepped around the chair, crossed the short distance between them and stooped to unbuckle her restraints himself! At this close of proximity, she could tell that he smelled lightly of… cigarettes?!

“I’m a messenger?!” she repeated incredulously to Ghost.

“I told you I wasn’t sure, but it seemed to add up toward the end there. I realized that there were huge holes in the story you’d been given, even with how much material you were successfully making up on the spot, really basic stuff you simply had never been briefed on – very peculiar. And I had further suspicions after a couple days went by, but I didn’t want to say anything in case I was wrong. I’m almost relieved I was right; you and I alone aren’t big enough to conduct this sweep – as you yourself stated, she could be anywhere!”

“But why couldn’t he just tell me?!” If she hadn’t been irritated before…

The king stood back up – she was free. “Do you have any idea of just how difficult it is for my dear nephew the King of Chaos to get any word to me at all without immediately alerting his entire Counsel and half the Courts, with all of them screaming sedition against their genuinely well-meaning and highly idealistic leader? Sometimes I truly wonder just who is really in power out there; I swear it seems like the boy’s under house arrest in the Thelbane – they almost never let him leave it anymore! This was literally the best he could manage to warn me of any possible danger and you yourself are an integral part of that message. Ghost, did you ever get a clear energy signature reading on whatever-it-was that you were chasing?”

“No – it was a faint frequency to start out with, but once I was within decent range I finally realized why: it was made using a magical damper system, the signature was deliberately blurred. She just vanished out of existence right in the middle of a hallway - totally untraceable. I can tell you with certainty that it isn’t anything of my dad’s construction, but whoever’s doing this is definitely a pro.”

“Which could still point to the Courts,” Random ruminated, “but I guess we can’t say that for sure. At least its not officially sanctioned activity; if nothing else, Merlin’s covering himself so as not to endanger the peace or his subjects. Can you just show me what she looks like?”

“Sure.” Ghost’s light suddenly condensed into a ring a foot in diameter; inside was the glowing image of the girl’s face! He floated down beside Sarah so the king could see them side-by-side. “That was the best I could capture; she didn’t even photograph well.”

Random nodded. “Well, there are a few steps I can take without broadcasting this to the world at large. I’ll have the guard doubled at the Patterns we govern and warn Queen Moire in Rebma to be on guard also, and I can have our own spies search for the girl within the Golden Circle, possibly further as I deem it necessary. This should please your liege; you can report back that much from me. If he honestly thinks this may be a real threat I’m willing to treat it as one, albeit quietly. Now, was that it? Was there anything else pertinent that I need to know? Either of you?” he glanced between the two of them. “Remember, as far as Merlin is concerned, you’re an open book,” he pointed at Sarah with an almost teasing expression – except he was dead serious.

“Only a wild theory or two,” Ghost responded in Thari, “that I’d rather confirm before making definitive statements that might result in grand libel charges against me.”

Random laughed again. “I suppose I’ll have to let that slide for now.” Going to the table, he picked up Sarah’s carryall and brought it back but did not give it to her; he presented her with her trump deck, however, along with her brooch – he had had it secreted away in a hidden pocket in his shirt.

“Don’t lose this again,” he nodded toward the charged artifact, “I took the liberty of examining it with the ruby you were probably taught to call the Left Eye of the Serpent, what we in Amber call the Jewel of Judgment. That seemingly worthless trinket carries a surprising store of power, but I think it may be a one-time-use item. You wore that through the Fixed Logrus?”

Sarah nodded.

“Guard it well and be very careful when the time comes to use it.”

“Thank you, your Majesty; I will,” she said, pinning it safely back inside the top of her oceany-smelling dress. The king gave her a hand up and actually put his right arm around her shoulders, leading her toward the door. Aside of the difference in height, this mannerism, too, was eerily familiar; Ghost shrank back down to his normal, compact size and followed them.

“Alright,” Random said, “this is the part where I have to make a big production out of you leaving – it’s expected of me. I’ll have you transported by armored carriage to the northernmost border of the Arden Forest and from there you must walk away into Shadow on your own; I know you probably can’t do the Chaosian shadow-pull-through physically with your unchangeable form. Ghost, do you think you could manage that visual for the benefit of my soldiers?”

“I can try to make it look like that if I’m allowed to directly trump her away from there afterwards.”


They were all of three feet from the door when the king stopped and pulled a pair of modern-looking handcuffs out from behind his belt; he showed them to her. “I do have to at least cuff you – you being at physical liberty as you currently are simply looks too suspicious. Turn around.”

Sarah did so and felt Random’s thin, gloved hands grab one wrist, then the other, locking the cuffs on over the fabric at the end of her sleeves, crossing her arms behind her back.

“They have to be tight like that, but having the cloth between should protect your wrists from getting rubbed raw. Do they hurt at all?”


He turned her back around by her arms. “Safe journeys, wherever that may be, Sarah,” he warmly smirked. “I expect to never see you or any other version of you darkening my fair City ever again. Thanks for the warning. Now get out.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” she curtsied awkwardly, trying not to laugh.

“Straight faces,” he warned; Ghost vanished as he unlocked the door and opened the heavy portal, roughly grabbing Sarah by the wrists. “Guard!” he yelled in Thari.

One immediately came running. “Yes, sire?”

“I’ve gotten all the information I can out of this one – she’s just a petty pawn. Don’t waste my time with these ones! Take the prisoner to the north edge of the Arden. Make sure that she leaves Amber.”

“It will be done, sire. Right you – come on!”

Sarah was surrounded by guards again and force-marched at crossbow-point across the open area over to a spiral stone staircase that was corkscrew-tight. She and four guards ascended, two in front and two in back of her so she couldn’t escape. Not that there was much danger of that happening in here – she hadn’t been anywhere this cramped and musty since that servant’s tunnel in the Ways of Sawall! At least this structure seemed sturdy and not under extreme attack by the elements. Up, up, up - there seemed to be no end to it, and neither would they allow her any rest. By the time she gained surface-level in the castle proper, both the back of Sarah’s throat and her legs were burning from the exertion, and yet they marched her on, down a thin side hallway. For just a second she caught the briefest glimpse of an immense feasting hall with long tables and bright heraldic banners strung up all along the ceiling before she was herded through what must’ve been one of the in-house military barracks. She did her best to ignore the rude comments and the openly appraising, mocking stares – including the first aging guard who had spoken to her upon her arrival! His eyes went wide as she passed by, but she said nothing, almost feeling sorry for him; he would take this inadvertent slip-up as a poor reflection on his skills, but there was nothing for it. At least she hadn’t ripped anybody off as far as she knew: she’d given real silver to the bank and her bill at the inn had been paid in advance.

The inn! They would worry about what had happened to her! Sarah felt especially guilty leaving Láre hanging like that - the girl had been genuinely nice to her – but there was no helping that situation. She was technically an enemy spy and now she was being treated as one, even though she had been initially welcomed as a friend sight-unseen. This didn’t sit well either, but presently a large reinforced door opened, and she was trudged out into a walled gravel courtyard where the aforementioned armored carriage was waiting for her; the door in the back already standing open. The vehicle had to be heavy because a team of horses was hitched up to it, not just one or two. She was practically shoved inside and the metal door was audibly padlocked behind her. The only window/air grate was in said door, small and barred over, just enough for ventilation. The ‘carriage’ was really just a big metal box with low metal benches built into the sides, nothing to hang onto. She resolved to sit on the floor with her back to the left ‘bench’, trying to prop herself steady with her feet against the other – at least she wouldn’t be in danger of knocking her head against the walls if the road got bumpy.

