The Fell Gard Codices


These things are true. He has dreamed them. In his dreams alone may he escape this place, this ruin of his own making. Only ever for a moment; and always as a sign that he must wake again and face a duel.

His eyes open; where has he awoken? This time it is a ruined tower. Beams are splintered, stones are fallen, as though with the force of his incarnation. Once again he has been wreathed round with his own flesh.

He steps out of the ruin. He sees that the tower is upon a precipice of rock; the cave beyond (he calls light with a wave of his hand and a whisper) is filled with jagged chasms, with sharp rises. It is perhaps a mile wide. Here and there ætheric moss twinkles upon a ceiling, like mock stars in a moonless night of no ending.

He looks upon his work; and above all else, above even the fear of the coming test, he feels the yearning for his poor lost books. He aches for them. Once they were a revelation to him of his own depths, an articulation of a complexity he could not otherwise imagine. They were a directory of what he had kept secret from himself. Where are they now?

He mourns the lost books, but has no time for weeping. He must soon enter into another struggle. There is a creature coming into the low places close to him: his shadow, his double, his other self. Who desires to replace him, and reign in his stead. He would weep, but like the old dwarf has no tears left. There is only fear, of the coming test. And of course the mourning, for the wreck of his work and for what might have been; and the yearning, for the books he is cursed never to find — but the mourning and the yearning are simply who he is, and do not drive him as fear now must.

I have watched long enough through the eyes of others, he thinks. I will take action, I will play my part, I will mime the drama. His fear is stage fright: what if he slips in making a speech? What if he forgets his lines, and his tongue dries in his mouth, and words flee from his skull? Ah, but no, no, it will not be so easy, there is in fear no evasion of his dreadful responsibility.

Still, let him put off the role so long as he can. He decides he will see first the progress of the ritual that may yet be salvation.

He has no magic to fold miles into a single step; in that place he does not need it. He is the stones of his own prison, and has only to walk without meaning and he will come in the end to where he wishes — in the low places, in the upper courts, wherever he might choose. Only walk, and place becomes alchemised with selfhood. The soul and the study of the world.

(He may go wherever he wishes, in all the miles of his self-made labyrinth. He may see all, and find what is lost. Only the books are denied him; not irony, that, but malice. He remembers the language of them, the tales, the clever cross-references — a hint here, developed there — he remembers remembering them as they were once, and returning to them to find they had shifted while he had been away, that they had grown deeper, wiser. How he had loved them. As he had loved what else? He has failed them, as he has failed in so many ways. Now they are gone, and he must shed blood.)

Down a spiral of stone steps, around and around the side of a deep well: he does not run and yet is dizzy. It’s not natural to be awake, now; he rises, in these late years of his life, only to fight and do murder. It is better to sleep, though he is lost in nightmare. He thinks: I am bounded in an infinite space, king of a shell, and still I have bad dreams. — But the neophyte was correct: it has all been said before, and by a better singer.

The stairs end in the room of Fool’s Hope. So he named the place. The room is wide, the ceiling low. There are narrow arched windows, and beyond is ætheric night, and flickers that seem as though lightning; there is something like a storm always outside these walls, here in the places below the lowest of all places. In the room are gargoyles, that pause as he enters, and then continue their work. The preparation for the ritual grinds on. He moves past these mechanical chores to the exit.

Exit: it is a kind of illusion. There is nothing beyond. Only moonlight, and brooding cloud that births the quick glimmering flashes; and then perhaps somewhere through the nebula is the All. Stretching into the void and the windless storm is the space he’s had the gargoyles build. A stone porch reaching away from the irregular roots of what he once without irony called the House of Creation — the House is like a cliff, here, broadening and darkening and beetling overhead. Several yards away, the porch ends at a flight of steps, rising up to a high altar upon which is a four-poster bed. The hangings drift in the endlessness of the moonlit space. He hopes once to lie in that bed, when the ritual is done, and then bring all things to an end, and nevermore wake in any world he knows. It will be soon, he thinks, if he does not die in the coming battle. The preparation’s almost finished, the rite nearly complete.

“You have an appointment,” says a voice behind him. He turns; there is a bent old man, in a plain brown tunic, hunched under the weight of a sack. Dirty, wrinkled, his head balding, the grey hairs on his chin flecked with black. Something in the sack writhes.

To the old man, he says: “I will see to it, in my own time.”

The old man (who is no man) leers at him. “Well enough, if your own time is now.” How this one has degenerated from what he once was, he thinks; and then thinks of course he might say the same of himself. Passing time is not gentle.

“Merrynight, Mockshadow, and Mumchance are at work,” he says aloud. “They have brought in this wizard, to task me.”

The old man laughs. “No, no. They’re not so unsubtle as all that. You’ll see. This is nothing to do with them.”

“Is it Sigwarynye behind this new challenger, then? Reike, perhaps?”

The old man hawks, spits. “These are great devils that you name,” he says. “How shall I answer for their actions?”

