Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Labyrinth of Chaos

Amber Alert

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

In which the pieces come together...

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Fantasy - Published: 2017-06-04 - 17358 words - Complete

Chapter 14 – Amber Alert

Drifting through shadow-world after shadow-world, Sarah couldn’t help but watch the constantly shifting tableau go on and on through the window – it was all too beautiful: lush jungles with dangling vines, crisp-aired forests, a brief misty mountain range with wild heather on the hills – Ghost-Corwin was certainly pulling out all the stops for this one walk… er, drive. But even as wonderfully distracting as all the peacefully changing stimuli was, she simply couldn’t stop thinking about Brand.

Ghost-Brand, she corrected herself; his original had met his demise over a decade ago, Shadow-Earth reckoning. But it was like it had just been today, only a couple hours ago; she couldn’t shake the feeling. What was worse was that she felt party to it in an indirect way, remaining silent before the oncoming death blow that she saw heading for him – even while she knew perfectly well that that strike had preempted Ghost-Corwin’s own unmaking, that Brand had been seconds from accomplishing; that possibility, too, was unthinkable. The whole affair certainly didn’t sit well in her stomach or her brain, and she felt more than a little sick and guilty to top it off; she didn’t really know how to deal with it.

Their vintage cherry Chevy had just emerged from a steep, rocky gorge, the sky ahead had unexpectedly shaded Amber blue – the perfect compliment to the still, tranquil lake that had materialized to their left, dotted with graceful golden swans – when she finally screwed up her nerve to break the silence; Corwin had not attempted to speak with her since they first got in the car, whenever that had been, sensing her need for mental and emotional rest.

“Your Highness?”

Corwin smiled briefly. The water sparkled; Sarah blinked and it was normal again.

Or maybe I shouldn’t risk distracting him, she retroactively reprimanded herself.

“Go ahead and call me Carl – it’s the most recent of a string of aliases I used for many years on your Earth. Carl Corey.”

“Carl,” Sarah quietly tried out the name – it seemed too… mundane, too simple, for the man out of legend sitting beside her on the old bench-style front seat, placidly handling the BelAir as if they were out for nothing more spectacular than a Sunday cruise. “Carl, would you be irritated with me if I asked you a question?”

He hesitated for only a second.

“About Brand, you mean.” He sighed then, but he didn’t sound upset, just tired of having to deal with him, even in death. “Go on, kid, ask away. As you can doubtless tell, he’s not my favorite topic, but it’s reasonable that you have questions at the very least at this point. It’s alright.”

Sarah took a deep breath, not quite sure how to tactfully broach this. “I do know something of your family history from my mandatory studies in Chaos – I’m sure some of those facts have been skewed to paint the Courts in a more favorable light at certain points, but I had also been taught that Prince Brand was, well… crazy,” she winced a little at the word, “but that’s such a vague term…”

Corwin turned off the road again, left, onto a hardened dirt track through a field of wildflowers; Sarah couldn’t identify any of them, but the rolled down windows let in the sweet, clean scent. And it wasn’t narcotic, either, she well-noted, hating the fact that she had that basic suspicion as a preset now.

“You’re asking me what was actually wrong with him.”

She nodded. The flowers gradually gave way to tall bluegrass.

“I do feel the need to preface this by saying that even had his ailment been known early enough in his life for it to have been successfully treated, there would still have been a very good chance that it would have never happened anyway. For a scion of the Unicorn to be found to have a serious defect – physical or mental – was unthinkable, an idea held as nearly blasphemous for many long ages. Any and all signs of weakness in our family have always been carefully hidden, even from each other, to the best of our personal abilities; the thought that this mode of behavior is ‘unhealthy’ is a relatively new one and still not readily accepted – even if it is true.” He paused, seeming to collect his thoughts – and to make further adjustments to the landscape; they had just crossed an old-fashioned, covered wooden bridge over a creek, and rich autumn was on the other side, the trees blazing with cheery shades of red and orange, warm light filtering through.

“I suppose one could say he suffered from a form of manic depression his entire life – I can’t personally recall his ever being any different, and I was many years his senior. Ever since childhood he was prone to long bouts of dark moodiness interspersed with almost disturbing bursts of energy and creativity. As he grew older, his eccentricity slowly matured with him, as did his artistic bent – he showed a great talent for painting from an early age, which was nurtured and refined in his tutoring – and it was not unusual for him to lock himself away in his rooms for days at a time, allowing no one entry – not even for provisions. When a servant was finally rung for, they would invariably find a freshly-finished canvas standing on his easel and himself worn to exhaustion, often passed out somewhere other than his bed; his muse was a hard and cruel mistress, not even allowing him to sleep when that relentless compulsion to create was upon him. There were a small handful of instances when the canvas had been savagely shredded - not up to his expectations - and then he would be despondent for weeks. But he wasn’t affected at this level all the time. We were never close – it was difficult for anyone to truly develop any meaningful relationship with him, even his full-blood siblings – but I will confess in retrospect that there were a fair number of times in the old days when we were all still young that I sort of admired him after a fashion. My general feeling toward him was usually ambivalence; he was too intemperate for anything further, and his inflated ego did nothing to help the situation.” The leaves on the larger trees had been shading to an unnatural purple, but the car had just turned off the road again and they were quickly left behind, replaced with groves of blue aspens with silver trunks.

“Brand was genuinely the smartest of us, besides; he was prodigious at many types of learning, but he, along with his older sister Fiona, showed a particular sensitivity for the arcane, and our esteemed Chaosian-bred grandfather was only too pleased to bestow upon them practically everything that he knew, that they could understand or utilize.” He frowned, shaking his head. “I sincerely wish he hadn’t; he unwittingly instilled in both of them a certain flippant fearlessness where the Courts were concerned. I am convinced that none of my stepmother Clarissa’s children would have initiated the game they did with the more radical Chaos lords if they had been taught any better.” He paused to roll up his window and Sarah did the same on her side; they were coming into a light fog.

“My family situation had been degenerating for a while in our father’s persistence in refusing to name an heir. I will not plague you with my entire life’s story, but suffice to say I was deliberately stranded on purpose on your home shadow with complete amnesia brought on by an illness contracted there that no one else could have ever survived, and subsequently lived there for well over a third of my adult life. I only bring up the point because I’ve had a lot of time to think about this particular episode – the end of it, I mean, right before all hell broke loose on Order – and I think Brand may have actually been right on the verge of attempting to get real psychiatric help; his course of action simply doesn’t make sense any other way. I had no clue at the time of just how out-of-control things had gotten between my siblings in my father’s absence from Amber – which had also been arranged, mind you – and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time to run into Brand again. Long story short, a couple of my dear brothers and one sister attempted to take me out of the contention for the throne in an automobile accident; it doesn’t get anymore intentional than shooting out a guy’s tires. They would have succeeded, too, if it hadn’t been for him. He had to fish me out of a lake to save my life, but once I was in his possession, still unconscious, he must’ve realized that he had just the guinea pig he so desperately needed to try something out on before risking his own body and brain. I only found out about this long after the fact, but he had already been in the process of secretly gaining extra powers, and at the time of my ‘accident’ he was nearing a level that seriously tipped the balance of his already delicate mind; his heightened mania and depressive episodes had to have become unbearable if my own family members were starting to fear him. He actually had me admitted to a sanitarium posing as a Dr. B. Rand and personally put me through two rounds of electroshock therapy, just to see how I would physically and mentally handle it. He was undoubtedly scared by the idea of taking pills; if any of his enemies ever caught wind of the fact that he was regularly ingesting medication, he was a dead man and he knew it – too easy to introduce poison. As outdated and barbaric as it was even then, EST really seemed like a safer, longer-term solution for his depression, one that he could carefully oversee and control, even if he had to construct a private shadow to do it in.”

“But the current wiped my memory completely blank – everything I had experienced and learned since the illness, centuries worth – a rare outcome, even for normal adult humans who undergo the procedure, and the result had to have scared him off. The children and grandchildren of the Unicorn can recover from any physical damage, even regenerating body parts given sufficient time, but he knew that time was against all of us at that point and far more acutely than any of us could’ve imagined. In all honesty, I think he would’ve actually been far more dangerous if he had gone through with it, but we’ll never know now whether he made the right choice or not there. What he did choose to do to himself in the end was infinitely worse: it completely robbed him of his humanity, of any remaining empathy he might have felt toward anyone or anything. He became almost like a demigod, a powerful monster with dangerous delusions of grandeur. Because of him and him alone all of existence briefly hung in the balance – and we did what had to be done to set things right.”

As he finished telling the story, a look had come over Corwin, as if he felt the weight of the entire universe shoving down upon his shoulders as he resolutely gazed ahead, willing the now golden-and-white aspens about them to turn to prairie once more, the dried grass shimmering gold in the warm early-afternoon sunlight. He looked ancient.

“I’m so sorry,” Sarah offered quietly.

He nodded once in acknowledgement but said nothing. There was awkward silence in the cabin again as the road narrowed and began to wind through low hills; they nearly startled a grazing ten-point buck, but he easily bounded across the dirt road ahead of them, unscathed.

“For what it’s worth,” Corwin added, “I think I prefer your method of disposing of unwanted siblings,” he wryly quipped. “At least it’s unique.”

But it was the wrong joke to make and he quickly realized it, seeing Sarah reflexively look away again out the passenger-side window, and he wisely dropped the subject, focusing completely on the shifts. The rippling gold grasses fluttered and swam before Sarah’s eyes briefly – and then their perspective changed and the car was driving along a beach with a golden ocean instead. The sand was black…

“I know this shadow!” she suddenly exclaimed in surprised delight, craning around to see out the back window; the blue horses were nowhere to be seen, though. “We passed through this way the first time!”

“It is pretty,” Corwin conceded, “but I wouldn’t stop to take a dip in that ocean – I’m almost certain it isn’t liquid water, look at the wave motion; it’s a thicker substance.”

