Into the Mystic

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Shim Po read the same paragraph for the third time, then slammed the book shut. He could not stop picturing Captain Polglase's corn-fed steel-eyed face. For the umpteenth time, the Mystic glanced at the ornate Tazyr timepiece on the mantle and chortled. He had prevailed in his battle with the dreadful woman, and she did not even know it! In less than two hours, however, she would. She'd stand there, waiting for him to perform the ridiculous task she'd assigned him; with each passing moment her resolve would falter, until despair set in. Without even moving from his chair, he would vanquish that strutting martinet. When the portal vanished, exiling her in that faraway land, she would have to acknowledge that Little Po Po had bested her.

It was too delicious.

"Rogi!" he called. "Brandy! The good stuff. I intend to celebrate!"

"Yes, Master." his lackey dashed away to comply.

"I'll show her," Shim Po told the empty room, eyeing the spell circle that served as reminder both of what he'd done and, more important, what he was soon not about to do. He cared not a hummingbird's fart for the Minstrel's fate, but Captain High-and-Mighty, on the other hand, was a worthy adversary, and victory over her would be sweet. Nay, delectable.

"Here, Master?" Rogi reappeared, dusty bottle in hand. He wiped it off with a damp cloth, broke the waxen seal and unstoppered it. Fumes filled the room with promises of the aged liquor's potency. He then carefully filled a snifter to the correct level and handed it to Shim Po. The Mystic swirled it, watching the liquid coat the bowl in pale green sheaths that caught the light and refracted it into a spectrum of delight.

"To Captain Polglase!" he intoned. "Long may she rot!" He waved the snifter under his long nose, and his nostrils flared savoring the rich warm aroma. He was about to drink when he noticed Rogi standing there, silently.

"Where is your glass?" he demanded.

"Mine? Master wishes me to drink?"

"It's not much of a toast if no one joins in," Shim Po observed sardonically. Rogi fetched a smaller goblet into which the Mystic splashed a thimbleful of brandy. "To Captain Polglase," he repeated.

"To Captain Polglase," Rogi echoed.

Both drained their glasses. Shim Po held out his for a refill. "I wish I could see her face sink like a lead airship when she realizes that I am not the spineless arthropod she takes me to be. She will no doubt try to remain stoic in the face of adversity, but once she acknowledges that I, Shim Po, have left her stranded on the far side of nowhere she will know what a loser she is!"

"What of her threat, Master?" Rogi inquired hesitantly.

"Sheer empty bravado. There's no way back save through my intercession. She considers me weak, but the mountain is strong and it does nothing but stand there. I shall emulate that mountain, Rogi; in inactivity, there is power!"

He tossed back the snifter's contents.

"Master is a veritable mountain range of indolence," Rogi commented.

"Very true." Shim Po tapped the side of his glass pointedly and Rogi re-re-filled it. Shim Po raised it to his lips but halted before drinking. "What if she takes it the wrong way?" he mused, horrified at the thought.

"Excuse me?"

"What if she interprets events incorrectly? What if, instead of acknowledging me the winner of our contest of wills, she believes me inadequate to the task? Her opinion of me is already low; it would not take much to make it subterranean!" He set his glass down and began to pace. "This is intolerable!"

"Calm yourself, Master," Rogi advised. "You have won. Is that not enough?"

"How can it be?" the Mystic demanded. "What kind of victory is it when the opponent thinks you too inept to find the battlefield? I can picture her, sitting in some primitive stinkhole of a tavern, telling a group of savages that Little Po-Po couldn't find his privates with both hands and a Locator spell! No! It's not enough to beat that self-aggrandizing harpy. She must know, to a certainty, that I bested her. Otherwise, sweet victory turns to wormwood on my tongue. As long as she is out there, heaping calumny on me in absentia, I shall never know the satisfaction of triumph. This will not do! I must bring her back so I can stare right into those cool grey eyes and say 'Aha! Now I have you!' That will show her!"

"But Master, would not the act of retrieving her be doing exactly what she wants you to do?"

"Yes, but not what she expects me to do! That's the genius of it Rogi! Only by seeming to kowtow to her browbeating tactics can I demonstrate who is the stronger between us!"

