The Best of Both Worlds
by Pieter Simoons, with help from Engel Nobbe.
This story is dedicated to Roger Zelazny.
I suppose I should thank the following people, even though none of their characters have made an appearance yet... Aad Wagner (Richard T), Ad
van Groeningen (Ilyshan), Alexander van Koppen (George), Herman Kuster
(Monar Pilatu), Hugo van der Hoek (Drake) and Michiel van Duin (Antonius
I'm standing in line... looking for a job.
A car brakes, tires screech... I look outside, slightly puzzled and at
the same time bored.
All shadows are, in fact, the same.
In a way.
Yet this one seemed to be, for a moment, a little bit more real. As if
somebody had plunged a part of Chaos in it. But just for a moment.
I sigh. The body I carry today is not unattractive, but the boring
singularity of the shadow dwellers around me works on my nerves. A few
tried even to make a pass at me.
A step ahead, closer to the desk, where a young girl asks persons about
things that are irrelevant for the job she just might offer them.
Darn... If just...
Another step. I'm next. Waiting. And just at the moment that it's my
turn, and the girl looks up to me, something walks in.
It looks around. Then walks up. Towards me.
Some people in the line get nervous. You don't see a giant, gray dog in New
York city center that often. Not this type. More wolf than dog, actually.
Big teeth, shining eyes.
Probably just another shadow dweller looking for some job, or whatever.
I don't care. I look over my shoulder for barely a second. I'm not that
impressed. I've seen worse.
Things change when the dog starts speaking. Now that's NOT supposed to
happen. Not in this shadow anyway...
In the ominous silence of the room, it's voice sounds really hollow...
spooky, in a way. Especially scary to the shadowlings, or so it seems, as
one of them quickly backs out of the door, mumbling something about an
important appointment she nearly forgot about.
People start to move. In disbelieve. There's mumble mumble going on. Then
there's that big stupid guy stepping forward, and grabbing at the dog...
Wow... he shouldn't have done that.
There's a short fight, a little blood... flashing teeth... a snarl... a
scream... utter chaos in the room as people stumble over each other,
frantically running for the door out, which, to make things worse, opens
to the inside. Chairs and tables get kicked over as the people rush out.
Within half a minute the room is empty, except for me. And the dog.
"That's better," it says...
Tranquility returns. Or seems to return, as there's a certain tension in
I stare at the dog. Something gives me the feeling it doesn't quite belong
here. It seems different from the rest of the shadow. It seems to know
me, but I don't recognize it. Not the shape, at least, but that doesn't
really mean anything. Yet I can't think of anybody that would know where
I am or would try to find me. Strange.
Although the dog doesn't seem to be here to attack me (it would already
have done so if it were), I move a few steps to the side to make sure
it's not between me and the exit, just in case. The dog sighs, and sits
Trying to sound stern, but unable to entirely repress a slight look of
surprise, I ask the dog, "Who are you? And what are you doing here?"
"Well," the dog says, "it's a very long and complex story, but it basically
boils down to this: I came here to offer you a job. In a sort of way:
I'm your destiny... Well, not exactly yours, but pretty close." The dog
"What..." I begin, when I suddenly hear the sound of sirens outside.
Police sirens. Approaching. A quick look at the window reveals a police
car coming closer, and judging by the sound there are several more.
Surprising how fast those guys arrived. They must have been on the dog's
trail for quite a while already. They're probably not chasing me... yet.
Eluding them would not be very difficult, but a problem in this shadow
are the rather effective firearms everybody seems to carry. Also, I don't
know about the dog... it doesn't seem too worried, but I doubt if it
could take on a large police force. Even if it could, killing these cops
would probably only serve to bring on more.
I turn back to the dog. "Well, if it's a long story, why don't we go to
some place more quiet than this?" The dog looks outside, then nods.
I look around. Usually buildings like this have a back door. There is
indeed a door behind the counter, probably leading to the back office.
"Follow me," I tell the dog. I jump on the counter, then off on the other
side. A last look over my shoulder tells me the first police car is
parking, and two more are coming behind it. We leave through the back
As I expected, there's an office behind it. A small man is seated at a
desk. When he sees us, he gets up and starts, "Hey! You can't come
back..."; then he notices the snarling dog behind me, and thinks better
of it. "We're just leaving," I tell him. "Is there a back door here?"
"N-no." is the answer. "Here's a window," the dog says, then leaps
through it. The man looks totally confused. Never mind that though, I
have other things on my mind. I open the window further and climb out.
