Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Labyrinth of Chaos

Me and my Shadow

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

the climax... and the enemy

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Fantasy - Published: 2017-06-05 - 15635 words - Complete

Chapter 15 – Me and my Shadow

The cool breeze of the topside world whipped across Sarah’s sweaty body, chilling her as she sprawled prone, eyes closed and panting, on the tan flagstone paving of the hedge maze; the decorative wrought-iron grate lay beside her, the rock beneath it cracked from the force of the weight as it had fallen, smashing down and away from the vent opening. Once Sarah had reached the surface, she very nearly had made the dangerously foolish mistake of grabbing the grate with her Logrus-sticky hands – she could’ve been stranded there, suspended from the ‘ceiling’! But some panic-quick, rapid-fire brainstorming came up with the solution fast enough: concentrating hard, she had willed the black-tendril glove on her left hand to exude geomagnetic anti-gravity force and literally shot the grate off the opening, then hobbled out on her right arm, crawling the rest of the way before banishing the localized Logrus power once more.

Forcing herself to sit up, rubbing warmth back into her stiffening, aching arms and shoulders, wincing a little, she very gingerly shoved the grate back into place without it taking off any fingers; it fell as heavily as a manhole cover. She had the sudden impulse to shout goodbye to the Helping Hands down below but stopped herself; she had no idea of just who or what might be staking out this particular section, waiting for some inexperienced dumb-bunny to come bumbling on through. Sitting with her back against a shrub, Sarah cracked open the second juice bottle and allowed herself a single swallow; plant growth or not, this place was technically a desert – she would have to carefully ration the remainder of her supplies.

The sky above her was fairly close in hue to Order-blue, the box hedges a natural enough green, and yet there was a pervading sense of danger in this cramped, verdant corridor she had emerged in. The feeling of the Serpent waiting to strike…

Taking a deep breath, she stashed the glass bottle in her carryall and carefully came to her feet, gripping the bush for support, suddenly envious of Lord Suhuy’s genial, easy-going relationship with this power, how he leaned on Her like an old friend, and She lent him strength. No such help would ever be at Sarah’s disposal; she hadn’t felt this terribly alone since… well…

Ever. In every other isolating circumstance she had found herself in up to this point, there had always been the promise or threat of another living being running into her sooner or later. She was probably the only sentient creature for miles.

Which way now? As Sarah attempted to regain her bearings, her ears were greeted with the sound of lightly galloping… feet? A speartip with a little triangular blue flag emblazoned with the numeral ‘3’ appeared over the hedge to her left, traveling jauntily down a side passage. One of the lizard-mounted goblin guards she had seen previously in the city, it had to be.

Or I couldn’t be lucky enough to be left alone, she thought ruefully, breathing as quietly as possible as she cautiously inched along in the opposite direction. To her relief, the guard did not even seem aware of her presence – in fact, he appeared to be galloping at random, this way and that, even in circles. Just a normal patrol, then; I’ll have to watch out for them, she thought, suddenly remembering the gang of goblins that had treed and bear-baited Ludo: armed and armored after a fashion, and probably sort of dangerous, but not terribly bright.

Resuming her Logrus-vision once the creature was just a little further off, Sarah commenced scanning the growing hallways ahead for ‘fixed’ passages that she needed to avoid; there was one section that came up that had nothing but fixed passages – dangerously so, in fact – and she had to backtrack in circles to circumvent the hazard area. There actually seemed to be quite a lot of them, really; it was nothing short of miraculous that she had been able to negotiate the hedges at all before.

No – I had help, she reminded herself, suddenly wondering what had become of the thick-skinned but big-hearted dwarf she had conned into leading her, then befriended. The Goblin King had casually mentioned that he had been ‘relocated’ someplace remote. Hopefully not the Bog; Sarah involuntarily made a face at the memory alone of that alienly outrageous quagmire reek. The Logrus ringing had shifted up into an annoying, high-pitched whine, not unlike an electrical buzz the further she traveled into the hedge maze; she had yet to reach the large open area at the wall, but perhaps-

Turning right, she walked straight into a shell-thick armored breastplate, bashing her nose! Giving a little surprised yelp, she instinctively jumped back – but upon seeing who it was, she found that she was more irritated than afraid as she caught her breath.

“Jareth,” she exhaled, looking up (not far) into his familiar, mismatched eyes, “I know you get your jollies in weird ways, but would you mind not giving me a heart attack like that?!” She sighed. “Actually, believe-it-or-not, I’m sort of relieved to see you back here alive – the Argent Pattern didn’t even let you try, right? Or did She just pull you back in too fast? I mean, I know this sucks, but…”

His expression initially had been one of irritation, but it had gradually shaded into a general bewilderment that commenced eating at the edges of Sarah’s confidence. Something was off. Wrong. Oh no, she thought, nearly pitying him, the Logrus memory-wiped him of his escape, didn’t She?

“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” he began in a foreign-sounding dialect of Thari, one garish eyebrow raised, “and neither do I allow those within my dominion to address me so freely. Nor do I recall having given you permission to trespass the Logrus at all.”

There was something genuinely strange about him, stranger than usual, and it wasn’t just his choice of language. Was it just her, or was he just a little bit taller than she remembered? It was in his face, she slowly realized…

The truth hit her like lightning and she quietly gasped: it wasn’t Jareth, not the real guy. It was a Logrus-ghost of him! Of course! What had seemed off about him was his age – or, rather, his youth; he looked only a few years older than herself! The age he had to have been when he first completed the trial! Which meant that this spectre didn’t know her from Eve… and Sarah would’ve been willing to bet money she didn’t have that he’d been sent by the Logrus to stop her. She decided to test his memory first, check out any possible programming he might’ve received – that sort of thing was fairly common with single-purpose constructs like this. She had to better gauge what kind of danger he really presented.

“Forgive my intrusion into your realm, your Majesty,” she quietly demurred in Thari, watching him like a hawk, “but there is someone of far greater threat to both us and this place probably, further in ahead of me. As soon as I catch up with her, we’ll both be out of your hair.”

It was only now that he seemed to sense the Logrus power that the girl was lightly utilizing, and he brazenly sized her up in turn, taking a single step back as he did so.

“A Chaos initiate from Order – will wonders never cease?” he half-mocked her. “Charmed, I’m sure, and while this is all very fascinating, I’m afraid it simply won’t do. I have been charged by none other than the Serpent to act as the guardian of this remote bastion of Her power. I must remove you.”

“You mean… kill me?”

He smiled. “Only if you make a fuss.”

Sarah’s eyes suddenly brightened. “What of my confederate? Surely you don’t want her in here, either? You will wish to remove her also! You’d be doing me an immense favor!” she nearly laughed.

He looked confused again, and possibly a bit more annoyed. “Who?”

“The girl I just told you about! She’s in…”

And that’s when Sarah realized that it was impossible to even make him aware of her original’s existence – the idea itself bounced off his brain, in one ear and straight out the other without leaving a single mark of its passing! She discreetly commenced readying her Logrus-power, not even sure if it would affect him.

“Look,” she started over, her voice lightly shaking from nerves in spite of herself, “I’m going to try to level with you, your Majesty, if you can possibly understand this, because I really don’t want to fight you, and there’s no nice way to even say this so I’m just going to say it: you’re not real – in fact, you’re a copy of a man who escaped this place and his torment within less than a day ago. You were generated by the power he fruitlessly served for centuries, who held him prisoner. You might only live for a single hour before She lets you unravel, but you’re still capable of experiencing a pretty incredible level of pain from what I’ve seen of another being like you, and I’m not about to hurt you if I can possibly help it. But neither can I let you stop me, because if I fail everything in this place you’ve been charged with guarding is going to collapse into eight more mazes on its way back to Chaos, and we’re both going to die within it. So stand down for your own sake – heck, you can join me if you like,” she smiled a little, “my name is Sarah.”

But the ghost’s mental programming was simply too strong to allow wheedling interference of this nature; Sarah’s heart sank as she watched him ready one of his signature crystals.

“I am charged with guarding his far Logrus,” he reiterated almost a little mechanically, “and you are coming with me.”

Sarah inwardly sighed, pitying the thing; it clearly had no free will. She had really hoped it wasn’t going to come to this, but how could she legitimately stop him without destroying him? The spectre of Brand burned like an infected wound in her memory; she wouldn’t stoop to violence no matter how tentative this being was. This aspect of her personality alone had probably figured into the Logrus’ reasoning for this particular style of defense: she was morally too squeamish to knowingly end a conscious existence even this speculative. In fact, she was very lucky that she wasn’t facing off against her own doppelganger – she’d completed this course herself!

Oh no, she thought, feeling a touch crazy, no, no, no, no, not going there; one esoteric problem at a time. She still only had the one racked spell – a boomerang that was coming apart, she realized upon fast inspection – but it gave her an idea.

“Well,” she shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly (wow, was that going to be tender for a while), trying to look like she was about to give up, “I guess that means you’re going to just have to catch me.” And she shot down the long green alley to the second turning and hung a fast right, his crystal shooting by her, missing its intended target by mere inches! At least it didn’t turn into a weapon! She reflected for a second before running on.

