Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Labyrinth of Chaos

The Third Step

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

in which we all go home. The end?

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover,Fantasy - Published: 2017-06-07 - 8636 words - Complete

Chapter 17 – The Third Step

The eternal struggle of Chaos and Order, superhumans and ‘shadow’ humans and ghosts of shadows: the whole mess had Sarah Williams of Shadow Earth feeling very small and insignificant… but then one of Random’s palace guards quietly cleared his throat to get her attention, breaking her bleak reverie, and handed her her carryall; she had forgotten to grab it from beneath the bench in the king’s sitting room.

“Thanks,” she said quietly, taking it from him and shouldering it cross-body once more. The thing was going to make a rather useful memento.

Home. She had to be going home – it was over, wasn’t it? Her part, anyway? Merlin and Random were talking together just a few paces ahead of her. For one wild moment she thought of slipping away from them and exploring the rest of the castle… then thought better of it; she’d been in quite enough trouble for one lifetime as it was. She subconsciously fidgeted with the ring on her finger – and suddenly remembered, dashing after the two kings down the hallway.

“Your Majesty?” she addressed Random; they had just commenced descending a large flighted staircase.

He glanced back, continuing to walk. “Yes?”

“I never got the chance to thank you for this,” she held her hand with the ring up.

He smirked, looking ahead again. “I’ll pass your gratitude along to Queen Vialle; the item was her idea.”

She had been right!

“Did it actually help any?” he inquired, sounding mildly curious.

“Kind of – I mean, it didn’t do anything really strong or obvious, but it cut down on the distortion and confusion some, helped me to focus on what I needed to be doing in there.”

Random paused in mid-step for a second. “Interesting,” was all he said though, and that muttered. They reached the second-floor landing and left the stairs, turning left down a side hallway.

“Well,” she ventured, as long as nothing important seemed to be going on at the moment and she had his attention, “if this ‘round’ is over, who won? It didn’t sound all that clear-cut to me.”

Merlin had ducked into what had to be his official guest apartments in the castle, just to their left at the branching end of the corridor ahead of them; he had the key.

“It would’ve initially been a point for the Pattern,” Random began, making a right turn at the juncture – only to see Fiona and Mandor brazenly making out in the middle of the next passage! “But seeing that I’m about to lose yet another sibling to Chaos, offhand I’d say nobody,” he sighed, producing a soft pack of cigarettes from his breastpocket and tapping the edges packed against his palm.

“Everyone,” Merlin corrected, re-emerging from his doorway sans the dark crown. “You can look at the situation as a unified neutral or as a divided set of victories. Agree to disagree, Uncle?”

Random gave a scoffed laugh, but embraced his nephew; there was something almost strangely cosmic about that brief, shared moment of mutual affection and respect between the figureheads of the two opposing powers of existence. But the split-second of universal balance was already over.

“You’ve got a room, Fi!” Random shouted at his sister. “You could at least have the decency to use it!”

The princess leisurely detached herself from the Chaos lord’s mouth; she had been standing on tip-toe (she was only about five feet tall) and he was still smiling down at her.

“You told me I must keep a better eye on him,” she coyly shot back,” and I assumed that you wouldn’t trust me with him in private just now.”

“I’d better get you out of here quick before anything else happens,” Merlin motioned Sarah aside, readying his spikard. “Peace never seems to last longer than about five seconds in Castle Amber whenever two or more of my aunts and uncles occupy the same room! One way or another, we’ll keep in touch with you – I still have to compensate you for your services to Chaos, after all. Your Majesty, is that program of yours still going, where the Crown finances college for deserving, promising Amberites? Plan A on our end fell through, and she’s easily rendered as much service to you as to me, if not more. What do you think?”

“That usually implies that they’ll be coming back to Amber to work,” Random crossed his arms – then slightly shrugged. “Maybe. We’ll add the possibility to the official list of discussion topics for this visit.” He gave Fiona a fast, sharp look, then retreated back down the side hall, taking the last flight of stairs to the ground-floor below.

“We’ll talk scholarships,” Merlin addressed Sarah again, “in two years’ time, Earth-reckoning; don’t be surprised if I look significantly older the next time you see me. Be thinking about where you want to go; this isn’t an opportunity afforded to many – his Majesty’s program is a very generous one, with all expenses paid regardless of the institution. You can start practicing your handwritten thank-yous in Thari in the meantime. Have a good life, Sarah,” he raised his hand to activate the transport.

“Wait!” she stopped him, looking down the passage to where Mandor was leaning against a closed door to the left, murmuring into Fiona’s ear, tracing the nape of her exposed neck with the back of one finger.

Merlin sighed and laughed a little, shaking his head. “Go on, then, break it up.”

Sarah self-consciously crossed the large stretch of hallway between the king of Chaos and her former guardian; when Mandor looked up and saw her coming, a slight teasing smile of familiarity touched his lips.

“Lord Mandor,” she quietly addressed him; the formality still felt awkward after almost a year of just calling him by his first name.

“Sarah,” he inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Patterner,” he added; the emphasis made it sound almost like a light insult – but then he genuinely smiled. “Our power never really suited you well, anyway; you couldn’t even metabolize it properly – I had no idea you were experiencing all that, or I would have been looking for a way to mitigate the effects sooner. Lord Suhuy told me of your plight.”