Sarah’s instinct was dead-on, although she changed positions for a while, facing forward in the center in the dark enclosure: they were steadily trotting downhill and the going was rather steep in places. Oh, for a window! Looking back, she could still see that gorgeous, alien blue sky – the Amber sky – and she did her best to burn the hue into her memory. It genuinely saddened her to be leaving such a place in this fashion; if only there had been more time! She would have loved to see the countryside, the outlying rural areas in all of their rustic, old-world splendor. It was almost unthinkable that she had become a state-recognized adversary of Order, of all this tranquil beauty and peaceful commerce, normal healthy life as she knew it. Her very existence was perceived as a dire threat to that stability. Even being born of Order, she couldn’t ever belong here. Not now. Amber might not have been heaven but it certainly felt akin to getting kicked out of-

“Sarah!” Ghost whisper-shouted; his light was as faint as he could make it, hovering in the front-left corner toward the ceiling, where it would be harder for the mounted guard riding behind to see inside.

“I don’t suppose you could get me a pillow?” she asked in Thari – he seemed more comfortable speaking that language. “My tailbone’s getting sore already.”

“Sorry, this thing’s warded, too – security has actually really improved here since the last time I had occasion to visit.”

“Good for them,” Sarah replied sarcastically.

The carriage suddenly stopped and Ghost winked out; Sarah could hear talking outside for a moment but then they started moving again.

“That was the far gate,” Ghost explained, coming back, “it’s always manned now. We’ll gain the forest shortly.” They probably could’ve spoken at normal volume; between the clatter of the carriage and the pounding of the many horse-hooves of the company, the extraneous noise would have drowned out their voices. “What did you think of King Random? Was there anything at all that was familiar to you?”

“I think you’re onto something so big I can’t even get my head around it! That was just plain freaky! I mean, there wasn’t that much – only a couple of mannerisms – but what there was! I probably would’ve spotted more if we’d gotten to stick around. Have you found anymore extreme-spectrum pairs like this?”

“Nope – just this one so far.”

“Huh,” Sarah frowned. “I hate to think it might portend anything bad for your dad – he seems like a really good guy.”

“I know, that was the very first thing I thought of, too. I wanted to make sure the impression wasn’t just me.”

The ground the carriage was bumping and rolling over was starting to level out more-or-less, and Sarah scootched sideways again so she could see out of the grate. It still afforded precious little view – it was far too small – but the tiny amount of light that was filtering through now had a distinct green tinge to it: the dense canopy of the Arden had to be directly above them. She could just make out the gold-outlined leaves of a specific phylum of tree distantly related to Earth-oak; that species grew here and nowhere else, intermittently mixed with more recognizable deciduous and evergreen trees. There was no mistaking the extreme verdancy: this was certainly the forest from her dream in the Ways of Sawall, but even that vision had lacked the intense, almost incense-like aroma of the true place, blended with the organic smell of life and death in the first forest in the world. Sarah closed her eyes a moment and breathed deep – the bars couldn’t keep that out. She reflected that she would give a lot to be able to come back here someday, even if it was just for a very brief time, but chances were she’d never be allowed to come back at all; there was probably a price on her head now, for all she knew.

The unmistakable hunting horn of Prince Julian’s company suddenly sounded from not far off; the carriage stopped again and there came and went the sound of many horses galloping swiftly by along with the baying and barking of hounds, surrounding them briefly on their way to somewhere – there was no way for her to gauge the actual direction of their travel from inside here. Once there was silence again the journey resumed.

Sarah’s shoulders were starting to ache from the way she was sitting, with her arms forced behind her like that, but at least she was grateful for the way the king had secured her wrists. She might have a little rugburn afterwards, but if that and a bit of bruising on her behind were the total sum damage she sustained from this crazy excursion, she knew she should count herself incredibly lucky. The light filtering in was getting brighter once more; the forest had to be thinning. They might’ve driven through it for anywhere from twenty to forty minutes, she couldn’t rightly tell; time in general would seem to slip away in this primeval place even for one not in a locked box. Soon the sky was clear again, the scent of the Arden completely gone – was it just her or was that blue dome above them just a smidgeon faded now? The carriage was slowing down.

“Summon your Logrus in the glove-tendril form when it’s time and straighten your arms out in front of you – I’ll handle the rest,” she heard Ghost whisper into her right ear. Seconds later the carriage stopped altogether and the door swung open; she squinted from the sudden change in light.

“On your feet!” the soldier just outside ordered; Sarah could now see that these were not the men who had escorted her out of the castle – they must’ve arrived after she had been locked in, possibly even changed guard from the far gate. “Come here!”

Sarah stiffly did so with some difficulty (without the use of her arms) and nearly stumbled as she disembarked, but the soldier caught her by the arms to steady her, looking down on her in clear disapproval. Taking her by her left upper arm, he walked her to the front of the company; counting the carriage driver there were five of them altogether.

They had come into a wasteland as desolate and dreary as any of the alkaline desert worlds Mandor had driven her through on the way to Chaos: tan rocks, tan earth, and a piercing pale-blue sky with a warm golden sun, but no signs of any life. The soldier with her grabbed her wrists and unlocked the cuffs, freeing her. A quick glance behind confirmed that she was currently being covered by crossbow again via a mounted soldier a few paces back; the man removed her carryall bag from his saddlebag and tossed it to the soldier beside her, who looked none too pleased but nevertheless gave it back to her without any ado.

“Start shadow-walking or shadow-pulling or whatever it is you do to travel in that direction,” he pointed off into the hostilely sterile wilderness.

Sarah donned her bag and took one step, and then another… but the memory of that haunting horn in the woods called her back. She stopped.

“Did they catch the dangerous beast that was in the Arden?” she suddenly asked without turning around; she heard the tightening of strings behind her.

“And what interest is if of yours?” the soldier in front gruffly replied.

“Just curious. Nevermind,” she sighed, walking away.

“They caught it last night,” the man unexpectedly answered, “and Prince Julian hewed its great ugly head off as a trophy. A fell shadow-beast not native to Order that came within range of some the outlying farms. You can take that much back as a warning: there is no provision in the Concord for violent threats or even passive second-time offenders. If you are ever foolish enough to return to Amber, nay, the Golden Circle, you shall yourself be hunted. Be gone, child of darkness!”

Sarah took a few more steps away from the small troop. “Ready?” she barely breathed without moving her lips.

“Ready,” Ghost confirmed every bit as quietly.

Sarah summoned up her version of the Logrus – and heard a couple of distinct gasps from behind her. Smirking, she willed the tendrils about her fingers, her hands, her upper arms, and held her arms out straight in front of her…

…And suddenly found herself in a desert with deep-azure dunes all around and a bright-pink sun overhead! Downhill from where she currently stood, there appeared to be a small oasis. Sarah banished the Logrus.