She was wrong: heralded by an engine roar loud as half-a-dozen riding lawnmowers and augmented with the screech of a wall’s worth of steel blades, the Hedger burst into view – an outrageous contraption that was so large it straddled two parallel tracks of the maze at once, shaving the hedge inbetween! All along the edges were ludicrously oversized ‘edgers’, which were really large unshielded circular saws; the front was covered in pruning shears, snipping wildly; and all along the base was what appeared to be an immensely powerful vacuum cleaner! The thing made a terrible din, loud enough that the single goblin riding/operating the machine was wearing noise-canceling headphones as well as goggles and a facemask! And it moved at a pretty good clip, too; Sarah simply had to run for it back the way she had come, although she was more frustrated than frightened at this point, especially since she doubted she could concentrate well enough to conjure a system malfunction; Suhuy had made a special point of teaching her one trick for disabling robotic enemies, in light of what had happened on her initial trip to Chaos. But there was no time to set it up; she had only her strength and her wits and she had to come up with an escape now because she had already been forced back to the point of her entry. She didn’t know what would happen to her if she traversed the Logrus backwards too far, but from the way her brain fog had been growing steadily worse during the past minute, she had a fairly clear idea that it wasn’t good for you at the very least.

The Hedger had just rounded the corner – this was it! The three passageways beyond her were all ‘fixed’ now! Frantically scanning the machine for weak points, Sarah suddenly noticed that there was a platform all along the very top, at least one foot wide. Rapidly calling up her Logrus power, Sarah willed it into her feet this time and made an immense jump, clearing the snipping, whirling blades, landing on the top – the little goblin proceeded to curse her out in goblinese, shaking its tiny fist at her – and then she easily dropped down on the other side, laughing in triumph.

Right in front of the Goblin King! He was standing there, all of ten feet away, arms crossed and glowering darkly, blocking the passage she intended to take. Without a word he hurled the crystal he had concealed in his right hand at her; Sarah screamed the lynchpin word for the boomerang spell instinctively without thinking as she ducked! But the half-broken-down incantation turned into a ricochet instead – and the crystal swung around in midair, making a u-turn, straight back toward Ghost-Jareth! His eyes widened in alarm and he leapt backwards into the verdant alley to dodge it –

And froze in midair! The crystal did, too, when it reached the space! The racket from the Hedger stopped at the same moment.

The passageways must’ve shifted again during their standoff, Sarah realized with a full-body shiver; the construct had accidentally entered a ‘fixed’ one! An even bigger shock came when she turned around to see what had happened to the machine… and saw that the Hedger had vanished entirely!

None of it was real, she thought, fighting down a serious bout of panic; ‘Jareth’ was already starting to transluce, his energetic diagramming and matrix becoming visible.

“I would’ve taken you with me,” she said aloud, more to herself than to him – then she scanned the remaining alleys with her Logrus-sight and booked it down the newly correct one, stifling angry tears, retracing her now-altered steps.

She’s the cruel one, not me. Not me! Sarah could swear the Sign she was following laughed at her…

As if the burden of the Jewel of Judgment wasn’t draining enough, the forest beyond the Great Goblin Wall had really taken a chunk out of the Half-Chaosian waif who was laboring, excitedly ecstatic, toward the center of this distant shadow of the Logrus – and her destiny. While she had initially resolved (foolishly) not to rely on the Eye for any power, feeling the need to prove her own strength to both the Serpent and her mother – both of whom she had grown up worshipping – reality had reared its ugly head sooner than later, and she had been forced to draw on it, loath as she was to lean on any bastion of Order. It had been thoroughly amusing, watching those strange self-decapitating pyrotechnic creatures dancing about and flying in slow motion relative to her as they tried to catch her in vain; she had mockingly run circles around them before vanishing into the darkness of the thickly canopied forest… and then she became so terribly tired that she had nearly lain down to sleep without even thinking about what she was doing! The Eye demanded the sacrifice of the lifeforce of whoever wore or wielded it; apostate as they were, even the children of Oberon had proven physically resilient enough to roughly make limited use of the artifact, even if one of them – Prince Eric – had died by it, using it too indiscriminately in battle.

But she had been raised to view her uncles (and aunts) as mere footnotes, aberrations of the Logrus’ true power, inclusive of the Pattern. Order had to literally be handed back to Chaos in repentance to restore the Whole, to save the universes from the division that was destroying the system. This was the True Way, the correct nature of reality her mother espoused; her proposed reformation of the Church of the Serpent had gotten her kicked out of Chaos, though, with all of her followers deserting her at the promise of full pardons in a society known for gory public execution of religious dissidents under most circumstances. Bances of Amblerash, the old high priest, had taken pity on the lot of them as ‘misguided, yet faithful,’ only taking the necessary legal steps to banish their leader on the grounds of her being a spiritual and practical danger to the Chaosian public-at-large. But the talk among them of open war with Amber yet lingered in spite of the dissolution of the cult, the murmurings growing like a fungus in the dark, seeping into the higher houses, until it could no longer be ignored by the Crown. It was at this time that a top-secret cabal arrived from Amber with the proposed mission of covertly disposing of King Oberon in Chaos… and the lady’s very existence was quickly forgotten, brushed aside with the coming of the initial set of controversies that precipitated the great Patternfall War.

She never forgot, and never forgave those who had callously turned their backs on her, their ‘savior’, as she had fashioned herself. And so, she had slunk off to Order – hideous as it was to her – intent on fulfilling her mission on her own. Her only comfort was the fact that through private divination she had learned that the Serpent was actually pleased with her, which was nearly reward enough. But not enough to affect the end that they both desired: she needed a child born to her of Barimen-stock – that strange, tainted bloodline with genetics from none other than the Unicorn of Order – to achieve it. And so she had bided her time, hiding from both sets of agents, until the correct time and place were revealed to her – and she subsequently revealed herself, literally – only to discover her weakness at last: she fell in love with the enemy at first sight.

Tall, dark, and handsome in a severe, dangerous sort of way, Prince Julian was surprisingly becoming to one accustomed to only finding demonform attractive; far more arousing was the bestially savage way he had made love to her, taking pleasure in causing small amounts of pain as a true son of Chaos would. She had felt a surprising kinship of spirit with him – a man largely ostracized by his family and even partially by his society, albeit for very different reasons, most of them cruelly petty by her own reckoning: his naturally cold temperament, his non-intellectual tastes, and – horror of horrors – a light speech impediment that he had had to teach himself to correct; his diction in Amberite Thari was technically perfect, but slow. He certainly wasn’t stupid, she rapidly ascertained, merely uninterested in the sciences, philosophy or art. The Forest of Arden was his textbook of choice, and the husbandry of that forest had become his life, patrolling it for outside threats to Amber and its environs his sole job in the empire, hunting for sport within its bounds his chief pleasure. She had led him on a merry chase, letting him hunt her as if she were a hart in the dead of night, finding herself terrified yet elated in his arms.

He caught her a deer for real the second night she lured him away from his camp, quickly roasting part of the fresh meat over a small fire; they had shared it between them, talking together of many things, tasting the blood-rare juices on each other’s lips. The Logrus had led her to a fellow predator after her own ilk, it seemed, in the sweetness and the pain in the dark, far from her home – and true happiness in her exile, dared she think it. She had been on the verge of telling him who she really was, having nearly deluded herself into thinking that he would come with her when the time to fulfill her great purpose was at hand, that he could even help her, when her own Chaosian body betrayed her identity first in a single moment of abandon – and he pulled away from her at the height of intimacy, cold rage and physical revulsion replacing the passion that had occupied his features only moments before. In the twinkling of an eye she had become not only an enemy but a monster to him, and her piteous pleas to him to give her a chance to explain herself fell upon ears of stone as she frantically attempted to shift back down into the humanoid form he had found pleasing. The prince had actually grabbed his loaded crossbow from where he had stashed it behind him, clearly intent on shooting her at point-blank range for king, country, and his own badly wounded pride and honor, but she vanished into thin air, sobbing her eyes out as she swiftly shadow-pulled through two-dozen order-worlds to relative safety; even the fact that he didn’t bother to tail her when he could’ve done so easily while the etheric trail was still fresh was a deliberate slap in the face. She meant nothing to him, now that he knew what she was.

‘Nevermind’, the Serpent seemed to hiss in her mind’s ear, ‘you have what we need now.’

And indeed it was true; she was an alien desperately trying to eke out an existence in an alien land and culture, but she soon discovered she was with child, and though still bitter at how carelessly she had been thrown over, she contented herself with the role of being a mare for the Logrus to stud as She saw fit. And She couldn’t have picked a physically healthier stud; Julian practically never got sick, didn’t even drink much compared with his brothers. The lady soon had the proof of their successful union nursing at her breast: a healthy baby girl with her father’s dark hair but her mother’s eyes and smile. The child was covertly raised in a series of order-shadows, both for their protection from Amberite spies who were sometimes sent to ferret out Chaosian agents, as well as for the girl’s enrichment and cosmic education. They had occupied a trade-route world within easy reach of Amber for about the past four years, though, local-time there; she had divined that once one of her daughter’s shadows was of age – which would happen sooner if they remained here – the necessary steps of the Great Reunification would begin, and her own flesh-and-blood had to be made ready for the greatest initiation of all: the one that would end all the worlds – and all the life in them – and begin it anew as One.