“Mandor,” Fiona looked up at him, playful interrogation in her tone, “was this your top-secret assignment all that time?”

“As you yourself state,” he affirmed, “albeit partially declassified at this point, at least on this side – almost no-one in the Courts still knows who she truly is,” his ice-blue eyes fixed on Sarah, mock-accusatory. “Most of her arcane training is patently useless now, but shadow-walking is far easier using the Order paradigm it would seem, and she should still be able to manage her trumps decently,” he glanced down at her hip hollister.

Sarah couldn’t help but notice where his attention was, and she lightly kicked the stone floor, looking away uncomfortably. “I… sort of… lost them.”

“You what?” he exclaimed before forcing himself to take a deep breath, closing his eyes a moment. “Where did you last have them?” he sighed.

“The Labyrinth,” Sarah winced at his reaction, “and it wasn’t like I dropped or misplaced them or anything – the whole pack came to life! They could move and talk all by themselves, but it wasn’t a true contact, it didn’t feel right! They were flying all around me, chattering at me, performing magic on my behalf so I could escape a bad situation – that was when I heard Dworkin. They were life-size the last time I saw them; the portrait of you told me what to do!”

The princess appeared genuinely intrigued, although perhaps not quite as surprised as Mandor, oddly enough. “That definitely sounds like one of Grandfather’s spells,” she remarked, “but not entirely. What are the rules for taking an already magical item through the Logrus?” she queried Mandor.

But he just shook his head. “It isn’t done; the results are far too unpredictable – we are all advised against doing so. A few ancient Chaos lords met their deaths by attempting such a thing: their previously reliable and functional power items were rendered completely uncontrollable.” He looked back to Sarah, seeming pacified. “It is well, then – they are safely hidden within the tendrils of the Logrus,” he nodded. Then glanced at her carryall, a little concerned. “Have you noticed any unusual behavior with anything else you brought through this time?”

Sarah shook her head. “I think going through the Pattern right after must’ve cancelled out whatever I could’ve picked up. I haven’t even experienced any flashbacks from the circuit.”

“You were unbelievably lucky to have made it through that juggernaut at all. Which still leaves me wondering…” He studied her eyes for a moment, disbelief clearly written in his own. “You’re well beyond my jurisdiction at this point; I may never know.” But the mood passed quickly. “His Excellency can still contact you, of course, if the need arises. I believe Lord Suhuy may have made a copy of that trump of you for his own purposes, although I’m not entirely certain.”

“Yeah, about him… did you know?”

“Not at all,” he gave a small, rueful smile. “He’s never let on all these years, but I can’t say it’s a terrible shock to me, having known him nearly all of my life. High priests of all stripes have their share of secrets; this can only be one of his. On the other hand, such information has potential for many uses, some of which in this case could be beneficial to me; I have no doubt that Dworkin Barimen will openly gloat over just who all was in the room at the time, who he told – such a move is always calculated. It seems that neither of us has reason for imminent worry on that count, though,” his gaze drifted to the princess.

“I know perfectly well you’re thinking of my use as an insurance policy right now,” Fiona lightly reprimanded him, crossing her arms. “Just remember that, too, can go both ways, my lord, if my opinion of you should ever falter.” The delivery was serious enough, but there was a sparkle of challenge in the lady’s bright green eyes, almost a flirt of a dare. Sarah sincerely hoped this Amberite princess knew what she was doing, that she could really handle being attached to a man like Mandor… but then they smiled at each other like two conspiratory great white sharks!

Then again… “So… I’m a Patterner now.”

“Technically, if not in active practice,” Fiona answered, “although in truth you were one to start out with already, being of Shadow Earth.”

“I should caution you, however,” Mandor added, “that if you ever do decide to openly ‘fight for the Blinding Light’ that Chaosian agents will be dispatched to stop you – we still know where you live. Under other circumstances, it might even be me, since I know you well enough to anticipate you, if not still have sufficient influence to able to sway you to a degree,” he smirked.

“But I could, say, read the Book of the Unicorn if I wanted to?”

Mandor’s light eyebrows raised a little. “I suppose, should you desire to – there was never any proscription against it even before, since you are not a registered member of Chaos. From what I’ve been told, there are some fairly beautiful passages in certain sections. Just be aware that it is all written with a certain… twist to it.”

“The twist of the Horn, you mean?” Sarah ventured jestingly. Fiona looked mildly scandalized.

Mandor was carefully eying his fiancé. “I would have never stated it quite so bluntly… but yes,” he very quietly laughed – and was instantly slapped on the arm for doing so! “Hey,” he caught Fiona’s hand.

“As if the Book of the Serpent isn’t completely twisted around!” the princess rejoindered.

The Chaos lord gave one of his rare shrugs. “The power I personally care about is standing right here,” he brought the back of her hand to his lips, reverently kissing it, “and I believe she’s growing impatient for us to remove downstairs.”

“Oh, say goodbye to the girl properly already! Even I know you have more of a heart than that,” she pulled out of his grasp teasingly. “I’ll be waiting,” she smiled at him – but it was mostly in her eyes – as she walked away from them, the rest of the way down the corridor in the opposite direction, turning right at the end.