“Where are we?” she asked Ghost.

“In one of the safer shadows between Amber and Shadow Earth; I thought this would give you adequate privacy to trump my dad and to soak and rest when you’re through; you looked pretty worn out.”

“That’s potable water down there?”


“Thanks,” she sighed, opening her leather trump pouch (which now had a faint tinge of nicotine – Random) and shuffled out Merlin’s card. “I’m not sure I can make it from this far away. Would you mind giving the connection a little power boost?”

“No problem.”

Sarah brought the card up to eye-level and its principle flared to life almost instantly. But he was in his power-form; she had nearly started to forget just how mentally jarring it could be, seeing that kind of thing. He marked her presence immediately but didn’t address her right away; she well-noted his dark, glassy surroundings.

“I have a private call,” the King of Chaos announced rather formally, “everyone take a short recess.” There were the unmistakable sounds of scooting chairs and shuffling feet for several seconds – then Merlin commenced shifting down into his humanoid form.

“What in the worlds are you amplifying this call with Sarah? The Jewel of Judgment?” he laughed through his changing features.

“Ghost’s helping me out; I don’t know what sources he uses – you’ve never told me, your Excellency. Sort of like you chose not to tell me you were planning on setting me up.”

Merlin’s visage turned serious as his face finally stabilized. “Sarah, I’m going to trump-call you back from my end; when you see me in your mind’s eye, sever the connection on your trump of me. I want for you to be able to have this conversation with me without the distraction of the card.”

Whoa. He didn’t seem angry but maybe she should have phrased that thought a heck of a lot more tactfully, Sarah thought worriedly, seeing him produce his trump of her…and then seeing him face-to-face, the outside world temporarily shut out completely by the immense power behind his call. “Sorry,” she nervously added.

He exhaled with a warm lip-smile. “I can barely speak of it now just because of where I currently am,” he gestured about himself without looking away, “but it was unfortunately necessary. You would have acted far more suspicious had you known and I had hoped to give you a little breathing space in the City beforehand. Did you find anything?”

“Sort of, maybe, but I think Ghost would probably do a much better job of explaining it. There was this weird phantom girl – a construct of some kind – that baited us into following it and I wound up right in the dungeon-”

“Don’t say any more!” Merlin warned…then smiled. “You did well, then. Any message back for me? Be deliberately vague.”

“…he’s taking the situation seriously,” Sarah answered carefully, “but Ghost has a separate message for you that’s a lot more… explicit.”

The King of Chaos laughed briefly at that. “He hasn’t changed a bit. Doesn’t he know that I’m supposed to be the nicer, kinder, more relatable representative of the ‘dark side’? Oh well,” he sighed with a smile. “Did you at least get to have a nice time there up until that point?”

“Yes, thank you; I wish I could’ve stayed longer.” There were tears standing in her eyes. “I’ll never forget it.”

He nodded in understanding. “You deserved to see that place once. I’m sorry it could only be under those circumstances, but I couldn’t send you there any more freely. Do you understand?”

“I think so,” she quietly answered, “I…I just wish…”

“What is it, Sarah?”

She stopped, then shook her head. “It’s stupid,” she waved off the sentiment.

“I know you didn’t choose this path for yourself,” Merlin offered sympathetically. “I wish there was some way I could let you be a Patterner also, but there isn’t. You’ll start to feel a little better about it once you’ve been home again for a few weeks and had a chance to settle back into your normal life; the Logrus shouldn’t bother you at all unless you’re using it at this point.”

“If you don’t count constantly feeling Her in the background bothersome,” Sarah laughed a little uneasily. “I guess it should be like any other stimuli you’re overexposed to – you sort of stop noticing it after a while.”

Merlin suddenly looked very worried. “You’re telling me you actually sense the presence of the Logrus constantly?”

Sarah nodded. “Since day one. I mean, thankfully She’s not as invasive as She used to be for the most part, but She’s still there, sort of lurking in the back of my mind.”

Merlin’s eyes were wide by now. “What does it feel like?”

“Kind of a cold, alien amusement most of the time, although there was this one time that She prevented me from getting too close to a small Unicornian shrine in Amber; hope it doesn’t carry over any at home – that could get awkward somewhere down the road, especially if I ever get married,” she laughed a little.

“Why didn’t you say anything about this to anyone?!”

“I thought it was normal! You’re telling me you never feel Her like that?”

Merlin gravely shook his head. “And there was no way for you to know,” he muttered to himself, looking thoughtful. “I’ll speak with Lord Suhuy on your behalf; he should have some ideas of how to lull your Serpent better when She is not being called upon, or at least a relatively safe long-term spell you can employ to keep from sensing Her every waking moment – no wonder you were going crazy! Don’t worry; we’ll fix this. With any luck you might hear back from me again as soon as this evening your time; try to be alone for the call, but if you’re not when I contact you, you’ll need to make up any plausible excuse you can and get to someplace private, even if it’s a closet. Have a writing implement and some paper on hand; I’ll probably be giving you fairly complicated step-by-step instructions in either event.”

“Sarah,” she suddenly heard Ghost without seeing him, “remember what you wanted to talk to him about, the existential side of your continuance as both a Chaos initiate and a Shadow Earthling.”

“I think he’s a little busy for that right now,” she replied quietly.

“Is that Ghost you’re talking to?” Merlin asked with a growing smile.

“Yeah – reminding me to bring up something related that’s been sort of bothering me on a personal level. Nothing that can’t wait.”

He nodded. “I think I know what it is. We’ll have a good heart-to-heart this evening; you can get your worries and concerns off your chest. Was there anything else of immediate importance? I don’t mean to rush you like this but I’m right in the middle of a Council session; they’re all waiting just outside in the hall.”

“Ghost has something different he wants to relate to you as well, but he wants to do it in person. I think that was it. Oh,” she hesitated, “your…uncle…thinks you might be under house arrest in the Thelbane – his words,” she quickly qualified. “It came off equal parts concern and joking.”

The High King raised his eyebrows at the comment, then gave a bitter smile.

“He may hold a certain point; I have yet to truly exert my authority as a despot, but the legal situation has always been more delicate and complicated out here – far more powerful players - albeit, the late High King held no compunction against acting as one. I guess I’m just not used to using the perks that come with the power yet. He should be grateful his opposite number is more concerned with bureaucracy than with acting the part.”

“That was the implied concern – that you were being kept busy enough that you wouldn’t even think to.”

Merlin sighed. “For having no eyes or ears within the Thelbane proper, his guesses are almost depressingly astute sometimes. If that was all, I’m going to let you go for now. Let me pull my connections; I should have some answers for you in a few hours. Until later, Sarah.”

“Good day, your Excellency,” she curtsied where she stood. The blue dunes abruptly reappeared and she blinked a few times. Merlin was gone.

“I suppose we need to hurry now,” Ghost commented, “I’m not certain of how time passes in this place.”

