Aces and Eights

Traveling, en route to somewhere, in search of something; employed by a king, interrupted by a dying man…

I awoke when the sounds of tumbling rocks and sliding gravel reached the dream-etched realms of my subconscious, which at the time happened to be buried beneath several tons of sleep. I sat up, immediately reaching for the 9mm lying atop my pack. The bright stars were dimly reflected along the barrel of the pistol.

About eight feet away, from the lip of the rock shelf that I occupied, came a gasp then a bandaged hand. I watched the scratched and bleeding fingers for only a second before moving over to the edge. The man clinging to the side of the cliff did not seem capable of doing anything particularly vicious, so I tucked the pistol into my belt and reached down to help him. I took hold of the man’s forearm and lifted, bringing him safely up and over. As I lowered him to the stony ground, he groaned softly, then shuddered and went limp. Leaving him lying there on the edge of the shelf, I fetched a canteen from my pack and brought it over to where he lay. I crouched next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.

The man stirred and looked up at me. When I offered him the water, he reached out with shaking hands and managed to choke down a few gulps. He was lean, with rat-like features and dark hair. There was an odd design tattooed over his left eyebrow. Composed of wavy, interwoven lines of green and black, it looked like a character from some pictographic language. He needed a bath badly.

When he suddenly began to tremble, I moved back a pace, and drew the corner of my cloak across my mouth, thinking of plagues and sickness. “Don’t worry,” he whispered hoarsely, “It’s nothing you can catch.”

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.

“I’m dying.”

A quiet moment hung between us, during which the wind swept across the ledge. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “Is there anything I can do?”

“That depends.” He forced himself up on one arm and rummaged through a leather sack secured to his belt. He retrieved a worn brown envelope. “See if you recognize this.”

I took the envelope and opened it carefully. It fluttered with the wind, and I leaned over slightly to shield the contents. Inside there was a piece of paste board roughly the size and shape of a large playing card. The thing’s coolness must have startled me some, because he smiled at me then.

“I knew you’d know what it was,” he said. “Now I can rest.”

“You knew I’d recognize this?” I asked, irritated that I had allowed him to see my surprise. I examined the card I held. It was a Trump, something that people outside the royal families of Chaos and Amber rarely have access to. This one showed a tower on a small, rocky island. “How?”

“I saw you talking into one, in a bar, several weeks ago. I’ve been trying to catch up with you since then. You travel fast.”

“Where did you get this?” I asked.

“Use the card,” he said, lying back down again. A series of violent coughs shook him. “I haven’t got the strength to explain.”

“Sorry, but I’ve got to know.”

“Please…” he choked out, “ask me again in the morning.” His voice was a wheezing sigh.

Considering, I tucked the Trump away. Then I got him a blanket and built a fire. I spent the remainder of the night watching over him, but his condition was fragile and by morning he was dead.

* * * * *

I withdrew the dead man’s Trump and studied it; pale milky sky and emerald waves, with a gray tower standing like a needle on the scene’s single, rocky island. I was certain that I had never seen the place before, but—knowing that a Trump could access any one place imaginable—the fact that I was not familiar with it did not mean much; the painted image on the card could have represented anywhere.

I felt a strong desire to unravel the mystery of the tower. Had the bearer of the Trump sought me out specifically, or would anyone who understood such devices have served as well? Whose Trump was it anyway? Someone had to have painted it, and it had definitely not been rendered in the same draftsman-like style as those with which I was most familiar. I had gotten the impression that the man who had given me the thing had been a courier, or merely someone acting in that capacity. Perhaps he had been under a geas. I wondered who had commissioned him to deliver it. Damn him for dying anyway.

The Trump and tower thing came at a bad time, as I still had some business to finish for my employer and friend from back home on the Shadow called Earth. I refer to Lucas Raynard—known in his homeland as King Rinaldo—the single source of all my travels away from Earth.

I met Luke while doing my Forestry undergraduate work at Berkeley. An ex-girlfriend introduced us during an astronomy camping trip. We hit it off well that night while gazing at the stars and subsequently spent quite a bit of time doing things together between the beginning of my junior year and the end of my master’s program, four years later. Both of us were heavily into the camping, canoeing and hiking scene, and these things consumed a great deal of our mutual free time. It was in the course of pursuing such woodland activities that he and I developed our friendship.

Though at the time I thought I knew him fairly well, it was not until after graduation that I found out that there was more to my friend than devilish charm and a fondness for rugged environs.

I had accepted a job offer from a State Park in Texas and was in the process of packing my personal belongings, sending back my rental furniture, et cetera, when I heard a quasi-knock on my front door. It was not a healthy, hearty knock, but rather a sort of a dull thump. At the door, I peeped through the little glass tube installed there. And saw nothing. Curious (and a hell of a lot less cautious than I would be today), I opened the door.

Lying on my welcome mat, doubled over, was Luke, bleeding from many separate wounds; abrasions, punctures, lacerations—you name it, he had it. I leaned down, trying to recall everything I knew about first aid.

Luke looked up at me, his face twisted with pain. “Inside,” he said through clenched teeth. I started to say something along the lines of, “You should probably keep still,” but then he gave me a look that was frightening in its intensity.

“Now,” he hissed. It sounded strangely like an order.

Shaken, confused and concerned, I took hold of him under his arms and dragged him backwards into my apartment. I left him in the middle of the living room and began searching throughout the cluttered room for my cordless phone.

“The door,” he called out hoarsely. “…close it.”

Suddenly, I realized that whoever had ventilated Luke might still be outside, looking for him, hoping to finish the job. Once this idea took hold of my thoughts, his demanding tone made more sense. I crossed the room, looked outside and, for good measure, flipped the bloody mat upside down. Then I closed and locked the door. After that, I located the phone and was about to use it, when Luke made another strange request.

“No hospital, no doctors,” he said.

I was about to call anyway, chalking up Luke’s weird behavior to delirium, when I saw that he gripped a small, semi-automatic pistol in his left hand.

“Dammit, Nigel; no doctors!”

“Put that thing away.” I gestured toward the gun, irritated that he would pull such a stunt. “Why won’t you let me call an ambulance?” I asked. “You obviously need help.”

“No,” he said, weaker this time, “I have reasons. Damned good ones.” His head drooped slightly. “Just try to bandage me up—stop the bleeding. I’ll live.” He looked up at me, locking onto my gaze and holding it for a second. Then he laid the pistol down on the coffee table.

Without pause, I dashed into the bathroom, thankful that I had put it at the bottom of the packing list. I gathered up a bundle of towels, a first aid kit and a half empty bottle of aspirin, then headed back into the living room. Luke was lying stretched out, apparently unconscious. I glanced momentarily at the phone, but pushed the thought aside and knelt down. Removing his jacket and ripping away his shirt, I began patching holes.

* * * * *

Luke was out for just about twelve hours. When he awoke, his condition seemed to have improved. He even redressed his wounds, far better than I had. It seemed that he had some familiarity with the practice. He spent the following day lying around my apartment, recovering, and asking me repeatedly to check the windows for any would-be intruders. There were none, and when he seemed strong enough to talk without passing out, I felt that it was time for my enlightenment.

“Okay, Luke,” I said on the second day of his recuperation, “How about an explanation? I think this case warrants one.”

He said nothing, filling the space with several mouthfuls of tuna fish sandwich.

“Don’t tell me you expect the silence routine to work. You know me better than that.”

He put his sandwich down and looked at me, considering. Though he was in less than perfect shape, there was a sparkle in his eyes. “Would you believe that I was mugged?”

“No,” I said, “because, for starters, you’re a big guy and most muggers pick easy targets. Secondly, you were armed. You even had an extra clip in your jacket pocket. Then there’s the fact that your wallet wasn’t missing; I checked when I stripped you and put you in bed. Also, you had slash marks over about sixty percent of your body, not the calling card of your typical take-the-money-and-run mugger. So, in answer to your question, no, I wouldn’t believe that you were mugged.”

He sighed—an uncommon mannerism for Luke—and said, “I didn’t think so. Well, this could get complicated, but…”

Suddenly, the phone rang.

Luke smiled, obviously relieved by the interruption. Cursing, I pushed my chair back and followed the ringing sounds.

“Hello,” I said into the receiver.

A few seconds of silence followed. Then, “You are foolish to protect him. It could cost you.” The voice had a strange accent.

Shocked and annoyed, I said, “Who is this, and what in the hell are you talking about?” I heard Luke rising behind me.

“I’ll be coming for him tonight,” was all I got, then the mysterious caller hung up.

“Damn,” I said, carrying the phone back to the kitchen table.

“Who was it?” asked Luke.

“Prank call, probably, unless…” I gave my friend an appraising look. “It sounded like it might have been those friends of yours. You know, the ones who did the slice-and-dice trick on you. If it was, they’ll be here tonight.”

He looked grave. “There’s something you have to do for me.”

I considered. Luke and I had been good friends up to that point, but it seemed as if he was about to ask me to do something that could be illegal, potentially dangerous even, judging by what had happened to him. The way I saw it, a decision either way—to help him or to avoid risking my neck—constituted a turning point that would, respectively, strengthen or weaken our friendship, depending on my choice. I realized then that I liked Luke a hell of a lot. It went beyond the fact that we had spent a great deal of time together pursuing Mother Nature and the good times she could provide; there was just something about him—some diffuse, unpinpointed quality that I liked.

“Okay,” I said, “Name it.”

He smiled. “I won’t forget this.”

“Whatever. What is it you need? Money? A plane ticket?”

“No, nothing like that. I left something in a bus station; in a locker there. I need you to get it.”

“Sounds too easy. What’s the catch? What’s keeping you from walking in yourself and taking whatever it is you want?”

“The bus station is being watched, and the people watching over it would recognize me.”

“I see. But what if they recognize me? Whoever made that call implied that I was putting myself in danger by protecting you.”

“That was probably a hollow threat; they’re probably calling all my friends, intending to scare someone into throwing me out.” He grinned. “You won’t, will you?”

“Of course not.” Then I began to wonder about whatever it was that the locker contained. What could it be that was so important?

“Drugs?” I asked, studying his face for a reaction.

“No,” he said calmly.

“What then?”

“Items of sentimental value…a ring, some paintings, in a bag.”

“And someone is guarding the bus station, hoping you’ll tip your hand by showing up to retrieve them?”

“Right.”

“Tell me something,” I said, “is the observing party more interested in you or your goods?”

He chuckled. “Both, but me mostly.” He grew serious. “I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t important. All you have to do is go to the station, pick up my stuff, and bring it back here.”

“How do you know that your adversary hasn’t beaten me to it? Your locker could be empty by now.”

“They don’t know which locker is mine and I’ve gone to great lengths to protect its anonymity. I’ve erected certain…counter-measures which should’ve kept them out.”

“An alarm? A trap?”

“Sort of, but nothing that will affect you. They can only be triggered by selected types. Trust me.” His smile was disarming.

“Okay, I’ll do it. But what happens after I get your stuff and bring it back?”

“You make your move to Texas and I skip the country, stay hidden for a while. Safe and simple. I’ll contact you at a later date and explain all this over pina coladas.”

“All right,” I said after a moment’s deliberation, “tell me which bus station.”

“The one closest to your favorite restaurant. Here’s the key…”

I raised my eyebrows at him. “You sound like someone might be listening right now.”

He grinned and shrugged. “You never know. The people that are out to get me take their work very seriously. In fact, I want you to take the pistol.” He gestured to the other room.

“Come on, Luke. This is starting to sound like a spy flick.”

“Take the gun, Nigel.” He said this firmly, sans amusement.

“Sure, okay; if you think it might help.” I was starting to get nervous. Walking from the kitchen table into the living room, I picked up the pistol from where it had rested since the day of Luke’s enigmatic arrival.

“Change clips,” he said. “I had to use it before I made it to your place.”

“You shot at somebody? You’re kidding?!” I could not imagine Luke actually firing a weapon at someone with the intention to kill or even harm. But then, after reviewing the events of the last two days and the way he was acting, I decided I could imagine it.

“I’m not joking. You might need it.”

I left the room to get the other magazine. When I returned, Luke was holding the pistol and had already removed the used magazine. I started to hand him the full one, but then stopped, seeing something that I had not noticed before.