"Hold on – let me see if I have this correctly. You're saying the only way you can convince Captain Polglase that you're powerful enough to defy her is to do precisely what she ordered you to do?"

"Yes!" Shim Po crowed. "You have it in a nutshell!"

"I have you in a nutshell," Rogi muttered.

"What was that?"

"I said 'That will put her through Hell,' Master."

"So it shall! Can you picture the look on her face when she sees that I was mighty enough not to do anything but did it anyway, just to spite her?"

"You're a complete loonbag, Master"

"What did you say?"

"Get the wax out of your ears! I said you're a loon. Loooooooooon! Round the bend. Hanging by a thread off the sanity tapestry. Nutty as a filbert harvest festival, head up your sphincter, mad as a wet yeti, bonkers! You make as much sense as a baracuda with dentures! Your logic is twisted enough to have its own pretzel factory! You're certifiable. Give me the form and I'll sign it, then commit myself for staying by you all these centuries. You should not be allowed to roam free unaccompanied by a keeper with a very large cudgel with which to knock you insensate when you start spouting drivel! You're as useless as a moat with no castle, and I RUE the day I ever signed on to foster your delusional imprecations!"

Rogi panted, overwhelmed by the vehemence of his outburst.

"Are you quite done,?" Shim Po asked. Rogi just glared. "That was your best tirade in a long time. Now we'd best make preparations. I'll need a razor, a basin, hot water, all the robes you can muster, and an egg salad sandwich with the crusts cut off. Go!"

Later, as Rogi painstakingly shaved his Master's hair and beard, the Mystic contemplated his life. He'd accumulated countless enemies in his long unpleasant life, but they all paled by comparison to Polglase. Not until he met her did he understand the true meaning of "adversary." His loathing for the Dragoon knew no bounds, and he could not bear the thought that she might never bedevil him again. "A true adversary is rarer than a trustworthy friend," he commented to Rogi. "Both must be cherished to ensure their continued dependability. With luck, I can look forward to another millennium or two of matching wills and wits with the detestable woman."

Rogi helped the Mystic dress, shaking his head at the strangeness of Wizards. Layer after layer of clothing padded Shim Po's gaunt frame until he stood stiff as a scarecrow, sweating profusely, his bald head smooth and naked as a newborn's rump. It was a truly ludicrous sight, yet somehow incongruously noble. He held out his hands. Rogi slipped on calfskin gloves, followed by thicker ones of wool, mithril gauntlets, and finally mittens fashioned from wyvernhide.

Aside from the Mystic's squinty eyes, gleaming pate and bare feet, which had to remain unshod for his efforts to succeed, every square featherwidth of his flesh was covered by multiple layers of varying materials. It might not suffice, but it would have to do.

Shim Po looked one last time at the clock. Almost time. With heavy tread, he entered the spell circle. "Rogi? I want you to know that if I don't survive this, I've made arrangements for you."

"Master is too kind."

"Call me a sentimental old softy, but I couldn't stand the idea of you struggling along after I'd gone, masterless, no one to provide you with purpose for your paltry little life."

"I do not know what to say, Master!"

"No need to thank me, my loyal if clumsy comrade. Just take solace in the knowledge that, if I do not survive this experience, you will die quickly and relatively painlessly."

"Say what?"

"It was the least I could do. While you were dressing me, I took the opportunity to link our life forces. If chaos kills me, you'll be reduced to atoms. The whole process should take no more than ten minutes, fifteen tops."

"Master should not have done that!"

Shim Po smiled and waved a hand. "It was my pleasure."

"No, Master really should not have done that! Master should be taken out and flogged, healed and flogged again. Repeatedly! With a spiked flail! And then –"

Shim Po heard no more. The protective sphere sprang up around him. He hurriedly cast Chaos Shield on himself and Adhere on his feet; he'd wore no shoes because the cyclonic winds that would shortly be generated would have torn him out of even the sturdiest of footwear. His head was equally bare because the selfsame winds would yank his hair or beard out by the roots and take his scalp or face with them. Shim Po had no illusions regarding the danger of what he was about to attempt, but held his position. He prepared himself for the reappearance of the twin tunnels and, after that, the Chaos Seed. They did not keep him waiting. The Seed, roughly the size and shape of a lemon, though black as the inside of a pocket, hovered above his shaven head. It began to spin.