“We’ve got time,” Sarah reassured him, “and I don’t plan on being here all day anyway.” On a whim, she bent and scooped up a small handful of the exquisitely blue sand, pouring it into one of the small side-pockets in her carryall as she walked down to the oasis. Really, this probably wasn’t such a bad idea; if she came home reeking of the ocean her parents were bound to get suspicious of where she’d been. At least she could rinse out the worst of it here. Meandering through the hardy, arid-climate alien flora, she came to the water’s edge and, kneeling and cupping it in her hands, drank deep a couple times before starting to remove her shoes and dress. And noticed that Ghost was still right there, hovering close by; she stopped.

“Would you mind terribly not watching me, please?”

“Sorry, Sarah – I forgot. Rest assured, my only interest in any humanoid form is strictly scientific; you needn’t concern yourself. I can go catalog the flora if it would put you more at ease, but I really don’t want to leave you alone out here – this shadow is far from deserted, although its inhabitants are sparse. This outpost is fairly remote.”

There are people here?! “I’ll hurry,” Sarah answered decisively, quickly stripping and slipping into the cool, spring-fed pool, submerging herself to wash the sand out of her hair. Upon surfacing again, she grabbed her peasant dress off the shore and did her best to roughly rinse it out. Even in spite of the saltwater, her cheap-looking brooch was certainly holding up well, proof-positive of what it had become. The fresh, clean water felt so good – naked, she could now see that she did have a few incidental bruises but nothing serious, nothing that couldn’t be hidden until it healed – but she really didn’t have much time to luxuriate here, not if she could be discovered at any given moment; she assumed Ghost would give some kind of a signal if there was trouble, though.

Ghost. She took another plunge, sneaking a look underneath this time: the pool ran surprisingly deep, down into some kind of dark, subterranean cavern she had no intention of exploring. She broke surface again.


“What is it, Sarah?” she heard him call from across the oasis.

“Do you think you could find me some dry clothes?” she swam to shore’s edge.

“Of course,” his light darted closer. “What did you have in mind? Something like the clothing you had to leave behind in Amber?”

The gears in Sarah’s head were working overtime. “Actually, if it wouldn’t be too difficult, I’d rather have a utilitarian Chaosian suit like the one your dad initially put together for me – one of those Sawall-blue tunic-blouses with the black breeches and black leather boots.”

“And utilitarian undergarments to go with them, I suppose?”

“Yes,” she laughed.

“I’m deliberately not looking at you – you’d better catch this,” he warned; Sarah just had enough time to stand up and lunge for the parcel – it was wrapped in a think, undyed terrycloth bath towel.

“Thanks,” she staggered back onshore, wrapping up in the towel as she got out; she was definitely going to be sore from that stupid carriage ride. At least her wrists bore no marks; Random had been on top of that. Jumbled impressions of her recent past and potential future pushed and shoved at each other as she hurriedly dressed in what had become her heraldic colors (that thought was sort of distracting, too), but she couldn’t afford to reminisce right now – too much was at stake. How to go about even asking him?

She had just finished tucking in her blouse when Ghost beat her to the punch. “Were you able to resolve that personal problem you mentioned to me before, or would you finally be willing to accept some assistance?”

She looked up at him. “I really wish I could take you up on that,” she said, rolling her sopping-wet dress up into the towel, strapping the leather trump pouch onto her hip hollister-style again; it felt natural having it there by now. “In fact, I don’t see much of a way around it, to be perfectly honest. The problem is I don’t want to gainsay your orders from your dad. Did he tell you to take me straight home after we were done in Amber?”

“Without any unnecessary delay, by the safest route possible,” he confirmed.

“Figures,” she sighed.

“You desired to go somewhere else? Where? Why?”

Sarah paused. “I can’t answer that question without you answering the first: would you be willing to make a relatively short-duration detour? I promise it would be for a really good cause, not just screwing around.”

Ghost was silent for a moment. “I can tell your concern is sincere, but you said before that it might involve my dad.”

“Not necessarily, not if it’s handled right. You’d actually be doing him a great service, I think.”

“Doing what?” he queried carefully.

“Would you be willing?” Sarah pressed, hoping to use his loyalty to her advantage.

It backfired. “I’m sorry, Sarah, but Uncle Random was correct: I don’t disobey my dad anymore. He’s saved my life more than once now; I owe him my loyalty. I can still speak to him privately about whatever the trouble is on your behalf, if that would help; he’s spent a lot of time unriddling problems that seemed insoluble on the surface. Would you at least trust me enough to tell me? I promise no ears will hear it but his own.”

Sarah sighed, closing her eyes. It wouldn’t work. “That’s the one thing I can’t do, and I guess I can’t explain it either, then. Thanks awfully for trying, though; I know this was awkward and I know you’re going to worry anyway, but please don’t tell him about this; it’ll only cause trouble and he’s not in any right now because…” The thought fell apart – there was simply no good way to end it without giving away too much.

“I think you’re in way over your head, Sarah,” Ghost stated seriously with a note of concern.

“That makes two of us,” she laughed a little humorlessly, grabbing her bag, hefting the towel-wrapped dress and her sturdy-but-inadequately-cushioned peasant shoes under her arm. “You can take me home, then. I’m ready.”

Ghost’s golden light instantly expanded into a large, thin hollow ring, coming down around her to the ground; it looped over her, covering her like a dome, and when it circled down again she was standing in her own room; Shara was there doing her homework on the bed and it looked like the girl nearly had a heart attack upon seeing Sarah appear like that, her eyes and jaw open wide!

“Don’t be scared, it’s just me,” Sarah reassured her as Ghost collapsed down to his normal size.

“What?!” Shara asked, clearly confused.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Sarah immediately apologized in English, laughing, “I’d actually forgotten. Wow. Going to have to practice so I don’t keep slipping into that.”

Shara got up, cautiously padding over in her socks, examining Sarah’s vaguely exotic-looking clothing.

“Oh my gosh, it really is you!” she exclaimed, closing the short distance and giving Sarah a big hug – then suddenly stopped, pulling back. “Oh no – this means I have to go home now, doesn’t it? And just when I was starting to get the hang of being you, too! Are you sure you wouldn’t rather take my life? Or find another fairy prince to screw around with? That was darned fast! And what,” she uneasily glanced over at the hovering little ball of golden light up by the ceiling next to the closet, “is that?”

“I believe I am supposed to be your transport also, Miss,” Ghost said in his nicest mimic of his dad’s voice, albeit in computer-sounding English; his lack of pronunciation practice with the language really showed.

“Don’t let it do it!” Shara pleaded with Sarah. “Call off Tinkerfella! I wanna stay!”

“Ghost,” Sarah addressed him in Thari, “how far away is Shara’s shadow-world from here? Could the distance be safely walked?”

“By you, you mean?”

Sarah nodded. “I’d like the chance to talk with her – to catch up – before she has to go. I literally met her the day I left and I’d like to get to know her a little better, to see her impressions of life here from an outsider’s point-of-view. I believe you were in a hurry to return home yourself?”

There was just enough truth to the request: she would walk Shara home – later. Much later.

“She’s from five shadows closer to Amber,” Ghost warned. “You’d have to have very definitive landmarks to make it there and back at your present level of expertise, but I suppose it’s possible.”