“Foreign ambassador?” were the first words out of Sarah’s mouth the moment Fiona Barimen vanished around the corner.

“Once,” Mandor responded distantly; he had yet to turn back, “but the event is ancient history now.”

“So… when are you and the princess taking the plunge?”

He looked back to her now – confused.

“Getting hitched? Tying the knot? The noose?”

Still confused.

“Well, what is the joking euphemism for getting married in Chaos? Nobody ever told me!”

Recognition immediately registered in his features as he glanced at the ceiling for a second, smiling.

“Swallowing the Tail,” he made interlocking concentric rings out of his pointer-fingers and thumbs – then made the circles smaller and smaller until they were squished together tightly.

Sarah blinked. “Oh! Like ouroboros serpents!” she laughed.

“Exactly.” He stopped smiling, though, lowering his hands. “I honestly don’t know. There’s simply so much red tape involved with such a union. One or the other of us could be facing some form of political exile for even wishing to enter into this. If we can ever get all of the necessary treaties hammered out and all the legalese dealt with before the next round of cosmic catastrophes, you have a standing invitation to our wedding; as much as it will irritate certain people, it will have to be an unreligious civil ceremony, so no problems for you there,” he gave a bittersweet little smile. “If you ever find Gryll in his larger riding size standing at your front door, you’ll know what’s going on.”

“You’d better make it my bedroom window if I’m still living at him; my stepmother would have a heart-attack on the spot if she saw him!” she laughed.

“I’ll make a note of that.”

There was a beat of uncertainty, of mutual knowledge unsaid. Sarah broke eye-contact.

“I think I’m glad my real dad didn’t stick around, if he’s anything like Prince Julian,” she admitted quietly, staring at the front of Mandor’s foreign-substance-fabric jacket. “At least Robert actually cares about us, even if he is sort of clueless sometimes,” she rolled her eyes with a sad half-smile.

And glanced back up at a man she had once thought of like a surrogate father, many conflicting emotions striving together within her chest: wariness and trust, respect and defiance, love and real fear. The enemy who had been her friend. There was just too much.

He opened his arms for her with a lightly querying expression, like ‘well?’ “I am currently unarmed,” he qualified. Sarah smirked a little in spite of herself.

Oh, what the hell…

She stepped into his embrace, hugging him tightly anyway, hearing his steady heartbeat as he held her close, caressing her hair one last time.

“I’m proud of you, Earth-child,” he whispered in her ear – and after a second added, “I’m glad you’re still… here.”

Sarah knew that the first statement was probably just uttered for her benefit, that he had intuited at this close of range that she had been wanting and needing to hear it – for ages – but that last… that was real, and it contained almost more than he could say aloud: I’m glad you chose to stay a few minutes longer, with me.

Darn it, I wasn’t going to cry this time, she thought as treacherous tears started to well up in her eyes. I’m gonna miss you. “What in the worlds am I supposed to do now?” she laughed a little desperately through her emotion.

Mandor lightly tapped her left temple with his pointer-finger. “Remember. Remember, apply, learn – repeat forever. Ultimately, it’s all any of us can do.” He pulled away from her, cupping her face in his hands, wiping her tears aside with his thumbs, regarding her reaction with almost an odd, satisfied amusement. She had seen this expression on him many times before, but she had never really known what it meant.

“Oh, what?” she dared now, beginning to smile, too.

His own turned just a touch jaded. Alien.

“I simply conditioned your emotional responses toward me far too well,” he finally admitted, letting go of her. “You’ll be all right, though,” he silently mouthed, still smiling like that. It added back a little of his sinister aspect. He would’ve never told her that if he had thought she would be of any further use to him; the honesty hurt nothing now. And…

You’re trying to make me hate you again so this doesn’t hurt so bad, she realized, on the verge of crying some more.

He quirked one snowy eyebrow. “You distracted me; I nearly forgot I was carrying this.” He reached up to his right shoulder and Sarah forgot to breathe as something black and bulky with black straps separated out of the side of his jacket, looking like a giant version of mitosis! He held it out for her: it was a black leather backpack. Sarah took it from him; the thing was heavy. She knelt to open it.

“You left some personal possessions behind at my residences,” he remarked. “I’m afraid the hoverboard and the music machine would not operate on your home shadow since they run on Chaos magic, but the rest should serve nicely enough.”

It was her books! The Lizard-land tomes, her sketchbook and pencils (with several new color sketches inside that were not hers, including a few landscapes of her private pocket-shadow, the view of the sky from there), a book of Thari grammar and vocabulary along with all of her graded homework, two novels she had liked, a thin volume of ‘classical’ Chaosian poetry… and one book she had never seen before.

“You didn’t find this one,” he commented with a wry smirk, “because I kept it in my bedroom.”

It was a guide on… how to literally grow and raise humanoid Order children?! In every stage of development, starting in a laboratory-style ‘utero’ phase and continuing on to physical adulthood?! Scanning the table of contents in disbelief, she saw that it covered everything from which Chaosian and pseudo-Order foods had to be provided in what combinations at which growth levels, to ‘bonding’ and ‘imprinting’ techniques, especially ones not instinctively natural to a Chaosian!

“Parts of it may prove useful to you, should you ever choose to reproduce. I don’t believe I shall be needing it again,” Mandor said quietly – then glanced over to his right; Merlin was walking towards them.