Sarah would have never thought to study it in this manner but he was right; it did seem to have a certain viscosity to it – there was a distinctively odd pulling action to those waves. In the space of a few breaths it had morphed into a sea of daffodils and green as they rolled on through yet another inland world. Little birds were singing complicated songs in call-and-response.

“You said you lived on Shadow Earth for a long time,” Sarah tentatively began again. “What all were you doing there if you couldn’t even remember who you were? Didn’t your long lifespan make you suspicious?”

The field of flowers abruptly burst into bright monarch butterflies - making her gasp - revealing an elegantly simple slate-gray desert with charred lichen on the large rock outcroppings.

“Suspicious of what? All that I knew was that I was different and that the very few people who noticed it were usually terrified of me. So I hid my seeming immortality as best I could, changing my name and moving every so often, working to be less conspicuous. But my temperament and sense of instinct had remained basically intact, to the point that – somehow – I knew that I had received some form of military training in my blanked-out past, and I allowed this to guide my life for many Earth centuries, working for this country or that as the whim and pay suited me; I also intuited that I didn’t hail from any of them. I’ve even done work as a revolutionary guerilla and a spy on rare occasion.

“Really? Who were you fighting?” Sarah was genuinely intrigued by now, barely even noticing the shifts at this point; Carl (nee Corwin) noted this well and speeded up the progression slightly. They were making decent time as it was.

“It would be easier to tally up a short list of the western wars and military-political conflicts since Europe’s so-called ‘dark age’ that I have not been a part of in some way or another,” he smirked. “I’ve fought Germans, Russians, the American Union army strictly for kicks before joining the Allies just in time to fight Germans again - and many American campaigns abroad in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East after that.” He abruptly stopped; when he spoke again there was absolutely no emotion at all in his facial features, but his voice sounded distant, as if he were remembering. “I’ve spent too many lives killing,” he began again seriously, “too many other men’s lives, in too many places, different shadows. Such a thing would not trouble any of my brothers, does not; I believe my long stint in your world changed me to a certain degree. In any event, the freedom and relative anonymity of your home country had its appeal; my last house was in Westchester, New York.”

“Hey, that’s right across the river from me! I’m in Nyack!”

“Like I said, I’m very familiar with where we’re headed today,” he smiled a little. “I might even stop by the old place to see who bought it when I’m through with you two.”

“Do you have any other favorite places? That you lived, I mean.”

A decided look of bittersweet longing came over him. “Paris in 1900. And the shadow that once contained Avalon – I ruled there for a time. But that was ages ago.”

Avalon! Sarah had to stifle the desperate urge to pepper him with questions just now – he needed to be able to concentrate on what he was doing. As frustrating as it was, simpler topics were best, she remembered, assuming that he himself wouldn’t bring up distracting memories. Anything more involved could have a detrimental effect on their travel. She inwardly sighed, resigning the topic for a rest stop, whenever that was going to be. “So…you’ve always worked as a soldier on Earth, then?”

“Not quite. Inbetween military campaigns, I’ve worked as a doctor, and after World War II I was a columnist for a London newspaper for a while,” he nearly laughed. “I’ve been married twice on Earth; outlived them both – natural deaths. Happily both times, for the most part. It was harder to guarantee in the old days with the first one than it was with the second, but I was scrupulously careful not to sire any children by either of them; the thought that I might be capable of passing my inexplicable agelessness on to possible offspring scared me to death, not even understanding the enigma myself. Merlin, on the other hand…” he trailed off for a moment, turning right against an orangish sun that was just a little too oblong; there had been a distant warmth in his voice as he said that name. “My Chaosian-bred son was the by-product of a very fleetingly brief, ill-thought-out affair…orchestrated by my father, no less,” he frowned with an almost amused expression in spite of himself; that last piece of information Sarah hadn’t known! “My old man knew me far too well, knew that I’d fall for the girl and achieve his ends: the deliberate strengthening of the Barimen bloodline, along with my claim to the throne.”

“But the relationship ultimately foundered when I refused to be his pawn, refusing the lady the queenship of Amber in the bargain. I’d like to delude myself into thinking I meant more to her than that but I’m no fool. Well… you can guess just how angry she was with my original to have him privately imprisoned after the signing of the treaty between Chaos and Amber. Politics nothing, that was a personal vendetta nearly worthy of the few drops of Barimen blood in her fire-filled veins – oh yes, we are related, apparently, albeit several generations distant. It’s technically impossible to calculate either of our respective ages, though, not to mention pointless at this stage of the game. It was fun while it lasted, but it’s over. I’m only relieved that she was a halfway decent mother to my son, at least by his own report, outside of any of her continued power-grabbing schemes.”

Sarah was still watching him as he talked. “I can see him in you,” she noted.

“And vice-versa, I sincerely hope?”

“Well, yes,” she laughed.

Corwin glanced at Sarah for a second before turning on the windshield wipers; it had begun to rain. “Do you resemble one of your parents more strongly than the other?”

“I’m more like my mom,” Sarah rolled her eyes with a sad smile, thinking of her biological mother, the self-centered dreamer with stars in her eyes. “Although I’m starting to question that, too.”

“How so?”

But Sarah just shook her head, waiving off the question; she wasn’t even sure of what to make of the hunch herself just yet; she wasn’t ready to broadcast her peculiar doubts and suspicions to the world-at-large with no solid proof.

The rain occluded the general vision of the road ahead, but the phenomena itself was so mundane it was oddly comforting. At least the wheels seemed to have good tread. There was no further sound in the cabin for a long time apart from large droplets of water pattering against the windows and the solid-steel body of the vehicle. Was that a big windmill out there in the distance? It was difficult to judge with the weather behaving like this. The more she thought about it, this was rather likely another trick to shift the shadows more quickly than just a natural downpour. As the sky cleared again, Sarah’s eyes widened involuntarily – it seemed almost as if that precipitation had swept the entire landscape as smooth as polished, colorless glass! Above them the sky had shaded a striking deep violet, but the sun still shone brightly as ever, creating a terrible glare on the ‘land’!

“I’m sorry if this one is a little unnerving,” Corwin apologized, “but we’ll get nowhere if I keep gentling the shifts like I have been. I need to make a few major ones if we’re going to make sufficient headway on this journey of ours. Do you want me to give you a heads up when its time for the others?” The glass plain was already morphing into clear gravel; sinuous skyscrapers twisted about each other in the distance.

Sarah shook off the effect; no matter how many times she saw phenomena like this, she still reacted annoyingly like a newbie. “It’s okay, really,” she reassured him, “now that I know and can be expecting it.” She suddenly thought to wonder just how far she had traveled with Mandor during that first ‘day’; they had obviously covered a considerable distance, but he had also made it remain sufficiently light for what felt like a rather unnatural amount of time. “About how long do you think it will be before we reach Earth? Not that I’m trying to rush you or anything…”

“Well,” Corwin looked thoughtful, not taking his eyes off the sparkling road as the sky began to lighten again, “provided we don’t run into any unforeseen roadblocks or other kinds of trouble, I’m planning on gaining your home shadow by about late-evening there; we’re still a long ways off yet. You’re on your own for sneaking into your own house and smuggling your double back out, though – the last thing you need is for your parents to find you running around with a much older man, not to mention that you’ve suddenly become twins,” he slyly smiled. “We’ll have to stop to get dinner for you and gas for the car inbetween. What kind of food do you like? If you can give me some ideas now, I can try to chart our course to suit to a certain degree.”

“Nothing sounds good,” Sarah shook her head listlessly, sort of wondering if her appetite would ever return.

“I’m warning you, if you leave the decision up to me you might wind up with something rather exotic; there’s a place out here that I haven’t been to in years that sells the most fantastic chicken-fried-dinosaur, and in a wide variety of species, too.”

Sarah stared at him. “You’re kidding me.”

Corwin just laughed at her reaction. “As people would say in your country, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. That’s where we’re stopping to refuel unless you tell me otherwise.”

Sarah had grown rather used to the idea of bizarre, alien worlds existing out in the depths of shadow, but the viable possibility of traveling to an alternate Earth prehistory was surprisingly sobering. The past, the future, and every present imaginable – all of it was out there, somewhere, just waiting to be explored. She’d nearly forgotten that, having stayed on the Chaos-side of things too long with nothing of she could recognize as such. The thought made her unexpectedly feel very, very small and insignificant, one little shadow adrift with a ghost in a sea of realities that might or might not be totally ‘real’; just watching them all go by felt mildly hallucinatory, thinking of the nature of what it really was that she was seeing. And she herself was a part of that grand delirium – all twenty of her or so. She had never been able to learn the precise number of her doubles from Mandor; the one time she had ever thought of it, the ring had been off, she realized now, thinking back, and with it back on the idea simply melted away like so many others had in those strange, blurry days in the darkness.

As they headed into verdant, mountainous country again, a sound not unlike continuous rolling thunder could be heard even with the windows closed, but Sarah couldn’t ascertain its source for nearly half-an-hour, and the sound grew progressively louder as they climbed, the air growing thinner with the altitude. It incongruously came into view without warning on a repeated switchback, though: it was a large waterfall – or, rather, a waterrise, the entire prospect running crazily in reverse like a geyser straight up the side of a rocky cliff-face, culminating in a lazily meandering river that ran sedately uphill at the pinnacle! Corwin drove alongside the backwards body of water for a time while large, parrot-green wading birds let little fishes escape alive from their large, deep-blue stork-like bills. Even in the meticulously maintained ‘earth-coloring’, the sight was awe-inspiring and nightmarish at once. Sarah nearly wished that she had some kind of mind-numbingly mundane homework to keep her brain occupied; even in Chaos there had been complicated arithmetic problems and long essay questions.

But there was one bastion of surprising normalcy right at her fingertips that she had nearly forgotten; reaching forward, Sarah turned on the old-fashioned dial radio quietly and commenced slowly tuning through the AM frequencies (there was no FM on the deck), starting from the bottom. Static and fuzz were her only reward for a while but she felt relatively hopeful in the enterprise, with their being on the Order-side of shadow and all. She soon felt the prince’s mildly amused attention and she turned to him.