We end up on a small street in the city. I tell the dog to be quiet until
there's less people around. He mumbles something like: "Racists. That's
what they all are. I mean... the second you walk on four legs instead of
just your hind paws you're supposed to shut up. I mean... we sniff out
drugs, track gangsters, uphold the law, protect the innocent... what
happened to respect?"
I nod in silent agreement. Even though it seems nothing more than
etiquette, I actually do agree wholeheartedly, and know what he's talking
We walk a few streets down to the city park and find a quiet place
somewhere between the trees.
"Ok," I say, "now tell me about this job."
"Uh uh..." He says, suddenly more interested in the grass below his feet
than in telling me the reason why he dragged me away there in the first
place. The dog shifts uncomfortably under my gaze, then sighs. He
shrugs. Pretty good for a canine, that.
"Well... you can help me. If you want to," he quickly adds. "I mean, I
need some help to accomplish a task I can't do myself. I want you to
track down my owner. That's all. I mean, how hard can that be?" Now the
dog looks sheepish. And that's even harder than shrugging.
There's a jogger passing by, we both keep quiet for a moment. The police
sirens sound in the distance, but we don't pay attention.
"If it's so easy, why don't you do it yourself?" I ask.
"Ah," he says. I have the definite impression the dog regards itself as a
'he' instead of an 'it'... For a moment I wonder how to regard myself...
"That's what it all boils down to, isn't it? In fact, it's a combination of
pretty easy and damn difficult. I'm not exactly made of the right stuff to
perform actions in certain areas of shadow."
I look confused. The dog seems to notice; to prove himself, he gets up,
then walks toward a nearby bush and walks straight through it! Without
touching it. Like a ghost. Or a projection. But when he takes a leak and
targets a tree, you can clearly see he's able to touch matter in this
Just to make sure, I touch the bush. It feels real all right. But this is
strange. The dog was perfectly capable of molesting that man that touched
him earlier. And he doesn't seem to fall through the ground or anything.
"Besides... I'm not able to shapeshift, and shapeshifting is a necessity to
adequately fulfill the mission." Ah. That's my area of expertise. I
suppress a smile. But I still don't quite get the idea. The dog looks
smart, his head tilted a little. "Wow. Ain't that a nice line? Stole it
from a television series..."
Some other questions come to mind. "Who _is_ your owner, anyway?" I query.
"Thomas, of course." The dog stares at me. I must be pretty stupid not to
know his... it doesn't quite ring a bell, although I'm pretty sure I've
heard it before. I'll keep it in mind. "Owner? Well... not exactly owner.
I would describe it more as partner. If you catch my drift." Which I
don't. The dog winks. "In fact, I'm supposed to take care of him, but he
left me at a moment I was quite occupied."
A dog's expression is hard to read, but this seems to be a blend of worry,
guilt, and slight amusement in spite of it all. Maybe a pinch of
embarrassment thrown in for good measure. And his answers tend only to
bring up more questions.
"Who or what are you? You don't seem to belong in this shadow... What is
this about a destiny to fulfill? And whose destiny is it? And why did you
come especially for me?"
"Er... Can we handle one question at a time? Phew. Thank you. Now
lessee'... Who I am is simple, I'm Daera. What I am is simple. I'm a dog,
as most people can see." "No you're not," I begin, but he just talks on.
"The destiny we are talking about is Thomas's. And you already know why I
came for you. You're a shapeshifter. You're looking for a job. And
besides... who knows... you might find out something about yourself."
Now how in the worlds does _he_ of all pers- er- creatures know that?
I want to ask yet more questions as the dog gets up.
The dog gets up. "By the way, are you hungry? I buried a nice bone
around here somewhere, last week, and it should still be fresh. Interested?"
A bone. I think I ate one of those a while ago. Sure, why not? Then
again... what do the biped shadowlings usually eat? I don't think they
eat bones. I'd try something else, not to look too stupid.
"No, you take it. I'll go find something else." I smile at the dog.
The dog nods and walks away between the bushes. I look around. Is there
something to eat around? Then I spot the inevitable hot dog cart not too
far away near the path. Brushing some grass off my skin*, I approach it.
I buy a hot dog and start to eat it, in the slow, inefficient way the
shadowlings seem to prefer. I look around to see where the dog went,
sensing him somewhere nearby still. Then, I see two police cars parked
near the park entrance. Five policemen get out, obviously expecting
trouble. One of them suddenly points in my direction and says something
to the others.