“Would you mind figuring out the route for me, please? This is something I’d really like to do.”

Ghost regarded her silently for several seconds; Sarah could swear she felt his mechanical scrutiny.

“If you promise to be very careful,” he finally pronounced, “and to trump for help immediately if you get lost.”

“I promise,” Sarah consented.

“I’ll be back soon,” he said in his more normal conversational tone and vanished.

Sarah practically collapsed into her old stuffed chair in relief with a sigh, momentarily closing her eyes.

“What in the world,” Shara knelt beside her, “is going on? What the heck just happened back there?”

Sarah opened her eyes and glanced down at Shara with a slow smirk. “I’m not sending you home – not just yet, anyway. I’m not done running around out there.”

“Yes! Aw, you’re the best!” the girl exploded with delight, giving Sarah another impromptu hug.

“Hey, easy does it! I just got this ensemble out of nowhere,” Sarah teased her, making a show of straightening her dark blue blouse, setting the towel roll aside on the floor.

“Wow, you really were away! You have to tell me all about it! I’m totally gonna make you dish on this guy. I’m only sorry it was over so fast. What was it like out there?”

Sarah seriously considered how best to answer her. “Weird,” she finally laughed, “and it really wasn’t that quick – I stayed nearly a year at his place and got kind of an education in the meantime, had to learn the language and everything.”

“I’ll bet,” Shara smiled conspiratorially, then stopped. “Wait a minute – isn’t that time-difference thing supposed to be the other way around? It is in the stories.”

“You actually bothered to read my books! Did you like any of them?”

“Not really, just not my taste; I prefer thrillers. I figured reading your stuff was just part of studying up for my role here,” she looked at Sarah a little sideways, “but I’m interrupting – go on.”

“Well, as for the guy, he wasn’t so much a fairy prince as he was an out-and-out sorcerer. I got to see lots of bizarre places in transit on the way to his demesne, but once I got there, he… sort of kept me under lock and key – it wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” she quickly added, seeing Shara’s concern, “I had access to his library and fencing room, and had accompanied excursions out after a while. He actually made me a small world for my own amusement. But he was definitely a control freak. And his cooking was fabulous.”

“Hello? Earth to Sarah?” Shara waved a hand in front of her face. “Have you not read your own books lately? You totally ate their food! Don’t tell me you’re going to waste away from withdrawal now!”

“No, he deliberately kept the addictive substance to a minimum,” she smiled a bit wanly; milk chocolate would never satisfy again - she wondered if even unsweetened baking squares would. “Although he did sort of magically cheat on occasion, making one flavor or another stronger, or just plain good enough that you literally couldn’t stop eating whatever it was. Food is legitimately his one mundane hobby – well, that and reading, I suppose, but I’m not really sure how much of that one’s casual entertainment.”

“Okay,” Shara was obviously really getting into this, “so he locked you up, fed you exquisite meals, read to you in exotic locales, probably taught you how to make love in his own language, and got you started fencing on the side – so what went wrong? Were you just a passing crush? Was there another sorceress?”

“Kind of,” Sarah flushed automatically at the memory – if there was ever an impression she wouldn’t mind having wiped out… “There was, but she left pretty quick and then everything was… normal again, for a while longer. No, it turned out he just needed me for something… arcane.”

There was a terseness, a bitterness in Sarah’s voice in that last statement; a shadow crossed her features as she looked away.

Shara was on the edge of her seat. “Sheesh, did he need you for a virgin sacrifice or what?”

“Something like that,” Sarah answered quietly, remembering the feel of the trisp in her hand, the elation and the disappointment. The hurt.

“That son-of-a-bitch! I am so sorry! But how did you ever manage to escape?”

“I got on his younger foster-brother’s good side. The apparition you just saw is one of his,” Sarah replied slyly.

“Shit! You’ve just been living in the wrong world, haven’t you?” Shara shook her head in disbelief. “You’re really in your element with magical types! Hey, did you meet anybody you’d wanna set me up with? If you’re really serious about coming home sometime, I’d be down for that!”

“It’s not that easy, and you don’t really comprehend what you’re saying,” Sarah stated carefully. “I never said they were the good guys; think about what he was wearing the day you met him.”

Shara stopped. “He was wearing a lot of black. So, they’re… Unseelie? Is that the right word?”

“You’re saying it right,” Sarah nodded. “I guess you could call them that; it wouldn’t be too far off.”

“Still… bet the ‘good guys’ don’t do kinky-control-sex, either.”

“Shut up!” Sarah laughed, flushing again, knowing full well that the truth of the matter would scar Shara’s mind, worldly as the girl was, and she was seriously considering telling her for that reason alone when Ghost rematerialized.

“All right!” he announced cheerily in his usual Thari. “Here are the directions. I made them as specific as I could.” A stack of paper the thickness of a thin paperback novel dropped into Sarah’s lap, making Shara jump a little; it was bound, too. Upon opening it, Sarah saw that it was done in a clean Thari typeset. Rather like a novel. She bit back a laugh: Ghost was safety-ing her into the ground.

“This should be more than sufficient for the journey. Thank you.”

“I gave you slightly different scenery on your way home; there are a few fairly interesting sights between here and there.”

“I’m sure there are. Well, you can give my regards to your dad, although I’ll be speaking to him soon enough. It’s been a lot of fun on the whole; I hope we get to work together again sometime. Take care of yourself…uh, however it is you do that,” she ended a little awkwardly; she had gotten so used to thinking of Ghost like he was a real person that the thought automatically came out before she had a chance to think through the full implications!

He seemed to take it in the stride. “Your concern is kind, but my dad personally performs my physical maintenance procedures and magical upgrades on a regular schedule. You take care of yourself – try not to get into too much trouble out on this end?” he added a bit conspiratorially. “You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘don’t get into any’ – it would be a useless reprimand and I think you’re itching for just a little. Remember your trumps; you were presented with them for a reason, although it will be considerably more difficult to reach the distance across from way out here unaided. At least try to keep out of situations where you would need help quickly.”

Sarah laughed. “I think I should be able to manage that. Farewell, Ghostwheel,” she added warmly, “safe journeys.”

“And you, Sarah. I’ll be sure to let my dad know you’re game for future assignments with me.”

The golden light winked out. There was silence in the room for a few seconds.

“Is it gone?” Shara finally ventured.

“Yes,” Sarah sighed a little sadly. “I know he’s a little freaky, but that thing’s a pretty nice guy. He’s programmed to be nicer on the whole than any of the real people out there.”

Shara regarded her a bit dubiously. “Do I even want to know?”

“Probably not; the real explanation of what he is makes my brain feel like its tied in knots.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Shara conceded, getting up to sit down on the side of the bed. “So… how is this going to work? What did he give you? Can I see?”

“Be my guest,” Sarah laughed, handing the pamphlet over, “but you’d better be careful with that – it’s the full instructions of how to get you home to your world and me back to mine afterwards in one piece.”

Shara gingerly flipped through it, shaking her head in wonder. “Is this the script of that language you were speaking just now? This is a crazy-complicated whopper of a spell, isn’t it?”

“Yes and yes.”