“What? You can get a handful of interesting stations out here for a few seconds each if you’re lucky; it shows which shadows are technologically inhabited. Unless it’s going to distract you – sorry, I should’ve asked if it was all right first.”

Corwin quietly chuckled, shaking his head, his gaze forward again. “I keep forgetting you’ve done this before. Head up toward the top of the dial.”

Curious, Sarah quickly rolled the tuner to the right – and suddenly stopped at the sound of blaring electric instrumentation with a gypsyish beat and strong, gravelly male vocals… in English?! It was a definitely heavy metal song! She slowly turned to Corwin in mute amazement. Had he just done that?!

Her companion’s own expression was rather blasé. “What? I thought you might like it – young Chaosian culture and all that; apropos, anyway. I’m sure I can find us something more sedate. This, too, can be altered in shadow. But of course you already knew that,” he commented coolly with just the slightest hint of dry sarcasm as he took the knob himself and adjusted the station down a few bandwidths; soon a lighthearted, orchestral march that might’ve been composed by an alien cousin five-times-removed from Sir Arthur Sullivan commenced piping through the antiquated speaker system – and Corwin was actually humming along quietly! Sarah ruefully smirked, looking away again, knowing she’d been had. Granted, that was a pretty neat trick, but it was still showing off, especially with how well the station was holding steady and clear as they rolled through several obviously different shadow-worlds in dovetail succession. The river gradually iced over and big flakes of snow commenced drifting by as the outside temperature took a marked dive; Corwin reached behind to the back seat without turning around and grabbed his cloak, thrusting the bundled fabric into a shivering Sarah’s lap, his only offhanded comment being, “thermostat’s broken.”

Sarah quickly unrolled it and folded it over herself – they could see their breath in the cabin. The cloth wasn’t terribly warm but it was better than nothing. She tried breathing through a thin section of it; the windshield kept fogging up. Traveling on through nearly featureless frosted tundra with only the soft radio to break the silence, there were fleeting glimpses of alien ground fauna that kept appearing and disappearing every so many yards, moving too quickly to be properly seen, changing along with the world. The ice was melting but the ground ahead looked like moonscape, all cratered and gray; perfectly white, winged dragons soared gracefully in the updrafts, chasing each other off the edge of the map. They lost them after a while as the dead land took on a volcanic aspect, heating to the point that they would’ve rolled down the windows if it had been safe (of course it wasn’t), but it cooled soon enough, the sun taking a break behind the debris-thick cloud cover as viable soil made a comeback along with colorful lichen. One could almost imagine the evolution of the world out here, or even recreate it, a thought that was surprisingly moving. All of life was here – not just life but life-force, something far grander - to pick and choose at will buffet-style on one’s way to wherever.

Corwin abruptly turned the radio off right in the middle of a song; the sky had shaded from an almost normal, light Order-blue to a distinctive shade of teal. After a few minutes of no sound at all but a moderate wind that pushed the dark thunderheads safely to their south, the tint corrected again over the rocky, humid moors they traversed. Sarah would’ve been very worried at this point – there were no landmarks or qualities that were not still shifting – if it hadn’t been for her companion’s quiet, dead-on confidence in where he was taking them; it was sort of awe-inspiring in its own right. The moors began to dry, getting a bit cooler as they traveled uphill, the white sun hanging lower; it was mid-afternoon somewhere. Or was it mid-morning? Who could tell anymore? The ghost-prince turned left at a crossroads: Sarah looked up just in time to see a pale-green apparition of an enormous, cloaked woman hovering above it, her giant-like arm pointing in the direction he had chosen; she saw the girl staring up at her, but her own face remained expressionless, passive as the allegorical figure of Justice, vanishing from view as they commenced a gentle descent into yet another lush, slightly off-color valley.

“Carl, would it distract you too much if I asked you something about what you’re doing right now?”

He shrugged. “Not particularly at this point. What did you want to know?”

“…how do you always know precisely how to find your way home like this?”

‘Carl Corey’ gave her a sad half-smile. “My own method wouldn’t help you, kid. Amber’s too different of a destination to compare anything else to. It would be like trying to use another star to navigate by on Earth as if it were Polaris.”

“I kinda figured,” Sarah sighed. “Just thought I’d ask; if anybody knew this, a prince of Amber would. I’ve successfully accomplished short ‘walks’ accompanied, but it was always really tricky; it seems like this is a lot more natural for you.”

“That’s because it is,” he answered simply. “You’re also seeing well over a millennium of practice here, although there is an additional internal acumen – oh, how to describe it…” he trailed off, thinking. “I suppose it’s a specialized kind of affinity, Sarah,” he said at length as jagged, yellowstone cliffs jutted out sideways to the left of the road, uplifted straight out of the ground, “the sort of affinity a person feels in their bones, their blood, a resonance to one’s own heartbeat. It transcends absolute confidence: it is confidence in the Absolute – which is Order, for me at any rate. I’m not entirely sure of what that might translate to for you, with your different ‘alignment’, whether…”

Sarah knew he was still discoursing to her, but she suddenly realized that her current stimuli was gradually being overridden by a powerful trump call. Which could only be one person…

“Carl, pull over!”

“What?! What’s wrong?”

But she waved him silent as Merlin’s humanoid visage clarified in her mind’s eye.

“Finally!” the king of Chaos exclaimed; he was standing, but it was hard to see where. Probably inside the Thelbane; the background was dark and shiny. “Thank the powers you’re safe, that I was able to reach you fast enough! I can see that you’re probably with someone in public, but you’ve got to come to me right this instant; we can wipe memories later – it’s that important. Just give me your hand!”

“What in the world is going on?!”

“No time! I’ll explain once you get here.”

Here. Chaos proper. Sarah shuddered.

“With all due respect, your Excellency, I think I’d rather hear about it now.”

Merlin gave an aggravated sigh. “Sarah, this isn’t multiple choice! I’m protecting you as one of my subjects who’s in imminent danger if I don’t! I made King Random swear-”

Sarah felt a strong hand grasp her left shoulder – but it wasn’t Merlin’s.

“Easy there, son; she’s with me,” Corwin calmly answered Merlin’s panicked look - which quickly turned to confusion.

“Dad? What in Chaos are you doing with…” he rapidly pointed between the two of them.

“Why don’t you go first? You looked half-hysterical with worry a second ago. Care to fill your old man in, too?”

Merlin only stared at him a second longer before exhaling, defeated, looking terribly spent. “The Left Eye of the Serpent – the Jewel of Judgment – disappeared from King Random’s private quarters in Castle Amber just this morning, maybe all of half-an-hour ago there. It simply vanished! No arcane or mundane signs of a break-in, just gone like that! Which immediately casts suspicion on us – that level of magic is simply not taught in Order, and it is only known in Chaos in the higher echelons. Sarah was the last Chaosian spy to have made it successfully into Amber, and with my personal help, no less. By proxy, she’s still suspect number one in spite of the fact that I’ve loaned Random the Ghostwheel’s services in aiding the multi-shadow hew-and-cry for the real culprits as a gesture of continued good-faith. Ghost has reported back to me numerous times already, though: the trail is cold – in fact, it looks like there never was one! And the Jewel is proving impossible to track, too; it’s deliberately being hidden and not used, which would also point to us – anyone else would have been tempted by the power or at least attempted the personal attunement by now. Amber’s secret forces are descending upon Shadow Earth New York as we speak, specially equipped to track down and arrest you! But they can’t if I get to you first – that was our agreement. I can tell my uncle to call them off just as soon as you join me. I promise we’re going to make this okay; you’re going to be all right! Just give me your hand and I’ll pull you through into the Ways of Sawall. It’s technically house-arrest, but you’ll be well taken care of on this end until we sort this out; I’ve already seen to all the necessary preparations myself.”

Sarah was half in shock, listening to the king of Chaos nervously rambling on and on. It didn’t seem real. She was suddenly very worried that she had left Shara right where she was! What if they found and arrested her double instead?!

And then the full idea suddenly exploded like fireworks in her brain as all the odd pieces of the immense puzzle abruptly shook loose and fell into place. Her eyes widened. She almost couldn’t breathe.

“Sarah! What is it?!”

She finally knew the awful truth. And what she had to do about it in consequence. She looked into the king’s desperate, sincere, caring dark eyes.

“Merlin…forgive me.”

And with that she started blocking the trump contact for all she was worth, with all the reserves she had!

“Are you crazy?!” Corwin roared.

“He’s way too strong!” she screamed, feeling a tentative hand on her right arm. “Help me break the call!”

A powerful sense of nothingness ripped through her consciousness – she almost passed out – and just as abruptly it was gone. Corwin’s hand was still on her shoulder.

“You just threw away your one lifeline to safety!” he roundly scolded her. “If you think for one moment that I’m about to help you run away from both powers-”

“You’ve got to get me back to the Labyrinth right now!”

“Why there?!”

“Because that’s where she is! My original! I know she’s there! Because if she isn’t there already we might be able to intercept her before anyone else possibly could!”

Corwin looked pissed but he was revving the engine, both hands on the wheel. Still half a tank of gas left.

“Hang on tight and close your eyes, kid!”

Sarah didn’t have to be told twice; she tightened her seatbelt to the point of discomfort and both closed and covered her eyes, desperately trying to imagine that blissful little pastoral shadow Mandor had made for her – her literal ‘happy place’ – rather than risk taking in any stimuli from the imminent hellride as the tires squealed on the pavement, the force of the burst of speed shoving her back in the seat. Collector’s item or not, this was an old car and the prince was currently riding it right up to its physical limits. Muffled sounds from outside were nearly drowned out by the whine of the engine in high-gear, the sound of the tires on the pavement. Unable to concentrate on her visualization in a matter of seconds, Sarah started to count the actual seconds that this insane transit was taking them.