The dissembling’s disgusting. “They are your creatures,” he tells the old man, who knows it perfectly well, “all of them. Deor, Aufyn, Caversyne, Gavelok, Erayne, Hiaclito … you know their names. They all bend the knee to the Old Murchy.”

“This may be true,” the Old Murchy says complacently. “It may. And what of you, and what of Urizen?”

Ah, the foolishness of old time. No; the foolish desire not to be a fool.

“Shall I banish you,” he asks the Old Murchy, “with a formal anathema?”

“Oh, I’ll go, then, if you’re to be that way,” the old thing says. He swings his sack from shoulder to shoulder. From inside there comes a moan of pain. “I thought merely to give you a friendly reminder. You have company, in your lowness.”

“True,” he says, “the chief of all devils. Shall I evict him?” The Old Murchy laughs, and leaves him.

Alone again, he walks up to the bed he is preparing for himself, and looks out into the void. The light and clouds; suns might be birthing in the mist. Did he once dream of making a great work of his own? He must, for his life is a testament to the failure of that dream. And yet he cannot recall dreaming it, ever.

He thinks: Soon I will sleep, here, and it will all end.

He walks back into the House of Creation.

In the heart of the low places, the heart of his heart, in a high hall lit by still and pale fires, is a mirror; glass and silver. It is very tall, and its wooden frame is carved with images of cats and goblins, for no better reason than that it once amused him to make it so. The frame is nothing. The glass is all.

Now on the far side of every mirror is a dark space, in which the adept may place fragments of undigested meaning, for examination at a later date. Memories, dreams, reflections: all those things we see in a looking-glass. They are put there by wizards, and the meaning wizards imagine bleeds through into the images all mortals see, the sense of the uncanny they know when they see themselves, reversed. (The truth is that nothing is more flattering than a mirror. All the world we can know is but a reflection of our own selfhood; in a mirror that is plain to our eyes.)

He passes among the columns and echoes of that room, over the marble floor like a backgammon board, to stand before the mirror. It is very still.

He stares into the mirror, and sets beyond it all his dreams. All that he saw within the great maze, his House of Creation. The plots and secrets hidden in its hundreds and thousands of miles of hallways and stairways and caverns and chambers and galleries. All their nations; all their wars.

A mortal possessed by an ætherial blade cuts his way through the twelfth court. Ghouls whisper in the Far Crypt. Orcs on the fifteenth court burn at the command of a dragon’s daughter.

The union of mercenary bands on the eighteenth court. The war on the ninth, tenth, eleventh courts, in which clans and colleges struggle against a mysterious enemy that controls cat-men and shadows (this mystery is an easy riddle to read; what power is there that is kin to cats?). The city called Haziahabbu and the gods now at its heart, the conspiracies rippling out from it. The politics of elementals — a great war will break out again, soon. The teqquloth of the seventh court, their sinister adaptation to this alien world. The terrible Exile’s plans, his hostage, the dangerous game he plays. The dragon Nil, returned in the new court — one of many old secrets, returning, seeds that have grown: and among them that new House, determined to find the lost codices.

How he sympathises with them.

He sets all his dreams within the mirror, within the dark space beyond mere sight. Let them dwell where he cannot see them, there to intermingle and spark insight. All the stories of the House of Creation: are they his own dreams, or lives of their own? They overlap, move forward and back in time; is it now or then? He cannot say. Identity is confused; who is this that speaks? Is the ‘I’ a subject or the most utterly realised object? Once he thought he understood. He can no longer say. He can no longer tell the difference between night and day, between dream and irony, between language and prison, between I and he (or she; or it; and what are all these distinctions but contrivances of language?).

Drained, he stands a moment before the glass. The fear is upon him again: he must go to battle.

He walks away, down a dark hall, to a door before which pale witch-fires burn. He feels as though his every move and thought is just what has been done before; that this same battle has already been fought. He opens the door. Before him is the Chessboard Plain, a seeming-endless expanse of white and black stone tiles, with only greyness above and to the sides (Ceiling? Sky? Walls? Clouds? He no longer remembers. Would that he had his books).

He steps onto the field. He can see his counterpart, far away.

Distance is an inconstant concept on the Chessboard Plain. In moments he’s confronting his double, and the door (set in the unyielding grey that is everywhere above the plain) is a mile behind him. This one, this latest of his challengers, is ophiucan; a snake-man or snake-woman. “Greetings,” he says. “How shall I know you?”

“Queen Ninecoils,” she says, in her own language. “I am come to extend the power of —”

“I fear I’m not interested,” he tells her. “You have had every opportunity to turn back. If the trials you have been through had not been enough to warn you, the enticements and enchantments ought to have sufficed. I know you won’t listen; still, I beg you, leave this.”

“It cannot be,” she says. He nods. It is always the same for those that reach this point.

“Let us start, then,” he says, and they begin to speak wizardry.

There are some preliminaries, upon the plain. She entraps him in a labyrinth of chessboards upon multiple plains, filled with bloodthirsty knights and pawns; he summons chessmen of his own and finds the moves to win free. He stops the process of time about them, but she is crafty, has prepared for this, and so is whisked further away on the plain where the seconds still flow. They open gates across the plain, calling giants and archangels and demon princes to their war. It seems to him that she is too careful; but he knows the ophiucans are both clever and cold, and thinks little of it.