“Are we about finished here?” the king asked them. “Sorry to have to hurry this along, but a couple of the guards on sentry duty are starting to get suspicious.”

“Just now, your Excellency,” Mandor answered; Sarah was standing back up, hoisting the leather backpack over her own shoulder, then fully donning it to better distribute the weight. Without those two oversized tomes, it would actually be fairly comfortable to wear. “I was about to send her home myself.”

Merlin looked slightly dubious. “I had planned on using the spikard – remember her double, too? You’re sure you can do that?”

“No, but I know someone who can,” he smiled deviously; before Merlin could stop him, Mandor summoned up a large Logrus portal and reached inside with his right arm! Half-a-second later, he took a few paces backward from it, leading out a gorgeous young woman with long, curled ruby-red hair and bright cerulean eyes! She wore a beautiful many-tiered white evening gown loaded with ruffles, along with a ruby diadem upon her brow that was faceted in the shape of a heart; smaller ones bespangling her magnificent dress. She looked like a queen, but she appeared somewhat bewildered by her current circumstances; the portal vanished on its own.

“Oh, my!” she exclaimed, glancing about her; she had a lovely soprano voice, too. “Where am I?”

“You’ll be in the dungeon if you’re caught!” Merlin irritatedly scolded Mandor, wondering what in the worlds had gotten into him. “Come on!”

Their small party rushed down the hall to the turning with the stairs, but Merlin led them to the right instead, into his apartments, locking the door behind them, spontaneously igniting the oil lamps magically, instantly triggering a déjà vu-like sensation as well as nostalgia in Sarah. This set of rooms had been set aside for his private use when visiting Amber, long before he became a king. “Did you just decide you had a death wish today, Mandor?! Surely there’s got to be a saner way for you to get in touch with your ‘wild ‘n’ crazy’ side!”

“It’s called a goodbye present,” the Chaos lord levelly responded. “May I present to you both Glinda the Good Witch of the South,” he announced grandly, his eyes as bright as the lady’s jewels!

It was all Sarah could do not to gawk slack-jawed! And to think that he had just blindly pulled this radiant phantom out of Shadow! The South… oh, that’s right, he only knows the book version, and it has to be a nicely illustrated Thari edition besides! She suddenly thought, still astounded.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Merlin quietly laughed, shaking his head, walking back toward the entrance. “I think I’d better take care of Shara myself. If you don’t send this nice lady back where you found her I’m telling Aunt Fi,” he half-warned with a pointed look, opening the door.

Mandor nodded. “The moment this is over. Thank you, Merlin.”

The door closed.

“I believe you have the advantage of me… Mandor?” Glinda cautiously ventured to address the unknown, white-haired man standing before her. They were all in Merlin’s open sitting room, standing on a large oriental rug with a hunting scene woven into it.

The Chaos lord gave a rather dashing smile (for him), bowing with a flourish, taking the witch’s hand and lightly kissing the back of it. “I hope I did not pull you away at an inopportune moment,” he straightened again. “I have been known by many names, but you and your people call me Oz,” he crossed his arms, gazing down at her imperiously, suddenly taller than normal.

Glinda gasped, her eyes wide. “Great Wizard!” she exclaimed, curtsying low to the floor. “What did your honor wish of me?”

“Rise, Glinda the Good,” Mandor eased into the part, sparing a lightning-fast sideways glance at Sarah, who was still watching the tableau in disbelief! “Are you still in possession of the slippers?”

“The magic slippers of the Witch of the East? Yes, I can conjure them here at once. But what could you possibly need them for? Oh, forgive my impertinence – I did not mean to question you!”

Mandor smiled archly. “Indeed, they are not for me – I travel at will most places – but I have a young friend here who is in need of their services. Of course I know of Dorothy, which is why I called upon you: this child, too, has fallen from the stars and desires to return home. Other duties prevent me from accompanying her thence myself.”

Glinda fixed her unearthly blue eyes on Sarah with interest. “Is she also from Kansas?”

“No, but the two stars are in the same galaxy,” the Chaos lord effortlessly lied, in turn looking at Sarah – but in amusement. “What was the name of your star again?”

“New York,” Sarah answered, feeling like she was dreaming. He can’t be serious! This is actually going to work?!

“Very well,” Glinda immediately conceded. “What is your name, my dear?” she smiled sweetly, beckoning the girl closer. Mandor had stepped into the bedroom section of the suite - there was the unmistakable sound of a window being opened, extra light coming through the doorway – but he came back almost immediately.

“Sarah Williams,” she said, approaching the witch. Fictional or not, this lady made quite an intimidating sorceron in her own right! If she were any differently natured, she would be more than a little scary.

As it was, she was still smiling; she had produced a staff-length thin silver wand out of nowhere, with the sigil that started the word ‘South’ in Thari as the tip ornamentation.

“Wait a moment,” Mandor interrupted her. “Sarah, you had better remove and pack those boots if you don’t want to lose them.”

“…oh. Right.” She quickly slipped them off and folded them small (the leather of the uppers was very soft), noting the place where the left one had gotten slashed – only to realize that the cuts weren’t as long or deep as they had been before!