"Addle-pated fool!" he told himself, and reached upward. His wyvernhide encased mitts each took one end of the spinning object, rotating at thousands of revolutions per second, and strained to reverse its orientation. The plan he and Polglase had devised was breathtakingly simple in theory. By flipping the Seed over, Shim Po could reverse the direction of the vortex. Polglase and the Minstrel would then be sucked through and deposited on the hill from which both had started their transdimensional journeys. Putting the theory into practice, however, was a goat of a different disposition.

Chaos is defined as unstable, aperiodic behavior in deterministic non-linear dynamic systems, but when it comes to erecting a verbal fence around Chaos, one may as well – in the immortal words of Donovan – try and catch the wind. The best intellects of a billion systems have burned themselves to cinders in attempts to describe its operation in words. In a very real sense, Chaos is that which occurs when you are making other plans. Chaos is the poppy seed from your morning bagel that gets stuck between your first and second right upper molars and proceeds to torture you so much that you miss your exit, take the next one, get lost in a bad neighborhood, and have your car stolen by marauding riffs, thus causing you to miss the interview that would have earned you a position in which you would have spent the next seventeen years as a miserable drudge afraid to quit because you need the benefits. Chaos is the fly in the ointment, the bee in the bonnet, and the force that compels you to sing "My baby takes the morning train" to yourself over and over and over until you couldn't get it out of your head with a crowbar and a court order. Blame Chaos for that last-minute pre-prom pimple or the sinking of the Titanic. Sing its praises when your team beats the spread and curse it when that same team loses to South Podunk Agricultural & Technical thanks to a field goal kicked by a freshman walk-on in the last three seconds of the game. Know that Chaos keeps no books, respects no borders and never, ever feeds the kitty. Chaos is the unbuilding block of the universe, the big brother entropy runs to when it wants someone beaten up. Chaos is primal, brutal, and extremely uncooperative. In terms of relative danger, Chaos is to plutonium as plutonium is to marshmallow fluff.

Shim Po knew of no Wizard who had ever tried to manipulate Chaos in its raw form manually, as he was about to do. After all, Wizards were, in theory, intelligent.

The winds shredded his outermost garment in an instant, but he paid no heed. After all, he had six more robes underneath, as well as two nightshirts and three sets of underwear, Between the multiple layers of clothing and the Chaos Shield spell, his physical body should remain safe from the wind. His mind, however, was another matter entirely.

"What do you think you are doing?" Shim Po started at the sound of the disapproving voice. "Are you playing with yourself again?"

"N-n-no, Master!" he squeaked. He looked down at himself and found he was dressed in the silver-and-azure shift of a Junior Apprentice Mystic. "I'm only trying to fly this kite. See?" He held up the spool of twine for the glowering headmaster to inspect. Othar Kannito, while an excellent teacher and administrator, took a notoriously dim view of frivolous activity.

"Time-waster!" the venerable Mystic thundered. "Shirker! Did I not tell you to contemplate the six levels of Aspect before dinner? Besides, you have no kite, silly boy."

Young Po looked into the sky. Attached to the end of his line was a cast iron skillet filled with eels. The wriggling fish-things slithered over the side and dove at him. Reflex told him to drop the kite string and fend them off with his hands, but he held tight to the spool.

"You cannot keep me here forever!" he cried, pressing his face against the bars of his cell. The jailer, a massive ogre wearing the garb of a prima ballerina grunted and resumed demolishing a scale model of the Temple of Unbridled Curiosity with a platinum spoon. "I have a key, and once I can turn it in this lock, I shall be free. No one can stop me from marrying the western horizon! Not you, not mother, not even the janitor!"

The key, its handle elliptical and black as ice, jiggled in the lock, but refused to turn. "It does not fit," he despaired. "I need more treacle!"