“These don’t look like normal bullets,” I said, removing a round from the clip and holding it up.

“They’re silver,” said Luke, answering my unasked question.

“What?!”

“Please, don’t ask. It would only make things more complicated and time is a factor in all this.”

“All right, all right, all right. I won’t even ask; but later I’d really like an explanation.” I replaced the bullet and handed him the clip.

“Fair enough,” he said.

I went into the bedroom, grabbed a dark-colored jacket and my favorite pair of hiking boots. When I returned he was standing to the side of the curtainless kitchen window, peering out. My watch said seven-thirty-five; it was getting dark outside.

“I guess I’ll be off now, since you seem to be in such a hurry.”

“Nigel, you have my word, I will give you the whole story someday. You deserve no less.”

“Okay,” I said, relaxing a little. I walked toward the back door.

“Be careful.” He put the gun in my hand and I dropped it into my right jacket pocket.

“I will be…’bye.” I stepped out onto my patio. He nodded and closed the door; the lock made its clicking noises.

I looked around cautiously. There was no one on the patio, unless you count the potted plants that I had been planning as a farewell gift to Jennifer, the schoolteacher who lived in the apartment next to mine. I turned and looked down into the courtyard, four levels below. The pool lights gave the area a soft blue glaze. I saw nothing out of the ordinary, so I walked down the stairs. My parking-space neighbor had parked his car too close to mine and I had to squeeze myself in. I started the engine after hesitating for a couple of seconds. The thought of a bomb had crossed my mind briefly.

I backed out and drove toward the parking lot exit. I was getting as paranoid as Luke.

* * * * *

On the way to the bus station I watched for someone following me, but none of the other drivers seemed to have anything sneaky in mind. When I arrived, I parked the car and headed for the bus station’s large front doors.

The station was not as busy as I had expected. A small group of young soldiers occupied a bench in one corner and there was a figure lying huddled on another bench, clutching a bottle wrapped in the customary paper bag.

I headed along the wall, looking for Luke’s locker number. When I reached it, I dug the key out of my jeans and inserted it in the lock. As I turned the key, I was startled by what felt like a mild electrical shock.

When the locker door swung open, I looked in, then backed away blinking and rubbing my eyes. It had appeared, for an instant, that the locker contained an upraised snake, but the shadowy image vanished almost immediately. Within the locker, a light mist uncoiled itself and began dissipating. Confused, I disregarded it and reached inside for the bag that was there. It was about half a yard long and lighter than I had expected. About right for rolled up canvases, I thought. Bag in hand, I turned to leave.

Just then, three people entered the station, two men and a woman. They were dressed normally for the season—wearing jeans and light jackets—but there seemed to be purpose in the way they walked. The trio stalked its way toward me. Suddenly nervous, I turned and headed for the other end of the station, walking fast. I wanted to get outside, make my way around to the car and get the hell home. I passed through the doors and broke into a run.

Out in the night air, I immediately noticed a lone figure walking toward me from across the street. I rounded the corner of the building, hoping to make it to the car before anyone could reach me, but suddenly the man behind me was coming up quick. He seemed very fast.

I made it to the next corner, slowing down to round it, then sprinted for the car. I could hear the breathing of the man behind me. As I drew closer to the car, I could see that there was another man leaning against it. He smiled and stood up straight. In the same second, the station doors opened to my left and the three from inside emerged. “Damn,” I said, more from fear than anger, though there was anger in it as well. Then, deus ex machine, a cab pulled to a stop on the section of road to my immediate right.

I dashed for the open taxi door, shoving the man who had apparently flagged it aside with a quick, “Sorry,” before diving in. I slammed the door and yelled, “Drive,” emphasizing my words with the pistol. The driver floored it just as my assailants reached the cab. I slapped the lock down and pointed the pistol threateningly toward the nearest window. One of my pursuers—the woman, I think—smashed the window in spite of the gun. The expression on her face seemed a cross between determination and glee as her clenched fist plunged through the glass. Then, much to my relief, we were leaving them behind.

Looking back, I could see them standing in the road, pack-like and shadowed by the streetlights above and behind them. Turning back to the cabby, I gave him my address. I ran the fingers of my left hand through my hair, shaking away bits of broken glass. I started to wind down, to calm myself.

A shot broke out the rear windshield and whined away into the night. The taxi swerved and I could hear the driver cursing into his radio mike. Shaking away more glass, I turned to see my own car following us. I pointed the pistol out the hole that had previously been the rear windshield and squeezed the trigger.

Great, I thought. This was just what I needed. On top of everything else that had happened, my car was now involved in a chase and I was shooting at it. Suddenly, I wanted to laugh. Luke owed me one monster of an explanation.

They fired another shot and it followed the first. I fired back again, aiming for the driver. The windshield of my car imploded, but I had missed the man behind the wheel. They fired three more times in rapid succession and I heard one of the bullets slam home. I looked down, expecting blood, but there wasn’t any.

It was then that the taxi swerved and jumped up onto the curb. I heard the cabby moan; he had taken the bullet intended for me. I dove over the seat and took the wheel, steering the limping cab into an alley. A wall of sparks flew around us as one side of the taxi scraped the brick wall. I reached over, pulled the emergency brake and was thrown onto the floor.

I struggled to get up and out of the cab, first picking up the fallen pistol. Within my sleeve, blood ran freely down my forearm. I glanced at the cab driver, but he was unconscious. From behind, I heard another shot and I saw that my pursuers were making their way into the mouth of the alley. Also at that moment, I heard the sound of wailing sirens coming from somewhere.

I left the taxi running. It did a good job of blocking the alley, so the people chasing me were forced to leave my car and pursue on foot. I ran to the end of the alley, turned right out onto the open street (praying for another taxi, but not really daring to expect one). A dog barked at me as I ran down the sidewalk and across the parking lot of a convenience store. A couple of people turned to watch me as I sprinted along and I realized that I still had the pistol in my hand. I tucked it inside the jacket and tried hard to look like a jogger.

There was a park ahead and I made my way toward it, vaulting a small chain link fence. Once I dropped Luke’s precious bag, forcing me to stop and pick it up before continuing. My temples were pounding and it was getting harder to breathe; I knew that I could not keep running at full speed for long. Slowing a little, I passed an illuminated fountain. Then I was running on grass and there were trees ahead. I had made it to the park, at least.

When I had passed a number of trees, I ducked behind one and looked back in the direction from which I had come. I saw no signs of pursuit, so I decided to take a breather. Wishing that I had worn running shoes rather than hiking boots, I sat on the grass and panted. After a couple of minutes I felt a little better. I stood and stretched against the trunk of the tree, an oak. Looking around it once more, I saw nothing, then headed for the other side of the park. It was impossible not to give myself a mental kick for canceling my mobile phone contract in preparation for the move the Texas. Unable to come up with a better idea, I planned on finding the nearest phone and calling another taxi. I did not want to have to walk home unless I had to, as I was still several miles away from my apartment.

Voices came from somewhere to my left.

A couple out on a romantic stroll? Some homeless drunks? My gunmen? I decided not to take any chances. Ducking down again, I positioned myself behind another tree. My plan of hiding until they passed was suddenly disrupted, however, when someone from behind me called out, “I’ve found him!” I started to bolt, but saw that others were emerging from the trees before me. Then came more from my right. They fanned out, ringing me in.

I shoved my hand into my jacket pocket, and wrapped it around the gun. I resolved to try talking my way out first. “If you want this bag so bad,” I said, “take it. It’s not worth my life.”

“Your life is valueless,” said one of them, speaking with the same odd accent I had heard on the phone earlier. “We will slaughter you and take what we want.”

I turned to face the one who had spoken. I drew out the pistol and aimed it in his direction. “I don’t think so.”

He laughed and the others joined in. Damn, I thought, either these guys were great at bluffing, or I was in very serious trouble.

The man who had spoken stretched his arms out at length and I heard his shirt ripping. He snarled as his face suddenly darkened and twisted. I looked around, bewildered. The others were experiencing the same bizarre occurrence. In seconds, my adversaries grew taller, more muscular. Their nails grew long and sharp, their teeth became fangs. They got furry.

I remembered the silver bullets and selected a target. I wanted to make a hole in the circle so that I could escape. My mind was tumbling through a nightmare carnival of impossibility. Werewolves don’t exist, I told myself, shooting at the one closest to me.

The bullets caught him in the chest and slammed him backward over a park bench. He writhed in agony and the wound foamed as if someone had mixed baking powder and vinegar there. The others, no longer human, looked on with graveyard silence. All had ceased snarling.

I jumped up onto the park bench, leather bag in one hand, gun in the other, and hopped to the other side. I spun to face them. “That’s right,” I said frantically, “silver bullets.” Saying those words felt something like addressing a movie screen. “Now back off and let me leave.” The one I had shot stopped thrashing and began to transform back into a human shape.

One of them growled, emitting a low grinding sound. He leapt at me and I fired again, twice. This one, too, fell and flopped and foamed. Then there were three. “I warned you,” I said. A chorus of sirens was audible now. They looked at me for a moment, then turned in union and disappeared into the trees.

Near madness, I fled.

I left the park and made my way through a few more alleys and side streets before slowing down. When I stopped long enough to survey the scene at my back, I could see that the police had arrived and were blocking off the park. The lights from their cars flashed blue and red in the night, throwing eerie shadow and silhouette patterns into the branches of the surrounding trees.

I tried adding up the number of times I had fired the gun. Six, maybe seven, I thought. If the clip held fifteen—as I thought it did—I still had eight or nine shots left. Enough, if the fang gang should show up again.

After a few more blocks I slowed down from a quick jog to a walk. I must have pulled a muscle somewhere in the park because my thigh suddenly started to ache painfully.

It was a cloudy night, so I could not see the stars. The moon was not visible, either, but I knew that it was not supposed to be full yet. That struck me as odd, but then, what the hell did I really know about werewolves anyway. A short while earlier, I had thought them fictional.

I passed through a small business section and knew that I was about a quarter of the way home. A row of pay phones stood within the glow of a streetlight. I stopped at one, then moved down because the receiver had been torn away. The next cubicle was missing its book. The third booth was complete with phone and book, so I looked up the number of a taxi service, dug out a silvery quarter and called. I gave my name to the lady who answered, looking up at the corner for the name of the street. She said that my cab would be by in ten to fifteen, so I thanked her, hung up and waited. I would have called Luke then, but I did not have another quarter.

I got nervous just standing there. I felt like moving, like seeking shelter. I settled for moving out of the light and leaning against the cool stone wall of a many-windowed building. I put my hand into my pocket several times to verify that the pistol had not somehow deserted me. Luke’s bag sat against the wall at my feet. Minutes later, the taxi pulled up to the curb. I took one last look around and climbed inside, hoping that this ride would be more successful than my last. The driver took my address, pulled away and started talking about his son’s pitching arm. It seemed to be a routine speech. I half listened to him talk, rubbing my eyes and massaging my sore thigh.

“Here y’are,” said the cabby a while latter. “Seven-fifty, please.”

“Thanks,” I said, handing him a twenty. “Keep the rest.” Maybe I felt guilty about the other cab driver.

“Sure…thanks. Good night.”

I grabbed the bag and stepped out. Walking briskly, I headed for my apartment. I was almost there, moving through a dark section, when I was struck solidly from the rear and knocked to the ground. There was no doubt as to who it was who had attacked me—he was growling. I dropped the bag and yelled.

My arms were pinned, so I could not reach the pistol. I tried to roll over, but the werewolf was too strong. I thrashed and kicked, stricken by blind panic. I was grabbed from behind and lifted up. Strong arms, covered in thick red-brown fur, looped around my chest. An animal smell washed over me.

I kicked outward at the one who had tackled me. He stepped back, laughing. The third one joined us, the woman. She performed a rough search of my clothing, turned up the pistol, and took it. She looked deeply into my eyes and her gaze—animal, yet intelligent—was penetrating.

“You will regret what you have done,” she said. “My name is Kyla, Shadow man, and I promise that under my hand you will feel great pain.” She reached up with one clawed hand and gripped my face. “Those whom you slew were dear to me.”