Shara whistled, handing it back. “You’d better find a good place to hide that – maybe it wouldn’t be noticed on one of the top bookshelves,” she mused, glancing about the room. “Nah, on second thought, you’d better let me hide it; you’re just plain lousy at hiding stuff. I found your diary right away.”

“You read my diary?!”

“Well, yeah,” Shara continued matter-of-factly, “I had to see how you thought about different things, see what had been happening with you. Man, your description of that Jareth-guy sounds like he really had it going on, but he was a little too much of a psycho; I think you made a good choice waiting for the next one, even with the virgin-sacrificing tendencies – you don’t have to explain,” she assured in the wake of Sarah’s impending splutter, “I read the book. Like I said, hiding things is not something you’re particularly good at. I wouldn’t have guessed that was real myself before all of this happened. My guess is you didn’t really believe it, either, but it all worked out anyway. Am I right?”

Sarah nodded. “It was the beginning of this whole mess,” she muttered quietly, then stared away out the window; her backyard had never looked so inviting and so dull all at the same time. She could even open the window in here if she wanted to. More things that she’d always taken for granted.

“I think I see,” Shara observed, lightly chewing her lower lip for a moment. “So, what are your plans now?”

“Well, first I’m going to venture downstairs to get something to eat – oh my gosh, my parents!” she slapped a hand over her mouth, finally thinking to look at the bedside clock behind her: it read 6:14.

“Relax, it’s Saturday night – take a wild guess as to where Daddy and Step-Mommy Dearest are right now.”

“Downtown,” Sarah exhaled in relief; she was far too used to basically living alone at this point. Granted, it would’ve been fun freaking Karen out with the two of herself but the consequences didn’t even bear considering. “And they left you babysitting.”

“It isn’t the fate worse than death that you make it sound like,” Shara rolled her eyes, “it just takes a little patience. I’ve actually been taking after-school sitter jobs around your neighborhood for a little play-cash. Man, are your parents stingy; they wouldn’t even give me an allowance – even my mom did that.”

“You’ve been – oh, for - !” Sarah wordlessly vented her frustration. Maybe she shouldn’t come home after all; Shara had officially ruined her reputation.

“Hey, it beats flipping burgers or bagging groceries – I did both back when I was trying to help with the rent. Taking care of really little kids is easy.”

Toby suddenly got his two-cents in from down the hall.

“Speaking of which, it’s dinnertime – you wanna come say hi? Or not?”

“I think we’d better not confuse him. Give him a hug for me.”

“Good call,” Shara got up and jogged to the other room.

Sarah got up and took off her bag, leaving it in the chair, and slowly wandered around her old room. While its contents immediately brought back a flood of memories, so much here simply felt too childish now, even moreso than when she initially came back from her…trial. This place was just stuffed with the detritus of her life before her parents’ divorce – she could admit that to herself now – and she had been terrified of relinquishing it without knowing what could possibly replace it. She smirked a little coldly. So her stepmother wanted her to act more her age? Maybe she would redecorate – paint the walls black, reupholster the chair and window seat in a deep violet velvet, get dark-blue curtains and pillows and tons of thick candles – yep, her ‘rebellious phase’ was shaping up nicely. Maybe paint the vanity, too. And roses, there simply had to be dried roses all over the place, just for the scent…

Stepping out and heading down the hall in the other direction, Sarah made a quick bathroom stop and brushed her teeth while she was in there – before realizing it wasn’t her toothbrush!

Yuck! That was an old habit waiting to happen. Rinsing it back out in very hot water, she gargled the jerky-taste out of her mouth instead, then went on downstairs. The place hadn’t changed a bit (she had to remind herself that only two months had passed here), but she was seeing it all with the new eyes of experience and knowledge, that this was just a tiny microcosm of a single shadow-world among billions upon billions of them; it just happened to be the one she hailed from. A quick dig through the fridge for leftovers was hardly appetizing and she wound up just making herself a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. Home Ec classes, here I come, she thought a bit ruefully; if she ever wanted decent food as she had come to know it on a regular basis again, she would clearly have to learn how to prepare it herself – some of Karen’s casseroles were going to be harder to stomach in the future. Shara came down after a while, joining her at the small table in the kitchen.

“Toby can be a handful sometimes but he’s a pretty cute little peanut; he started toddling better just a few weeks ago so now I have to chase him down before putting him to bed,” she pronounced a bit raggedly – but she was smiling anyway.

“I’m afraid you make a much better big sister than I ever did,” Sarah said between bites. “How have you been getting on with my parents?”

Upon hearing a familiar voice downstairs, Merlin came bounding into the room barking.

“Hey, boy!” Sarah knelt down out of her chair to greet him, laughing as he licked her face, knocking her to the floor. “Yeah, I missed you, too,” she shoofed him behind his shaggy ears. He suddenly looked up at Shara and a deep growl started in the back of his throat. “No, look! She’s a friend, see? Get over here,” she motioned to the girl.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Sarah,” Shara cautiously knelt down beside her. “He growled at me like that for a week straight when I first got here – even your parents were a little suspicious of that. I’ve had to use my own money to get him doggie treats so he’d stop seeing me as a threat; I had to keep a couple on me at all times just to calm him down for a while. Isn’t that right, poocha?” she said, digging one out of her back pocket, giving it to him.

Sarah rolled her eyes, sitting back up. “You aren’t much of a guard-dog, are you? No, you’re not,” she recommenced petting him, “you’re just a big ol’ pushover, aren’t you, boy?”

The pushover rolled over, begging for a tummy rub.

Sarah chuckled. “Double the Sarah, double the fun, right?”

They obliged him in tandem, one on each side. Eventually he got back up and gave Shara a quick lick on the hand before shuffling back into the living room. The girls washed up and Sarah quickly polished off her dinner, such as it was; it was getting cold. Shara located a hidden bag of chocolate chip cookies in the pantry and a couple cans of pop and they headed back upstairs to be within earshot of Toby, keeping the door partly ajar, crashing on Sarah’s bed.

“As far as your parents go,” Shara recommenced, ripping open the bag, “it’s actually been pretty easy to work around them. I mean, the first couple of days were kind of awkward, but it’s mostly been smooth sailing ever since. And your stepmom really isn’t that bad, she’s mostly just too aware that she’s the interloper here between you and your dad. Give her a little outward respect and she’ll fawn all over you; it’s kinda funny watching her try to be a stereotypical mother-figure, it just isn’t her at all,” she laughed. “She’s clearly out of her element in suburbia, too. You sort of have to take her with a grain of salt. Now, your dad is another story completely. I think you must remind him pretty strongly of your real mom – he definitely loves you, of course, but now that you’re getting older and into the theater and all, too… I think he just doesn’t know how to deal with the idea of you growing up into someone similar. He just sees it too much. He probably never totally processed the divorce, either. On the other hand, he does seem sort of relieved that ‘you’re’ finally getting along a little better with Karen, although there was some dubious questioning in that direction at first, too. I think he figures you’re just trying to make the best of the situation and getting on with your life at this point – which probably isn’t a bad idea if you wind up living here again; your real mom sounds like almost as much of a self-centered bitch as mine is. She hasn’t called at all, by-the-way.”