There were only a handful of ways to return the Eye to the Serpent, Sarah had been taught, but they all involved either navigating the Logrus or dealing with the direct incarnation of that power. All were dangerous, if not next-to-impossible, and while there had been a handful of historical attempts, the action was only an academic theory to all but the most radical of the Lords – the ones bent on returning the universes (and themselves) to absolute Chaos. It amounted to the total destruction of reality as anyone knew it; the course of action was unconscionable even to the vast majority of the Courts. But there were always a few crazies floating around out there…

Sarah had made it up to 38 seconds when the car screeched to a sudden halt, nearly throwing her forward; there were no shoulder belts. She cautiously peeked through her fingers…

The outer wall of the Labyrinth stood before them. The thick, wooden gates were standing wide open. They swung closed of their own accord.

“We’re too late,” Sarah moaned, holding her head in her hands.

“I think you’d better trump Merlin back right now and tell him what’s happened,” Corwin sternly advised. “He needs to know. He might even know how to stop her – this is his territory, after all.”

Sarah unbuckled (that sudden stop was going to leave a mark – ow) and untucked her blouse to get at her trump deck… then she irritatedly unbuckled the whole contraption from around her abdomen – the straps had been digging into her back just now – taking it off and securing it to her hip. If she was going to prison, she was going comfortably. She extracted the correct trump…and paused. True, this might technically be Chaosian territory, but even for real Chaosians – even their king, or Lord Suhuy the Keeper – the Logrus was no-man’s land, belonging to no one, dangerous to all, as much of a threat to its own initiates as to its foes.

And it was only walked once; that much had been drilled into her. And that journey through the true one resulted in death or permanent madness roughly 40% of the time. The odds were even worse for the Fixed Logri. And this was the worst copy. It was a small miracle that Sarah had survived at all her first time through.

Or was it a miracle? Was it something else altogether? She had certainly been made to play a significant part in what was currently going down, what with getting Jareth out of the way for the next runner. The thought alone made her shiver…

“Sarah,” Corwin gently broke her distraught reverie, “the call. Make it.”

Sarah turned to look at him. “It won’t do anyone any good,” she answered him, calmly, rationally. Purposefully. Her mind was nearly made up. “He can’t go in there. He can’t legally force anyone to follow her in. It’s almost a guaranteed suicide run, even if they made it. And there’s no way to trump in or out of the trial proper even if they catch up with her and intercept the Eye. Nobody will do it. And if she actually makes it to the center with the wretched thing, we’re all as good as dead anyway.” She casually opened the car door, trying to gauge how far the gates were from here. There was something about this scenario that almost seemed to click; memories of her physical training on Suhuy’s practice shadows were rapidly flashing by. The obstacle courses – those long, twisting corridors, the incongruent sections of living topiary, the strange creatures she had to outmaneuver or bespell…

Corwin grabbed her arm. “No. I know what you’re considering, and while the sacrifice would be both noble and heroic, chances are you’d be dead within the first five paces. What would that accomplish?”

“More than sitting here worrying to death while she’s running that stupid maze!” Sarah wrenched herself free, practically leaping out of the car, making a dash for the wall; she had half-expected him to try to hinder her. She was sure of her choice now.

“Sarah, stop!”

She involuntarily froze in her tracks, feeling the ghost-prince’s strong will bearing down heavily upon her own.

“This choice doesn’t just affect you! Think of the consequences of your actions! What of your family? Your friends?”

“Who the hell is going to even miss me? My dog?” she laughed a little desperately, not even attempting to turn around; if she locked eyes with him like this, it was over. “They don’t even know I’m gone, remember? Shara can stay and have my life; she didn’t really want to go home anyway. Wait…what happens to the shadow-Sarahs beyond me downstream, so-to-speak, if I…”

“That isn’t my main concern right now.”

Sarah could hear him measuredly pacing towards her. There were only about twenty feet or so to the closed gate – was it just her imagination or were those doors slowly beginning to open outwards by a few millimeters?

“It’s ‘nothing’, isn’t it!” she pressed. “We’re dependent on our original, not on each other! They’d be okay!”

“Sarah,” Corwin’s voice had taken on that odd, commanding tone, “trump Merlin.”

The card was still clutched tightly in her right hand, she felt her arm rising against her will, she couldn’t close her eyes against the image. This was it – it was now or never.

Sarah ceased resisting Corwin’s will just long enough to begin to activate the trump connection, then, with her redirected willpower, spun around on her heel and, with the strength she had left, thrust the activated image between them, effectively breaking his concentration as Merlin flared to life on the other end, blocking the outside world for him! “Tell him I’m going to catch that miserable little brat if it’s the last thing I do!” she yelled, sprinting for the opening gates. “And if he has any complaints, he can go beat down Lord Suhuy’s door: he’s the one who trained me to do this!”

“Sarah, don’t!”

But she had already passed through that ominous portal; Corwin heard the gates swing shut again.

“Dad,” Merlin began dubiously, arms crossed, “where is she? I think you know what’s going on here.”

Ghost-Corwin pitied his son; his entire world was about to come crashing down about his ears.

Sarah noted three things immediately upon her second entry into the Labyrinth: firstly, that it was ever-so-slightly more difficult to think in here (an effect that she had been far too panicked to even notice the first time), secondly, that her ears were sort of ringing, but it wasn’t tinnitus. It was this place; she had falsely associated the sound with Jareth before, but she recognized it for what it was now – and nearly thanked her lucky stars that the background noise levels in this far-distant copy did not follow those of the true Logrus, which were almost deafening toward the end, the cacophony of those terrible, unholy bells physically beating against the initiate. Even the course itself was jumbled up here, she now knew, with a part of the ‘end’ crazily pasted smack-dab in the middle!

And Her; now that Sarah was attuned, the visceral sensation of the physical presence of the Logrus was almost overwhelming. And Sarah felt distinctly unwelcome here. She thought of addressing Her for a second, but quickly changed her mind; nothing she could say would make the situation any better (and would probably make things worse.) She knew why Sarah was here; that couldn’t be helped.

A cool, dry breeze blew through the high-walled corridor in spite of the warm sun, stirring up the smell of decaying plant matter and mildew. Looking down to see if there was a noticeable difference in the paving stones in either direction, she suddenly noticed the golden light flaring brightly from inside her carryall…her brooch! She quickly dug it out of the inner pocket and pinned it above her heart – if for any reason she needed it in here, it had to be within easy access and immediate physical contact. Not that she was still terribly confident that she could control its hidden reserve of power…

Repressing her trepidation, Sarah forced herself to focus on the task at hand: she had to get moving, but which way? Static as the Labyrinth was in many sections (which she had since been taught was also dangerous), the course changed every time. Would there be a way to pick up the other girl’s trail? Or was it better to simply attempt the correct course herself? Deciding on the latter (safety first… or, rather, third), she rapidly started off down the right corridor, remembering that she had to pace herself, imminent end-of-the-world or not; it would be if she tired herself out too fast!

An idea suddenly occurred to her: her Logrus sight. As thoroughly useless as it had proven to be in the outside world, the one thing it showed well was mineral composition. Could she use it to ‘see’ the invisible openings in the walls of the mirage-straight outer corridor? It was worth a shot. At any rate, she’d find out in a hurry whether it was permissible or not for her to utilize her own power in here.

Bracing herself both physically and mentally for one heck of a backlash, she performed the normal motions for bringing up her version of the Logrus – and saw the sign literally seep darkly out of the walls, coalescing before her as it never had before! No earthquakes accompanied or followed the phenomena, nor lightning nor mental confusion or terror, just the sign ebbing and flowing in midair before her, its ‘branches’ in constant motion, seemingly ready for use.

That’s something anyway, she thought, continuing down the passage with it preceding her, sticking her head through the doorways it revealed on both sides. There were so many! And only one of them was…well, ‘safe’ wasn’t quite the right word, but the alternatives led to tighter and tighter passages with no way back, culminating in being physically crushed to death. And they all looked pretty much the same at this stage. What was it that those propaganda-like Chaosian textbooks had said about the real one?

‘Trust to no vision in the Place of Darkness; She alone will tell you where to go…’

…the noise. Sarah stopped in her tracks – the ringing had been slightly louder through the doorway she had just passed by. Backtracking a few paces, she ducked through a hidden portal in the outer wall.

Of course, she smiled to herself. The ringing was still fairly faint, but nevertheless it was slightly more musical in this new passage. And slightly more defined heading in the ‘wrong’ direction. Dilapidated-looking brick-and-mortar walls gradually shifted into mortarless tan stone walls stacked twenty feet high as Sarah followed a series of odd switchbacks, the view starting to shimmer every now and again in time with her breathing…

Merlin sank back into this chair after severing the remote trump contact, feeling a thousand years older than he was.

It had happened. There was no way to stop it now. Was there even any point to warning anyone, of calling back in his agents out of shadow? Of telling King Random anything?

Merlin had been right about this being a serious threat and they had still ultimately proven incapable of intercepting the guilty party! And with both sides, working together; that alone was sort of terrifying in retrospect. Which would suggest that something much larger than human or even superhuman agency – or organization – underlay this. It was nothing less than a direct power grab orchestrated by the Logrus Herself. Had they all just been sitting on a ticking time bomb and not even known it, lulled into relative complacency by the artificially maintained peace?

Or had the new treaty proven the final insult to the Serpent? That ancient almost mythic argument with the Unicorn, stemming from time-immemorial, was the essence, the balance upon which life, as Merlin had come to recognize it, hung. Neither side could ever be allowed to truly win – it would mean widespread disaster, likely apocalypse for all of Shadow that fell inbetween, without that ongoing tension. Had the ceasefire between Chaos and Amber affected the powers more than either side had realized?

There were only two men yet living who might be able to answer that question, the king of Chaos mused, and he was distantly related to both of them, although he was on better speaking terms with the one staying on this side of the Divide. And it had been intimated just now that that man was somehow culpable in part of for what was happening also, a thought that made Merlin even more uneasy if he stopped to examine it at all. Suhuy Swayvil – his great-great-great-great-great-great (…probably about twenty-three ‘greats’ or so, give or take a dozen) uncle, Keeper of the Logrus, had always been eminently sane and level-headed, even in spite of his almost constant contact with a power that made most people at least temporarily crazy if not downright permanently certifiable. What could’ve gone wrong enough to make him voluntarily party to universal destruction Merlin couldn’t even fathom.