I was sickened by her touch, as well as by her arrogance. I struggled anew, again thrashing wildly. In the process, one of my hands came free—possibly due to the slippery coating of blood. I lashed out, striking the left side of her long muzzle. Kyla responded with sudden fury, snapping her jaws forward and down. I felt pain as her teeth tore into my shoulder and my blood flowed freely, spilling across my face and neck.

I slumped.

Kyla observed me for a moment, an angry light in her eyes. Then she picked up the bag and began leading the others toward my apartment. I was carried along. I had grown dizzy, probably from the blood loss, and must have lost consciousness momentarily. When I regained my senses, I was being hauled upstairs. When we reached my back door, four levels above the ground, the one holding me moved to the rear of the balcony. The other two moved up to the door. One of them knocked softly—politely, almost.

We waited.

The one holding me suddenly tightened his grip, forcing the breath out of my lungs. Simultaneously, I heard a scraping sound from behind us. The others heard it too, because the two standing by the door spun around.

The creature holding me shrieked and convulsed, nearly crushing my chest. He dropped me. I hit and rolled over in time to see the werewolf who had been holding me go toppling over the rail. Luke, who must have been hidden on the roof or the next balcony over, had apparently stabbed the big beast with the long silver dagger he was holding.

The other two shape-changers rushed in then, leaping over me. The larger of the two slammed into Luke and began wrestling him toward the edge. To my surprise, Luke did not go over, but managed to hold his ground. Still fighting, they fell into a heap on the balcony floor.

Suddenly, I saw that the female werewolf, Kyla, had moved to the side, near the stair and was aiming the pistol, trying to get a shot in at Luke. From behind, I pushed her as hard as I could. Standing at an odd angle already, she could not maintain her position. She went down the stairs with a snarl and the pistol went over the edge and out of sight.

When I looked back over at Luke, he was getting up off the floor, blood stained dagger in hand. His opponent did not rise. “Get the bag,” he said quickly.

Looking down at the landing below, I could see that Kyla had risen immediately and was climbing back up the stairs. Though she seemed to be limping, I was afraid of what she might do when she reached the top. Her appearance was not pleasant.

“The bag!” demanded Luke a second time.

I looked around. His bag was lying in the corner, against one of my ferns. I grabbed it and turned. Luke was waving his hand in the air before him. Before I could ask him what the hell he was doing, though, Kyla started to smolder. Halfway up already, she looked down at her fur, shrieked and leaped from the stair. She hit the concrete three floors below with a smack and rolled into the pool.

“Quick,” Luke said, “give me the bag. She’ll be back again.” I handed him the bag and he began searching through it.

Looking over the edge, I could see that the wolf-woman was climbing out of the water. The one Luke had thrown off the balcony was now staggering toward the stairway, too. They were just moving upward when Luke reached out and took hold of my arm. “Come on,” he said, “We’re leaving.” The air around me shimmered prismatically and a few seconds later we were standing in a candle-lit stone chamber.

Luke and I collapsed together. I heard someone shout and a bell began ringing. Then I passed out.

* * * * *

When I woke up, I was undressed and lying in bed. A woman came to my side immediately and began speaking in a foreign language. “Sorry,” I said, “I don’t speak it, whatever it is.”

She nodded and left the room. I felt my shoulder with one hand and was surprised by the fact that I did not feel pain there. I pulled back the blanket and examined myself. There was no wound at all. Had I been unconscious that long, I wondered?

The woman who had tried talking to me earlier reentered the room with Luke walking behind her. His condition seemed to have improved greatly. He was dressed in loose black pants and knee-high boots. He wore a green shirt. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“Confused.”

“Besides that.” He dragged a stool over and sat next to the bed. “Physically, I mean.”

“No pain, no teeth marks. How long have I been out?”

“Off and on for three days,” he said.

“That bite sure felt a lot worse than…hey, wait a minute. I was bitten by a werewolf. Doesn’t that mean…”

“I’m afraid it does.” His mouth formed a devilish grin, then his expression changed to one of concern. The woman looked at Luke and said something in that same weird language. Luke answered her and she left.

“So you’re a native of this place.” It was a statement.

“Yes,” he said. “I grew up here.”

“Where is here, dammit?”

He chuckled. “I knew that one was coming.”

“So how about an answer. I wrapped the blanket around me and sat up.

“You’re in Jidrash, in the kingdom of Kashfa.”

“Kingdom?”

“That’s right.”

“Why have I never heard of this place?”

“Because it’s not on Earth.”

“Are you trying to tell me that we’re on another planet?”

“Nigel . . . I’m trying to tell you that you’re in another reality, an alternate universe.”

I said nothing. There was nothing I could say. I had seen strange people change into werewolves, had even fired silver bullets at them. And I had been bitten by one of the supposedly mythical creatures and now bore no traces of a wound that should have taken weeks to heal. If legends held true, I was probably in for a wild night come next full moon. Luke and I had been transported away from the balcony of my apartment to this place, Kashfa. If I could not believe all of the things that had happened to me on the night that I had set out to retrieve Luke’s belongings, then my very sanity was in question. I did not feel mad, so: “You’re from another dimension?”

“Yes, one of an infinite number. Your home, Earth, is only another among the infinite.”

“Then the werewolves were from another dimension too.”

“Right.”

“How is it that they, or we, for that matter, moved from one place to another?”

“Magic. They used magic to get from one Shadow—that’s what they’re generally referred to as—to another. Magic in the form of a painting. A card,” he reached into a pocket, extracted an ivory-inlaid wooden box, opened it, “like this one.” He extended a pasteboard card with a detailed painting on it.

“This is you,” I said.

“Yes. Stare at it and think about me. Concentrate…focus your thoughts on making contact with me, through the card.”

I looked at him. “You’re serious.”

He was. I sighed. “Okay.” Holding the card before me, I did as he had said to do. A minute passed and I felt ridiculous. Then, just as I was about to stop trying, something happened—the card got cooler against my fingertips and there was movement. Startled, I dropped it.

Luke picked it up from where it had fallen. “Try it again,” he said. “It takes a couple of tries to get the hang of it.”

I took the thing and tried again. It had done something before, so I did not feel foolish this time. Suddenly, I felt sure that it would work as Luke had stated. Almost immediately, his picture came alive and the figure there flowed, changing positions. He grinned.

I looked from the card to Luke and back to the card. “Amazing. This thing can take me to Earth?”

“No, that one will only take you to where I’m at. It’s good for communication, too.” He stood and walked across the room to the doorway. “Try it.”

“How?” I stood, holding the card before me.

“Just look into the card and take my hand.”

I stared at the image of Luke, who suddenly seemed to take on further definition. He reached out, and I took his hand. The color swirl effect was repeated and then I was standing beside him on the other side of the room. I walked back over to the bed and sat down again. “And this is how they got to Earth?”

“Yes. The group who attacked us got to Earth by tricking me into thinking that they were friends of my mother who needed deliverance from a tight spot. I brought them through and they attacked me.”

Just then the young woman who had left earlier returned and said something to Luke.

“Are you hungry?” he asked me.

“Yes, starving.”

He said something else to the woman and she left. “Lyra will bring you some clothes and show you the dining room. I’ll meet you there and we can talk some more. Okay?”

“That sounds fine.”

“Until then…” He smiled and walked out.

* * * * *

Little by little, Luke had introduced me to his world, or his worlds, more accurately. I had undergone a great number of highly unusual experiences, so that now—several years subsequent to my leaving Earth—I was not completely taken aback by the events of the previous night. A dying man had tracked me down and had delivered to me a Trump of unknown origin. Odd, but not in the extreme; I had been dealt a situation and I would work within its given parameters.

Focusing my attention on the matter, I pondered. Since this was an incident involving someone associated with one of the two primal forces in the universe and since it had occurred within Kashfa, I was faced with the task of making a decision about whether or not I should inform Luke. As I mentioned earlier, he is, after a fashion, my employer. We are still friends as well, though the nature of our relationship has shifted subtly since our college days, due to things being what they are. He is a king. I wondered. Was this my problem specifically or one of a more generic nature?

What the hell, I decided. This might not involve Luke at all. How could the dying man have known that I was acting as the king’s agent? Besides, considering Kashfa’s current affairs, I knew that he had enough on his mind without me worrying him. So I resolved to handle this one alone.

I decided against using the mystery Trump immediately, however. Such a thing would have been risky, if not downright foolish. Though I am quite a bit tougher than those I normally meet while traveling, the Trump’s presence implied connections of a sorcerous nature. Because of that fact alone, I was loathe to try the thing without some preparation. Also, I was not quite through with the task that Luke had asked of me. Until I had tracked down the thieves who—in a great demonstration of gall—had taken the king’s pendant, I would not feel satisfied that I had done my job thoroughly.

I was not sure whether the phoenix pendant’s value was a result of its mystic potency, or mere sentimentality, but either way I knew it was important to Luke. Important enough for him to have asked me specifically, instead of any number of lesser agents he had at his disposal, to track it down. If he had not been so busy, I am sure he would have gone after the thing himself.

Under the gray light of dawn, I extinguished my fire, rolled up my sleeping bag and packed the rest of my gear. I could not bring myself to feel much sentiment for the man who had given me the Trump. For all I knew, he might have been a simple criminal hired to deliver the thing. Nonetheless, I placed a coin over each of his eyes—one from Kashfa and a quarter from Earth. The quarter made by fingers smoke where I had touched it. I wrapped the man in my blanket and secured his body within a shallow cave located at the back of the ledge where I had camped. Then I blocked it in with all the large stones I could find.

Standing on the ledge, I looked down at the valley below. I closed my eyes, concentrating on the ring stretching between the second and third knuckles on my right-hand index finger. I felt my awareness shifting to a mystic level—first sinking, root like, into the cracked and weathered stone beneath me, then branching outward to spread across the valley.

Yes. The thing I sought had passed this way recently; I could feel a faint, shimmering trace of its essence, of Luke’s essence, even. The phoenix had flown—carried away by the thieves who had stolen it—but it was not too far away. I was sure of that.

I opened my eyes, allowing the ring’s root structure to dwindle and withdraw. Then, in a more mundane manner, I again looked down upon the valley. I had passed this way before, several times, and I knew that the village below was one called Vilerburque. The small place was a popular stopping point for travelers heading to or from Seraph Pass, a break in the Murrakham Mountains. The mountains, which ran from east to west, separated the dukedom of Baf Durhiem from its northerly neighbor, a city called Bann Tal. Both places were fairly important within the context of Kashfa’s socio-economic infrastructure, so Vilerburque, though small, saw quite a bit of traffic. Also, the locals made some of Kashfa’s best white wines. I knew of a tavern below where I could obtain a decent breakfast, so first things first I began negotiating the downward trail.

The surrounding hills were alive with green vineyards. The vines, supported by stakes, grew to a height of eight feet in places. The rows were orderly and neat, running down the hillsides. Workers moved like bees within the green, occasionally popping up into sight or walking out onto a dirt trail to dump a full bag of grapes into a wooden cart. The going was fairly easy and it only took a few hours to make it to the village border.

After passing through the main entrance—which was a small, unfortified barrier manned by a single, sleepy-eyed sentry—I walked through the dusty streets, making my way past haggling merchants, open shops and midday foot traffic. There were many smells, some pleasant, others not so. Before I could make it to the tavern, a group of haggard travelers, dressed in robes and bearing religious totems, stopped me to ask directions to the nearest bath house. Being acquainted with such a place, I gave them directions. After parting with them and walking a short distance further, however, I realized that I had mistakenly sent them to a brothel. I turned around, but they had already passed into the crowd and out of sight. “Oops,” I said to myself.

When I reached the tavern, I could see that the front door was propped open. Several old men were seated on the ground around the steps, laughing and talking. I nodded to them and entered. My eyes adjusted quickly to the cool semi-darkness, giving me a view of the not-quite-crowded room through standard barroom smoke. There was a wet spot on the floor near the entrance, so I skirted to the left and found a table that was situated near an open window. Sitting down, I removed my pack and rested it on the chair beside me. Through the window I could see a weather-worn fountain centered like a hub in an intersection. In addition to affording me a nice view of the plaza fountain outside, my seat ensured that no one could approach me from behind. It almost always pays to be cautious.