In short, everything young Sarilda Aricline-Barimen knew of life, of existence, was based solely upon her mother’s own warped views, teachings and beliefs. The girl really sincerely believed that they were doing the ultimate right thing here, that reality as she knew it had to be unmade to ‘save’ it, that her current hunger and exhaustion were an infinitesimally small price to pay for such a glorious reward that would surely be theirs upon its completion: goddess-like queens of the New World, second only to the Serpent Herself. Which was why she was completely unconcerned by her present state, that the Eye was eating into her very essence; when she stumbled again, she only laughed, getting back up and fearlessly plowing ahead out into the clear. Soon she would never know wants or limitations of the body again. The Logrus had promised this much (it was the truth - unlike the rest of the lies they had been taught.) In fact, she could almost feel Her, beckoning her on…

Sarah had had almost no difficulty at all finding the two large wooden doors with their eccentrically opinionated gargoyle knockers, but now that she knew how the system worked she knocked on the one to the left, who protested rather vocally while the other with the ring in his mouth mumbled something about a brass ring for a brain (the moveable part of the mechanism on the gargoyle face was situated through his ears.) Peeking through without stepping past the doorway, the tableau that greeted her seemed almost artificially bright and cheery, a wooded park that could’ve been straight out of Candyland – but it was dead-silent aside of some eerie, muffled snickers. She quickly shut the door via the bronze ring and chose the one to the right as before – the one that led into the dark, foreboding Firey Forest. The canopy of trees was so thick it made mid-afternoon look like very late evening, with everything shrouded in shadows, but with her partially undulating Sign of the Logrus proceeding her it was as if she had a light that nobody else could see. Some of the things that infamous ‘dark light’ revealed, however, she had been spared knowledge of previously, like the dessert-plate-sized tarantula-type spiders that rapidly scurried to-and-fro in the permanent twilight, weaving immense netlike webs between the twisted trees; they seemed to instinctively avoid her, but the sight of them still gave her the heebie-jeebies, especially when she had to tear through sticky webs that completely blocked her path.

That was the other main problem at present: the path. There were dozens of skinny foot-trails that zigzagged and looped about these woods, and she now had a pretty fair idea of the kind of crazy creatures that had made them – but there was no real way of knowing which was the right one, if any of them were. Sarah was certain now that it had only been sheer blind luck that she had even found the dividing wall – huge, thick and crenellated, like a smaller, less operations-friendly version of the Great Wall of China. The now multi-pitched crystalline ringing was already messing with her sense of direction, beginning to induce odd mental distortions of space and time, of how far she had already marched, but she remained calm, moving as quickly and quietly as humanly possible, counting off one-hundred lengthy strides; she guessed that might be far enough away from the maze proper to try a minor tectonic experiment. Theoretically, her geologically talented brand of magic should work best in its place of origin. There was still the chance that it could tire her, but she was willing to risk it at this point – anything that could gain her rapid distance had to be tried regardless of any side-effects.

Reaching the hundredth stride, noting no variations at all in her surroundings but confident that she had been traveling in a fairly straight direction, Sarah stopped, glancing about to ensure that she was alone (oh, for a cloaking spell – she couldn’t afford to waste any energy on extraneous enterprises no matter how handy the results might be in the short term) before closing her eyes to concentrate. Through the tendrils of the Logrus, the power of the twisting, folding path, she reached down into the ground beneath her feet, her will probing deeper into the bedrock far from the trial above, until she found what she wanted (or created it – it depends upon which philosophy one adheres to): the top edge of the liquid lava mantle, thickly churning beneath this alien world. Very carefully, very gently, she began subtly altering its course, causing minor fissure cracks in the base of the rockbed, shifting the pressure to lift the earth directly beneath her, bringing the naked rock to the surface in a small hill-like ridge with one hill higher than the others – a lookout above the treetops. Sarah nearly fell as the black limbs of the Logrus receded again, but she just barely kept her balance, patiently waiting out the mental punishment, grasping her carryall in a death-grip instead of gritting her teeth – this one was bad, she nearly cried; clearly one could not easily change any part of the Logrus under any circumstances. But it finally passed, and after a few more deep breaths she slowly opened her eyes… and gasped at the view, her previous anguish forgotten: the top of the canopy was a gorgeous emerald green, nearly sparkling in the bright sunlight; a flock of startled blackbirds was still wheeling and shrieking overhead – she had obviously disturbed their aviary – but they soon settled back into the treetops some distance away. The forest spread for hundreds of miles to the ‘northwest’ and ‘southeast’ from this particular place, facing as she was, but she could just make out the half-hidden stonework of the Wall maybe all of two miles away to the ‘northeast’.

Carefully scaling/sliding down the fresh rockface, Sarah adjusted course once she reached the bottom, then reached for another granola bar, suddenly hungry (that piece of magic work had obviously burned some calories, as if she hadn’t been already)… only to discover they were all gone! Every last one! Giving an aggravated little cry, she got down on her knees and thoroughly dug through her bag to make sure nothing else was missing. Nope, only the granola bars! Those freaky little thieves! She fumed: it had to have been the Helping Hands! That snarky, offhanded comment one of them had made had obviously been no empty threat of pickpocketing; they had ‘helped’ themselves to her rations! Not even caring to contemplate such a creature ‘eating’ and ‘digesting’, Sarah resignedly strapped it closed again and stood back up; she’d just have to do without. Maybe they had even thought of it as a kind of payment for helping her… She did her best to shove the whole mess from her mind as she resolutely trekked on, ignoring her stomach, sharply reminding herself of a much bigger danger at hand: it wasn’t the distance so much as the prospect of company. Chances were good that that massive uplift in the topography would not have gone unnoticed by other nominally intelligent inhabitants of the forest; hopefully it would act as a deterrent and not as a source of curiosity, but given how crazy the Fireys seemed to be-

A flash of bright red swooped in from between the broken canopy overhead, coming in low! Sarah’s heart leapt to her throat before she realized that it wasn’t a monkey-type creature that could shoot fire from its long fingers at will, but rather a bird, a large red bird that looked like a dyed raven as it circled back around before landing in a nearby tree ahead of her, perched in a low branch. It had something small clutched in its beak and it turned one bright-crimson-irised eye to her and stared intently.

Sarah had no idea what to make of this! It seemed to be waiting for her to approach. Walking cautiously forward, trying not to make any sudden movements that would frighten it off, she slowly made her way over to the tree. “Hello,” she said in English – then repeated it in Thari. As she came closer, the red raven promptly hopped off the branch and sailed in to land on her shoulder! She had winced at its swift approach, nearly raising her arms to shield her face, but once she got past the shock and registered that it was placidly just sitting there as Sofi used to do, she turned towards it to see what it had.

It was the ring Merlin had given her! She’d swear to it! Almost as if enchanted, her right hand lifted to the bird’s beak to receive it, and the creature carefully deposited the artifact into her upturned palm. At first glance, she was leery of the thing; the king of Chaos had tried to forcefully drag her through a trump portal against her will just a few hours ago. There seemed to be something… different about it now. There was no compulsion to put it on and wear it, but nevertheless she did sense a kind of magic on it, albeit of a ‘type’ she had never run into before.

And then an even stranger thought crossed her mind: had this come from King Random? It was just possible; while wholesale arcane training was practically unknown in Amber since the disappearance of Dworkin Barimen years ago, the royal family collectively did know a thing or two of the basics – even something akin to the creation of a familiar would not be beyond the grasp of the king. She studied the exotically-colored raven closely, slowly raising her left arm to make a perch for it; it stalked on down accordingly as she wished, continuing to study her in turn. Its blood-red eyes looked unnaturally intelligent.

“My name is Sarah,” she addressed the creature, suddenly feeling the need to properly introduce herself, “what’s your name? Can you speak?”

“Deliver this to the shadow-girl traversing the path,” the raven commenced to recite its instructions in a near-perfect, tape-recorder-y mimic of Random Barimen’s voice, “then find her original and bring the red stone she carries straight back to me. Do not interfere,” the bird’s pitch oddly shifted up – it was an unfamiliar female voice now – “unless there is no other way for the stone to be safe.”

The creature was definitely a familiar then, Sarah thought with a sigh, and its presence here was hardly a vote of confidence. In fact, it was nearly as much of a last-ditch effort at the recovery of the Jewel as her own feeble attempt. She reached out to the raven and it did not shy away from her hand; she gently stroked its soft feathers.

“How dare you interfere with my own familiar,” the red raven suddenly seemed to scold her in the king’s own voice, and Sarah instantly stopped touching it as if she had been burned! But the bird continued. “Oh, fine, what she said. Now hurry!”