“Those are Chaos-morphic leather?” Mandor asked upon seeing her reaction.

“Probably; I don’t know for sure where the Ghostwheel got them.”

“They are,” he answered definitively, “the hide retains the ability to heal from all but the most serious injuries in about a couple of linear weeks, local-time. Let them rest and they’ll be like brand new before you know it.”

The boots went in the carryall; Glinda was obviously curious, but politely holding her tongue. Once Sarah was in her stocking feet, the witch summoned the slippers, touching her wand to Sarah’s toes – and at once she found herself spontaneously shod in dainty-looking silver slippers with pointed toes that curled slightly upward; they gleamed in the natural light from the window. She looked up at Mandor, all her emotions readable at once. His own, by comparison, were totally unreadable, perfectly controlled.

“Perhaps you’d better just hold the larger pack in front,” he suddenly decided, helping her to take it off, placing it in her arms instead. “The added ballast should help with the landing, but I think it would be better not against your spine. There.”


Glinda kissed her on the forehead. “Just knock your heels together three times,” she was instructing, “and announce where you would go, and the Silver Slippers will deposit you there in only three steps.”

Sarah did as she was told, clicking her heels just like the movie, but she knew she was still forgetting something…

“Close your eyes before you think of your home, Earth-child,” Mandor crookedly smiled; there was a note of warning in his voice.

She did so, automatically obeying him one final time. “Take me home to Nyack, New York.”

Then she remembered: these were the Silver Slippers, like the book – not the gently-wake-up-in-bed-muttering Ruby Slippers, mind you, the Silver Slippers!

Oh no, no way, she thought as her house on Earth came unbidden to memory, perfectly clear in her mind’s eye, not the stupid rocket-

SHOES!!! – she was hurtling through the air at an impossible speed, the wind screaming in her ears! Light – dark – split-seconds of various sounds and smells assaulted her senses like a hellride – of course, this was what Mandor knew! Her right foot had just touched ground somewhere – the first step! She clutched the backpack to herself for dear life, mentally repeating the mantra from the movie – ‘there’s no place like home’ – praying that she would make it! Left foot contact! She tried to estimate when the final step would be and cracked her left eye just a split-second before…

And screamed, seeing herself plummeting to her own backyard from ten floors up! She magically landed on her feet with her knees slightly bent, but the propulsive force of her previous speed knocked her down; dropping the pack, she rolled halfway across the lawn before she could get stopped, just a few feet from the wooden fence!

…panting, gazing up at the blue Orderish sky, the ‘normal’ green trees, smelling the freshly-cut stationary grass beneath her as she waited for the world to stop spinning around her…

And then she cried, first in relief: she had made it! She had survived everything. She was home at last. And then from the loss – stranded alone on earthly soil, as the bards of long ago would have said. It was certifiably nuts, but she really was going to miss all of that, all those people; her own world suddenly felt very small and limited compared to the greatly expanded reality she had grown accustomed to. She suddenly thought of Prince Corwin then – the real one – how he had been marooned on Earth for nearly nine centuries. How it hadn’t stopped him from living many full and fulfilling lives, hadn’t stopped him from being himself – not really, not how it counts. No matter where she was, she was a citizen of a multiverse now; nothing could take that away from her. She could even still walk in Shadow, though she knew she wouldn’t have the nerve to try it again for a very long time.


Sarah was slowly sitting up on her elbows, scolding herself for being such a crybaby – with how crazy time sped by in the Courts, she’s probably be seeing Mandor again in a month or less – when she finally noticed: her nice Chaosian wardrobe was simply covered in grass stains!

“Aw, shit,” she muttered to herself, stiffly standing; the Silver Slippers were gone; she was just in those thin socks. Good riddance! Certain fantasies just didn’t belong in ‘real life’, she mused, crossing the yard to the black leather backpack; it seemed to have survived the ordeal in one piece - relatively clean, too. Letting herself in through the back patio door, she removed her grassy stockings and tiptoed upstairs; she had absolutely no idea what time or day it was, but it appeared to be mid-afternoon from the position of the sun, maybe three or four? Just being able to guesstimate the time like that held bittersweet memories, too, now.

Neither was she wrong: her bedside clock read 4:48 as she entered her room. Stripping out of the exotic garments and changing before she touched anything else (her old, oversized poet’s shirt with a pair of black leggings in a fit of mixed nostalgia), she stashed the expensive-looking backpack and its telling contents in the back of her closet, followed by the carryall and her now-empty trump hollister; she doubted that Shara had been making that kind of money just yet. Then changed her mind, extracting the Amber journal and pen, before burying the rest of it in a mound of stuffed animals.

And did a double-take: Shara had been rearranging in here! She hadn’t disposed of any of Sarah’s belongings, but some of the contents of this room had definitely been shuffled. The cubby-shelves mounted on the wall next to her bed were now filled with knick-knacks… including her old music box. Sarah smirked. Once she would’ve had a cow if somebody had done something like this without her knowledge; now she almost didn’t care – she still planned on working on this room herself. Leaving the new journal on her vanity, she crossed over to the bed and lifted the mattress, hoping Shara hadn’t hidden their diary too well. It wasn’t there; some digging under the far side of the bed next to the heat register turned it up, though – the girl had found a place to stash it in the box springs! Sarah quickly flipped to the last entry (she’d have to seriously study the thing later): the date was June 4, 1986. She had been gone just three days short of two months – as long as Mandor had planned on her being absent from her world in the first place. She closed up the small volume and put it back under the mattress where she used to keep it. And had to smile: she’d completely missed finals week! Hopefully Shara had gotten her good grades.