When the waitress made her way to my table, I ordered some beef ribs and a pitcher of beer. Then I settled back in my chair and observed some of the tavern’s other patrons. At the next table over, an old woman was telling a story of some kind. Occasionally a bit of it would drift through the noise and find its way to me. The woman’s crowd was mostly comprised of what appeared to be younger travelers who wore excited, thrill-hungry expressions on their faces. Across the room, a man nodded to me and I thought that I recognized him as a blacksmith who I had once hired to re-shoe a horse. I waved to him, trying to remember what had happened to that horse.

Absently, I toyed with my ring. It was disproportionately heavy and fashioned from a brownish translucent material. Etched in fine lines, the ring bore a stylized tree, almost skeletal in its starkness. It felt warm and reassuring on my finger. The ring had been a gift from Luke and it represented a substantial investment of our mutual time and energy. Its creation had involved a ritual initiation relying upon a being/place/construct (depending on how you look at things) which some refer to as The Great Tree Between The Worlds.

Luke had taken me to that place in the lee of Yggdrasill and had worked the proper conjurings, mixing the sap of the Tree with my blood, then fashioning the results into a ring. When he had given it to me, he had explained that the device would allow me to do certain things that were normally reserved for those attuned to one of the primal powers. And though I was inadvertently made a supernatural creature by my encounter with Kyla and her lupine pack-mates, and though I have undergone the initial phases of a power ritual involving a place called the Keep of the Four Worlds, let me say that I do not have access to the kind of power possessed by one who is an initiate of either the Logrus or the Pattern. So the ring is an item of considerable worth.

I enjoy working for Luke—it is, so to speak, continually stimulating—but I will not deny the fact that the work is unusually dangerous. In an arena where power levels have been greatly inflated, the ring gives me an edge. It possesses an innate will, as well as a sensitivity to magic. While wearing it, I can feel certain pathways and rifts through Shadow. Though this only provides me with the most limited means of traversing Shadow, it does allow me to pass between those places connected by pathways or gates. Using the ring in such a fashion requires time; while in a particular Shadow (generally one of a magically active nature), it takes me a while to locate an opening other than the one through which I entered. If no such portal exists, then I have to either backtrack my way out, or simply use one of the Trumps I carry (another gift from my employer) to transport back to a more familiar locale.

The ring functions to protect me from psychic assaults, too, by augmenting my own mental defenses. With its added protection, I can often fend off spells that might otherwise nuke my brain. And, through usage, I also learned that (as a by-product of its sensitivity) the ring acts as a sort of universal translator, picking up on the thoughts of those Shadow beings who attempt to communicate with me and instantaneously relaying the English equivalent of their words into my head. I have learned several new languages from journeying with Luke—Thari, Amber’s native tongue, among them. But, in my travels, I encounter a very wide range of sentient cultures, most of which have their own languages. For that reason alone, the ring has come in quite handy. Its translation functions do not work with beings with exceptionally high-powered psyches, but, then again, most of those who meet that criteria speak Thari quite fluently anyway.

It did not take long for my order to arrive. I gave the waitress a handful of coins with octagonal holes in their centers and words inscribed along their borders. She counted out my change, pushing the smaller coins across the table to me with a smile. I ate and drank, pushing everything else away for a time.

When I had finished the meal, the waitress returned for the plate. The rib bones lay in a jumbled pile like some ghastly art project, gleaming white. I thanked the woman as she was leaving. After sitting a while and finishing off the beer, I walked over to the door and stepped outside. The same group of old men were sitting in the dust and had started up some sort of game involving polished ivory sticks. Picking my direction, I began walking. I wanted to buy another horse, since I had been forced to abandon mine several days earlier at the edge of the small peaks situated on the south side of the valley. The rocky trails there would have been too risky for a horse to traverse. Though I do not mind traveling on foot, I knew that my quarry (who left their mounts for the same reason I did) had probably picked up fresh horses.

The village streets were either cobblestone or dirt, depending upon their proximity to Squire’s Hall. The houses were bunched together on curving lanes. Some had window boxes, with flower cascades of red and yellow spilling over the edge and down the wall. Other houses were plain or even ugly. I walked along, making my way toward the stable at the northern edge of the village.

It did not take long to barter for and purchase the horse I wanted. She was tall and rust colored, except for a splotch of white on one shoulder.

“She’s sensible,” the stable-keeper told me, squinting and cocking his bald head to the side, “but watch out. Ev’ry now and again, she likes to bite.”

I said I understood and paid him. I also picked up the necessary riding tack and a few other small items. All in all, from the time I had left the tavern, it took me about an hour to get going. I mounted up and rode off, passing by another sentry—this one appearing to be no more than fifteen—at the northern gate. I gave him a friendly salute as I went by.

Once I had cleared the village and outlying farms, the forest was light, mostly scrub. Some of the larger, more twisted trees inhabiting the area strongly resembled bristlecone pines (Pinus aristata for any other Forestry majors) from Shadow Earth. Observing the mild green things around me, I rode along, stopping only once at a crossroads in order to again send out feelers for the men that I followed. After that, I selected the right pathway and quickened the pace, knowing that they were not far ahead.

A couple of hours later, coming upon the still-smoldering butt of a cigarette, I dismounted. As I crushed out the smoke, I inwardly cursed anyone who had so little concern for the world. I searched the area, noting that my targets had left the road and entered the wood, which had grown continually heavier as I traveled. Oddly, the tracks I saw indicated only one man. Out on the road, there had been too much recent traffic to note this. I wondered if one of the thieves—the one without the pendant—had split off. Or maybe he and his partner had entered into a squabble that had ended in murder. You know what they say about thieves and honor. I, too, departed the road.

A short distance away, I loosely tied my sweaty horse with a long tether, spoke to her for a moment and began running ahead, parallel to the road. When I was about an eighth of a mile away, I stopped. Standing in a small clearing, I removed my shirt and tucked it into my pack. One at a time, I pulled off my boots and put them away as well. Arching my neck and looking up at the sky, I allowed my body to relax. I rolled my shoulders and stretched. Then, when I felt a bit loosened, I started to shift my form.

My skin darkened first, causing no discomfort whatsoever. The next few stages—the lengthening of my teeth and nails, the pointing of my ears, et cetera—were equally painless. When I moved into the major alteration of my body, however, I began to feel some distress. So I slowed down some, pausing to again relax.

I felt that I could have taken the thieves (or thief) in man-form, but it might have meant sustaining unnecessary injuries. Even when you regenerate, sword wounds are no fun. In my altered shape, I would be somewhat stronger and faster; with my senses enhanced, I would be able locate the men (or man) quicker. I had moved away from my mount, because I have learned that most mundane animals do not harbor any interest whatsoever in the workings of magic. I proceeded with the change.

The whole process took just under five minutes. I can do it faster when the situation warrants, but doing so usually has some painful repercussions. Standing a foot taller, my muscles much harder, I grabbed my pack and started out. It did not take long.

He had set up a small camp, complete with cooking fire. Either he was not worried about being followed, or he was a fool. The only man I could see was sitting with his back to me, plucking some sort of bird. He sat upon a stump, with feathers lying around his feet. I could smell the blood of the bird and mingled with that odor I could smell the man. He smelled foul, so to speak. Quietly, I moved forward.

I had decided to render him unconscious as fast as I could, search him for the gold phoenix pendant, then transport us both back to the castle, via Luke’s Trump. There the king could do as he saw fit with the thief. When I came close to the man, I reached out with one dark-clawed hand and roughly pulled him backward off the stump and to the ground. Bird feathers flew everywhere.

I pinned the guy to the damp earth and was about to punch him into REM state four, but I saw something that made me hesitate. Above his left eyebrow, he bore the same tattoo that I had seen on the man who had given me the enigmatic Trump. Another thing that seemed strange was the fact that, as he lay there looking up at me, he did not appear immediately shocked. Normally, when someone is pounced upon by a werewolf, it causes them considerable alarm (trust me on that). This man, however, simply regarded me for a moment, a confused look on his face, as if he were trying for some recognition. Then, not finding it, fear slowly spread across his features.

I wasted no more time. Flipping the man over, I held both of his wrists behind his back with one hand while retrieving a set of police-issue handcuffs I had picked up back home on Shadow Earth. I shackled him, rolled him onto his back and performed a careful check through his belongings. I carefully collected two curved daggers (both looked silvered—I tossed them far away), a short, studded mace, various personal effects and finally the pendant.

Then I considered the implications of the man’s tattoo. Quite stumped, I left him there on the ground, while I sat on his log seat. “Feel like answering a few simple questions?” I asked in Thari.

“Piss off!”

The language he used was unfamiliar, but my ring translated his words well enough. Vaguely, I thought I had heard his accent somewhere before. “You don’t even know what I’m going to ask, yet.”

He remained silent this time, so I decided to try another approach. Removing the Trump given to me by the dead man, I held it up before him. “Recognize this?”

He craned his neck, staring at the card intensely. Too intensely. “Sorry,” I said, snatching it away before he had time to activate it.

“But thanks for answering my question.” He sighed, easing his head back to the ground. I studied the tattoo. It was definitely a match with the one I had seen over the brow of the man who had given me the Trump. This caused me to feel more than puzzlement; I grew concerned. The matching design seemed to indicate that, not only was there a connection between the theft of Luke’s phoenix and the strange Trump, but also that whoever had been behind the incident was accomplished enough as a sorcerer to create the Trump in the first place. That raised the whole matter to an elevated threat level. No longer did I think it probable that the matter was entirely my concern. Still, I wanted more information before I contacted Luke.

I nudged my captive firmly with one furry foot. “Tell me about your boss.” He only responded by repeating his previous comment, so I felt somewhat justified in what I was about to do. The man had refused to answer my questions, leaving me with limited options—I could obtain the necessary information through means of physical force, or I could attempt to dominate his will, stealing what I wanted from his mind. The former has a way of getting messy, so I opted for the latter.

I knelt over him, bending down until my muzzle was inches from his face. The damp ground soaked through the knees of my pants, wetting my fur and irritating me further. The man’s eyes widened. I called upon some of the psychic energy which had been vested in me by the Fountain of Flame, using my ring to give it form. My captive and I were very close together now, in ways very different than physical. I began to focus my thoughts, pushing them forward until they spread forward between us like roots through soft earth. My consciousness reached his…invaded it.

I began to shuffle through the swirling scatter of his memories. That which was plainly irrelevant to my search, I blew aside like so many dead leaves. But then, just as I could sense that I was nearing my goal, a strange thing occurred. A sudden surge rushed forward from the thief, passing from the detailed mark above his brow and into me. The surge, I knew, had not been consciously manipulated by the man. Instead, it seemed to have come about automatically, as if I had tripped some psionic alarm—a defense placed there by another. Intentional or not, the suddenly reversed power flow felt like a wave of molten iron as it entered my head. Groaning aloud, I struggled to defend against it and was only partially successful. By erecting a shield of pure will, I managed to turn the energy aside, shunting most it away before it could do me any serious harm. The effort of my defense caused me to reel, though. I felt myself falling, but I was unconscious even before I hit the dark, damp earth.

* * * * *

I am not sure how much time passed while I was out, but I felt intuitively that my state of unawareness had not been a long one. Sitting up, I grimaced at the distress I felt; my head throbbed painfully with each beat of my heart. I looked around, wondering where the thief had gone. Also, I wondered why he had not killed me when he had had the opportunity.

Standing, I realized that while I was unconscious my body had shifted halfway back to human. One leg felt like it had lagged behind the other, leaving it a bit longer. I finished the form alteration—willing the changes as quickly as I could, until I had recovered my symmetry. Once again, I viewed the world with the eyes of man. I looked around, easily spotting the thief’s trail; his tracks told me that he had left the small campsite running.

A sudden thought made me check for the Trump, but it was still tucked away in my pack in the place where I had left it. A further inventory of my possessions, however, revealed that the original object of my hunt—the phoenix—was missing.

“Damn,” I whispered to no one but myself.

I discovered nothing else missing. My ring was still on my hand and my own Trumps were still in place. The small bag of enchanted acorns I keep at my belt was there. This rounded out my inventory of important possessions. Unlike the mundane items I carry, any of these things, if stolen, would cause me a great deal of irritation.