The seeming nonsequitor took a second to process, but Sarah quickly realized that it was nothing more than a repeated snippet of overheard conversation that had accidentally gotten worked into the spell – a really amateur kind of mistake, but a very telling one. Whoever the lady was, she was concerned for Sarah’s physical welfare – and her original’s; the king was not. Did the other voice belong to Queen Vialle? Sarah had only heard of the lady, but what she knew of her was encouraging: she was a very warm and sympathetic soul, known for granting amnesty to reformed political enemies of the Crown and helping to smooth public and trade relations between the city-state nations of the Golden Circle – she was almost single-handedly the main stabilizing force in the region, albeit quietly exerting her influence through her husband from behind closed doors more often than not. Which felt familiar, too, in a weird off-the-wall sort of way.

‘Why become a target on the throne when you can rule just as effectively from behind it?’

The bird was still watching, listening – this was obviously what it had been willed to do. “That was all, right?” Sarah asked. “He didn’t even give you a name, did he?” She commenced walking again with it on her arm; it quickly migrated back to her shoulder.

“Fly out to the last,” the raven spouted, unconscious of the fact that it had just stopped in the middle of a sentence.

Sarah gave a sad half-smile. “That’s okay, you don’t have to talk. You just kind of remind me of somebody I used to know,” she sighed, climbing over a fallen tree that was quickly breaking down beneath a thick blanket of lichen and mushrooms.

“Deliver this. Deliver,” the bird perfectly repeated like a machine.

The ring. She had it in her hand, but she wasn’t wearing it. “You already did; I’ve got it right here,” she tried to reassure him.

The familiar would have none of it; he craned around and commenced staring at her from where he was, lightly nipping at her to get her attention.

“Oh, what?” she asked irritatedly, knowing perfectly well what; she hadn’t wanted to put it on. Upon this forced closer inspection, the creature’s expression, the intelligence in the raven’s eyes looked eerily like Random’s intent yet brazenly uncaring attention, expectant almost.

She had to at least try it. The bird flapped up to the top of her head and started pulling at her hair! “Oh, alright, you win already! Knock it off!” she swatted it away, eliciting a much more natural sounding croak. She eyed the dark, tendrily ring warily; if she had to prise it back off with the Logrus, she could probably still do it. Holding her breath, Sarah slipped the ring onto her left hand where she had worn it before… and did notice a kind of a difference, albeit a very subtle one. A slightly clearer frame of mind, perhaps? It actually lessened the mental distortion of the Logrus-noise just a little bit. A reminder of purpose, the sudden realization of her need to rapidly continue. She could almost make out the intention signatures now that she was wearing it, they were not hidden: real concern… and a rather incongruous amusement. Vialle and Random. It was a gift, then, most likely the queen’s idea, addendum to the king’s original plan.

“Hurry! Hurry!” the raven boomed overhead, then flew away again, through the canopy.

The repeated, programmed message felt oddly like marching orders to Sarah now, and she picked up her pace, determined not to stop again for anything. Soon she was practically flying down the path as she let her old training take over, the Logrus within her augmenting and warping the distance she could travel. The view she was seeing would have made the uninitiated nauseous: space itself was stretching and collapsing, over and over, like some kind of cosmic peristalsis. There might’ve been Fireys in the forest about her a couple of times, but she zoomed past them so fast that all she heard each time was a single second’s worth of surprised screeches and road-rage-like insults, similar to how people chew out careless drivers on Shadow Earth. In mere minutes she was at the wall, which was as straight and precipitous as she remembered, but according to her current readings, it was not a proper part of the course, and was, therefore, ripe for her own style of ‘improvement’. It had, in fact, been constructed by the goblins at Jareth’s behest hundreds of years ago, ostensibly to keep the Fireys out of the Goblin City and its environs, but really it had been designed for the better corralling of his creations; they had mostly proven surprisingly difficult to control in spite of the fact that – for all intents and purposes – he had basically made them all from scratch! The Logrus clearly had had other ideas of how to run this particular operation.

The wall was several feet thick, but unmortared, as others Sarah had seen here, with the stones simply stacked all together. Just a little concentration through the black tendrils effected a halfway decent staircase of sorts, running diagonally up the side of the wall to the right, and Sarah ascended, jogging straight up them, setting the wall quickly to rights again once she reached the top, before her alterations could begin to undermine the stability of the structure.

Even compared to the new geological formation she had just created (which could definitely be seen from here, she noted, looking back a moment), the Great Goblin Wall afforded an astonishingly good view: the remaining forest ran over hill and dale for just a few more miles before-

Before the light breeze changed directions and Sarah caught a gut-wrenching whiff of the Bog of Eternal Stench; she couldn’t even see it from up here and it was still that strong! It had to be off to the left somewhere (she had no idea what cardinal directions were in this place – if, indeed, they existed at all within a copy of the Logrus); with any luck, she might be able to skirt the landmark entirely. Unless it was the ‘right way’ – the right way was always invariably the most difficult path.

But it wouldn’t be difficult at all now, she reminded herself; the stone bridge was not only far safer than that old rickety swinging one she had managed to accidentally destroy, but it was also likely unguarded now. And if it was guarded… Sarah didn’t like thinking of it, but she had a sinking feeling that perhaps at least the dwarf might be there if Jareth had made good on his threat of dunking him in that hideous mire for treason – which meant that she was probably the last person he wanted to see. She could only hope that her other companions had fared better.

The Castle Beyond the Goblin City looked almost no closer than when she began, but it was just a trick of perspective endemic to Chaos and its shadows, and this place was no exception. Objects could be much closer or much farther away than they appeared even at short distances, and a long distance could greatly exaggerate the mirage.

And speaking of elaborate psychological illusions, was it just her or had her trump pouch just sort of caressed her leg? Sarah shook her head clear of the odd impression and commenced making a similar staircase on the opposite side of the wall, hoping that she wouldn’t feel quite as crazy afterwards this time around, starting to quietly fear that it might be far worse.

A mountain range of collected detritus from a-thousand-and-one shadow civilizations, past and present – broken furniture, rusting appliances, bizarre knickknacks, dilapidated toys, dirty clothing and scraps of clothing worn to rags – this was not supposed to be here, Sarilda thought with a distinct note of confusion and consternation as she fought her way through the manufactured rubble; she slipped and got a nasty sliver imbedded in her shin from a broken dining room chair. Cursing under her breath, she stopped to remove it – and saw something so arresting she almost forgot to continue on: there, half-buried beneath a set of collapsed walls like an archeological site, were the remains of a bedroom that could’ve belonged to a small child from an order-shadow! Almost against her own volition, she began to dig. There were dolls and little stuffed toys that looked like different animals, games of varying descriptions, picture books and chapter books written in a language she couldn’t read, cheaply-made fancy-looking dresses, a statue of a sorcerer broken in half, even a made mattress bed with what should’ve been a canopy-type covering over it. Some of the junk she had disturbed shifted and fell to the side; clunky metallic strains of a kind of mechanical music emanated from inside the pile. Pulling chunks of broken furniture away revealed the small contraption – which had been violently smashed, Sarilda realized upon gingerly picking it up, not just casually buried and broken like the rest; only the spinning gearbox remained intact, playing a very slow tune.

It was actually fairly pretty.

The girl had nearly decided to take the device with her when a landslide of debris from behind her jolted her out of her magically fatigued reverie; she leapt out of the way as a mound of garbage washed over the site again in slow motion like a tidal wave. And this action revealed another room – undamaged! She could see different toys, different furnishings, different books; it was obviously the bedroom of another humanoid order-child. Gazing out farther, she could see there were many others.

Dozens of them. All unique. Why were they here? Where were all the children? Some of the rooms were actively being plundered by wizened old creatures with piles of the stuff stacked high on their backs, stooping them nearly to the ground under the immense weight of their finds. It went for miles.

Sarilda’s resolve faltered for a moment. The old worlds had to die off to make the new one possible – she knew that - but she had always thought of that death distantly, abstractly. Not as actual people dying, children her age or far younger, in countless shadow-worlds…

She steeled her nerves, forcing her vulnerable heart to go cold once more. The stuff of shadow was just that – shadow, vapor, nothingness given the semblance of stolen form from the Real. She was a daughter of that Real – scion of the Courts as well as the renegade power of the Eye she now bore, close to her heart. It flashed a brilliant red in time to her own heartbeat now, and had been for the last couple of hours. In fact, she was fairly certain that the artifact was beginning to make her chest ache just a little on top of its time-stretching effects – a sign that it was stretching her own being out thin. She forced herself to continue climbing. If she did not make it to the center, the Jewel would be truly lost: the Serpent could not simply take it even now – it had to be properly sacrificed. She only had to last that long…

She didn’t even notice the large red raven that was discreetly tailing her.