"STOP!" they shout, as they draw their guns and run in my direction. The
hot dog seller freezes in terror.
This is becoming annoying. I quickly estimate my chances again. Like
before, I don't feel like taking down five shadowlings with firearms..
It makes too much of a mess. Best, again, to get out of here. Through
shadow, if possible; that would get rid of them for certain. I run in
the direction where I last saw the dog. Seeing my reaction, the hot dog
seller moves to block my path, but I'm slightly stronger than he
reckoned. Of course. I move straight on, knocking him aside. A bullet
whizzes through the air, several yards off.
After a few rows of bushes, I find the dog, busy messing up the ground by
digging a hole. "Come! Quickly." I say. He looks up. "But my bone..." he
starts. I don't have time for this mess. I grab the dog by the neck, pull
him out of the hole and run off.
"Hey! I can walk on my own!" the dog blurts out. I put him down and let
him do so. Keeping a reasonable jogging pace, I begin shifting the shadow
around me, making sure I keep the dog with me. The city skyline changes,
as does the texture of the grass. The dog seems to drift in and out of
focus... getting closer, moving away... as if the animal is capable of
shifting through shadow itself. No, that's not exactly it - it's more as
if it travels through shadow without really being there.
We leave the park and jog on through the city streets. Soon enough, the
policemen's shouts behind us fade away. I look around to find them gone,
as I supposed.
I halt on the sidewalk, at a place where nobody is within earshot.
"Ok," I say, "we'll get you a new bone later. I might be able to help you
find this Thomas, but I can't promise anything right now. Can you tell me
something more about him, like where to find him, for example?"
The dog looks slightly annoyed, then nods.
"Well..." he says, "That could pose a small problem, since I lost track of
him a while ago."
As I press on more of the story gets told. It seems that this Thomas
person, who the hell he might be, went to a place like the famous kingdom
Amber, and then left, leaving the dog behind. From there the trail is
cold. Amber? Now where in the worlds is that? Never heard of it.
"If he was in a place where I could go, I would know where he is," the dog
explains. "The only thing I'm sure about is that he took a long and deep
fall somewhere, then it all fades away. The trick is, it's all on the
other side, and the rules are different there."
"Wait a second," I interrupt, "the other side of what?" "Of reality, of
course. Did you think this is the only one?" The dog shakes his head.
"Oh, some of you bipeds are so stupid!"
"Okay, dog, _now_ you have pissed me off. A biped? ME?! NO WAY!"
To prove my point I shift into another form, anything I can think of, as
long as it doesn't have two legs. A snake seems easiest. A very large
snake at that, too.
The dog doesn't seem to impressed, though.
"In fact, you would need some help to get there," he continues. "But, of
course, I can help you." Here the dog smiles, but that doesn't look too
comforting on a canine. It reminds you too much of lunch...
"Ok, now let's reconsider. I am standing calmly in some shadow trying to
get a job, and all of a sudden this murderous talking dog leaps in,
"I'm not murderous!" the dog interjects. "I just... er... got carried away.
Strictly self defense, you see." He looks smug.I frown disapprovingly.
Pretty unusual for a snake, that.
"Like I said, this murderous dog leaps in, gets us both chased by the
police, tries to feed me bones and wants me to help him find some guy I
don't even know who is stuck on an other side trying to go to a place
I've never heard of, where this so-called dog can't get to himself
because he only exists half, but can throw me in, and then it all fades
away. Right. Now I'd like you to give me ONE good reason for going
through all this riddly crap for something like you!"
"Before I go on, may I complement you on your accent? It's better than
mine." Another canine smile. Another serpentine frown.
"Weren't you the one looking for her, or his, true self? Besides, you
like me. Would it help if I say please? Please?"
Now where does that come from? I'm just about to add another angry remark
as I hear a scream from behind me. I look around and notice a couple of
people staring and pointing at me. Oops. Looks like these people don't
I try to cover things up again by shifting back to my biped form. Wrong
move. That only makes things worse - evidently these idiot shadowlings
have never seen a metamorph either. I sigh.
They should just go away though. This shadow doesn't have a police force,
I took care of that. So there ought to be nothing they can do...
Then I hear a rock whizzing past my head. It lands in the bushes, and is
quickly joined by several others. Curse these shadowspawn! If they have
no police, they just go berserk themselves! I've had enough.
I make a rush for the nearest shadeling and slam into him, throwing him
to the floor. From the corner of my eye I see the dog taking a leap at
another. The one I'm fighting tries to put up some resistance, but to no
avail. I hit him until he stops moving. Unconscious. Or dead. I don't
care at this point.