Again cursing the loss of the pendant, I quickly donned my boots and shirt, then set out after the man I had so recently had within my custody. I considered as I ran. The power that had rendered me unconscious had felt as if it could have done a lot more damage, had I not successfully defended against it. The tattoo, the Trump…I wondered suddenly, knocking a low-hanging limb away from my face, whether the thief’s mysterious master could have actually drawn the tattoo onto his servant, empowering it with an energy similar to that possessed by a Trump. I was no expert on the subject, certainly, but it did seem feasible. An interesting idea.

Faintly, I felt some sort of sorcerous disturbance ahead of me in the forest. It flowered briefly, building to a high level of potency then withering away and dying as quickly as it had formed. This caused me to wonder about my tactics. If my quarry were preparing an attack, rushing ahead could prove extremely harmful to my health. Conversely, if the man were enacting some escape, I could miss him by cutting back my speed.

Though he had been endowed with a functional magic ability, he had not struck me as a practicing spell caster. He seemed instead to be a person—not unlike me—who had been mystically augmented. So, onward I ran.

I broke through the next clearing in time to see the tattooed man begin to fade away within a localized fog of iridescence. I sprinted forward with a snarl, but could not reach him before he was Trumped away. Standing alone in the now silent glade, surrounded by the greens and the browns of the forest, I muttered darkly.

It seemed that the man had—once he was far enough away from where he had left me unawares—used a previously undisplayed ability to send out a sort of SOS beacon. That would explain the disturbance I had felt. Someone on the distant end had apparently heard and responded to his ephemeral signal, then Trumped him home.

The fact that the man had not used his power while he was at my mercy told me that it must require several moments of intense concentration to use.

I blew out a long breath. I was not about to call back to Luke for help at that point—I would have looked less than competent. Besides, I was angry and the matter now felt like a personal thing, whether it really was or not. Reaching for the odd card at my belt, I hoped that my horse would be able to find its way back to the old guy who had sold it to me.

As I stared at the Trump, concentrating, the tower gained substance, clarity. I felt a sea-moistened breeze and heard the cry of a gull. Leaving one world behind me and moving into another, I stepped forward onto the shore, gravel crunching beneath my boots.

I put away the Trump, then turned full circle, taking in the panoramic green of the sea, the bone color of the cloudless sky. The ash gray tower was the only visible architecture. Cautiously, I made my way toward the tall structure. As I approached it, I could see that the only door in sight was bronze-bound and twice my height.

When I was about thirty feet away from the door, I heard a flapping sound from above. I leaped back and glanced upward.

The creature was spiraling down slowly, bat-like wings opened into the wind like leather kites. I considered making a run for the door, but if it was locked, my back would be exposed to the descending thing, an idea that I did not care for.

Since I had no knowledge of this Shadow and could not be sure as to whether any of my gunpowders would work or not, I reached over my shoulder and dragged out my short, heavy saber. Just as I readied the weapon, the gargoyle came down on me like a load of bricks. We fell to the sand, but I managed to score a hit to its scaly left thigh. Perhaps due to my attack, it faltered and seemed slightly slow in recovering. I rolled away from it, but by the time I was on my feet again the gargoyle was coming toward me. It took several hops forward, then with a wing assisted boost it leaped at me again.

This time I lunged into its attack and was more successful, slicing cleanly through the meat of its right shoulder and punching a neat slit in the leathery wing behind it. Screeching, the thing barred its teeth and snapped its head forward. In a horrible, snapshot instant of clarity, I saw that its teeth were transparent, seemingly composed of some glassy substance.

Wanting to avoid those jaws, I jammed an elbow up under its chin. The gargoyle made an abrupt gagging sound and reeled. My saber was still imbedded within the creature’s shoulder and I did not want to lose my hold on it. So, still gripping the hilt as tight as I could, I crossed over with my left, landing a solid punch to the right side of the gargoyle’s head. While it was staggering, I twisted and yanked the sword free. This time it did not come cleanly, but scraped through bone. I had an instant to wonder if the thing’s skeletal frame was as see-through as its teeth.

Wings flapping fiercely behind it, the gargoyle lashed out with its clawed talons. I tried to block, but received several scratches anyway. It seemed then that my opponent had been trying to use the fury of its attack to stage an immediate upwards retreat. It was lifting up off the sand, kicking out with the claws on its feet, when I sidestepped to the left and sent my saber in a downward arc through the light bones of its right wing.

About half the wing was sheared off and was thrown forcefully away, leaving my opponent grounded and bleeding messily. I seized the opportunity and lunged forward, my blade penetrating its chest.

The gargoyle shrieked, thrashing and pushing back, trying to free itself. Its remaining wing beat against me, creating more scratches. I twisted the saber and the gray-skinned creature grew silent and sank to the ground. A pool of thick, orange blood began to stain the sand around the corpse.

I removed my sword from the body and wiped the blade on my cloak. “Yuck,” I said.

* * * * *

The tower door would not open. It seemed to be barred. Still holding my saber, I braced myself and pushed. After several moments of creaking, the door splintered inward, making a dead-rousing racket. I cursed and entered quickly, telling myself that any element of surprise had already been blown by the gargoyle’s screeching, anyway.

Inside was a small, dry room containing many wooden packing crates with foreign letters stenciled on them in black. The crates, I guessed, held supplies for whomever was staying within the tower. It seemed safe to assume at this point that the resident had to be Kashfa’s mysterious foe—the sorcerer who had been behind both the theft of Luke’s phoenix and the creation of the Trump which had delivered me to this place. Ignoring the crates, I studied the remainder of the room.

In the area farthest from the door, behind a stack of boxes, I found a narrow stairway that curved its way up the wall and to the left. The steps were smooth stone, pale and green—very different from the gray rock that had comprised the tower’s outer wall. Certain steps—at oddly placed intervals—bore strange characters, flush with the stone and formed of what appeared to be inlaid mother-of-pearl.

Through the ring, I sent forth tendrils of psychic awareness, looking for anything of a magical nature that might cause me harm. The stairway itself radiated a fairly strong level of energy, but it did not feel like a trap. Stepping forward, I set my foot upon the first pale green step. Climbing as quickly as I was able, I began to ascend.

At regular intervals, intricately carved brass hands extended from the curved outer wall. Each hand held in its palm a green crystal orb that shed about as much light as a forty watt bulb. The dim light had a green tint, of course.

The first landing I arrived at led to a wide, wooden door, painted an odd shade of orange. I stopped and tried the knob. It was locked.

Taking a firm hold of the thing, I applied as much pressure as I could and twisted hard. With a metallic, click-crunching sound, the locking mechanism snapped free within its place. When I released my hand, the knob bobbled and rested several inches below where it had been before. I pushed open the door and entered, saber in hand.

Beyond lay a comfortable-looking room. There were several exotic rugs scattered about upon the floor, three stuffed chairs with faces carved into their wooden backings and a table bearing an ochre-colored carafe. There was another door on the other side of the room. After checking it out, I discovered that it lead to a kitchen. The entire area seemed ordinary enough and there was no one around, so I made my way back out to the pale green stairway.

At the next landing, I felt a prickling sensation. Some sort of enchantment lay beyond, I could tell. I was about to repeat my lock-breaking performance when I found that the knob turned freely. I entered.

Beyond the door was a hallway, stretching on a good distance before turning left. As quietly as possible, I proceeded. The hallway twisted several times, finally terminating at an archway that led into a wide room. From what I could see, the room was empty. The floor was made of smooth stones, quite a bit smaller than those making up the bulk of the tower. I took a step forward, but did not pass into the room. From my position in the archway, I could see a similar opening on the opposite side. Leaning forward some, I saw two more of the archways on the far left and right walls. At the room’s center was what appeared to be a shallow fire pit. The dimensions of the room, I was sure, exceeded the natural space limitations of the tower itself. Some Shadow-bending magic had to be involved, giving the tower’s master additional square footage. I knew an Earth architectural major who would have paid a pretty penny for that trick.

Still holding my weapon ready, I stepped into the room, thinking to move along the right wall and check out the hallway beyond the archway on my right. However, as soon as my foot touched the smooth, shiny floor, I felt a power fall upon me.

I was drawn forward, pulled by some invisible force toward the room’s center. I resisted, of course, trying to step backward into the archway. The pull was too strong though and I found myself turning, against my will, to face the middle of the room. Simultaneously, a massive design—an intricately detailed wheel of some kind—flared to fiery life across the floor. Various symbols glowed within the limits of its outer perimeter, each connected to a spoke that lead to the fire pit at the wheel’s center.

The flames tracing the borders of the design stood only half a foot in height. They were an inky blue and flickered slowly as if made of animated syrup. A dull droning sound rose in volume until it caught my notice. A column of the same ink-colored fire rose up from the fire pit, swaying like an eight foot serpent.

My left foot slid forward until it touched the nearest edge of the wheel-design. The flame did not burn, but the tugging increased and the pitch of the humming sound rose by half an octave. My right foot followed the example set by my left and soon I was within the perimeter of the wheel, having passed over what appeared to be a spidery flower, rendered in dark shades of purple and violet. I moved involuntarily along the spoke connected to the flower.

Though I poured the sum of my efforts into resisting the thing, it was just too strong. After a short time, I unwillingly came to another symbol along the flower-spoke. This one, a vine-wrapped skull, had been rendered in the same purplish shades. Even as I was pulled forward, I studied the wheel.

The symbols along each spoke seemed to be related in theme. I had crossed over a flower entering the circle, was nearing a skull crisscrossed by thorny vines and farther ahead I could see a pair of saplings, their branches intertwined. Those portions of the spoke to my left bore yellow, insect-related symbols. Those to my right were elemental images in red. I was at a total loss to understand the significance of the pretty pictures, but I knew for certain that they meant nothing good for me.

As I reached the vine-and-skull-design a numbness spread over me. The feeling grew more complete, until I was utterly paralyzed. I was unsure as to why my progress had been halted on that image, as opposed to any of the others glowing on the floor.

The flames fell away then along with the drone and the central column of fire. Shortly afterward, the symbols on the floor vanished as well. I was left standing, unable to move, in the empty room.

* * * * *

After a time, I heard the quiet tread of footsteps entering the room and I began to regret ever having met the man who had given me the mystery Trump. It seemed that in accepting the card I had been dealt a dead man’s hand in more ways than one.

In the time I spent immobile, I had been unable to effect any means of escape. The field holding me seemed to attenuate the energies of my ring, so that my awareness through it extended no further than my hand. Had I been able to use that device, I might have been able to extricate myself from the spell. As it was, however, I was stuck.

As the footsteps drew nearer, I could do nothing but wait. I wondered if whoever was approaching would decide to get it over quickly and simply slip a silver dagger through my ribs and into my heart. If so, there was little or nothing I could do about it.

A woman entered my line of sight from the left then and came near me. She had hair the color of dark chocolate, pulled back and tied behind her head with the type of thin red ribbon you might see on a candy box. She wore knee high boots, tight black pants and a loose gray shirt. Around her slender waist was what appeared to be a metallic snake, clutching its own coppery tail in its mouth. The serpent’s single visible eye was a tiny ruby. She smiled, revealing an over-developed set of canines that looked as sharp as mine. She spoke a few words in a foreign tongue and over the course of a few seconds the power holding me faded in certain areas. I found that I again possessed control of my body—but only from the neck upwards.

I shifted my jaw, loosening it some. I focused on the woman, rolling my neck muscles. Suddenly it struck me like a whip—an instant feeling of recognition. I had seen this woman before, only once, on a night several years ago. Then I remembered where… “Hello, Kyla,” I said quietly.

Her grin widened. “I am flattered that I made such an impression on you.”

I realized then that the pendant thief had spoken with the same strange accent. Hindsight…

She watched me for a moment, boldly running her eyes across my entire form. “In a way, this is good.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t see it that way.”

She laughed robustly. “You and I share a bond, you know. I made you what you are, wolf man.”

Curiously, I watched her, trying to get a general feel for what type of personality I was dealing with. I knew almost nothing about her. Was she the savage killer that she had seemed back then? My only interaction with her had been a violent one, but it had occurred during a time in which I stood between her and her target. Also, I had killed two of her companions that night. Would she decide to settle the score by immediately ripping my throat out or had she since mellowed?