Shara. She still couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the girl – how it had turned out – but it was pointless to dwell on it. Her shadow had gotten a nice vacation from her problems, even if she couldn’t remember it; that had to be worth some brownie points somewhere. Sarah only wished she could’ve talked to her again before she had to go…

No. It’s probably better that she doesn’t remember this, she brushed the selfish sentiment aside; not everybody could handle knowing stuff like this. It suddenly occurred to her that she still had the Ghostwheel’s exhaustively detailed, printed instructions on how to get to Shara’s New Yark, though, if Merlin hadn’t discovered them. Maybe. Someday…

Taking a deep breath, she exited her room and went to the bathroom to freshen up; her hair was just a wreck and she still smelled of grass! Later, heading back downstairs, she could hear the TV on in the family room – sounded like one of her stepmother’s soap operas. Oh, goody, she thought sarcastically; she’d really been hoping she wasn’t going to have to deal with her for at least another hour. Sneaking into the kitchen, she tried to noiselessly open the door to the fridge.

“Sarah, is that you?” she heard her stepmother from across the house. “I didn’t even hear you come in!”

No such luck, she quietly sighed as the woman walked into the room – and started upon seeing her.

“Oh! You changed.” Sarah’s stepmother had always been a veritable fashion-plate for the nice, boring conservative look: she was currently wearing a nice, boring light teal short-sleeved blouse with a calf-length floral-print skirt to match and pumps (why did she always wear dress shoes?), her strawberry-blonde hair back in a French twist; Sarah could tell that she’d let it grow out a little.

Karen Williams could also tell that there was something different about her stepdaughter beyond a seemingly abrupt reversion to her old eccentric tastes in clothes, but what precisely she couldn’t pin down.

“That combination isn’t half-bad, actually,” she offered charitably with a tentative lip-smile, “but it needs a belt. If you’re hungry I’ll get you something; you don’t need to be ruining your dinner.”

I’m definitely home, Sarah sat down in one of the chairs at the small, circular kitchen table, resting her elbows on it, her head in her hands, suddenly feeling dead-spent.

Her stepmother noticed as she turned back from the cupboard.

“Sarah, what’s the matter?” she asked concernedly, clicking her way across the hardwood floor.

Sarah looked up at her tiredly; she was holding a glass of milk and a small plate. “Karen,” she sighed, “can we just say that today was the longest day on the face of Shadow Earth and leave it at that?”

Her stepmother looked confused for a moment – and Sarah belatedly realized that she’d said ‘shadow’ out of habit! But Karen suddenly sighed with a patronizing little smirk, as if she’d just gotten it

“Something went wrong with that group of boys you role-play ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ with,” she confidently deduced, setting down the glass and plate in front of Sarah; there were two homemade cookies on it, some kind of oatmeal-raisin-spice. When did her stepmother start baking? “I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised – none of them have ever sounded very mature to me. This isn’t anything serious that we need to know about, is it Sarah?”

“No,” she shook her head, trying one. Wholegrain flour besides the oatmeal – were those tiny carrot shreds in there? Figured. It tasted okay, though.

“You know, I do worry a bit about your playing around with all that dark stuff sometimes, but as long as it’s just pretend to you… I suppose there are situations I’d be more worried about at your age, if you were hanging out with partiers instead. Was it just trouble with the game then today?”

Since when had Karen ever cared about anything she was interested in?! Sarah had to rapidly remind herself that Shara had really cozied up to this woman… and maybe she’d never given her much of a chance, either, she wearily conceded, covering her silence with a swallow of milk.

“My side just lost a campaign we’d been waging for weeks,” she only half-bluffed, “because I lost my nerve and couldn’t let us win – the stakes were just too high; we’d have all winded up hating each other. So I took the fall – I’m out until the next round.” She had so much to catch up on, so many people she had to familiarize herself with in a hurry!

Her stepmother just sighed and quirked a smile. “Well, I may not always understand you, Sarah, but I’m on your side, too. Remember that?”

She nodded non-committally, stuffing her face with the other cookie.

Karen clicked back out of the kitchen, murmuring to herself, “It couldn’t last, it just couldn’t last…” – she’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop for the last two months, ever since Sarah had seemed to wake up to reality one day out-of-the-blue. The dreamer was clearly still alive and well.

And of course Sarah heard her; she quietly groaned, resting her head on the table instead. Back to the same old crapola.

No, she suddenly decided. Things would only be the same as before if she chose to do nothing differently; life here was already slightly different. In order to not be played upon, she had to be willing to play the game herself – she’d at least learned that much from her experience. Sitting back up, polishing off the milk, Sarah noticed movement in the doorway out of the corner of her eye: Toby had just toddled by! Quickly rinsing off her dishes, she ran down her little brother in the hall, scooping him up from behind, flying him around to make him laugh – but when he finally saw her face, he started to cry!