The dog stands next to me, poised over another corpse. His mouth is
covered in blood. A few shadowlings that were near back off a bit, but
they're not fleeing - they're joining the ranks of their brothers and
sisters. It seems like we're surrounded. Some more rocks fly, one of them
hitting my shoulder.
"Ok, dog," I say. "I have a feeling I'm going to regret this, but let's
go. To the other side."
The dog looks up from his bloody handywork, and shakes his head. Then he
trots into the bushes, where I quickly follow. The dog leads the way,
shifting through shadow. His style is certainly different from mine.
Colours change radically, yet smell and shapes change slowly...
... as I follow a trail of musk... there's a cliff on the horizon...
flatter now... a blue sun rises, a green one goes down... through a field
of bones where small furry animals flee from our arrival... to empty city
streets late at night, filled with street lanterns, trees, and parked
cars... around a corner, a cat sits there and smiles, the dog just nods...
on and on... the city disappears in one big flash, and empty planes of
grass surround us... we cross a low stone wall... there's a canal on the
other side, getting smaller... and smaller... a road comes closer, a car
passes by, a man and a dog in the front seats... the dog hesitates, then
continues... and then we stop.
This is an empty world. Far in the distance, at the jagged horizon, is
the suggestion of snow covered mountain tops. Otherwise, all I can see
is endless plains. Emtpy space, just a road, a low stone wall, an old
car, and an empty chair in the middle of nowhere. It looks totally
unfamiliar. I look around confusion.
"Have fun," the dog says. "It's on either end. And ehm..." He looks a bit
disturbed. "Plea --"
"Of what?" I interrupt. "Of this wall? And WHAT is no either end? What
are we supposed to be looking for, anyway? I don't even know what this
guy looks like!"
"Like I was saying, please get your emotions under control. I'm not very
substantial, and you have a bad influence on me. I do not like killing, so
refrain from certain actions please. Any further questions?"
"What the heck! Killing? ME?! It was _YOU_ who started all this mess,
dog head! I was waiting for a job quietly and YOU of all things had to
come in and..."
Before I have time to finish my words, the world changes around me. Like
the flick of a switch - very different from shadow travel. The car, chair
AND the dog vanish. All that is left is the road and the stone wall.
However, all of a sudden there are trees in the fields.
"Hey! Dog! Where did you go!"
There is no response.
"Dog! DOG!! Come back!!"
I sigh. Guess I'm back on my own.
I look around again. All I see are the fields with trees, and the wall in
the center. Somehow this place feels... strange. But there doesn't seem
to be anything interesting or alive around. The wall, maybe. I walk up to
it and examine it. Hm. Nope. Looks like regular brick to me. Big rough grey
stones, stapled to form a long low wall. There's a small trench next to it;
I don't see any point in that. But at least this wall is something of a
guide - these fields look endless.
My best bet'd be to follow that wall. It ought to lead somewhere.
Probably a long trip though, as I see nothing in the distance.
I look at myself. Hm. Humanoids aren't really made for this kind of work.
Let's try something different... hm... how about one of those felines?
The dog would probably love that. I smile to myself. But no, predators
look too aggressive. That might attract the wrong kind of attention.
Something else... like equine... ah, how about a stag? That sounds good.
Especially for this terrain.
I concentrate for a second and change my shape into that of a stag. I
just hope there's anything like that in this world.
In my new, quadruped form I take some distance from the wall, turn left
and start walking. It takes a few minutes to get used to having four
walking limbs, then I speed up a bit to something I think I can
comfortably keep up for a number of hours.
And, although I don't really expect it to work here, I try manipulating
shadows a bit. Changing reality, so that I would find this Thomas. If he
I'm surprised to find out that my shadow shifting does work. I go for a
'general search' of this Thomas figure. The dog gave me some clues, but
it's all a bit unclear. I'm probably in for a long walk... As I keep going
I sense a certain strangeness in the shadow, though I can't exactly pin it
down. I'll just have to rely on my instincts.
Nothing much seems to happen in the shadow I'm in, until after a while I
see a small building appear on the horizon. As I approach, I see It's
roughly square, with a small shack next to it. A big neon sign on the roof
says 'Exxon'. It's a fuel station, with a small garage. There's a man
sitting outside, in a chair, and sleeping. An extinguished pipe in his
To be continued... (but not any time soon, I suppose)