If it was voluntary…

Without another thought, he produced his old, well-worn trump of his old, well-worn uncle and commenced establishing the link with the spikard; his near-constant use of the artifact was making his own magic lazy, but there was no time to worry about that right now. The contact was almost live…

The contact was blacked out; the image on the trump simply vanished.

“Uncle Suhuy! Can you hear me?”

There was no response. And then came the eerie sound of a male voice, softly chuckling. Definitely not Suhuy.

The contact was abruptly severed with a feeling akin to an electrical shock! Merlin involuntarily shot to his feet as it hit, unable to block it because it hadn’t been expected at all. Catching his breath, using the spikard to lower his speeding heartrate back down to normal, he gravely pocketed the trump and readied a Logrus shield, commencing the shift up into his usual powerform. Whoever was responsible for this certainly knew what they were doing, he’d grant that much. Maybe somebody had made the proverbial Faustian bargain; perhaps all the universes were to be the sacrifice. Or to be held for ransom. If they started with that sweet-natured old man, though, Merlin swore the culprit would be subjected to a long stint in one of Mandor’s flashier private hells; his elder brother had a real talent for making some fairly original torments.

Mandor. The trump was in Merlin’s hand fast as thought; it took a few long minutes to activate it, however; he had to be pretty far away from the Courts. That was odd, too, for him…

But Mandor wasn’t picking up, either; he actually was there on the other end - Merlin could sense his presence - but he was working about as hard as he possibly could to block the call. Merlin prepared to force it through with the spikard.

“Mandor, this is Merlin! It’s urgent that I speak with you!”

And then something even stranger happened: for just a split-second Merlin could’ve sworn there was a female presence on the other end along with his brother – and then the trump commenced emitting a rather mundane-sounding dial-tone, like a Shadow Earth telephone! The connection was gone. Merlin silenced the small, harmless spell and replaced that card also. He knew in his heart-of-hearts that he could never really trust his favorite brother, but he wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt at this extreme moment. If they really all were about to get snuffed, there was a fair chance that at least Mandor was going to go out happy; he always had had a taste for the talented-sorceress-type. Merlin wanted to think that was all it was: inopportune timing. But of course he couldn’t. That strong of a forced disconnect made him wonder. Only a handful of powers or artifacts could’ve overridden him that well without resorting to violence; Corwin’s Pattern in direct use was one, as were possibly some of the other spikards; more had been turning up in recent years. But that was a can of worms in itself.

Merlin sighed and went for his uncle Random’s trump – then decided against telling him unless he was forced to. The front of the Death Storm that would soon be coming to devour the city of Amber would be message enough.

Let them enjoy one more frantic hour of hope, he thought, walking over to the bar to fix himself a drink, silently toasting to Order’s memory before tossing it off. He was due back at the Council and was now burdened with the rather unsavory and potentially volatile task of delivering the ‘good news’. He hoped he could at least talk them out of reneging on the Treaty for the sake of their troops in the sliver of a chance that any of habitable Chaos survived the inevitable fallout. The very last place he wanted them to be sent right now was out in Shadow. Anywhere.

The stone corridors seemed endless in their spiraling, turning, meandering paths, their inane, seemingly pointless short flights of stairs up and down, but Sarah’s morale was actually just a little bit higher; her Logrus-sight was proving surprisingly useful under its ‘native’ circumstances, even showing up where some of the broken, or ‘fixed’, sections were so she could avoid them. Of course, there was no way of knowing how good of time she was making or how far ahead of her her original had gotten, which was still rather worrisome. The thought had occurred to her of seismically lifting up the ground where she was currently standing to see if she could get a better look around at where the girl really was in the course, but she quickly ruled out executing such a dangerous move… within the maze proper; it might work in the forest later on, though. If she could still think by then; she was getting the beginnings of a dull ache in the back of her head. Doing her best to ignore it, she was courageously pressing on, choosing from a branching series of adjacent corridors, when something briefly flashed by the opening of a track running parallel to the one she was on. She blinked – and ran, only to make a mad dash straight into the thing around a u-shaped turn!

The three-foot high creature didn’t look properly goblinish somehow, but Sarah would’ve been at a loss as to what precisely to call it: the skin on the wrinkled face and long, gnarled hands with long nails was a brownish-gray that offset its dingy-white, grizzled hair. Long, pointed elvish ears stuck out from underneath a battered red bowler hat. A distinctively turquoise doglike nose, black pupil-less eyes and a ready grin that made Sarah instinctively nervous completed the whiskered visage. Its body was cloaked in a buttoned-up patchwork coat two sizes too large… and was that a tail just barely sticking out from beneath?

“Top o’ the mornin’, miss!” he hailed her in a distinctly Irish-sounding brogue as she speechlessly stared him up and down, attempting to collect her wits and some form of a plan; her mind seemed to go spontaneously blank whenever he looked her in the eye, a fact that made the little fellow smile all the more.

Quickly catching onto the effect, Sarah deliberately shut her eyes tight. Whatever this thing was, she probably shouldn’t trust it. “Good day,” she managed to reply, sounding more confident than she felt. “I don’t suppose you could tell me if you’ve seen a girl who could pass for my twin sister, running through this area not too long ago?”

“Yer twin? Nay,” he chuckled dryly, “mayhap a few years younger, but not the prettier, I’ll be bound,” he backhandedly flattered her. “Am I that bad-looking of a fellow for a young sweet thing like yourself that you shut your bright eyes against me weathered old mug?”

“It’s not the appearance but the effect,” she dared to call him out. “It isn’t terribly polite to do that to people.”

She heard him chuckle again – from behind her! Opening her eyes in surprise, Sarah just barely stopped herself from turning around: there was no way he could’ve physically sidled past her just now! He had to be moving at will, a fact that immediately put her even further on her guard. If only she’d been better at racking and deploying spells! She actually did have one in reserve, she very belatedly remembered, but it was months old now and there was no knowing how the thing would work, let alone in here!

“But it suits me down to the ground, it does,” he answered amiably enough, “lets me do most o’ the talkin’. Gobs can be so boring, I can tell ye! But you’re not marked a runner,” Sarah felt him poke the back of her left leg, “and the girl ye be followin’…” he whistled low, “wouldn’ta touched the prize she carried meself, but it’s a sore-tempting one, to be sure. That’s what you’re after. Course… I did see which turns she took from here,” his voice turned wheedling – from down a different passage to the right! As he stuck his head back around the corner, Sarah quickly shut her eyes tight again. It was queer, but she could swear she could literally feel his approval. “I can’t be seen leadin’ ya, me girl,” he said a little more quietly, confidentially. “Herself would… ya know.”

Sarah knew indeed – no explanation needed there!

“But I suppose I might walk a few paces behind ye, like I’m tailing, telling ye which way to turn and all that. For a fair price…”

“What’s your idea of a fair price?” Sarah nearly slapped herself as soon as the words were out of he mouth: she’d just given him way too much room to bargain!

“That’s a mighty fine deck o’ cards you’re caryin’…”

Sarah’s hand immediately closed over her trump pouch; it had been a costly lesson but she’d actually learned it.

“No,” she said firmly. Then ventured, “do you like jewelry?”

“I do, indeed,” he licked his lips, “ but were ye thinkin’ of partin’ with yon brooch? Pawn me off cheap-like?”

How dumb does he hope I am? Sarah thought with a wry smile. “Actually, I was thinking of a ring that’s currently hidden on my person; the band is solid silver but I’ve never been certain of what the stone is - it’s black, though. And mildly enchanted, but not as much as when I first got it.” Talk about magical creature bait; she could fairly guess he wouldn’t be able to resist that. Sentimental value itself would be a thing of the past if she didn’t make it through in time. And the artifact didn’t seem to do much for her anymore anyway.

“Let’s see it then, girl.” All of his ‘r’s were lightly rolled.

Very carefully and quickly, Sarah extracted Mandor’s ring out of her trump pouch and slipped it on over the first knuckle of her pointer finger, secured with her thumb, holding it out to show him. She heard him sigh.

“Oh, open yer eyes already; I won’t look up at ye.”

Sarah cautiously cracked them open – and saw him standing right in front of her with his fists to his hips, staring closely at the ring. Gingerly taking her hand, he make a point of looking at the back of the band, his black eyes narrowed to slits, but he seemed satisfied as he let go of her.

“I prefer gold meself, but for the little yer askin’, tis fair enough,” he nodded once. “Give it me, then pass three more crossings and turn left twice.”

Sarah let him take it – and he looked up at her with a fierce grin! A slight shove brought her to; he was behind her now.

“I couldn’t resist, girl,” he harshly laughed. “You’ll get to put up with me gabbin’ anyway. Quick now!”

Sarah had a funny feeling that even if she had tried to evade this tricksy creature she wouldn’t have been able to. This shaky partnership, such as it was, was probably the best possible outcome.

Or, at least it seemed so at first. His choices in direction were always perfectly confident, in fact he often chided her for not walking faster – the little fellow had a surprisingly long gait, like he was all legs under that motley quilt of a coat. Or was he flying? Sarah wasn’t about to look behind to find out. And gab he did – the whole time, barely pausing for breath, the effort involved physically inhuman! He obviously delighted in the sound of his own voice, discoursing on nothing, gossiping about the most outrageous things that had happened to other people here, breaking into the chorus of some bawdy tune before abruptly switching topics over and over again!

But the longer she marched on ahead of him, Sarah was beginning to have some rather serious misgivings about the whole proposition besides an earache: it was simply taking too long to get through the outer maze. She hadn’t heard even a whisper of the Logrus-ringing in ages. True, certain sections of the Labyrinth had been constructed to look similar on purpose to confuse the runners, but she was certain that they had already passed his way twice, this time making a third round. And several of his previous signals had been so vague that Sarah had been forced to awkwardly backtrack backwards just to keep from seeing him.

There was no mistaking where they were now; it was simply too familiar. She stopped.