“She’s just busy,” Sarah countered knee-jerk defensively, sipping her soda, taking a handful of cookies.

“She’s too busy to even acknowledge the existence of her own teenage daughter? Just think about that for a minute – that silence says something and it’s hardly flattering. I know.”

Sarah stuffed her face with Chips Ahoy in silence. Shara was right, of course - she had managed to psychoanalyze her entire family with almost unnerving ease – but the truth still hurt. And Shara could see that, too.

“Hey, if it makes you feel any better, you’re starting to make some new friends in the theater department at school – don’t worry, I’m steering clear of the leading-role cool kids and going for the techies and some of the choir people. You’ve officially been accepted into the Dungeons and Dragons RPG game with a few guys from Physics Club every Wednesday afternoon and for the most part you’ve been kicking their butts.”

“My school has a role-playing group?!”

“You just never talked to anyone at all, did you?” Shara shook her head, hitting the cookie bag herself. “It’s amazing what you can find out with a little basic communication. Everybody only treats you weird if you don’t try at all.”

Where on earth have you been my entire life? Sarah thought astoundedly. Oh, that’s right – not on Earth. New Yark, wherever-the-heck that is. “I wish I’d had a big sister like you,” she said finally, “it would’ve helped a lot. Wait, how old are you?”

“I just turned fifteen a couple days ago. Why?”

“Just wanted to know,” Sarah brooded. Granted, she herself was a year older than she would’ve naturally been now from her time spent in Chaos, but if she could work out the calculation…

”Anyway,” Shara interrupted her train-of-thought, “I’ve been writing all of ‘your’ exploits down in your diary so you’ll know what you’ve been up to in your absence,” she stated teasingly. “I think most of your new friends went to the same middle school you did, but we can check out the yearbooks so you can see who they are.”

Shara had just gotten up to retrieve them from one of the wall-mounted bookshelves when Sarah suddenly started feeling the beginnings of a trump connection.

“Shara, I need you out of the room right now – I’ve got an incoming call any second and I have to be alone for it!” Her vision of the room was already starting to fade; whatever sources Merlin used for his own trump calls had to be very powerful indeed to cause this.

Shara stopped in her tracks. “Are you serious? That’s like Luke Skywalker!”

“Just go!” she frantically swooshed her away with her hands.

“Outta here!”

Sarah heard the girl run out of the room, closing the door behind her, but she didn’t see it; Merlin had already appeared in humanoid form in her mind’s eye. He was seated in a room she didn’t recognize; from what little she could see, something dark and indistinct was sort of undulating around in the crimson background behind him.

“Are you alone, Sarah?” he asked.

“In this room, yes,” she managed calmly.

“Good. I take it what I’m seeing is your bedroom. Did you have any trouble getting home after I last spoke with you?”

“No, it went real smooth. I’m going to miss Ghost, though.”

The High King smiled sadly, nodding. “He’s capable of being endearing in a manner that humans aren’t when he puts his mind to it. I really don’t foresee any major projects for you at all in the near future, but I will definitely keep you posted. As to the matter at hand, I have some bad news and some good news – I know, probably not what you wanted to hear, but we actually did work out a solution… of sorts. Lord Suhuy wasn’t quite as surprised as I was when I told him of your plight, although he sends his well-wishes also. I’m afraid what you’re feeling is directly and entirely due to the fact that you are a full-blooded human; you physically don’t process the Logrus energy as efficiently as we can and the excess builds up sufficiently for you to actually feel Her personality a bit, whereas we experience it more like an impersonal force. There really isn’t much for it in the traditional sense. The one thing I can do is to make you think you can’t feel Her and ameliorate the problem that way. The only catch is that you wouldn’t ever feel anything at all when you deliberately try to work with the Logrus, either – you would just be rendered permanently numb. I don’t know just how badly this is really affecting you consciously anymore so I’m going to let it be your call. Do you want to try it or not? Lord Suhuy couldn’t guarantee that the process would be perfectly reversible if you didn’t like the effect and changed your mind since it utilizes the Logrus as part of the spell.”

“Well, She can be a bit unnerving at times, but I think I’m more prone to notice it when I’m not busy and alone. I’ve even directly talked to her on one occasion, though all I got in response was a bigger smile – I just felt it.”

“You’re very lucky if that’s all. I’ve been unlucky enough to actually hear that voice on three separate occasions.” He literally shuddered at the memory. “I can’t believe She’s being that nice to you, but at the very least I think She knows you couldn’t handle the full manifestation – being what you are – and She’s actually showing a little restraint.”

“…I feel Her stirring again just now; I think you might be right,” Sarah sighed. “Look, it’s not killing me to have this the way it is right now, but if it ever gets too out-of-hand it’s good to know there’s an emergency backup plan… I think I’m going to decline for the time being,” she answered carefully.

‘There is no shame in this…’ Would Mandor’s voice haunt her forever? She suddenly laughed. “If I need you, I’ll call.”

Merlin looked more than a little concerned at her odd reaction. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said a little annoyedly. “I still have the anti-panic ring, too; that used to tamp down the sensation pretty good, but now I’m honestly not sure why it worked that way, knowing what it is.”

“All right,” Merlin sounded a bit more assured. “Now, let’s talk about you and your somewhat awkward relationship with the Dark Side,” he smiled.

And they did, for a good twenty minutes. Apparently the High King of Chaos had also long been plagued with the severe moral qualms deriving from his dual heritage, even once deliberately refusing to choose a side in a contest between the powers themselves, even though it had meant going forward in the trial completely unarmed and unprotected! He knew all too well what it was like to care about things and people from both sides and to be unjustly treated like the enemy by both sides because of it. The conversation didn’t ever truly resolve anything, but by the end of it Sarah felt a little bit better about her current position: it was the fairly unique quandary of being concerned with the Whole, and she was far from alone in this, even if it would be difficult at times. And it was still very easy for her to talk to Merlin – in fact it was easier to talk to him than it was to keep any information from him; she’d nearly slipped up a couple of times but caught herself so well, weaving it into the basic conversation, that he hadn’t noticed at all, stuff she was fairly certain that someone older like Mandor or Suhuy or even Random would have nailed her on instantly. She did tell him that Random hadn’t even gotten a definite location out of her to search – he had taken New York to mean the city, not just the state – so she still had a small amount of anonymity where she was for the moment; if and when she moved out, she wouldn’t publish her address or phone number again. Towards the end, Merlin could tell that something else was sort of quietly bothering her but he refrained from bringing it up - he would not be his brother; he would let her tell what she was comfortable telling him and retain her trust and goodwill this way. He could hardly imagine an instance where this would not serve, but there were harmless ways to get information out of the girl should it ever come to that. Before long, they were saying their goodbyes; Sarah’s was tearful and she had nearly reached out to him through the trump without thinking, but he prevented her from doing so before she could accidentally get sucked through. She really was a sweet kid.

“If you miss me that bad you can call,” he finally laughed, “just remember that I’m a very busy man – goodness knows what you might see! Maybe you’d better just let me check in occasionally, make sure you’re still doing okay.”