He wonders: what would happen if he were to yield? To die? To give over to her all that he is? Why, then she would take his place, here. And that is what he most fears: that another soul should be trapped as he has been trapped. At least the House of Creation is of his own making. Who are these fools, that challenge him when the only outcomes can be their own death or their imprisonment? Who are they, that seek to usurp his chains?

They begin to make worlds, there upon the Chessboard Plain.

This is the secret of these battles; this is the mystery that all his challengers must know. The hidden spell, that he first of all mortals worked. The world-shaping words. It is an error to say that the greatest wizards are those who best shape their spells, for while every wizard must be subtle, still the essence of all wizardry is creation, and the greatest of all wizards are those who most create. It is the prolific that is of the nature of the glossologist. This spell that he has made is a spell of creation, and therefore a charm that is of the essence of magic.

It is also a spell of entrapment, a remaking of reality that will forever bind the unwary or the slow to dream.

Ninecoils imagines a world of heat and mist, of reptile domination, of dragon gods.

He imagines a world of ice, where ghosts arisen from battlefields frozen under centuries of snow haunt mile-high glaciers seeking white goblins and black-furred ogres.

Ninecoils imagines a world of metal, in which unliving servitors driven by bound demons of lightning tend to unfleshed intelligences. (She has done her research, has gazed deeply into the Well of Might-Have-Beens; he presumes she is at least a little mad, though she will not know it.)

He imagines a world of stone, where forges are unknown, where all glory is in the past, where ruins and curses have blasted the lands.

All these worlds as they imagine them come to be along with shadows and futures and pasts, and all, set in conflict, undo each other. Neither wizard is bound in these first gambits. These worlds are simple.

Ninecoils imagines a world of fungi, pale mushrooms tall as trees growing from sodden earth, toadstool-things scurrying about.

He imagines a world of butterflies and coccoons, of trees like mountains in which caterpillar tents like small cities birth silken-winged angels; it is a world of continual tranformation, one thing into another.

Ninecoils imagines a world of law, in which colossal citadels house ancient libraries of codes, in which stone judges hear case after case, in which chains are always being forged.

He imagines a world of cities, filled with orphans and idlers and merchants and vagrants, with alleys and histories and streets that find their own uses for themselves; cities that cannot be mapped, for they are always changing and growing and being renewed, cities that cannot be legislated, being over-fecund.

He begins to think that she has miscalculated. The game of worlds is not the best for the ophiucan, nor is magic as a whole. They lack the fire of creation that drives mortals and dragons and elves. He thinks he is near to victory, and it has been simple.

Whereupon Ninecoils springs upon him her great gambit: she imagines a world that eats worlds, a world sentient in itself and aware of the worlds all about it, a monster-world that preys upon its own kind.

She has imagined the devourer; but he is the prolific.

He imagines a world of poet-kings, in which diplomacy is carried out in verse, in which war is a thing of satires (words powerful enough to raise blisters and set curses upon their unfortunate subjects), in which people and history and language are more than ever indissoluble; and in this world all the poets themselves imagine worlds of their own. It is a creation that spawns sub-creations, an imagining that imagines itself, a story that tells stories.

Queen Ninecoils is lost. Much as she tried to trap him in a crude physical maze, she is caught in the weaving of his world.

He is again on the Chessboard Plain, alone but for an opaque glass ball, like a mirror filled with clouds. It’s the world he made. It’s a prison that holds Ninecoils. A strange sort of prison, that may be larger than the world about it.

He takes up the world; he throws it into the air. It whirls away through space. To where? He can’t say. Let it find its own path.

The battle’s done; he’s faced his fear, and won again. Now, weary, he will sleep. He will again seek escape, and all that he can never find.

In none of the worlds he has made shall he ever find books like those he scribed once. Those that are cursed to be forever lost.

He lays down on the plain, feeling sleep steal upon him like a masked killer in his cloak. He remembers his dreams. He remembers that House, upon the twentieth court. He remembers that they have decided to seek the books. They will quest for the Fell Gard Codices.

What if they should succeed? It is impossible, surely. And yet …

He shall watch them, he thinks; he will follow their quests. He will avoid direct interference, so far as it is possible, or else his presence will drive the books farther away. Still he shall observe what befalls that House, and perhaps they may feel the weight of his sight, and say to themselves with a shiver: We have drawn the attention of the wizard Scaeva, in his unquiet slumbers in the heart of Fell Gard the Master Dungeon.

He lies back, he sleeps, he discorporates; he enters again the greater part of himself, and joins with what he can never escape: the stones of Fell Gard.


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One Response to “Part 3, Epilogue 3: The Stones of Fell Gard”

  1. Perfidius the Rogue

    I don’t know whether to have pity for Scaeva, or to shudder.

    I can well imagine Karloff playing his part, if Karloff were still alive, and this story translated to film.

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