“What’re ye stoppin’ for, girl?! We’ve miles yet to go!”

“You’ve been leading me in circles. We’ve passed this way three times,” she answered him calmly and civilly. One had to be rather careful not to anger these kinds of creatures.

“We have so,” he replied rather matter-of-factly. “You wanted to know which way she went, and I’ve been showin’ ye right enough the way she took. The little twit was good and lost in here for hours, she was!” he sniggered wickedly under his breath. “Herself will thank me kindly for this easy favor.”

Sarah turned on instinct at the sinister change in his tone of voice – and saw that he had risen in height to nearly six feet tall and had drawn a long, cruelly twisted blade from his long jacket, which now fit him like a glove! Her Logrus-sight simply faded away in that intense, countering blackness.

“It was fun while it lasted, girl,” he whispered with a wink, and a sickening smile took over his features. Those teeth were very sharp…

But the glint of the sun off the ornate gold inlay of his sword unexpectedly jogged the memory of the section of the Pattern that had danced brightly on Werewindle – and the spell broke! Sarah screamed and took off at a run, blindly diving down this corridor and that, adrenaline flooding her veins as her physical training and psychological conditioning kicked in, taking over. Hearing large, plodding footsteps pounding after her, she never once gave a thought to her direction – until she unexpectedly found herself in a large open section with an obelisk, carved with many stone hands pointing every-which-way possible and then some. She remembered it! Making a sharp five o’clock switchback, she shot down the passages, searching for the dead-end with the guarded doors. She had no idea of what she would do when she reached them, but even a vague sense of choice was better than certain death!

Certain death… The enclave had moved, of course – this being a functional section of the maze – but she discovered it readily enough. The goat-faced, playing-card-like guards looked positively astonished upon seeing her burst through in front of them.

“It can’t be,” started Alph Blueshield, slowing shaking his head.

The creature’s footfalls were less than half-a-hall away!

“No time!” Sarah whispered, looking at Ralph Redcrest. “Open the door!”

“Are you sure?” he asked dubiously, peeking out from behind his large shield at her sideways. “You haven’t even-”

“Open! Please! Hurry!”

“Alright! Alright!” he huffed irritatedly as he and his upsidedown compatriot awkwardly shuffled aside, the left door automatically swinging outward.

Without warning, Sarah ducked behind them!

“What are ye-”

“Shh!” she frantically silenced him, just as the Far Darrig jogged into the dead-end; upon seeing him, her strange companions started physically shaking!

“Easy there, lads, I’m just passin’ through,” he reassured them – everything seemed scared of this guy! “She chose this one, then?” he pointed to the open door.

Ralph Redcrest boldly nodded ‘yes’ - Sarah had never in all her life been so grateful to a liar!

The Far Darrig strode up to the portal bold as brass, but stopped short, frowning, sniffed for a second like a bloodhound, shrugged, and continued on through. As soon as he had stepped completely past the threshold, Sarah slammed the heavy door closed behind him with her full body strength, hearing the bolt fall into place, locking him in! She just about collapsed on the stone floor in relief, trying to catch her breath.

“Thanks. All of you,” she panted, looking round at them; there was wonder and admiration in their old, pale eyes. Alph Blueshield looked a bit misty.

“Madam,” he saluted grandly – and the others all quickly followed suit – “carry on!” He shuffled aside and the door to the right opened inward for her. Sarah got to her knees and took a proffered hand up from Tim Upsidedown; she was staring at the closed door, though, her nerves still frazzled. That had literally been a matter of life-and-death; she had done what she could in her scanty circumstances, there had been no time to think out anything better than what she had just done. She looked back at old Alph Blueshield – the truthful one.

“Since I didn’t ask about the door,” she began carefully – these creatures seemed bound by strict rules, “what was that thing?” She stole another glance at the door to the left, half-fearing that it would be kicked back open at any moment.

“A Far Darrig,” Alph shuddered at the memory, “a dreadful, mean-spirited leprechaun that somehow found its way into the Labyrinth and was trapped here. Been tormenting anyone who comes through or inhabits the outer maze for years, even us! His Majesty-” – they all sort of spontaneously bowed reverently where they stood, so-to-speak – “even he was having a hard time catching him,” he whispered, glancing up at Sarah with an expression that read ‘mum’s the word’. “You didn’t see him… before?”

“No, I didn’t,” Sarah sighed, starting to realize just to what extent she had been protected ‘the first time.’ There was no such protection now. So that thing had been a serious public threat – that made her feel a little better about how things had played out just now. Whatever constituted ‘certain death’ in there, she was sure he was giving it a run for its money. Or, knowing the Far Darrig’s personality, befriending it and driving it crazy. Whatever. It was over.

Sarah did her best to put the incident from her mind as she began to walk through the right portal – then stopped short, remembering the trap door in the floor. Getting back down on her hands and knees, she pressed the stone paving in front of her, but it didn’t give and didn’t give, and so she advanced.

It opened immediately once her full weight was on it, however, and she was falling, wildly trying to grab onto any of the disembodied hands growing out of the walls that would slow her descent by eventually catching her. As she felt them securely grab her legs and arms, she had nearly resolved to ask promptly to be handed back up to the surface this time, but as the hand-faces started to slowly form around her, she suddenly noticed the ringing again. It had grown louder in here…

“Oh, come on, not this again!” the first collective handface exclaimed, four in this unit, “It’s the one who can’t decide! She’s back!”

“Oh, no – ‘which way to go? Which way to go?’” another voice mocked her from above. “There are so many options and simply eons of time!”

“Yes, she’s not terribly heavy to be holding at this angle, now is she? Nope, we could do this all day!”

Well past her initial shock from first encountering the organism, equipped with better knowledge of it from Chaos, Sarah actually mentally stopped what she was doing to stand in wonder of it for a second or two. Conscious collectives like this one were a rare phenomena indeed, with a plethora of minds all sharing the same biological matter, fluidly shifting about inside it, melding, separating, working together within the whole to create homeostatic well-being. It really was a marvelous form of life. Pity it was hidden away in here where practically no one knew about its existence, where it couldn’t be studied. Lord Suhuy had actually seemed a little envious of her earlier experience with it when she had told him about the incident.

A green hand slapped her across the face!

“Hey!” Sarah exclaimed angrily.

“Wake up and decide already! If our arms fall asleep in this position, you’re taking a dive!”

Then again, Sarah quietly fumed, feeling the heat from her stung cheek, it could just be a really exotic jerk. There were plenty of those, she was finding out.

But there was a serious quandary here: above was obviously not the right way; who knew where that thin stone passage led off to, if anywhere. But down below her was a dungeon she had proven incapable of exiting on her own; the likelihood of that makeshift door still standing there was not good, and one certainly didn’t shift shadow within any version of the Logrus. She could literally starve to death in the dark down there – alone. No one would be sent to so much as pester her, she knew. There had to be a right way…

“You realize we can rifle through your pockets while we’ve got your arms and legs secured, right?”

It belatedly hit Sarah just how weird it was that everything here could speak some version of her mother-tongue! Was the ability telepathic learning or a spell? No time to worry about that now. Mentally brushing off the rude remark, hoping some highly-skilled, light-fingered pickpocket impulse wasn’t already sifting through her carryall behind her without her knowledge, Sarah plowed through with her question; it sounded crazy but she had to know.

“Well, is there another way besides up or down?!”

The mocking voices and side conversations all simultaneously stopped on a dime; Sarah felt its/their immense scrutiny, suddenly feeling as small and surrounded as she was. Literally at their mercy.

“Nobody’s ever guess-” a childlike voice sounded from far above and behind her where she couldn’t see; it sounded cut off at the end, muffled as if another hand had covered its mouth.

“There is… isn’t there?” Sarah smiled triumphantly, looking all about at it/them.

“Well…” one of the previous buglike faces waffled, “you just might be able to squeeze through, but technically it’s a ventilation shaft for us. From what we can feel of the opening, it’s awfully slick-smooth in there. And if for any reason you should get stuck, you’d be cutting off our air supply. I don’t know…”

“Can you at least show it to me?”

There were a few sighs that oddly dovetailed together, like many mouths all voicing one mind’s doubt. “We shut it temporarily when there are intruders. For safety,” another voice chimed in.

“You have to protect yourselves; I understand,” Sarah nodded.

“Let her look already,” said a kindlier, older-sounding voice to her left. Sarah sort of smiled in gratitude at its comical, makeshift features; part of the organism’s ‘heart’, she would guess.

Suddenly there was an undulating sort of movement Sarah could only partially make out in the dim light, about six feet below where she was held suspended in the tunnel, as a thick weave of overlapping arms gracefully separated from each other, and she found herself being carefully handed down to its level. The opening was square, about two-by-two feet, slanted upwards at a 65 degree angle. She reached inside and felt the polished stone wall – it was slippery as greased ice in there! She doubted even her Chaos-style boots would have much traction against such a surface, let alone her hands! But daylight gleamed invitingly in from an ornately-wrought metal grate at the top, which was approximately thirty-to-thirty-five feet above them, she would guess. The natural light illuminated the shaft, making the stonework shine. And the ringing was taking on multiple tones. Whether or not anybody could logistically traverse it, this really was the right way.

“If I slipped and slid back down and out, would you be able to catch me?” she ventured.

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” a deep, officious-sounding voice resounded from somewhere below, “it would depend entirely upon your falling velocity.”

Was that the organism’s ‘intellect’? One thing was certain, though: she would get nowhere without making some kind of artificial traction, but she was beginning to have an idea.

“Could you help me get inside and just hold my boots, please? I need to… summon power, and I don’t know if or how it would affect you, being in contact with me like you are. But I think it’s less likely to cause problems if I do it in there versus in here.”

“Oh, alright, but hurry it up – in case you haven’t noticed, we don’t have biceps!”

Watching her head, Sarah was lifted up inside the shaft, careful that her arms were out in front of her; she would have to be really careful not to accidentally knock herself out by sitting up too far! At least the surface looked relatively clean, although with her face down on it she could see faint tracks from precipitation. Waiting until she only felt them gripping her calf-high boots down below, Sarah tentatively summoned the Logrus power for real this time, bracing herself, not knowing what it would look like, but having a fair idea of how strong it would feel and sort of dreading it.