“Very well, your Excellency,” she curtsied from where she stood. Sarah knew she was forgetting something minor but couldn’t for the life of her recall what it was in time. It couldn’t have been terribly important.

“Start researching your colleges – I’ll be quizzing you,” he teased. “May the Logrus keep you in Her favor, continuing to be gentle with you, Sarah.”

“And may the Force be with you.” She’d never been comfortable with these blessing-type-colloquialisms invoking the ‘wrong side’; she probably never would be.

Merlin laughed. “Yeah, I’ll take that. Live long and prosper.”

And just like that he was gone.

Sarah slowly sat back down on the mattress, the heady weight of the situation finally coming over her: extenuating circumstances aside, she was finally being left to her own devices. Completely. She had just ‘graduated’. Her official duties and requirements were over. It was just her and her trumps and her powers. And Her… Her always. It had felt like trying to make friends with the monsters in her dreams, coming to terms with that presence, but at least She was finally a devil Sarah felt that she knew well. Not that it was comfortable, mind you, but she sort of knew what to expect by now; that helped in an odd sort of way. She was suddenly glad that she wouldn’t be spending this first night back home by herself, as immature as that felt; she wasn’t really ready to be alone just yet. She got up and went to the door, opening it.

“All clear!” she softly called, not knowing where Shara had gotten off to; the girl crept out of Sarah’s parents’ room where Toby’s crib was.

“Is the Republic still safe?” Shara only half-joked, walking back in.

“For the moment, I think,” Sarah teased back. “Let’s just say… on second thought, let’s not; the less you know about any of this the safer you’ll be.”

“Wow, are you ever in deep. Guess I don’t get to ask about that leather pouch on your hip, either. For what it’s worth, it looks pretty cool.”

“I think I can tell you it contains a communication/transportation device of sorts, but I’d better not let you see them – they’re visually activated and theoretically anyone can use them.”


Sarah sighed, exasperated. “See? I’ve already said too much!”

Shara just shook her head. “I think I’m starting to envy you a little less. It’s gotta suck not being able to talk about any of this.”

Sarah thought then of her first conversation with Merlin, the part about who to trust with the truth. He’d been right about it being hard, regardless.

“I do have some goodies I can show you as long as you don’t ask where they’re from. You wanna grab one of my empty jewelry boxes while you’re up? I nabbed some gorgeous sand from the last place we hit on the way home.”

Sarah proceeded to unpack her small treasures: the blue sand, the amber heart from Amber, the leftover silver coins she still had – she let Shara pour over them but wouldn’t tell her what they said. It was only when she got to the green leather journal that she finally belatedly remembered what she should’ve asked about: her books from Lizard Land! They were still over at Mandorways! They might as well have been on Pluto. She gave an irritated huff as she unrolled her peasant dress, discreetly removing the brooch before throwing both the dress and the towel into the laundry hamper.

“What’s the matter?”

“Oh, I just remembered where I misplaced a couple books. Guess they’ll get added to the library.”

“You mean… his?”


“Yeah, you’re definitely not getting those back,” Shara laughed. “What did his place look like, anyway?”

“Oh, lots of black, dark jewel-tones, velvets and brocades, semi-sentient floating furniture and custom-colored fire – you know, sorcerer stuff.” Sarah stopped, remembering. “And a gigantic display of Earth’s sky superimposed on the ceiling in the library so I wouldn’t miss it; their own sense of the passage of time ran a little sideways,” she sadly smiled.

The two girls talked long into the night about many things Earthly, Chaosian and Amberite, even if the latter labels were carefully eschewed. Sarah made sure to be ready for bed by the time her parents came home so she hopefully wouldn’t have to leave the room for anything; they simply couldn’t be too careful. Thinking back, she realized that it was actually pretty peculiar that her initial interview with Mandor in this room hadn’t woken anyone; they hadn’t been shouting but neither had that long conversation been whispered. He had to have magically ensured the rest of the household’s sleep somehow; Karen usually woke up at the drop of a hat. Sarah had offered to sleep somewhere other than the bed but Shara wouldn’t hear of it.

“This is your room and it’s only for tonight. I’ll just grab an extra blanket and take the window seat.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ve slept in weirder places than this!” she laughed off her concern. “I once went with a guy who – get this – lived in somebody else’s hallway closet for free!”

Sarah’s parents got home late as usual, but went to bed quickly after saying goodnight to… their daughter; she hadn’t realized just how much she had missed her dad until she heard his voice in the hall again, telling her that he loved her – via proxy. She planned on waking up early the next morning and sneaking out while everyone else was still asleep. She’d traded a couple of her duplicate coins to Shara in exchange for some cash so she wouldn’t even have to make any noise at all in the kitchen for breakfast; she’d need a good filling meal for the day that lay ahead. In spite of how tired she was, it took Sarah a long time to fall asleep. There was just too much to think about, too many memories. The last night she had spent in this bed she had thought she was going crazy, only to wake up to a strange gentleman who wanted to talk even stranger cosmology over hot chocolate. She groped for her trump pouch at the side of her bed in the dark and dug out Mandor’s ring, slipping it on. It didn’t do much anymore comparatively-speaking, but just feeling it on her finger was comforting in an almost Pavlovian manner, although she wouldn’t ever freely admit this to anyone. She snuggled back under the covers and invited the nothingness of sleep to take her away until it did.

Meanwhile, in the watery depths of Rebma, first shadow of the One True City, a small unnatural current rippled down, down, down a thin spiral staircase hewn out of the seafloor itself, stealthily passing the green and lavender-haired guards at their posts in the bottom dungeon; little did they know that their spears and tridents were useless against an adversary that could become like the very water they breathed. Coming to a bolted, locked metal door, it carefully searched the surface and discovered that it wasn’t perfectly flush: there was a small slit where it didn’t quite touch the floor. The ripple hesitated for only a moment, the quickly slid under, as skinny as it could manage…

And made it! That peculiar portion of water suddenly took on substance and form, filling out, and soon a sable-haired young girl – only eleven-and-a-half years old – lay there upon the natural stone floor, panting. And then she giggled silently at what she had just accomplished! She was wearing a camouflage-colored wetsuit from the neck down and swimming flippers on her feet, all painstakingly procured by her mother by mundane means off in Shadow so that the accoutrement could not be traced. And the few spells her mother had employed in the venture couldn’t have possibly come off any better; the one that had led the decoy straight to the king had been nothing short of brilliant, utilizing only a detailed map of the realm, a stylus, and the real-life projection of her own daughter!

The girl stripped off the fins and secured them to her belt, then got up and carefully made her way over to the beginning of that bright-glowing, twisting line inscribed in the floor of the room. She had been training for this day her entire life and now, young as she was, it was finally time; all variables had been accounted for, all was calculated to precision. It would all fall out just as the Logrus had predicted. Their patience was about to be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. Her mother had stayed above the bay long enough to see her safely off, to remind her one final time of who she really was, of what this meant to them both before starting off to Chaos without her. Sarah’s original was about to come into the inheritance of the children of Oberon: power from the Pattern of Order to walk in shadow. And then…

She took a deep breath and forcefully stilled her thoughts, centering herself before embarking upon the great trial…
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