What had I gotten into? Had this entire affair, starting with the phoenix thieves, been an elaborate trap, set to ensnare me? That did not seem likely. More probable, I thought, was the possibility that Kyla still had it in for Luke for the same reasons that had prompted her on the night I had been infected with lycanthropy. Perplexed, I asked, “What’s your connection with Luke?”

Her eyebrows jumped up into a raised position, then she looked thoughtful, as if considering whether or not she should even bother answering me. “I do not have any such affiliations, really.”

“What? Surely, this thing doesn’t revolve around me?”

She laughed. “Of course not. You were right in assuming that Luke of Amber was the primary concern of our operation.”

“Our operation?”

“Yes.” She held a hand up before her face, regarding her nails. “The man I work for is your employer’s enemy. His name is Merequist and you will meet him shortly.”

So that was it. Someone had it in for Luke and I was in the way. Perversely, I was almost disappointed. It made me feel like a secondary character or a supporting actor. Since Kyla was being so open, I decided to ask another question. “Does this have anything to do with the occasion during which we, ah, met?”

Her face assumed a more serious expression. “We were very close at that point to actually finishing him off, but you interfered, aiding him. He escaped, taking you along with him and was able to recover. Afterward, alone, he staged a highly successful counter-attack, bringing our forces to ruin and injuring Merequist badly. In fact, I am almost positive that Luke thinks him dead. Now, though,” her mouth formed a sinister smile, “he will learn otherwise.” Suddenly, she stopped, a look of concentration spreading over her features. She mumbled something and extended a hand.

The shimmering apparition of a man, presumably Merequist, appeared next to her, holding her hand at face level. When he had gained total solidity, he kissed her knuckles lightly. In his other hand, he held Kyla’s Trump. Merequist turned to face me.

His most striking features, I noted, were the tattoos covering every inch of exposed flesh on his body, including his face. There were many designs visible, mostly done in reds and blues. The images on his face were symmetrical, his left cheek being the mirror image of his right. His hair had been shaved into a thick black mohawk, creating more space for the designs spiraling along his skull. He stepped forward, releasing Kyla’s hand, and came to stand before me, an appraising look on his face. “Hello.” He smiled at me. The sleeves of his purple tunic ended just above his elbows and I could see more designs running along his arms. “You are Nigel?”

I nodded.

“The trusted agent of the King of Kashfa. I have no desire to sound impolite, but I will admit that I had hoped Rinaldo, or Luke, if you will, would come after my men himself. That would have moved him away from the place where he is most powerful.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Oh, do not fret, dear guest. Even though things did not go perfectly, I will have him soon enough. Until then,” he said with a smirk, “you may enjoy my hospitality.”

“I hardly think that I qualify as a guest—this is not the most hospitable home I have ever been in, either.”

He gestured about him. “This is not really one of the finer areas, I assure you. This place is dedicated to an ongoing attempt to have my revenge against Rinaldo. I have spent years effecting designs that will facilitate my vengeance.”

“What could Luke possibly have done to you that would cause you to go to such great lengths to achieve his demise?”

His face became reflective, the illustrations there moving when he relaxed the muscles in his cheeks and around his mouth. “My grievance with Rinaldo is not a recent thing. It goes back many years, to a time when we were young. You see, at one time, I was his father’s apprentice.”

“You studied under Brand?!”

He smiled at my look of shock. “Oh, yes, for a number of years. Along with two other young sorcerers. One of whom, like myself, hailed from Chaos,” again he smiled, relishing my surprise. “The third had originated in some odd realm that possessed a power completely alien to either the Logrus or the Pattern. You see…there is much that you do not know.”

I watched him, surprised not only at the things he was saying, but also at the simple fact that he was being so talkative. There was a gloating manner about him, though, that seemed to prompt such verbosity. Also, by his arrogance, I could see that he thought of me as less than threatening. This was perhaps due to the fact that in his eyes I was only a Shadow person. I decided to make every effort to surprise him.

“So what did Luke have to do with any of that?” From what little he had told me about his father, I had been left to infer that Brand was not even around that often. Which, considering what I have heard others say about Brand, was probably a good thing for his son.

“There were brief periods when the little brat was hanging around, constantly meddling in everything. It was during such a time that he ruined a very important experiment of mine. In my anger, I struck him and might have actually have gone further when…”

“Brand came along, eh?” I chuckled, visualizing Luke, as a kid, harassing some egg-head mageling, screwing up what probably amounted to the mystical equivalent of a school science project. When I looked up, there was a very dark look on Merequist’s face. I stopped laughing, but smiled as I spoke. “So now I suppose you’re going to tell me that you’ve spent your entire life trying to get even.”

He practically snarled his next words. “And if that was indeed the case?”

I shook my head. “Then it sounds like you’ve wasted a great deal of your life.”

He slapped me then, backhanded, and my mouth was immediately awash with the taste of blood. The force of the blow was numbing.

“You are a fool for mocking me and when you have served your purpose, I will oversee your execution personally.” He turned and stormed away, heading for one of the room’s arched exits. “Watch him,” he hissed to Kyla as he left.

I looked at the woman before me. There was a merry twinkle in her eyes. “He has quite a temper, doesn’t he?”

“It would seem so,” I replied. I refrained from spitting blood upon the floor.

“He will make good on his promise, too.”

“Maybe. Seems I heard you say something similar, though, a few years back.”

Her expression of merriment faded. “Understandable, given that you had just put a silver bullet through the heart of my younger brother.”

I sighed, wondering which deities I had annoyed to invoke such rotten luck. “I didn’t know, of course.”

“No, you did not and you were acting to save your own life.” Her face became wistful.

What was this? An emotional response from a werewolf assassin? I wondered if I might, given enough time, be able to exploit it, feeling only a few brief pangs of guilt as the thought entered my head. “Tell me, how did you end up here, in this role?”

She looked up at me, her features again sharpening. “The casting department was all out of fairy princess parts.”

I laughed. Then, considering her remark, I asked, “Just how long did you live in the Earth Shadow?”

“For several years, while Luke was in school.”

“You were after him even then?”

“No, mostly, at that time, I was assigned to watch him. He had several protectors around.”

I nodded, though I was not sure of whom she was referring to. I decided to switch tracks. “So what does Merequist have in store for him now?”

“That’s privileged information,” she said flatly, derailing my line of inquiry.

I was quiet for a moment and a heavy silence hung between us. As if to fill the brief period of awkwardness, she continued. “As Merequist indicated, we assumed that Luke would come after his pendant personally. It was hoped that, once he caught the thieves and discovered the Trump they carried, he would come through to this tower. It seems, however, that the people of his little Shadow are more important to him than we guessed, since he chose instead to stay and work out Kashfa’s current problems.” She paused, studying me briefly.

Returning her gaze, I nodded slowly. “I see.”

“When he did not follow the thieves, but sent you instead, an alternate plan was enacted. We sought to capture one of his most useful agents—you—for use as bait. To speed this up, Merequist had the thieves separate. One of them delivered the Trump directly to you, hoping that you would use it immediately. You did not, of course, but ended up here after a time anyway. All that remains now is to wait for Luke. And he will come to rescue you, don’t you think?”

“We are friends…”

“Yes. Friends.” For several seconds, she stared hard at nothing in particular. Then abruptly she looked up and spoke. “You could be here for quite some time, if Luke does not try to reach you soon. Until Merequist informs me otherwise, you will remain rooted to that spot.” She pointed a sharp red nail at my feet. “However, I will partially free you so that you may eat. Are you hungry?”

“Yes.” Though my answer was truthful, I would have said ‘yes’ even had I been stuffed from a recent feast. Any small release from my current position, I knew, represented the possibility of escape.

As if aware of my thoughts, Kyla smiled grimly. “I will return shortly.” She mouthed a string of soft words and, concurrently, I felt my neck stiffen again. Leaving me completely immobile, she turned ninety degrees and walked off to the left, passing beyond my field of vision.

* * * * *

Kyla returned within what I guessed was an hour, followed by two extremely pale men bearing serving trays and what looked to be one of the stuffed chairs I had seen earlier on the level below. Both of the men were gaunt and silent. They moved with mechanical smoothness, keeping their lusterless eyes locked straight ahead. Dressed as she had been before, Kyla bade them set their burdens before me. They complied in silence and I could not help but shudder inwardly at their apparent fate. The pasty-skinned pair were ensorceled servants of the lowest order—little more than zombies, I guessed. When they had deposited the chair and erected the two trays, Kyla dismissed them with a single gesture. When they were gone, she shifted her attention to me.

“I will be dining with you.”

As I was unable to move a muscle, I remained quiet. She seemed to note my conspicuous silence then and spoke the words to partially counteract the spell I was under. As before, movement returned to only a portion of my anatomy. This time, however, I found that I was able to move from the waist upward. “Thank you,” I said after a time.

Without comment, she seated herself in the chair several feet away, occupying a space halfway between me and the ash-filled fire pit out in the center of the wide room. For a few seconds, I watched her, taking in the angularity of her features, the wet shine of her brown eyes. Somehow, even as my enemy, she was fascinating.

Looking down, I noted that both trays bore similar fare. One stood directly before me and the other she pulled nearer to her position. Thus we began eating.

The food was better than good. It was wonderful. I commented on this and she agreed through a mouthful. She finished her bite, washed it down with a healthy swallow of wine and said, “Merequist is indulgent in very few areas. Most of his servants are more than half dead—like those you saw a few moments ago. His chef, along with only a handful of others, is an exception.”

I took another bite of what tasted remarkably like lemon-seasoned spinach. As had often happened before while frequenting unfamiliar Shadows, I was surprised by how comfortable an alien place could seem with only a few echoes of home. An attractive companion, a decent meal, and suddenly I could forget that the alien world I currently inhabited might actually be riding on the back of some cosmic turtle, rather than orbiting a sun. The disparities between Shadows are sometimes drastic, sometimes incremental. It is often the slight shadings which can provide the greater danger, if one forgets. Traveling between realities is funny like that.

Pushing my thoughts toward escape, I ate slowly, stretching out what I knew would be a limited time of free movement. Since she could freeze me with only a few words, I did not want to attempt a direct psychic assault. Neither did I favor the idea of simply doing nothing and again being made a statue. I was busy racking my thoughts for a solution when I began to sense something faint and mystical.

Kyla put down her fork and looked at me. She stood. Guessing the mild disturbance to be a Trump call, I kept my features neutral. I deliberately took another bite, looking up at her with an inquisitive expression.

Kyla looked as if she were about to paralyze me, then decided against it. After taking several steps backward, so that she still faced me, my captor stood still. Though a distant look spread over her face, I knew that if I made any sudden or strange gestures, she would probably register it immediately, peripherally. As she began to mumble, I continued to eat. Once I could tell that she was fully involved in the Trump communication, I sent my awareness into my ring. I hoped like hell that she would be so caught up in her current conversation that she would not detect what I was about to do.

Quickly, without moving, I willed the ring to send out fine lines of energy from its position on my hand back along my arm. When the delicate forces reached my shoulder, I stopped them, afraid that anything more might be noticeable. With the faintest of efforts, I maintained the invisible branches of sensitivity about my right arm like a ghostly, shoulder-length glove.

Though the paralysis field had previously halted me from using my ring at all, I felt halfway certain that—with it already activated—I would have a good chance of freeing myself. If Kyla proved to be anything better than what I was—a minor dabbler in the arts—I knew that she would probably remark upon my furtive tinkering as soon as she withdrew her attentions from the Trump contact. So I decided that a little conversational distraction might help my cause. As soon as she closed off the contact and stepped forward again…

“This spinach is beyond compare.” I said softly, playfully seasoning my words with sarcasm. “You’ll have to get the recipe for me later.”

Offering me a sinister smile, she said, “Of course,” then reseated herself.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to share the details of that last call with me?”

“Afraid not. Merequist is the talkative one.”

“So I noticed. It seems to be a classic characteristic of villains; they love to explain themselves before they do you in. Maybe it’s guilt related.”

She swallowed. “Maybe it’s ego related.”

I chuckled and took a sip.