An inky blackness seeped out of the walls all around her, blotting out the sunlight above. Feeling terribly claustrophobic, Sarah forced it to coalesce around her hands into the glove-form she was used to, and to her small relief it did, freeing from the shaft, opening it up again. It took a few more seconds of hard concentration to communicate and form what she desired: almost a suction-like tacky surface on her palms and fingerpads, not so sticky as to glue her to the shaft, just enough to allow her to climb inside of it like a tree-frog. She had thought of extending the ability to her feet as well but almost immediately ruled out the idea as far too dangerous; theoretically it might have very well been possible, but she didn’t care to try it out under such uncertain circumstances – she might get wedged.

With two resounding smacks, her hands successfully stuck to the wall above her; she experimentally lifted her left hand free and found that she could do so with just a little effort. Someone with many more years of experience could have no doubt performed the maneuver more cleanly, but it would have to do.

“I got it! Let go!” she yelled over her shoulder, wincing at how loud her voice echoed in here.

The reassuring feel of those disembodied hands securing her feet and her balance retreated back into their subterranean column and she was left literally hanging by her hands, which was definitely more uncomfortable than she thought it would be; at least the Logrus would protect her skin from getting ripped up. Slowly, carefully, she hauled herself bodily upwards until her blackened hands were at chest-level. This was definitely going to hurt. Bracing to hold her full weight with her right arm (which was still somewhat stronger than her left due to her fencing training), she pulled her left hand free – it made a sound not unlike a suction cup releasing – and threw the arm out above her by another yard: it stuck. The right quickly followed and she hauled herself up again.

And again.

And again.

It wasn’t long before both of her shoulders had commenced to ache from the immense strain, but she wouldn’t slacken her pace for anything; she had to gain the surface while she still had the strength to do so. Her one worry was whether that grate at the top was moveable or not; she didn’t savor the idea of trying to melt away part of the Logrus within the Logrus – even such a relatively teensy part – but she would deal with that when she got there. If she got there.

No, when, she thought firmly, her biceps burning from the effort. The only sounds to be heard besides that eerie ringing were the echoing smack-smack of her hands and her own heavy breathing. Perhaps it was due to the exertion, but it seemed for a short while that the shaft had become dimmer, like something was blotting out the light, but after a time her vision cleared again. She was panting, sweat running down her face, but up ahead was clear blue sky…

Random Barimen was pacing in one of the nicer first-floor drawing rooms in Castle Amber, smoking a cigarette. Upon their coronation, his wife, Vialle of Rebma, had promptly forbidden the practice indoors in shared social rooms of the palace proper, claiming both health reasons and that it tarnished her enjoyment of one of her remaining functional senses – she was blind, you see.

At present, though, Random was simply too beside himself to care. In less than half-an-hour local time, there would be no more Vialle, with her too kind heart, warm smiles, skilled hands. Hell, there wouldn’t be a Random or a Castle Amber! Might not even be a Pattern left. He wasn’t as certain of the Unicorn, though. Would She sue the Serpent for a place to dream of Order in a new, primeval universe, or would She tuck Her tail and head for parts unknown, to consult and commune with the eleven Elders? It was a pointless conjecture; none of them would survive to see it. And if She did manage to resurrect some bastion of Order and bothered to reanimate Her grandchildren in some form or another, he seriously doubted they would remember anything that had come before, clearly, unbiased by outside will, if at all.

It had proven ridiculously difficult to initiate trump contact with Merlin when he did not call back as expected; even after tracking down an old trump of him in Princess Fiona’s deck, it had taken both him and the princess working in tandem to establish the link, and the psychic exertion was long and hard at that. It wasn’t that the King of Chaos – or even the structure of the Thelbane – had been deliberately blocking the call; it was literally that difficult to reach the full way across the cosmic spectrum. Once the link was firmly established, however, Merlin strengthened the connection with his spikard at once, making extraneous help in sustaining it unnecessary, and Fiona had retired to her chambers. Random privately envied quite a number of his young nephew’s powers but easy long-distance trump calls would undoubtedly be one of the most convenient for himself.

The utterly wild theft of the Jewel had been every bit as impossible as one could imagine: the artifact had been kept locked and warded (also Merlin’s work) in the king’s private chambers, which were arguably the safest wing in the castle, only slightly less patrolled than the dungeons! And yet it had happened anyway, in the dead of night, under their very noses: someone or something (that had yet to be established) had to have teleported directly into the wall safe and departed in the same manner! There was no other explanation. It had been found locked as it had been left, no damage of any kind evident. All the guards on duty that day as well as several shifts previous were questioned to a man, in vain. Random personally looked in on the ruby every morning and evening; ever since the current king of Chaos’ odd experiences with the gem, he figured it couldn’t hurt to make sure that it was remaining as it was and not flashing like a pager in the attempt to communicate something vital!

In short, this was the perfect heist, and it was even more disturbing to think that a magically-inclined intruder had so easily gained access to his and his wife’s sleeping chamber. And only three people even knew of the existence of the safe: himself, Vialle, and Merlin. Add to this state of affairs the fact that his nephew had taken great pains to seemingly warn him personally of some foreseeable yet ‘unknown’ indiscretion that could soon take place, and one could well-understand King Random’s raised suspicions on the matter.

To his credit, the king of Chaos had done everything within his power to allay those suspicions, even going so far as to loan the king of Amber the trump for the Ghostwheel, ordering the machine to help his ‘uncle’ in this one instance until further notice. Of course it was a nuisance, but it could not go unnoticed by the palace guard in Amber that they had basically let an enemy spy slip through their fingers only a day-and-a-half before the calamitous theft, and Random was obliged to dispatch a special ops unit of his own to track down and apprehend the human girl for the sake of keeping the peace besides… only to discover that she wasn’t home and an imposter was living in her place there, which looked even more suspicious. Further tense communications with Merlin mere hours later confirmed the worst, though: that the real thief was not only Chaosian in origin and alliance but was also bent on returning the Jewel to the Serpent, destroying all possible worlds in the process, not just the Pattern-generated ones. Merlin had been magnanimous enough to formally extended political asylum to any in the royal family willing to attempt the escape (and any in Amber willing to follow them) to Chaos; on his own end, the physical Courts and Ways were literally being emptied – all citizens had been ordered by the crown to take emergency shelter in the Cathedral and its environs, in the vain hope that the Serpent would acknowledge and bypass Her own on Her destructive, triumphal journey back to the Pit. And if Merlin was wrong, at least his own countrymen would be with their friends and loved ones when death came for them all.

And, as if to add petty insult to irreparable injury, Random had finally learned that the insane perpetrator’s well-meaning-but-ludicrously-naïve shadow had gone into perdition after her original in some ill-conceived, weak attempt to stop this on her own without any instructions?! He’d heard about enough. While he had to admit that his opposite number’s conciliatory offer had been almost painfully generous, Random knew it would never work; they’d all be back at each other’s throats in a week, tops, confined like that. Besides, he knew that none of his own citizenry would ever willingly inhabit Chaos even if they could without going mad, especially after the War – most would rather die than live in a world with no Order. He was of the same mind.

Finishing the cigarette – thankful to the first being who decided that a little poison wasn’t necessarily bad for a case of nerves – he flicked the butt into the unlit fireplace, then made his way out of the room, across one of the back hallways and up a newly remodeled flight of stairs to the third floor and the royal apartments. Last he had checked in, Vialle had been keeping her own hands busy at her clay sculpting in her studio, so engrossed in her work that she hadn’t even said a word when he had popped in to update her on the situation. Random nearly wished to spare her this final intelligence, yet he wanted to be with her at the end; he would not mention it unless she herself brought it up.

Hoping to surprise her, removing his heavy boots before entering, he quietly opened the door, noiselessly padding across the medievally decorated private reception area, crossing the modern bedroom section, holding his breath.

He could never be quiet enough to better his wife’s uncannily acute hearing.

“Random Barimen, sometimes I think you’re still a boy in school,” she turned toward him from her workbench with a little knowing smile; her studio occupied the remaining third of their apartments, albeit the ceramics oven was in the back of the gardens below.

The king tossed his cavalier boots aside on the floor by the bed with a light thunk and gave a theatrical sigh.

“You make it thoroughly impossible for me to sneak up and ravish my queen.”

Vialle suddenly stopped smiling, turning all the way around on the round stool, her focusless eyes aimed in his general direction. “The situation with the Jewel is grown that desperate? You don’t expect there to be any further calls now?”

The only vision the woman had ever lacked was strictly of the physical variety.

“If things truly stand as I have been informed, we don’t have much time.”

Vialle wiped the excess clay off her hands on her work apron and removed it, crossing the room to him. He gently took her in his arms, his little Vialle, with her dark brown eyes and dark brown hair – dark enough to nearly make her look like a ‘Lander’, as Rebmans called surface-dwellers. She was thin, delicately built, just the right size for his own small frame. He buried his right hand in that long fall of hair, holding her close, wishing he had the power to really protect her, to keep the oncoming darkness at bay. He felt infuriatingly helpless. If only there were something he could be doing! Anything! Anything but waiting for the Logrus to devour them alive!

Of course, she could intuit his unvoiced frustration in his physical tension, too.

“There was no opportunity for you to assist?”

He smiled down on her just a little ruefully. “You really do know me far too well. My father would have called that a liability.”

“I only wish to share in your grief, to help in my own small way.”

He gave her no reply but a tender kiss upon the mouth, followed by another and another as he walked her back towards their bed, his hands roaming her lithe torso. His elder half-brother Prince Corwin had once stated that, given his choice, he would quit this existence with a good bottle of wine and a fine woman, and Random had heartily agreed with the sentiment at the time, although his own priorities in the matter were just the reverse.

But Vialle pulled teasingly away from him.

“You still have not answered my question, my lord,” she lightly admonished him, feeling his face, his expression, with her fingertips.

