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 Brozak).

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 
the air.
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 
like snakes.
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.

"What the..."
"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 
even exists.

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)

Amber Stories