Away from the mouldering, fetid waste of the Bog, the inner forest looked surprisingly like its outer counterpart, Sarah mused as she traipsed along a much larger dirt trail, although that wasn’t entirely true; the trees out here were a bit taller, more mature, there wasn’t quite so much undergrowth clogging the path, as well as its accompanying eight-legged denizens. But there was one pressing problem that she was beginning to find difficult to ignore: her hunger. To be blunt, running and hiking for miles and miles for hours on end would give anyone an appetite; the course simply burned too many calories. But, like Sarah remembered, this entire place was a food desert; there was absolutely nothing out here for humans to eat, not even a clean source of water – Jareth had seen to that. Mentally cursing again the bizarre, collective fauna that had stripped her of her remaining granola bars – the only food she’d had left – Sarah nearly stumbled, dizzy from low blood sugar, but caught hold of a tree trunk to keep herself from falling. She couldn’t go on like this; she had exerted herself far too much before even coming here today. Looking way up into the foliage, she spotted some immature pinecones in a few of the immensely tall evergreens. If she could only climb one to get to the nuts…

The trump pouch rubbed her leg again – it wasn’t her imagination, she glanced down instantly and saw it happen this time! Freaky, she thought; it stilled again when she held it. But the act jogged her memory as she felt the small bump in the leather at the bottom and she suddenly grinned: the Ghostwheel’s gift to her the first day they met - the Jetson Breakfast! She was saved!

Kneeling right where she was (slowly so she wouldn’t pass out), Sarah got her juice bottle out of her carryall, then dug the strange pill out from where it had gotten wedged. It looked the same as ever: a white-coated oval that was just a little on the large side to swallow comfortably, but she had to try. She did gravely note that there wasn’t really enough juice left to do this correctly though, only about three-quarters of the bottle left; Merlin had said at least twenty ounces of liquid. This was twelve at best. It also did not escape her notice that she would be out of anything to drink after this, too; she had been carefully nursing along her liquid supply, even though she was probably more than a little dehydrated at this point.

Nothing I can do about that, she thought resignedly, working up her nerve. Sarah had always hated swallowing pills, even medicine when she was sick; the big ones tended to trigger her gag reflex. She had to force this thing down; her life literally depended on it. Closing her eyes, she put the Jetson Breakfast on her tongue and quickly proceeded to chug for all she was worth before she could think about it anymore – it took a few swallows, but the object finally got past the back of her throat and down as she finished off the juice, savoring the last of the sugary taste.

And she almost immediately had to stifle the urge to wretch: it felt exactly like eating too much way too fast, like someone would in an eating contest! Clearly this sort of technology did not translate well into ‘real life’ from a cartoon – obvious, really, once she actually thought about it. And Merlin had been right, too: it was sort of uncomfortable down there without enough liquid to rehydrate it fully. But she was no longer hungry. Sarah gave herself about five minutes to let her stomach attempt to settle a bit before cautiously getting back up.

Not noticing until it touched her hand: a smaller, tarantula-like spider had climbed up the open glass bottle! Sarah screamed and dropped it, practically leaping away from the trees back into the clear; the spider scurried inside of it.

“Keep it!” she tersely whispered, suddenly worried that something or someone else might’ve heard her. The spider actually made a couple clicking noises at her, then hunkered down into the bottom. Sarah did a full-body shiver, her nausea completely forgotten – and quickly decided to dispose of the other bottle in the same manner if they were an attractant to those things; she got the empty one out, unscrewed the lid and rolled it toward the trees, turning away before she could see it getting fought over by three others as she moved a safe distance away and commenced walking again.

She hadn’t even gotten to the ridge when a large shadow that had blended into the trees moved away in her peripheral vision and she instinctively stopped in her tracks. Whatever it was was easily taller and bulkier than a standing bear as it silently lumbered through the twilit wood. What it had to be quietly dawned on Sarah, but she had no idea who this yeti – no, ‘earth elemental’, she corrected herself – was. She had a feeling that if it had been Ludo, he would’ve shambled straight over upon hearing her panicked distress. This was a stranger, and she was in its territory.

Stillness followed, not even a trace of wind in the trees. Probably a good thing; she had no idea how sharp these creatures’ sense of smell was. Sarah started moving again, trying to be stealthier, carefully stepping over fallen twigs and dead leaves when they could be avoided. Another lumbering shadow appeared off and away to her right, literally disappearing behind a tree. Definitely not the same one. Sarah picked up her pace, working to keep her breathing even, trying not to appear as terribly nervous as she felt; about the worst thing she could do right now would be to run.

A third to her left just stood there, motionless, closer; she could feel it staring at her. There was a faint rustling coming from the foliage only fifty yards behind her, but she wouldn’t turn to look; she was walking as fast as she dared.

A deep howl went up through the forest, shaking the very ground upon which she stood, and Sarah finally stopped, uneasily reminded that she was not the only one around here who could literally move the earth! Frantically glancing about her to see if there were any incoming rolling boulders she was going to have to run from like Indiana Jones, she saw none.

She was surrounded by huge earth-elemental beasts now, at least a dozen of them, but more were slowly filing in from deeper in the woods. Average height among them was eight-to-nine feet tall, but there were one or two that were probably closer to twelve. All were covered head-to-foot in long, limp, shaggy hair, ranging in shade from a gingery brown to nearly black. Their oxen-like horns grew down, up, and every other direction, symmetrically; sabertooth fangs stuck out of the sides of their lower jaws. Far more worrisome, she realized as they cautiously shuffled closer as a unit to examine her, were the presence of long claws on most of those immense hand-like paws that nearly dragged upon the ground, or razor-like spikes sticking out of the backs of the knuckles on some of them. Even in their curious aspect, this brood looked decidedly fearsome, and Sarah was suddenly struck with a terrible thought: sweet-natured Ludo had been far from this section, all alone in the maze, nearly defenseless even against a small pack of goblins. Had he been an outcast, the runt of somebody’s… litter? Was that the right word? Big, brown bestial eyes stared at her from beneath protruding, deep-sunk Neanderthaler brows. The dark-brown creature who was closest reached out one long, badger-clawed finger toward her.

“Hey, watch it, big fella,” Sarah laughed nervously, backing up a pace with her hands up in front of her – as if she could’ve fended off even one of them like that; they stood hunched over, but they were all muscle underneath those thick coats.

“Uh…hi. Hello, everybody,” she looked about at them all, her hand sort of raised in greeting; she was completely hemmed in, feeling the heat coming off of those immense bodies towering over her. “Didn’t mean to bother you all, I’m just on my way through,” she nodded hopefully in the right direction. Hoping it was still the right direction; she had sort of gotten a little turned around just now. Her pulse was pounding.

Who,” the first beast rumbled, pointing at her, his expressive brows knit in a morose frown.

Swallowing, Sarah stood her ground. “I’m Sarah,” she tried slowly, gesturing toward herself with each word. Me Jane, she thought – although the situation was more comparable to ‘King Kong’. What was that stupid blonde’s name?

Friend?” one of his companions rumbled.

“Yes,” Sarah exhaled with a tentative smile, nearly sagging with relief. Maybe this was going to be all right after all.

Ludo,” growled one of the tall, dark ones in the back, the edge in his deep voice like thunder. Resentful, angry thunder. The sound began to gradually swell in chorus, making the very ground beneath them tremble from the resonance.

She was genuinely panicking now, trying to figure out an escape, seeing none.

Sarah… not friend,” the first one – the alpha? – pronounced judgment in a half-roar, and swung for her with his mighty, upraised paw, the way a cat would swipe at a mouse! Sarah barely dodged the unexpected attack only because the monster’s reflexes were a little slow!

They can’t move fast – that’s something. It was barely a point of contest; she was horribly outnumbered. A blow from behind her nearly made contact, but Sarah instinctively did the only thing she could do – jump – and before the surprised beast could get a grip on her, she literally vaulted onto its broad shoulders, only to be immediately faced with the one behind it, who had no compunction about swiping at her claws-first with both fists! She wasn’t quite out of range – the leather of her left boot got grazed – but with a little extra effort, she leaped from her precarious perch as it was moving and caught a tree branch from overhead! She managed to pull her legs up out of the way - the din the elementals were making was positively deafening by now – but the branch was too thin to support her weight for long. This was far worse than dangling over the Bog; being stinky was nothing compared to the prospect of being torn limb from limb! To make matters even worse, her trump pouch was fairly squirming against her hip, almost as if it were trying to open itself-

She was suddenly distracted by a sharp jostling motion and had to cling tighter: one of the bigger creatures was shaking the tree trunk! Anymore force might uproot it entirely!

“HELP!” she screamed in terror, not really thinking about the fact that there was absolutely no chance of anyone else ever hearing her.

Anyone real, anyway. As if in answer, her trump pouch burst open and her small collection of trumps came flying out of their own accord, but the cards were getting larger and larger as they circled about her; even the great black beast trying to shake her to the ground had stopped to point in wonder as the others backed up a few paces, vocalizing their fear and unease. The principle images were all life-size now; they were all activated after a certain sense, yet not ‘connected’ or ‘live’ as with a more normal trump call. To complete Sarah’s surprise and bewilderment, the seated image of Mandor spoke!

“Why do you never heed warning, Sarah?” he sighed, sounding tired. “Surely there were better, safer courses of action for you to take. I must admit I’m not truly surprised, just a little disappointed. I thought we had trained you better than this.”

The fact that she was hanging by her fingers for dear life was all but forgotten; Sarah was floored.