He caught her wrist. “The Jewel has somehow been transported to the first of the Fixed Logri; it is being returned to the Serpent even as we delay. There is nothing left to fight for. I would love you while I yet may,” he kissed her palm, tasting the earthiness of the clay residue.

“You mean nothing has been done?”

“Well,” he scoffed at the memory, “I would call it nothing, yes, but that girl we detained and questioned – she’s foolhardily followed her original into the imperfect dark coils of that labyrinth; it is the one she traversed for her initiation. I’ve never heard of anyone surviving any version of the trial twice and neither has Merlin. Many qualified Chaos-bred initiates don’t even survive it the once! She may be dead already. Nobody else has proven patriotic, nihilistic, or stupid enough to follow them in. As I said, the situation really is hopeless.” He drew her to himself once more, but her own expression was now focused and thoughtful, her warm unseeing eyes appearing to look straight through him.

“There is a way to know for certain. If only I had known sooner…”

She gave her husband a light peck on the cheek and returned to her sculpting studio with such a look of determination that he simply had to follow her to see what she was up to. She had gone for her cache of tall, finished statues that were lined up all along the right wall and had begun choosing among them. When she picked one and commenced pushing it across the floor, Random was immediately at her side.

“No, my love, I must do it,” she gently reprimanded him. “You can help by shifting my workbench to the side of the room – I need more space to make the circle.”

The king quickly did as instructed; the table was built of thick wood and was heavy, but it was surprisingly light work for a son of Oberon to move, even unaided. Meanwhile, he was watching his wife bustle about the room with this statue and that, seemingly lining them up by compass; he was terribly curious, especially since he had never been given any reason to believe they had had any significance at all beyond being allegorical works of art. What had she named them all again? Risk, Memory, Chance - things like that. He had always liked Desire.

Soon there was a circle of eight of them, all perfectly spaced, all facing inward around one of the glass wind chimes she had hung from the ceiling in that precise spot ages ago! How long has she been planning all this out? he thought with a touch of pride; while Vialle wasn’t anywhere near bloodthirsty enough to truly mesh with the Barimen clan, his love was certainly making great strides in the secrecy and intrigue departments if this little display was anything to go by, and he genuinely rued that she would never have the opportunity now for those political ‘talents’ to blossom.

“Thank you,” she said as soon as the table stopped moving. “You can add the chairs if you like now – one goes to the north and one to the south, both outside the circle but facing it.”

He jogged across their apartment to the sitting area, catching her sense of urgency, and dragged back two intricately-carved wooden affairs, setting them up as ordered. Without another word, Vialle sat down in the chair to the north, behind the statue of a blindfolded woman with her mouth open as if speaking and her hands raised in gesture. This was an oracle, of course – obvious now. Taking the hint, Random seated himself in the free chair behind Desire. Vialle had closed her eyes, her hands resting in her lap; she seemed to be meditating. After some time went by, the king was beginning to wonder whether the process was strictly private and telepathic when she abruptly began to speak, still clearly in her own mind.

“At the deepest level, what now threatens Amber and Order?”

To Random’s astonishment, two of the statues spoke at once – but the sound of their voices came from the chimes above!

“The Second Order, which dangerously weakens Chaos,” the old male statue to the southwest named Head replied.

“Bitterness, disillusionment, revenge upon both the Courts of Chaos and Amber, and in Amber Prince Julian Barimen,” Desire resounded.

“Julian!” Random automatically exclaimed, nearly rising out of his chair. “Does this have anything to do with his actions at Patternfall?”

“No,” answered a plainer, more cerebral-looking female statue to the northwest – Memory. “He unknowingly took a blacklisted Chaosian woman for a lover once briefly – and promptly abandoned her upon discovering it.”

The Barimen family foible grated on Random’s nerves with all the tenacious annoyance of a brassy, out-of-tune music box; it was one he had simply heard too many times. If they weren’t all about to die already, he would’ve taken pleasure from killing Julian personally at this point if he was really the responsible party for this impending apocalypse!

At least Vialle was still cool-headed enough to continue.

“How long is brief?”

“Only two nights,” Memory continued, “alone in the Arden Forest. She unwillingly shifted forms in the height of passion.”

“When did this occur?”

“Approximately five years ago, shortly after Patternfall.”

“Has this woman achieved the ends she desired?”

“Partially,” said Desire. “She gained a child by him who scorned her, and the girl has been raised in the Order shadows, taught by her mother to hate Order for what it is and the Courts for what they are not. That supremacy rightfully belongs to the Serpent and total Chaos.”

“But she has not achieved the end of restoring that supremacy?”

“That is currently unfulfilled.”

“Could her child do it?”

“Yes,” remarked Foresight, the blindfolded woman in front of Vialle.

“Could the girl’s own shadow stop her even now?”


“But they might both be destroyed by the Logrus,” rang out a squinting man – Caution.

“If this situation is resolved in Order’s favor, can the other danger wait?”

The ambivalent lady who represented Chance laughed.

“The two dangers are intertwined,” warned Foresight, “though the woman does not even realize it, having been exiled to Order long before the War for riling up religious extremism within the lower Houses, gathering followers not through the state-recognized Church of the Serpent.”

“Where is this woman now?”

“Shadow-pulling to Chaos, but away from the Courts,” Head responded.

“Where is the daughter?”

“Two-thirds of the way through the last imperfect Logrus.”

“Where is the shadow-girl?”

“Just over halfway through, after her.”

Vialle opened her eyes and lifted her head towards Random. “Any last minute questions before we shut it down?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about this thing?!”

“She was not certain for some time that it would work as she willed,” announced Head, to Vialle’s surprise and acute embarrassment!

“And she wished to impress you, for you to be pleased with her, with her talents,” added Desire.

Vialle stood up. “It would appear to work a little too well,” she noted wryly but with a good sense of humor. “There is no proscription against your helping me to put them away if you still want to aid me in moving them.”

But Random had gone to a window and opened it, almost ashamed that he had not remembered this one, simple magic; perhaps he had attempted to block it from his memory since it was apparently the last thing his father ever did before repairing the primeval Pattern, to his own destruction. Taking a pocketknife from his jacket, Random raised his left jacket-and-shirt-sleeves and didn’t hesitate to slash his own skin, the old spell coming back to him.

“Random?” Vialle noted his absence. “Random, what are you doing?”

“Something I should’ve done in the first place. I’m hedging the bet,” he distractedly replied, having collected some of his blood in his right hand; carefully covering it with his left, he blew into his hands and quickly separated them, willing the large, red, crowlike bird into form and reality before wrapping his fresh wound tightly with a handkerchief.

Walking toward his voice, Vialle finally sensed the magic as she neared him. “A familiar? But why?”

“I can’t leave the fate of the entire universe in the hands of two certifiably crazy kids,” he answered her seriously as the red crow alighted on his outstretched arm, examining him with its unusually intelligent-looking red eyes.

Vialle suddenly caught on. “But if you snatch the Jewel away now, they’ll both die in there! At least the original girl will – it’s been using up her bioenergy for hours now!”

“If I don’t-”

“Wait, I have an idea. Where did you put the shadow-girl’s token ring from the king of Chaos?”

Random sighed and walked back into the room, the bird climbing up to his shoulder. Of all the times for his wife to have a fit of conscience… Digging through a drawer of jewelry he liked to adorn his queen with, he readily located the ring in question and placed it in her open, receiving hands. Vialle strode quickly to the still-standing circle of statues and put the polished amethyst cabochon to the lips of Foresight and Caution, who kissed it. Random chuckled.

“You’re a little late for that. She needed those a while back, I think.”

“They will serve her well enough yet,” she came back, handing it to him. Eying the ring with a note of mild amusement, Random walked back over to the circle himself and let Desire kiss it also.

The drive to carry on, he thought to himself as they walked back to the open window; the red bird hopped off his shoulder and onto the ledge, facing them. Random presented it with the ring and it promptly took it in its beak.

“Fly out to the last of the imperfect Logri and deliver this to the shadow-girl traversing the path, then find her original and bring the red stone she carries straight back to me.”

“Do not interfere in the jewel’s recovery unless there is no other way for the stone to be safe,” Vialle added, carefully reaching out, feeling the soft feathers of its chest.

“How dare you interfere with my own familiar,” Random mock-scolded her. “Oh, fine, what she said,” be finally relented. “Now hurry!”

The bird took off through the open window and a wind of the king’s desire sped the creature on its way. Vialle leaned into Random’s arm.

“Does that feel better?”

Random half-committally nodded. “At least it’s something.” He looked down at his resourceful, talented wife, putting an arm around her. “I’m still not expecting any further calls today, not barring the end of the world,” he flirted.

“And if it isn’t the end of the world?”

“Then I’m still a king of Amber and I can have the damn afternoon off if I want,” he smiled, caressing her face, kissing her temple as they walked back into their private section of the chambers. Even in far less extenuating circumstances, Random Barimen had never been one for caring too much about the world in general or its opinions. He certainly wasn’t about to start now in time for the grand finale. If they got lucky, it might even all still be standing at dinner, he mused as he joined his wife on the plush fur rug in front of their fireplace.

“You have to model for me later, though, as long as I have you,” Vialle warmly teased him, stripping off his dress jacket, his shirt, loosening his belt, “that life-sized heroic statue for the courtyard isn’t going to finish itself. It would work best if I made casts of your form to build the rest of the garments on top of. But it doesn’t have to happen all right away.”

Definitely an artist’s one-track mind, Random thought with a touch of amusement, smoothing aside the top hem of his wife’s simple medieval-style shoulderless dress – the type she wore to work in - lifting her to him. Other fools can worry about whether-or-not they’re going to heaven in the next five minutes, he reveled in her warmth, her smell, her grasp. I’m already there.

(Incidental music: Corwin's shadow-walk - Trash80, 'Mine or Major' (profound thoughts), 'Nobody' (meditative), 'More than it is' (violet sky, silent white dragons). And the radio is playing Metallica, 'Wherever I May Roam'. Of course. )
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