“Oh, don’t be like that,” she soothed him, jogging him against her hip, “I’m going to be a better big sister from now on,” she whispered, kissing his pudgy cheek, “I promise.” Mandor’s book came to mind – it might be of use to her sooner than later! She commenced ascending the stairs with her baby brother in tow when Karen called after her again.

“You’re still planning on babysitting for the Johnstons at seven tonight, right?”

Sarah stopped where she was, closing her eyes for a moment. Shara and her stupid babysitting gigs… “Yes.”

“Just making sure you remembered – you disappeared this afternoon without telling either of us where you were going.”

Sarah climbed the rest of the flight; she had to start boning up on that book right now, just as soon as she’d figured out who the Johnstons were – or where they even lived!

Meanwhile, on the far side of the spectrum of existence, in the Ways of Sawall in the Courts of Chaos, the chained figured of a pale man stood under heavy guard by a half-dozen soldiers – albino, deathly white, red-eyed – before an equally white-haired man, seated upon an ornate black-lacquered high-backed chair with batwings carved into the top. Lord Mandor had dispatched private troops from the Sawall compound to track down and capture his distant, erring shadow-copy the moment he had arrived back home – but they didn’t have to search for him far: Jareth had been discovered upon the shadow-world that housed the final Logrus, openly arguing with Her at top volume just outside the walls, unable to re-enter, equally unable to leave that world on his own. He had fought them with all of his reserves, but in the end She ceased to support his power and he was tackled to the ground en masse, manacled hand and food, wrapped safely in the Chains of Deliverance, transported back to the Courts and presented to his original in this state.

“All I ever wanted was to be like you!” he angrily screamed at Mandor. “Is that so terrible a crime?!”

“Open high treason against the Logrus by an official protector is,” the seated Chaos lord uttered darkly, “but in light of other evidence pertaining to this case, I am not entirely convinced of your conscious guilt in attempting to abandon Her. At any rate, your position there will not be reinstated. Take him to one of the warded holding cells,” he instructed the guards, “release him from his bonds and see that he is adequately fed. I shall deal with him later.”

The former Goblin King was forcibly removed from the Hearing Hall; the guards had to gag him as well to keep their prisoner from spitting at their lord! Merlin ambled into the room out of thin air as they sank through a ‘way’ in the floor.

“Did I interrupt anything?”

“Not in the least, your Excellency,” Mandor threw his foster-brother’s title at him just a little playfully, standing up, walking over to him across the deep-blue tiled causeway that floated in the middle of a starry void; the judicial hall at the Ways of Sawall had been constructed to be imposing, but the great dark ‘room’ rarely saw any kind of use anymore. “Sometimes I wonder that you even have the time for these short visits, let alone your own private affairs.” Together the two men rose through a different way in the middle of the space – hidden – and walked through a swampy wooded area, heading back toward the more habitable parts of the compound.

“I don’t have time,” Merlin answered irritatedly, pushing drooping lichen aside. “I wish my Logrus-ghosts were as reliable and sane as my old man’s Pattern-double; I could really use two or three extra of me right now. Council’s back in session – it’s going to take weeks just to get caught up on the work I missed in just a few hours in Amber!”

They walked straight on through a certain large dead tree with tiers of black fungus growing along the sides of the bleached, peeling truck – and emerged in one of the upper-floor sitting rooms in the more ‘modern’ section of the Ways, decorated darkly like always, but with a liquid ceiling, multicolored light gently filtering in from some source far above.

“You still allow yourself to be manipulated by a sense of duty far too easily,” Mandor poured them both glasses of a neon-orange drink from a sideboard, coming over with them to the sofa that Merlin had commandeered. “Make the time, if what’s truly bothering you is as important as I think it might be. I certainly don’t envy your position for the moment, but you still have the power to do something about it. Or perhaps it has you,” he enigmatically smiled, handing Merlin his drink before seating himself alongside, taking a sip of his own. The substance had no Order analogue, but it provided a fiery burst of stability to the nerves without intoxication.

“That’s just it; how far can I really act on my own to resolve the crisis with this Second Pattern without turning into a pawn for the Logrus again myself? Or is that a moot point anymore, with Great-Granddad and Uncle Suhuy playing ‘Supremacy’ with us all? Do we have any autonomy in this, do you think?”

“We must,” Mandor answered definitively, “for if we had none, there would be no point in the powers nudging us in the desired directions.” He paused. “Your agents haven’t located Tekla, have they.” It wasn’t a question.

Merlin sighed, taking a sip from his own glass, leaning back, closing his eyes. “She can’t be that good! Ghost’s been following her sloppy trail zigzagging across Shadow through some physically dangerous places, but he’s just lost her bio-signal – she could be hiding in a collapsing wormhole, she could’ve been spirited away to Undershadow by the Serpent, she could’ve become something’s lunch for all we know! Bottom line is she’s gone, and I’m not looking forward to having to explain that to Uncle Random.”

“Try explaining your predicament to Suhuy instead, in his private capacity; he should at least be able to divine whether the lady is still in the Logrus’ good graces – that alone could narrow down your possible options considerably. And it will give you the opportunity to air your other personal misgivings also.”

Merlin cautiously glanced at him; his elder foster-brother Mandor had always been a veritable fountain of good, sound advice. For the most part. “Who’s side are you on this cycle?” he bluntly ventured.

