The Fell Gard Codices


Paradox was of course among the crowd in the tavern-room when Mew pounded on the door, and so watched Nicodemus — who smelt of brimstone, Paradox realised, or something that was every bit as noxious — get up to speak, and saw the other inn-guest put Nicodemus to sleep; and when Ulixa led them outside he went with her and listened as Robert began to sing. But before all of that happened, Paradox was surprised when the Good Boy tapped on a window-shutter and was let in. Somehow no-one seemed to mind adding the youth to the tight-packed throng inside the inn. And somehow nobody seemed to notice as he pushed his way through to Paradox.

“It’s going to happen soon, I think,” the Good Boy said. “We’ll have to reveal ourselves.”

“I still don’t know who I am,” Paradox reminded him. The Good Boy nodded.

“Gamelyn made a fine choice,” he said. “He told you so long as you lived in mysteries you wouldn’t have to face your responsibilities, and I suppose he was right.”

“I would rather take on my due responsibilities,” said Paradox.

The other youth — was he a youth? — nodded again. “They’re coming,” he said. “I suppose I wanted to say … you’ll have to make a choice of your own, in the end.”

“Fair enough,” said Paradox. Then Mew pounded at the door and everything else happened.

So they were all outside, half-spellbound by Robert’s music, when something burst through the northern entrance of the cave, something that glittered gold and silver in the ætheric light, and flew over their heads to the lakeside; and Paradox saw the creature called Reprisal turn its head and scream “NIL!” with a violence he had never heard before from anyone.

Reprisal took a running step, and its shape changed, and it grew larger, and larger, and larger still, and everyone around them suffered much terror.

“Come, if you’re ready,” said the Good Boy. “We have to tell them. Be not afraid.”

“I’m ready,” said Paradox of the Good Act. He took the Good Boy’s hand.

The two of them were translated into white fire, and rose into the sky.


Enheduanna had not imagined Kezia could be so wrathful. “I have no patience for your ancient quarrels!” she cried to the water-elf king, Ithream. “I declare them ended!”

“Too many have died, over too many years, for matters to end so easily,” said Ithream.

“It will end, one way or another,” said Kezia. “Look, look at the darklings! They are a far greater threat! I have seen them in nightmares!”

“They are fragments of dream,” said the King. “Should we take note of them?”

“Look at their leader,” said Enheduanna. She saw him, through the pine trees, accompanied by the darklings that had escaped the vala; and he turned to look at her again, as he had looked at her that time in his cave. Then he went on, westward to the waterfront; a mortal man was beside him, fair-haired and blue-eyed, and with them went things with mens’ bodies and toads’ heads. “Look at the demons that walk behind him. And —”

A scream echoed through the cave: “Nil!

“— and look …. at … that,” completed Enheduanna in a whisper.

A terrible winged lizard had arisen into the air. It was indigo-black and grey, like mist rising under the first moon. Enheduanna shivered, thinking of its terrible fire. Not even in her dreams could she remember a dragon of such size.

She could see mortals and hob-goblins running, their battles forgotten. She knew well that for most such creatures the sight of a dragon reached into their oldest thoughts, touching a truth deeper than dreams — a lesson of fear graven within them before their kind had learned the shape of their flesh, before their forefathers first stood on two legs, before the lands had their forms or the seas knew their borders; a lesson from a younger world with a greater heat.

Even the elves could feel it. Who of them had not woken screaming from a dream of a past life, that had ended in a dragon’s fire? They shifted uneasily, as they stood before the vala, and they were silent.

“We must be as one, now,” said Enheduanna. “Come. We shall see this through.”

“You will go to the dragon?” said Ithream.

“If it were to want us,” she said, “could we flee? Let us go to face what must come, and not have death take us in the back. Let us at least be brave.”

“Your bow is there,” murmured William. “Or Kezia’s bow. I left it, by the lake side.”

Enheduanna nodded. “Come, then,” she said. “I have a mind to take it up again. Let us go, and reach the thing before the dark jack of dreams.”

She went at a run, with William, parallel to the nightjack’s path to the lakeside; after a moment the elves followed her.


Ulric was utterly empty of all hope and thought.

He had wrestled with his emanation and his spectre and his shadow. Still he found he was divided in himself. Now he must yield his salvation for the life of Katherine. He tried to convince himself that it would be right to take the potion nevertheless, as he once would have done without thinking: He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence, he remembered, and The cut worm forgives the plow, and what was most apposite, Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. But of all the proverbs of hell the one that spoke to him then was: The most sublime act is to set another before you.

And therefore he knelt as Gryselde called out to nothing that he knew; and he gasped as a dragon with a crown of light came to her, and set Kate down before them both. It took up the cauldron, and its wings flared wide as it drank.