“You conditioned her for loyalty, not to think for herself,” the computer programmer in the expensive business suit promptly scolded him – Merlin! “If you had really wanted your pawn to fare better, you should have included varied courses on creative problem-solving in crazy death-defying scenarios rather than spending your spare time fine-tuning a slave ring you didn’t have the opportunity to present to her.”

“What?!” Sarah exclaimed – that was news!

“It is of no consequence,” Sofi’s unmistakable voice echoed serenely from somewhere inside the trump of Sarah’s play-world, “for all achieves the same end of the Great Union. All paths must ultimately lead to the Abyss and the blessed communion of entropy that culminates in Oneness.”

“But it can’t!” Sarah protested, but it was as if they couldn’t hear her; the dissenting viewpoints merely continued arguing with each other pointlessly to no end, the practice landscapes spinning faster and faster about her, she could nearly feel herself being drawn toward all of them at once, the argument was quickly becoming a shouting match-

“ENOUGH!” she screamed – and all the enlarged trumps stopped where they were in midair; Lord Suhuy’s was facing her. Or, rather, it should’ve been – and his had been the one voice notably missing from the discourse on her failure, too. The picture was, in fact, blank. Blacked out. Sarah suddenly felt the coldness emanating from it; this contact was real!

“Sarah Williams, at last we meet.” The voice sounded old and male, but it was definitely not Suhuy on the other line! Nor was the almost giddy chuckling that followed this remark, setting her nerves decidedly on edge. “It’s an old enough trick to set an opponent’s own insecurities against them under strain to see if they’ll crack, you will allow. I fear I may have found one of my old friend Suhuy’s. It’s a real pity, for it may pose a grave stumbling block to our future games together; it’s been nice being able to play with him again. But he appears to have no stomach for actually winning – I’ve given him every opportunity this round, just to be sporting for a change. I simply had to see the ‘rook’ he had so carefully been cultivating, to test you, before it ends.”

“…who do I have the honor of addressing?” Sarah dubiously queried that oddly personable void. The beasts down below had started to growl again warily.

The nothingness chuckled again, but it sounded a bit warmer this time. “I’ll tell you what: win this round for Order and I’ll introduce myself in person. Word of honor. But there’s no Chaos lord to save you from mechs this time; you had-”

“Run, child! You’re almost out of time!” another male voice sounded from within the card, cutting him off – that was Suhuy!

The panicked warning brought Sarah back to her senses – and she saw that the branch she was dangling from was already nearly half-split! There was only one desperate risk she could take if she was going to have any chance of getting out of this trap alive, and she winced at the thought of what she would potentially be losing in the process. Summoning her Logrus power again, she mentally manipulated the black tendrils to capture all of the life-sized trumps, linking them to her will. The face-sides with visages regarded her expectantly, their expressions perfectly uniform, including Suhuy; even Sofi’s image had crept to the foreground of her landscape – and Sarah had to work to stifle an almost involuntary grimace; the demoness’ natural facial features made Gryll look almost cute by comparison!

“Nice to see you all again,” she started awkwardly – they weren’t real, but that was no excuse to be impolite, she had learned – “but we’ve got a situation here. I’m going to drop any second now into the middle of a gang of elemental monsters. Do you think you all can defend my position so I can slip away?”

“Sure thing, Sarah,” the image of Merlin smiled confidently, standing up from his desk; the others followed suit in unison.

“Don’t hurt them if you can,” she suddenly thought to add, “they’re just defending their territory – I’m the intruder here-”

Her branch cracked farther, almost off!

“Turn us outward, Earth-child,” she heard ‘Mandor’ instruct from the other side of the circle. Not about to question the mechanism involved here, Sarah carefully rotated them counterclockwise on their axes so that the ornate reverse art – a stained-glass style rendering of the Sliding Mountains under that wild, striped Chaosian sky – faced her; the tableau was literally shifting differently on all of them…

The branch snapped; Sarah had been so preoccupied with attuning and adjusting the trumps that she had forgotten that she still had to fall correctly from over twenty feet up! The cards were coming down around her as she’d willed, but this was still really going to…

…hurt? It happened so fast she almost didn’t have time to register it, but she actually slowed considerably within the last three feet, almost hovering…

She was hovering, stranded in midair, floating six inches off the ground! She couldn’t make any surface traction with her feet! The stranger’s laughter rang out about her once more.

“It is strictly forbidden me to directly assist you,” his voice came from everywhere at once (the elementals were closing in again, their collective growl gradually shifting to a roar), “but you’re useless to me with broken ankles. Figure it out.”

And then he was gone and the only humanesque voices that remained belonged to the images of the trumps surrounding her. The scene on the outside of that circle was sheer pandemonium, with bright and dark spells flashing by, yelled incantations, animalistic screams and roars, the earth shaking again, that deep collective howl that could move mountains. At least one of the creatures had just disappeared! Sarah was frantically swimming in midair; she could successfully grab at tufts of ground vegetation with her hands, but she still couldn’t get down! Looking at the spell that held her there, it completely encompassed the Logrus tendrils!

The Pattern, she realized; it had to be! But there also had to be a way out of this trap – she gasped as one of the trumps to her right received a nasty claw-swipe! The creatures had just figured out the things were physically vulnerable! “Sofi!” she cried; Mandor’s ‘raven’ had never failed her in real life.

“Yes, Mistress?” she heard her reply.

“I’m kind of stuck – can’t explain! Is there any possible shortcut through here to get further in?”

“Let me check…yes! Touch the wormhole!”

There was a visual blurring on the back of the trump that Sofi had to be on, three to Sarah’s left. The center of the picture gradually resolved into a circular gateway made of Chaos-fire, burning green; on the far end, she could see the junk pile just outside of the Goblin City! Sarah made for it in slow motion as if underwater.

“Blessed art thou,” she heard Sofi intoning, “for the Serpent Herself waits to embrace you!”

I’ll bet, Sarah thought dryly, reaching out to touch the portal; no sooner had she made contact with the thick paper than she felt herself rocketed through the void aberration in time-space – unable to breathe – until she came out on the other end a second later, panting in relief!

She was firmly on her feet, standing on a hill of assorted garbage; the ruckus from the forest echoed all the way down here. ‘Down’ feeling sort of relative; she was practically a target on top of the mound where she was. Quickly hunkering and drop-sliding lower to be less conspicuous, Sarah immediately set about hanging the spell to disable the robot guard at the gate; it was almost too difficult to concentrate hard enough to form it correctly, though, so many other thoughts were running circles in her mind. She had just met her Order-based adversary, the one who had nearly succeeded in killing her off before she even reached Chaos! And what was this about Lord Suhuy and all of this being just some kind of game?! Did Mandor know? Did anybody else know? The old-sounding man had spoken of her as if she were nothing more than an animate chess piece! Mandor’s chosen heraldry – not the proper heraldry of the House he ruled – flashed through her mind then: black and white, four-tile, with two black chess pieces, a knight and a rook…

Sarah forced herself to stop; she was on the verge of crying. And for what? She angrily chided herself. If she lived through this catastrophe, one way or another she would get her answers, get satisfaction, she coldly vowed. Until then she was just wasting time when time itself suddenly had an expiration date. She quickly cobbled the rest of the system-crash spell together and started picking her way through the mounds; her defense had been hastily and sort of messily constructed, but it should still work – enough. If she had had the opportunity, she would’ve hung at least a couple of shield spells, but she had a feeling this was it, an opinion backed up with her ancient tutor’s frantic screaming and all…

‘He has no stomach for winning…’ Winning what? Was this actually a formalized minutiae phenomena of the contest of the two powers? Sarah shivered in spite of the heat of the direct afternoon sun. Keep moving…

…just keep moving, had quickly become Sarilda’s mantra; every propulsive movement forward was becoming successively harder. She felt as if the weight of the entire world hung heavily from her sore, strained neck. There was barely any part of her left, any bodily system, that that accursed Pattern in the Eye was not somehow co-opting, parasitically both draining her and sustaining her to their mutual continuance. So much of her being was currently consumed by it that the very cobblestone streets she trod felt like a terrible abomination of the Logrus, something so atomically mutated and twisted about that by rights it shouldn’t even exist, and yet here it was, whole city blocks of it. Living creatures constructed of destruction – withering bestial flesh, rotting rusting armor, wild sickly-yellowed eyes that stared at her with equal parts reverence and abject horror – they cleared the streets ahead of her, pouring out of shanties so poorly constructed that a heavy wind could rip off the badly nailed wooden shingles at the very least, running for their lives, out and away from the City, scenting the impending Armageddon. The tall towers of the Castle still shone beckoningly ahead of her. Sarilda’s mind had been playing tricks on her for the past quarter-mile - people who couldn’t possibly be there kept appearing and talking to her, both encouraging and dissuading voices from her past – but she thought she saw the dark form of the Serpent in the high tower, morphing into the shape of a terrifyingly beautiful woman with long, streaming black hair and completely black, piercing eyes, reaching out her lithe white arms toward her longingly.