“Why, yours, of course, Merlin.”

“But in my capacity as the king of Chaos chiefly, though.”

Mandor simply looked away. “Having divided loyalties as you do must render sleep difficult to come by some nights,” he casually observed, taking another sip of his drink before setting it aside on a floating end table. And smiled a little bitterly. “To be honest, I’m facing a much milder quandary myself at present, for the exact opposite reason.”

“You found Jareth, you mean?”

Mandor folded his hands, loosely crossing his ankles. “Almost too easily – the Logrus would not relinquish him out of spite; whatever he had tried to accomplish at the Second Pattern obviously failed. Oh, there’s no question that he was culpable in the attempted treason, but what I simply cannot seem to see clearly is whether his desperation for freedom was used by the Logrus in this long-range plot, or had She deliberately tortured him to the point that he would choose this, as She planned? Or did She even directly plant the idea in his subconscious Herself, then provide the agency to carry it out? It would be useless to question him on this point; even if he cooperated, I doubt he would know the answer. She obviously doesn’t want him back; if She had, I would’ve just left him there. I could toy with him at my leisure, of course, but frankly I’m not interested or irritated enough to bother with it.”

Could that possibly be a pang of conscience? Merlin thought almost in jest. Nah – never.

Or was it?

“All the shadows desire to be as we are,” Mandor quietly mused aloud, catching Merlin a bit off-guard. “One of mine just had the nerve to go after it, to say so to my face just now. Isn’t there a Shadow Earth parable about attempting to fly with wings made of wax?”

“There is – it’s ancient Greek,” Merlin nodded.

Mandor slowly smirked. “You know, I just might grant his wish – the mundane part, anyway – as his punishment. Do you think a decade or so of ‘finishing school’ would make him more like me?” he smiled crookedly.

“Man, that’s just cruel. But we’re talking ‘re-education’ here, too, right?”

The Chaos lord nodded. “By the time he’s ready to be released again, he won’t be a threat to anyone. And he’ll be such a ladies’ man on the shadow I’ve a mind to relocate him to that I seriously doubt he’ll even care; adroit use of neurotransmitters can make for a powerful source of distraction.”

Merlin couldn’t stifle his smile. “So, ultimately, you’re actually planning on being unwarrantedly nice to him. Because of Sarah.”

Mandor reflexively glanced at his younger brother, genuinely surprised at his depth of vision this time – then relaxed again with a rueful little lip-smile.

“I see your practice in dealing with the Council is serving you well,” he offhandedly complimented him. Then gazed far across the room, looking even more distant in thought, watching the reflections of the light dance across the floor.

“It is strange,” he admitted at length, “how we can sometimes become attached to tentative shadow-people, how we can even come to care for them, still knowing what they are – what they are not. But I remember now that I’m preaching to the choir.”

There was silence for a long time after that.

Merlin stood first. “Well, my recess break has got to be over by now – I have to get back. Just thought I’d check in, see how things were going on this end.”

“If I can be of any assistance, you know where to find me,” Mandor said, also rising to his feet. Then thought to add, “Did you have any plans for this evening?”

“Nothing particularly exciting – just going over new cases alone. Why?” he smiled.

“I was just thinking that if you didn’t have any pressing affairs, perhaps you could join me at Mandorways for dinner, just the two of us. For old times’ sake.”

Merlin was still smiling. “You do miss that kid.”

Mandor almost imperceptibly shrugged. “I would prefer to think of this as a chance for us both to relax and regroup before heading back out into the proverbial storm. Are you game?”

“Sure, I’ll bite. Is a formal eight-o-clock linear all right for you? I fully expect today’s session to run late.”

“Whenever is most convenient for your Excellency,” Mandor demurred.

“Yeah, and remember you just asked for a one-on-one social call from your king – you really have to pull out the stops this time; I demand to be impressed,” Merlin added teasingly, knowing full well that this was his big brother’s favorite hobby, that he practically lived for challenges like this.

Mandor smiled his crooked smile, rising to the occasion. “With pleasure, Merlin. With pleasure.”

Much later that evening on Shadow Earth, in a certain residence in a northern suburb of New York City, a pen was furiously scribbling Thari script all by itself into a new green leather journal, brought all the way from the City of Amber – purchased with the intent of recording a teenage girl’s personal saga, placed on her vanity with the intention of inscribing it, and left there. Unlike the other possessions on her person when she travailed the Fixed Logrus – the Labyrinth – this already carried that intention, and so was charged with that power. What Sarah would do when she came home that night and discovered it remained to be seen – or, indeed, what she would do when the pen ran out of paper to write on (for it would never run out of ink.) But, for right now, it was busy recording an incredible story, even the parts she couldn’t remember or hadn’t ever known…

Postlude (exit music): ‘Quicksand’, David Bowie, Hunky Dory

(Lingering music: ‘Survive – Marius de Vries remix’, David Bowie, Hours…)
I know this one was a little off the beaten track, but thanks for reading, everybody! If you're curious as to just what happened on that infamous date between Mandor and Fiona, check out my 'Chronicles of Amber' short story Veneration (really chapter 7.5 'easter egg', but it didn't fit the tone and subject matter of this crossover.) nudge ;)
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