"We're out of treacle," the waiter said, writing on a small pad. "May I recommend the trout? It is quite fresh, and we serve it grilled with roasted new potatoes and a vegetable medley."

The crowded restaurant buzzed with activity. At the adjacent table, six white mice entwined tails and nibbled at large chunks of moldy linoleum. A string quartet played in the background, although none of them had any musical instruments, just strings. Shim Po nodded at a party of Inchoate Rages across the lavishly appointed room.

"I shall have the braised cat liver," he decided. "With the crusts cut off."

"Excellent choice, sir," the waiter bowed. "May I take your menu?"

Shim Po looked at what he was holding. The thick pasteboard covers were black as wishes thrown over the side at a wedding and he almost gave it up before he noticed the menu items changing before his eyes. They now read from top to bottom, not right to left and every dish contained carp.

"Oh no!" the Mystic roared. "You cannot fool me that easily!"

Shim Po was, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, a brilliant man. He could never have attained the rank of Magnus and his former eminence without possessing a towering intellect. As anyone with even a passing familiarity with mechanics will attest, the more complex a system, the more that can go wrong with it. A brick, for example, is a very simple device. It can be used for building, bashing, or throwing, and the worst that can happen to it is that it can break. Shim Po's consciousness contained billions of finely tuned interlocking mental machines, some gossamer delicate, and Chaos had a whole toolbox full of wrenches to throw into the works.

Shim Po fought back with grim determination. No waiter had ever gotten the best of him! "This is my menu!" he screamed. "You can't have it!"

"What menu is that, dear?" a sweet, sultry voice inquired. "Put that away and come to bed. It's so lonely here without you."

The panther-faced woman stretched and began to groom herself. Her thick, pink tongue made languid strokes along the inner surface of one impossibly perfect thigh. "Shim Po," she mewled, "why do you make me wait? Can you not see how randy I am for you?" She bared her gleaming teeth in an expression that made him feel ramrod-stiff and pudding-soft simultaneously. He started towards the plush, canopied bed.

"Uh, uh, uh," the she-cat waggled a claw at him. "Only you, my darling. You must leave your little friend behind."

"What friend?" he asked, his voice clotted with lust. She pointed at his hands. He looked, and there in a tangle of string, in the configuration known varyingly as Rhashkavo, House of Diamonds, and Cat's Cradle, sat a terrible spider, malevolent and black as yesterday's promises. It hissed at him, and the venom shot straight for his eyes. They immediately filled with maggots oozing pus and vinegar.

"Not… On… Your… Best… Day!" Shim Po hollered, changing the pattern. The spider started to flip over, but began to inflate, growing to the size of a cantaloupe, then a wintergourd, and then to the size of Kal itself. The planet whizzed through the heavens, black as makes no never mind, but Shim Po hung on to both poles with arms like the dawn itself. With a final, decisive gesture, he reversed the spinning planet's polarity. Continents rose and fell. Vast oceans sprayed into the void. Civilization as he knew it ended and a new one was born in its place. A choir of heavenly bullfrogs began to sing.

Shim Po let go and sank to the bottom of the sphere.

"What took you so long?" Polglase demanded as she flew by. The Mystic lifted his head to say something haughty and self-serving, but hurriedly fell back as a strange transport with two wheels and an attached side-carriage zoomed past, missing his head by a whisker. Good thing I have none left, he thought, and then a large blue humanoid kicked him at the base of the skull.

"Ow! Watch where you are going, you big blue buffoon!" he yelled, shaking a fist at the direction in which the creature had disappeared. "I –"

Shim Po became cognizant of his surroundings. Only the indelible circle, eleven-pointed star and accompanying runes remained. A tiny sculpture of a very fat man holding a sousaphone appeared in midair, one final gift of Chaos. It fell to the floor and bounced into a corner. The Seed was gone, the tunnels and sphere likewise. So too was his clothing. The stone of his study floor felt soothingly cool against his skin. There stood Rogi, looking worried, whey-faced, and somehow disappointed. Shim Po let his eyelids droop, and all was black as, well, night.

"That'll show her," he said, just before he sank into blissful oblivion.

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