Come… come…

It was tough going, over hill and dale, chipped armoire and broken dishwasher, along with all the other crazy crap the denizens of this shadow horded with the greedy tenacity of jackdaws. If this specialized rubbish heap had existed anywhere else, it could’ve been utilized as aversion therapy for hoarders. Just seeing it all made Sarah never want to buy another knickknack as long as she lived. If she lived… There had only been a few creatures sifting through the piles where she was and she had managed not to disturb them in their scavenging this time. Once a junkman had actually had the nerve to drunkenly order her to help him lift a fallen bookshelf so he could get at a bronze bust statue he had somehow spotted glinting beneath the wreckage; once he’d retrieved the thing, it was as if he had completely forgotten that she existed! Apart from that one incident, Sarah had no trouble at all and she felt fairly confident that she could disable Jareth’s guard… what was the robot’s name? Humongous, she thought the dwarf had said.

What she was not prepared to deal with was the entire goblin horde – right here, right now! Sarah’s eyes widened in disbelief: the goblin army was charging at full-speed over the hills of debris, tramping straight for her with what could’ve been a collective war-cry! She screamed and started to instinctively run from them when she remembered that she couldn’t, that there was no time for cowardice. Her eyes darted wildly for something she could use as a weapon – she couldn’t summon anything from Shadow in here and it would’ve taken too long even if she could – and she seized upon a broken metal curtain rod and brandished it like a sword in both hands, feeling a wave of dire apprehension wash over her. She would act in self-defense only; that was the nominally honorable course of action open to her. She bravely stood her ground, watching them come on: fifty feet away… thirty feet…here they came! She raised the steel rod to strike the creature that was bearing down on her – armed with a small battle-axe himself – but to her complete surprise, the thing just ran right past her! They all did! On they sped - running, galloping, even hobbling – off across the desert plain, headed up the ridge toward the forest!

“What the-”

Close thunder interrupted her confused pondering and she instantly turned back. Unnatural, dangerous-looking black storm clouds, miles high, were rapidly forming over the City, converging on the Castle.

The Eye! The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. One of the chief properties of the Jewel of Judgment was that it was a powerful weather-changer. She might already be too late! Sarah tore off over the final pile, accidentally knocking over a junklady she didn’t see, who subsequently cursed her roundly for breathing, but she didn’t have the time to stop and help her. She didn’t even have the breath to scream ‘sorry’!

The gates of the City stood completely open, ominously deserted. The entire populace living here had literally just evacuated, she realized in amazement as she jogged through the small outer portal. If the goblins feared this that badly…

As before, the great inner metal-clad gates began to swing closed of their own accord, but before they could even join together to activate the automaton, Sarah uttered the lynchpin for the Line Error 404 spell – and the gates stopped in their tracks! Humongous’ right arm started twitching repetitively, but Sarah didn’t stick around to watch the whole performance; before his disjointed halves could start trying to operate independently of each other – which would invariably end with the whole machine literally crashing through the paving stones several feet into the ground, the contraption was so incredibly heavy – Sarah had already darted through the gates, making a beeline toward the Castle as lighting danced about the top turrets and thunder rolled, the wind was picking up speed-

And there she was! Sarah’s young original was feebly staggering across the courtyard, shoulders hunched, toward the front steps of the Castle! She was illuminated by a red glow that pulsed like a heartbeat – her heartbeat! From the way she swayed on her feet, she looked more than half-dead.

“NO!” Sarah screamed in English without thinking. “STOP!”

The girl actually did stop, and slowly looked over her shoulder – when she saw Sarah, her eyes widened. “What are you doing here?!” she exclaimed in Thari.

Sarah quickly switched languages. “What the hell do you think you’re doing with that stone?!”

This was answered not by Sarilda but by a direct lightning strike between them in the square! The force blew Sarah off her feet, but she wasn’t knocked out; her vision came back just in time to see Sarilda trying to crawl up the castle steps! Sarah hauled herself to herself upright again and, without even a single glance upward, raced across the short distance that separated them and tackled Sarilda at the ankles! The girl angrily kicked at her, but Sarah caught her left foot and commenced literally dragging her back down! Sarilda wasn’t going without a fight, though; she began to summon the Logrus power as her mother had taught her… only to find the hex she had intended to cast cancelled out by the Eye! Sarah turned her around so that she was at least facing her.

“Are you totally insane?! Don’t you realize what you’re doing?!”

“We are going to destroy the old worlds,” Sarilda crowed with a fierce grin, “and we will rule the new One, my mother and I! And there’s nothing you can do to stop us!” she laughed. “The Serpent is already here!”

Sarah let go of her – only to grab her shoulders before she could scoot away. “You have to listen to me – that thing doesn’t care about any of us! She’ll kill us all! She wants to destroy everything! Oh, why can’t you see that?! We have to get out of here – I’ll carry you if I have to, if you’re too weak-”

But Sarilda punched her in the ribs and shoved her down, making a break for it, knocking the wind out of Sarah!

“Why, you little-”

The girl was on her feet and just about to pry open the heavy bronze door when a bright crimson streak fell from the sky, diving for her – it was Random’s familiar! Sarilda swatted at the large crow-like bird as it nipped at her, trying to free the Jewel from its thick yet malleable gold setting. Sarah had recovered herself sufficiently and was on the verge of coming to help when she suddenly heard a sound she could only describe as a freight train… in the sky? She looked up and forgot to breathe: above them, slowly descending, was a funnel-cloud the size of the entire City! The wind finally caught Sarilda’s attention, too, but instead of horror, her features lit up in exultation.

“She comes! She comes! Oh, take what is yours, and me with it!” she cried out rapturously.

Sarah quickly got to the Castle wall, clinging to the heavy chains on the door in desperation. If she’d known any formalized prayers she would’ve been saying them, although realistically she wasn’t sure if anything ever escaped that Void – the Abyss on wheels! Nothing would if they couldn’t escape!

But the red bird was not so lucky as to find anchorage because it persisted in its programmed task – and it suddenly got caught up in the updraft; as soon as it entered the bottom of the funnel it simply vanished! There was no flying debris; everything around them was slowly melting away into nothingness as it lowered inch by inch! Sarilda finally looked a little shaken, too. Sarah slapped her hard across the face.

“Wake up! That thing will have no compunction about eating you and me and your precious mother, too! Think!” she screamed at close range, the sound level almost deafening now. As the awful truth sank in, her original suddenly looked as young as she really was, uncertain, confused, weak. Frightened.

She’s just a kid, Sarah suddenly pitied her, just a mixed-up, badly programmed kid. Never had a chance.

“I do not want to die!” Sarilda suddenly cried, shocked tears streaming down her face. Sarah took her in her arms and held her tightly, ignoring the red glow, the feel of the artifact pressed against her chest – the thing was physically hot.

A bolt of black lightning shot down to the square from the funnel; the top towers of the Castle were already gone! The phenomenon coalesced into a form that Sarah realized was horribly familiar. Many black tendrils bent and swayed, weaving in the air like a giant squid with right angles. The Logrus – incarnate.

“Little fool,” Her terrible voice, Her attention, bore down heavily upon Sarah, “did you really think you could defeat ME?! Who gave you your power so that you could serve me at my pleasure?”

Sarah now knew what Merlin had been talking about, that she had been lucky not to have ever heard the voice: it was a completely chaotic mashup, constantly wildly fluctuating in tone, pitch, and range, the effect terrifyingly alien. There was no perceptible ‘gender’, so-to-speak, at all.

“You might’ve chosen me,” Sarah brazenly shot back, figuring she was dead meat anyway, “but I didn’t choose this! You did! Why?! If you win, you’ll eventually wind up with nothing left to destroy but yourself! You need an antagonist – you need Order – to keep giving you fresh material to mar, to make your own!”

“BLASPHEMY!” the voice thundered, crackling so badly Sarah’s ears popped! “Before the aberration of Order that manifests separateness as the unholy Unicorn, I was there – all of Me – and I will be All once again!”

“So who’s stopping you?” Sarah fearlessly taunted, laughing desperately. “The Eye is right here! You could kill us both in an instant!”

“What are you doing?” Sarilda asked Sarah again, this time looking genuinely terrified for her. Of what could happen to them.

“Truth is,” Sarah slipped back into English lazily, “without our conscious cooperation on this one, for all your showy theatrics and your impressive special effects, you can’t do shit. And we both refuse. So let us go. Right. Now.”

The very air visibly shook between them - the Sign was growing even larger!

“I just had to get that off my chest!” Sarah yelled to her original in Thari. “Sorry things didn’t work out for either of us! I know it’s sort of pointless now, but I’m Sarah Williams! What’s your name?”

The girl smirked. “Sarilda! Sarilda Aricline-Barimen!” She studied Sarah’s eyes a moment. “I recognize the difference, of course, but you seem to have inherited my stubborn pigheadedness!” She glanced up at the colossus the Logrus was becoming. “What are we going to do?! I never intended to cross Her! The Dark Lady can crack anyone’s will! She will torture us! What’s the use of resisting Her? There’s no way out now!”

Sarah was all too aware of the fact that she was holding her original – Sarilda – upright, more than the poor girl was standing under her own power at this point; the Eye had all but sapped her lifeforce.