The meal did not last much longer. Worrying that she might discover my little trick at any given moment, I found it hard to enjoy what remained on my tray. She too seemed preoccupied, perhaps by something she had learned during her last Trump call. When it was clear that we were both finished eating, she summoned the same two servants who had assisted her previously. They worked as quietly and as lifelessly as they had before, removing the trays and the carved wooden chair without sound or expression.

When we were alone again, she wasted no time in re-paralyzing me. “I will return again later,” was all she said before she left the room.

I waited several moments before attempting anything. When I felt reasonably sure that I was truly alone, I focused my thoughts on the tendrils of energy encasing my arm, willing them to life. The field entrapping me was, I soon learned, too complicated for me to quickly dismantle. An adept would probably have been able to do it in a short while, but its design was beyond my capability. Without any prior experience with the wheel construct feeding the enchantment, I had virtually no chance of dispelling it altogether. A more attainable goal, I realized, might be to attempt to unweave only a portion of it—the section holding my arm, for instance. This decided, I set about doing it.

Slowly, painstakingly, I used the ring’s ghost-vine feelers to disentangle the ordered lines of force from my arm. It was like trying to unravel silk in the dark and each thread consumed a bit of my time and energy. Some time later, I felt the section of the spell upon which I had been working beginning to lose its form. A few more twists and unwindings and that portion of the force-mesh which held my arm finally dissipated. Exhilarated, I moved my arm about, stretching and testing the limits of my movement. I found that I could reach the pouch at my belt.

Unable to look down, I began rummaging blindly through the pouch, feeling for one of the acorns I carry there. I finally recognized the rough, familiar shape. Carefully, not wanting to drop my prize, I lifted out one of the small enchanted nuts. I considered my options.

Though I knew that the now-invisible wheel design and its paralytic hold on me were of a deeper complexity than what I could handle in a short period of time, I felt reasonably certain that if I approached the problem in a different manner—a less delicate one—I could free myself.

I regarded the ash-filled fire pit occupying the center of the room. It was about three feet across and appeared to be quite shallow. Rough, dark pieces of rock, raised a couple of inches higher than the smooth stones of the floor, had been set into its border, forming a ring. Aiming carefully, I tossed my acorn. It landed a few feet short, then rolled to the left side. Internally, I swore. You will have to believe me when I tell you that it is harder than you think to hit a target with a thrown object while ninety percent of your body is completely immobilized.

I reached down for another empowered acorn. I had four remaining. Upon casting the second small missile, I was able to gauge the distance more accurately and my acorn landed near the center of the fire-pit, kicking up a small cloud of dusty ash. When the cloud cleared, I saw that only a small portion of the acorn remained uncovered. For the next few seconds, I watched closely, suddenly unsure whether the ash would be sufficient to activate the magical acorn. Only twice before had I ever even used any of the things and on both occasions, I had deposited them in natural soil. Even as I began to worry, though, I detected a small movement within the powdery gray pit.

At first, the effects were minimal. A single green shoot rose upwards, then was still for a moment. As I watched, however, this tender plant rapidly grew into a small sapling. From that instant forward, no more pauses ensued. The sapling grew smoothly up and out. Leaves unfurled along its branches and some of its more unruly roots slithered up out of the fire-pit and across the floor. Before long, the tree exceeded my height. It was then that I began to hear the first splintering sounds. The unnatural oak’s root structure, I knew, was spreading itself between the flagstones. More cracking sounds, louder, split the air. A wailing began to rise, accompanying the growth of the oak.

As I watched the growing tree, I saw that the floor seemed to be buckling in places. Flashing rapidly into and out of visibility several times before flaring into complete substantiality, the wheel design revealed itself. Again, ink colored flames sprung up at its border and the symbols I had seen before shimmered into being all around me. The oak tree now towered within the room, its upper branches having flattened themselves out against the high vaulted ceiling. The wail was much louder. The ring of dark stones bordering the fire-pit had been broken in places by the tree’s swelling base.

With a deep whooshing sound, the wheel’s central column of indigo flame rose up around the lower trunk of my tree. The bark, wherever touched by the mystical fire, grew black. This appeared to slow the growth of the tree, but did not halt it. Wide cracks broke open in the floor, and raced in zig-zag patterns toward the far walls. Thick, knotted roots pushed up from beneath the floor. The wheel flickered a few times and each time it did, I was shaken violently. Upper portions of the tree snapped off against the ceiling and limbs rained down around me along with bits of broken masonry.

Second later the flames around the wheel snuffed out and the designs faded. I fell to the shattered floor, free from the spell. I lay panting for a few seconds, my body tingling as life and mobility returned to it. Then silence filled the room; the oak had finally reached the limits of its growth. Raising myself, I studied my surroundings. The damage was tremendous. The floor looked like a field of rolling gray hills and the massive tree dominated even the room’s uppermost reaches.

Knowing that my enemies were probably moving toward me, I turned and darted from the room, mouthing a quick word of thanks to Yggdrasill, that great ash at the center of the cosmos. Without delay, I headed into the nearest side passage.

* * * * *

When I finally stopped for a breather, I found myself in a wide hallway that continued on for a short distance before curving away out of sight. I stepped into an alcove there, across the hall from a window, and leaned against a multicolored tapestry. Looking beyond the window, I saw that the sky was a weird swirl of lemon and black. This seemed to confirm my suspicion that Merequist’s home existed within multiple Shadows. The tower I had initially entered was probably only one of numerous entrances.

Below the exotic sky, lying like great gray tumors on the skin of the world, I could see several sprawling sections of the place I occupied. A blind dome (windowless, doorless) lay half buried upon a broken field of slate. Stretching out from the dome were four wandering structural wings. I could see one part of a monstrous wall that looked to encompass the entire place. Nothing moved.

Pulling my gaze away from the scene beyond the window, I rubbed my legs, trying to work out the soreness brought on by my recent paralytic condition. Unsure of how long I had before someone found me, I used the time to think through my alternatives.

A few minutes later, having alleviated much of the stiffness in my muscles, as well as my indecision, I reached for my set of Trumps. I had decided that it was time to call in reinforcements. Sorting rapidly through my cards, I selected Luke’s and concentrated.

The painting on the card showed a clean-shaven, red-haired man, smiling a friendly (yet somehow conspiratorial) smile. In the picture—a self portrait—he wore a green riding cloak, hood up, and fastened by the prized phoenix, no less. Snow-covered hills stretched out at his back.

The colors swirled and suddenly his image—his presence—grew to fill the space before my mind’s eye. “Nigel. Good to see you again.” Dressed in a brown shirt with billowing sleeves and a black vest, Luke stood before a large bronze bell. I did not recognize the scene. His gloved hands rested upon a stone railing and I could see that he wore a slender, slightly curved blade at his hip. He had grown a beard since the last time I had seen him, too.

“Hello. How are things on the home front?”

“Our problems have been resolved. Several days ago, in fact. I’m no longer in Kashfa, though; I’m taking a short break in a fast Shadow.” He looked to his left, waving and smiling at someone before turning to face me again. “How goes the chase? Having fun?”

I exhaled. Pleasantries over, it was time for my report. I wondered where to begin, which parts to skip, which to elaborate upon. Noticing my hesitation, he grinned. “If it’s all that complicated, why not come through to me? We’ll discuss it over lunch.”

“I’d like to, but I’m still in the middle of it. In fact, I called because I thought you might want to involve yourself personally in this.”

“Oh?” He took on a more serious expression.

“It involves an old enemy of yours; a sorcerer named Merequist.”

“What?!”

“Yes, he still lives. I trailed the thieves who took your pendant for some time. Eventually, I ended up following one of them through Shadow to an odd tower. As it turned out, the thieves had been acting on this guy Merequist’s orders, trying to set a trap for you. Only, I got caught instead.”

“I see. Go on.” His expression was now deathly cold.

“While being watched over by a werewolf named Kyla—the same woman leading the shape-shifters who nearly did us both in on the night you first took me to Kashfa—I had the privilege of meeting Merequist. Later, I managed to escape. That was only moments ago. Now, I’m somewhere inside a large structure which I believe exists within several Shadows at once; this place may have been created expressly for the purpose of nailing you.”

Luke appeared to consider for a time. Watching him, I wondered at what his course of action would be. It seemed likely that he would want to pull back to prepare some sort of long term strategy against this new/old enemy. His words then, when they came, surprised me.

“Bring me through.” He extended his hand.

I reached forward, pulling him across the Shadows. In half a second, his image gained complete substantiality. He took in our surroundings and asked, “Any idea where the bastard is right now?”

“No. I only saw him for a brief time. As I told you, Kyla was my keeper. Chances are, though, even if Merequist isn’t currently somewhere in this Shadow, she is. And I’m fairly sure she has his Trump.”

“Finding her should work for starters then.” He surveyed the corridor.

Gesturing, I said, “I was held back that way by some sort of magic wheel.”

He turned and looked at me sharply. “Describe it.”

“It was very potent…some sort of energy construct that manifests in the form of a large, pictographic circle. A wheel.”

“Did it ever talk to you? Was it mobile?”

“No, it didn’t seem sentient and it did not move—it was inscribed upon the floor.” I watched as his expression of concern faded to one of puzzlement. “I’m not familiar with a design like that, so it’s probably something Merequist cooked up himself—a personalized power tool. It probably draws strength from the Sign of Chaos. I doubt if Merequist, being an initiate of the Logrus, would fool around with anything less.”

I shrugged. “Whatever it is, it seems to be a fairly important aspect of this place. We might be able to find Kyla, or another of Merequist’s allies there. Hell, for all I know, he might show up himself to check out all the damage I did there.”

He fixed his eyes on me. “What did you do?”

“Well, I left the room in shambles, but I’m really not sure how much I might have affected the long-term operation of the thing.”

“It looks like we get to find out,” he said quietly. “Going there sounds like the best way to get to Merequist. Are you up for it?”

“Yes. I am uninjured.”

“Great.” He raised one fist above his head and I felt a slight tingle pass through me as he lowered it.

“What was that?”

“A cloak, of sorts. It will keep most anyone or anything from registering our approach on a psychic level. We can still be seen and heard, though, so we’ll have to watch ourselves.”

“This way, then.” Together, we moved down the hall toward its elbow bend. Reaching it, I peered around the corner. “It looks clear,” I said. Beyond lay several doors, and a stairway leading upwards.

Several minutes later, we were very near the entrance to the room in which I had been held hostage, at a point where a final twist in the passage would bring the archway into view. Oddly, though the air was still, I could hear the sounds of a strong wind blowing from ahead.

“That’s strange,” I said softly. “The wind tunnel sound effect is new; things were pretty quiet when I left this place.”

“Let’s go find out what’s going on.” He drew the curved blade that hung at his side. I too armed myself. We walked cautiously forward, turning into the remaining section of hallway. Ahead, through the archway leading into the room, I could see nothing but a swirling wall of gray-green mist.

“Things here have changed,” I told him. “That curtain of fog wasn’t here when I left.” I concentrated briefly, probing the wall with tendrils from my ring. The wall did not react to my investigation, but it effectively blinded me to whatever might now lie beyond. While my awareness was shifted into a higher band on the mystical spectrum, I noted that an oval shape which could only be a representation of the great Pattern of Amber hung before Luke’s face. He appeared to be conducting an inspection of his own.

Seconds later, he said, “Whatever it is, it doesn’t appear to be a trap of any sort. The area beyond the mist is in a serious state of flux. Merequist is there, but he seems to be occupied. Before we go through, tell me exactly what it was that you did.”

I explained my trick with the acorn.

“Hmm. Interesting.” He seemed amused. Raising a flame-colored brow, he said, “What you did seems to have had an odd effect upon the wheel construct. I felt it there, but like I said, things in and around the area are changing rapidly. This might work to our advantage if Merequist has his hands full.”

“Were you able to determine if he is alone?”

He shook his head. “He might have company. Either way, let’s go check it out. I’ll make a quick attempt to put him out of action, but if things get rough, don’t hesitate to Trump us home.”

I nodded.