The Left Eye of the Serpent. The Jewel of Judgment. The original Pattern was inscribed within its crystalline, ruby depths – and if one could successfully complete the Pattern, any of them…

Eureka! “The Jewel!” Sarah exclaimed, pointing down at it, where it was now glowing weakly, “the Pattern in the Jewel! Can it be…?”

Sarilda clasped Sarah on the shoulder, the hard, inhuman determination returning to her eyes, leaking to her lips in a small, knowing smile. “You are one of mine.” The serious statement seemed laughable coming from such a young girl, but Sarah realized the extreme gravitas behind the utterance – what by continuance it implied – and Sarilda raised the Jewel to eyelevel-

The wind suddenly lifted at them; they both wrapped their arms about the chains as their feet lifted off the ground, their legs trailing out behind them!

“It was a worthy idea!” Sarilda screamed. “But I fear this is the end!” Those huge, black angular tentacles were smashing everything within their reach indiscriminately, adding to the mess that was flying away into the chugging, howling oblivion above them!

Oh, for a shielding spell! Any sort of protection at all! That stupid ruby! All of existence was going to come to a screeching halt because of some dumb bauble both powers were fighting over! Somehow Sarah didn’t think it would look good on either of them, and she nearly had to stifle a crazy laugh at the thought.

And that’s when she remembered her own dumb bauble, the topaz-colored chunk of glass that she’d been wearing and/or carrying day in and day out for months on end – an external power supply, Random had intimated, one strong enough to kill her with the wrong application, she had covertly discovered that fateful night in Mandor’s library. But if deployed and augmented correctly…

“Sarilda! SARILDA!” she had to scream twice to get the girl’s attention; it was almost impossible to be heard now. “Can you use this?” she over-enunciated so the girl could at least read her lips, glancing down at the brooch on her own chest; it was glowing, too, now, ever since it had come in contact with the Jewel. A look of recognition crossed Sarilda’s features – and the hurricane-force wind pulled harder at them in response!

But the girl wasn’t deterred; she closed her eyes and started muttering something Sarah couldn’t make out at all… she started to feel very cold, as cold as any trump; she could see her own energy flare out as if she were on Suhuy’s Revealer device! She closed her eyes, not wanting to watch-

The noise stopped. The wind was gone. The door was gone. She was floating! Sarah cracked open one eye, almost afraid to look – and saw that she and her original were suspended inside a red, egg-shaped bubble, just big enough for the pair of them! Just outside the ruby-colored membrane, she could see the world around them getting torn apart, twisting, stretching, melting away. But they seemed sheltered in here.

“We must still hurry,” Sarilda’s voice lightly echoed in the small space, “even the Pattern cannot stand long in a place like this.”

“So, you’re telling me you’d be willing to switch sides?” Sarah asked dubiously.

“I could as easily ask you the same question; you wear Court colors yourself,” the girl noted snarkily. “I’m saying I’m willing to admit that we were wrong, or at least that we went about it the wrong way. Anything beyond that will have to wait. Are you ready?”

“For what?”

“For your Pattern initiation, silly!” she laughed. “Just do as I do.” Sarilda took Sarah’s right hand firmly in her own and raised the Jewel up to her face once more. “Look into it like this,” she instructed.

Sarah bent down to meet her; they stared into the ruby’s depths face-to-face.

There. The discovery, the impending silence, felt as loud and as powerful as the raging lightning that lit them up from outside, that was engulfing the world about them in flames. There was no longer any feeling of floating, but neither girl noticed; the sensation was not unlike an out-of-body experience. Something about seeing the Form upon which all the form that she knew was built made Sarah want to run away – it was simply too much for a limited shadow-being to process, to handle. She was reacquainted with the grip Sarilda had on her right hand; it had tightened.

“I’m not about to let you be a coward now,” she chided her. “See that crack in the bottom-right corner?”


“That’s the entrance. Come on, it’s actually not as hard as the walking Pattern, from what I’ve heard, especially for one who has already completed the physical trial. In fact, the three-dimensional form of this one reminds me… well, best not think of it,” she carefully self-censored, dragging Sarah along mentally to the starting point. The perspective altered so much it was as if they were no larger than tiny grains of sand!

“Advance not!” a voice suddenly boomed – this one wasn’t human-sounding, either, but at least it had a form of coherence, like a modulated syllabic genderless roar. “You are not permitted the higher initiation, demon-child; your shadow-self may not enter at all.”

“You’re not exactly my favorite power, either,” Sarilda brashly mouthed off, “but we don’t have much of a choice at present. Either both of us go through – I won’t leave without her - or we’re all going to be destroyed right here any minute! That includes you! What will happen to Amber, to Order, if the Serpent swallows you again?”

Sarah felt the urge to cower under that intense, judgmental scrutiny; it felt righteous somehow.

“Very well. Come then, hapless children of Perdition. Come and dare to walk in My Light!”

“That’s the best invitation we’re going to get,” Sarilda remarked to her offhandedly. “I may have to use some of the power that’s protecting us before this is over to propel us the whole way through, but you were carrying enough energy to make an astral bomb; this shell is pretty thick; we should be all right. Just stay with me and stay awake! Race you to the finish!”

And off they sped, down the curving blood-red corridors, only one sinuous course like a meditation labyrinth. Sarah lost all track of time, of space, of any sense of self – all there was was movement that was increasing to an almost frightening speed; the speck of consciousness that was her original was pacing her. There was a time of abrupt slowing that was terrible, seeming to demand exertion, the outrageous exhaustion of the aftermath only offset by the freefall careening down and around and through the bright path that followed, red, redder, reddest, on and on they flew like subatomic particles performing the Quantum Leap. Slowing again, even worse this time; Sarah mentally fought through, unbidden memories of her early childhood passing before her eyes in a burgundy-tinted slideshow – when was the last time she had even remembered the day she had snuck backstage at one of her mother’s theatrical performances and one of the techies caught her and showed her the lighting board? Light and a sea of ruddy monochrome, the hue of life, of mourning in the Courts; they seemed to stretch and fold like the passages. The growing sensation was not unlike when Sarah’s grandmother used to scrub her knees too hard when she’d gotten them all dirty and grassy playing outside her small house in the summers when she used to stay with her in the Hamptons. Why did it feel like that? And something new was replacing the mess, something natural yet supernatural, that sympathetically complemented her nature and extended it manifold simultaneously. The third slowing – the worst by far. Sarilda’s speck was ahead of her own, but not by much. Sarah almost felt too heavy, too tired to move, but if she didn’t she knew that she would be consumed by the force that was coursing through her now like an electrical current.

“I feel your strain!” she heard Sarilda’s voice from far away. “Stand by, but keep trying anyway, even just a little!”

Micron by micron, Sarah kept inching ahead – until she was hit with an incredible burst of energy and she surged on through. The end was in sight! There was vague sound now, like a mournful keening wail, but she couldn’t remember what it was. It didn’t matter now. She reveled in the warm light, just a few more feet, it seemed, a few more millimeters, impossible to tell which was which. Another burst of energy catapulted them through the course’s grand finale; all that remained was the color. Only the color. They were red.

“To King Random,” she heard the girl’s voice say, “in Amber!”

Then the red faded to black.

Random was pacing again; Vialle was asleep in the bed, and he envied her no end. He had ultimately proven incapable of shutting his mind off in spite of how badly he had wanted to. He had just turned in the sitting area to make the circuit of their quarters again when the holographic shimmering of a trump-entry caught his eye. Down by the floor. Stepping back, preparing to arm himself with a dagger from the bookcase, the image clarified and solidified into the forms of two girls, both in Chaosian-style costume. Both unconscious. They were holding hands. The elder one was at once familiar to him upon the briefest inspection, but the younger one bore the Jewel of Judgment about her neck – and it was only faintly glowing! There was no mistaking now; it was Julian’s brat for sure!

He dashed for the door and opened it wide in an instant, surprising the guard standing on duty just outside.

“I need two stretchers in here right away for immediate transport to the infirmary – no time to explain! Move! This could be life-or-death!”

“Yes, sire!” the man immediately took off down the hall to get both stretchers and more men for the job. Random returned to the girls’ side and took the pulse of the one wearing the Jewel – it was slow and very faint. She’d obviously worn it for far too long, but if he removed it now she’d die for certain.

Not that the little chit doesn’t deserve it, he thought coldly, standing again as the makeshift ‘medical team’ arrived, separating the girls, carefully lifting them up and away. The presence of the other one with her did give him pause, though. He wouldn’t pass judgment until they had both woken up, he decided, leisurely following the procession the short distance to the laboratory room the family also used as a private E.R. Nature might even relieve him of the decision, at least for the one. Of course, then the other…

He sighed, watching them get placed on the cots, getting hooked up to saline I.V.s. Once the technicians had done what they could to stabilize them and had departed, Random sat down on the side of Julian’s daughter’s cot and took the Jewel in his hands so that it would draw on something other than her; feeling her sympathetic affinity (she had obviously performed the attunement at some point), he closed his eyes and reached through it, willing her heart to beat more strongly, in time with his own healthy relaxed one, as he breathed deeply…
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