During our conversation, I had noticed that the sounds of the wind had increased some. Still, the phenomenon was an aural-only effect; the air felt calm. Without further discussion, Luke turned to face the gray and green curtain of mist. Again, with the ring enhancing my sensitivities, I could see that he was invoking the Pattern. This time he was doing more than probing through the archway. I felt the first gust of wind as Luke forced a small opening within the fabric of the curtain. As the hole dilated, I could see into the room beyond. Things had changed.

Fog hung in clumps at various levels about the room, occasionally ripped and moved into new configurations by the powerful currents of air. The floor was completely lost under a roiling blanket of mist. I could no longer see the far wall; the left and right walls were equally blanked by fog. The area seemed larger, no longer confined to a single room.

Spread out before us at an indeterminate range, the energy wheel burned darkly again, though it was still dominated by the massive tree. This time, however, the two did not seem at odds. The wheel, I suddenly suspected, was integrating the tree. It was either being manipulated by Merequist, or it was altering itself. Surrounded by a nimbus of syrupy, indigo flame, the massive oak pulsed in time with the wheel. The fog on the floor did not touch the thing, but was held back by an unseen force.

As I studied the place, the circle in the gray-green mist opened continually wider, venting greater amounts of wind. When the window Luke was creating was large enough to be called a doorway, he said, “Follow me,” and moved forward.

And I did, stepping through the foggy archway in his wake. Behind me, I heard the portal slowly closing, whistling as it shrank in size. Buffeted by the wind, we walked cautiously ahead, watching for anything unusual and seeing plenty of it. Merequist, however, was still not in sight. Distance perspectives, I began to notice, seemed to function differently here. The wheel and tree now appeared farther away than they had before. The area around us and above us seemed voluminous, endless.

We passed a patch of drifting emerald mist that was perhaps thirty feet in height, a half that distance across at its widest point. “I wonder where we really are right now,” I said to my red-bearded companion.

He laughed. “Anywhere and nowhere—some godforsaken corner of Limbo.” After a few seconds of silence, he pointed forward and to the right—one o’clock from our position—and said, “He’s out there, still doing whatever it was he was occupied with when I first probed this place.”

As we headed in the direction in which he had indicated, I suddenly glimpsed a flicker of movement to the left. I was not sure if I had actually seen something move, or if it had merely been a trick of this weird place. I started to mention it to Luke, but he beat me to it. “What was that?”

“I couldn’t tell. If you want, I’ll go check it out, then meet up with you over near where you suspect Merequist is located.”

He nodded quickly. “Sounds good, but be careful.”

We parted ways there, and as I headed away through the fog, Luke’s form grew more vague with every step. A moment later, I could no longer see him at all. Walking along, I kept the massive oak to my right, giving it a wide berth. I maneuvered between columns of mist that were scattered through the area like trees in some shadowy, insubstantial forest. Due to the wind, some of the columns drifted slowly, rearranging themselves intermittently. That layer of fog which had settled to the ground prevented me from seeing anything below knee level, so I walked with careful steps.

I briefly considered altering my shape, but I was doubtful that the odd atmospheric conditions would allow me to benefit from any olfactory cues, so I decided against it. Besides, I had been through a lot and shape-shifting is generally an exhausting pain in the ass. A few steps farther and the mist parted to reveal a form.

Kyla stood before me, curved blade in hand and feet spread apart at shoulders’ width. Her weapon, held pointed downward along her right leg, was about two and a half feet long, made of some blue-toned metal and bore a series of wicked-looking points and upturned edges along the inside arc of the blade. “Nigel,” she said, saluting me with the devilish thing.

“Same place, different circumstances.” I forced my gaze from her sword to her eyes, which were just as piercing.

“Is it the same place, really?” She took a small step forward and offered me an ethereal smile.

“Sorry, but I never got a copy of the blueprints, so I can’t answer the question. Maybe you should ask the architect.”

“Even Merequist isn’t sure exactly what happened. At first, he thought that you had deliberately worked some incredible change on this place—upon the Shar’Chal itself. But he discarded that idea quickly; he realized that you could not possibly have managed it. He concluded that whatever has happened is simply the by-product of your desperate action.”

“The Shar’Chal is what he calls the energy wheel?”

“Yes.”

“It’s some sort personalized power tool, isn’t it?”

“Yes. A Chaos construct.”

“So what happened to it?”

She glanced to her left, where the skeletal tree was still visible, standing at the center of what she had called the Shar’Chal, reaching up through the mist. “It warped the Shadows around it, effectively relocating certain portions of itself. It now exists in many separate places.”

“Sounds like Merequist isn’t calling the shots anymore.”

“I do not know what degree of control he currently possesses over the thing.” Her voice held a faint touch of apathy.

“So he sent you to find me, while he tries to figure out how to fix his toy.”

“Essentially, yes.”

“So you’ve found me. What now?”

“I suppose,” she said, “we could fight a duel, or…”

From a distance away, a long wailing sound rose from a deep bass level to a high, canine-annoying pitch. This was followed by a thunderous rumble. I took it to mean that Luke had located Merequist.

“Any idea what that was?” I asked Kyla.

“No.” She bit her lip, hesitating. “Do you want to accompany me while I check it out?”

Oddly, she seemed serious. I was beginning to wonder again about her involvement with the entire setup. Was she simply, after all, a hired gun? And if so, was Merequist late on a payment? “Does this mean that our duel is canceled?” I asked with a smile.

“No, only postponed.”

“Good enough. I’ll come along peacefully—for the moment.”

Watching each other with all due suspicion and walking apart but abreast, we headed in the general direction of the Shar’Chal. I wondered what her response to Luke’s presence would be. As we drew nearer to the center of things—my questionable enemy and I—the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck began to rise. A tangible current of power seemed to run through the air near the tree. Also, the light fell by a number of shades, giving the place an even creepier feel. Several times, odd noises came to us through the gloom.

When we were very close, I could hear the ringing of one blade against another. A final curtain of fog lifted and I beheld Luke and Merequist engaged in a duel.

They were standing several paces apart. Luke was holding his sword loosely in his left hand, while Merequist was wielding a pair of fiery sickles. I saw a small, flower-shaped spot of blood growing on the front of Luke’s shirt. Merequist, I noted, had lost some of his humanity. His fingers now sported spindly, black claws and the lower portion of his face had stretched forward, forming a reptilian snout. An awful array of shark-like teeth were visible whenever he drew back his lips.

Nearby, the outer section of the Shar’Chal wheel burned in its own purple fire, the flames now roughly six feet in height. Standing at the heart of the pictographic wheel, like a tower of skeletal wood, loomed the tree I had planted. The mist stopped at the edge of outermost designs, as if forced back by an area of extremely high pressure. The paired combatants both noticed our arrival, but other than making flickering side-glances toward us they remained focused upon one another.

Kyla did not yet seem to have anything in mind in the way of helping Merequist out, and Luke did not appear to need my immediate aid, so I stood back a ways, watching without comment. Kyla did the same.

Merequist abruptly raised and crossed both sickles over his head and a stream of spiraling fire shot forward and down. Simply stepping to one side of the crackling stream of flame, Luke jabbed with the slender, curved blade of his weapon, scoring an effective hit on his opponent’s left triceps muscle. Immediately, blood began to flow down Merequist’s arm and a grimace of pain briefly crossed his feral, tattooed face.

Moving with snake-like quickness, Luke pressed the attack, stepping in close. He caught up one of the sickles with his sword, reached out with his other hand and grabbed Merequist’s free wrist, then stomped down hard on the arch of the sorcerer’s left foot. Merequist responded by screaming in agony and rage. He dropped his mouth forward and bit deeply into Luke’s shoulder.

Breaking, they backed away from one another, circling for a moment until Merequist stood with his back to the purple flames rising from the wheel. Pointing with one of the sickles, he said, “I have tasted your blood, Amberite.”

“And I hope it gives you heartburn,” laughed Luke as he executed a fancy attack. Merequist parried and they were at each other again.

From beside me, Kyla spoke up. “What are you going to do if the wrong man wins the fight?”

“He won’t. Luke’s a survivor. He’ll polish Merequist off shortly. I’m sure of it.”

She was quiet for a few seconds, pausing to watch Luke behead some striped, serpentine thing that Merequist had just called into being. Continuing, she said, “I believe that you’re right, which is one of the reasons I’ve just opted to summarily end my agreement with Merequist.”

“Considering what I’ve seen of him, it seems that your decision is long overdue.”

“It was not always like this. It started off as a means of achieving a kind of security; the place I’m from is not a friendly one, so it pays to be tougher than whatever comes along.” Though my eyes did not wander from the battle before me, I nodded; I could sympathize with Kyla’s desire to gain an edge against a world full of predators.

“At one time,” she said, “my responsibilities primarily involved enacting military raids against Merequist’s adversaries, providing security for his various Shadow holdings and doing a number of other things that he didn’t want to involve himself in personally. I was usually rewarded well and I’ve benefited greatly from remaining in his employ for as long as I have. But over the last few years, his obsessive hatred for Luke has grown for reasons I don’t understand. I have suspected for some time that his vendetta would eventually get him killed.”

Glancing at her, I asked, “So, to hand your own question back to you, ‘What are you going to do if the wrong man wins the fight?’”

She chuckled. “Like you said, Luke will take him. If he doesn’t, he’ll injure him badly enough so that you and I can finish the job. Either way, after this is over, I’ll be moving on.”

A dazzling burst of pyrotechnics forced my attention back to the fight. Luke was advancing, swinging his sword in a series of rapid attacks. The last of these, a blinding downward arc, Merequist was unable to parry. The sword and sickle missed one another by half a foot, Luke’s blade instead passing through his opponent’s left wrist. Gnashing his teeth and clutching the stump of his wrist, Merequist staggered. He was bleeding from more places than I could count and had lost even more of his human form.

Not hesitating, Luke leaped forward, thrusting. The point of his blade pierced quickly and cleanly through Merequist’s right eye and beyond. The sorcerer collapsed in a jumbled heap. Lifting the body, Luke hurled it forward over the purple flames. It landed with an incandescent flash at the base of the dark tree, igniting and burning brightly. Breathing hard, Luke stood watching as the fire consumed his enemy.

I turned and saw that Kyla was holding a Trump. With her free hand, she tossed me something. It was the phoenix pendant. “Thanks.”

“Goodbye,” she said with an odd smile. “It has been interesting.” She began to take on an iridescent sparkle.

“Wait,” I said, quickly digging for my own set of Trumps. “Take this.” I sorted through the deck, retrieving my own portrait. Luke had painted several in different settings. I handed her the card. “Give me a call some time.”

“I will.” Looking at my Trump, she smiled again, then faded away.

When I turned around, Luke was standing still, a look of concentration on his face. Shifting my awareness into my ring, I could see that the great Pattern of Amber was hanging before him once more. He drew upon it heavily for purposes I was unsure of. A few minutes later, he finished whatever he had been doing, allowing his hold over the Pattern to slip away. As he approached, I could see that he had lost a lot of blood. His clothing was torn in many places, revealing a collection of nasty wounds.

He grinned, “Getting rid of that guy was something I thought I’d done a long time ago.” He ran a hand through his sweaty red hair. “You know what they say about doing the job right the first time around.”

I laughed.

“What happened to your friend?”

“I’m not sure where she went, but she won’t cause any problems; she had no personal stake in all this.”

Luke looked at me in an appraising way, then nodded sharply. “I’ll take your word on that. What’s she like?”

Chuckling, I said, “Complicated, of course. And interesting. She returned your pendant, too.” I handed it to him. “What were you doing with the Pattern?”

He looked around, taking in our misty surroundings. “I greatly slowed the time flow in this place. The process will continue for a while and before long, local time in this Shadow will barely creep along. That’ll give me a chance to decide whether anything needs to be done about this ugly thing.” He gestured toward the Shar’Chal. “For now, though, let’s get out of here. I’d like to take a hot bath and get bandaged up. Then after a few hours sleep I want to take you out to this Tex-Mex place I discovered while you were away. You ought to like it; it’s back on Shadow Earth, down in Austin. Over dinner, you can give me a more detailed account of everything that happened after you left Kashfa.”

“There’s a lot to tell for just one sitting.”

“That’s okay, I’m really hungry. I’ll even pay for the food.”

Reaching for my Trumps, I said, “You’ve got a deal.”

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