Ulric stood. The dragon’s colour was silver-gold under ætheric light; all that was rare and valuable. It had the dangerous beauty of the tyger. He thought to himself: When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius. Lift up thy head! And how much higher lift thy head for a dragon?

The strength of its form. The perfection of its scales. The wisdom of its eyes, that held more than the subtlety of the serpent.

A cry rang out: “Nil!

The dragon dropped the cauldron, that was now empty. It fell back, a cloud of steam arising from its throat. Surely the heat of the potion could not have harmed a creature that breathes fire, thought Ulric in confusion. The dragon dropped to the earth, and its crown of light faded. Its eyes closed, and it was still.

In a moment another dragon was there, so much larger than the first; and that dragon brought fear, fear like nothing Ulric had ever known.

Ulric was more afraid at that moment than he had ever been in his life; more than when his leg had been broken and he had thought they would kill him. He could feel the tears upon his cheek. There was a terrible coldness about the dragon, so that it was wreathed with mist everywhere — hiding nothing of its horror, but rather suggesting that even the air felt the terror of its presence. It was the colour of old night, it had ancient grey teeth as big as a man, and Ulric thought that if it had stood straight on its hind legs its head would have scraped the cave ceiling. It seemed to be the biggest thing in the world. The church of Innsdene was dwarfed by it. It settled on the shore, its wings billowing out, cold mist scudding away, touching him and chilling him.

The dragon did not acknowledge Ulric at all, or Gryselde (who herself stood, unblinking, tight-lipped, face pale and bloodless), but crouched above the smaller and more beautiful dragon like a thunderhead above a moon in an early evening sky. It screamed, voicing a pain spiritual and also Ulric thought physical, as though such a scream was not meant to be uttered by a dragon’s throat; and it breathed white fire up to the roof of the cave. Ulric wondered what would happen. Would he find an end, unnoticed, an incidental death, witnessing the grief of a dragon?

Then there was another white light in the sky, like a comet that arced near the great worm; which paid it no mind. Although it was near the same colour as the dragonflame, this fire was in some way different and finer. The white comet slowed as Ulric watched, and its flame seemed to dwindle, to resolve into two shapes: Paradox and the Good Boy. But changed since he last had seen them.

They both had white feathered wings and great swords wreathed in white flame, that were as light as twigs in their hands; and they both sang “Be not afraid!” — and though their words were not loud Ulric knew they could be heard everywhere, all throughout the cave, for those words were more than sound.

He fell to his knees again, overwhelmed with gratitude. For his fear was gone, and his thankfulness at that could not be measured.

The smaller dragon was still as death; the greater dragon was bowed above it, unmoving. There was a sound like driving wind: the dark dragon was whispering to itself, in some language older than mountains. Its eyes blinked, as though, Ulric thought, it wanted to weep but could not or else did not know how.

As Ulric knelt and watched, Gryselde beside him, others began to arrive. Ulric knew why. Paradox and the Good Boy were now near to the ground, smiling, shining — and who would not come to them, to such beings as they were?

Who would not come to adore angels, though a dragon big as night impended above them?

Robert was there, and Gamelyn, and Ulixa, Ygerna, and Entemena and his elves, and the murineans, and the wordless corvina, and so many that Ulric did not know — villagers, or former prisoners of the outlaws, or their slaves. Gral came running from the church. Enheduanna and William came marching at the head of a procession of elves and huldrafolk. Ulric rose to meet them all; he heard their hurried whispers, how Amanos had taken the church, how the outlaws were prisoners, how afraid the people were at the inn. None of them dared to speak to the dragon.

Then the smaller dragon upon the ground moved, twitching. Or something in it moved; its eyes did not open. Nevertheless the great dragon above took a hissing breath like the crash of a distant waterfall. The dragon on the ground moved again; its mouth opened. Or was forced open, by something inside, struggling to emerge.

And what was inside was a smaller dragon.

Ulric watched — they all watched, the angels no less — as the silver-gold dragon was reborn from its own mouth. It drew itself through its jaws, bit by bit, and the scales it left behind were dry, papery; like, thought Ulric, a snake shedding its skin. The new dragon was the same colour as the old, the same shape, but more perfect. The crown of light was brighter, even, than it had been before. And as the dragon stepped outside itself, it grew, moment by moment; so that as it pulled the last of itself free of itself, it was larger than ever it had been. It looked around, at all of them, as it grew — as it ascended, thought Ulric, reaching some status or stature unknown to mortal man.

They all fell back from it, drawn toward the trees, southward, like foxes or mice seeking shelter from an eagle.

Then the silver-gold dragon opened its mouth, and breathed flame all about.


“Once upon a time,” Tilde told Hochelaga, “there was a dragon called Nil. Nil was a very old and wise dragon, and it was high among the masters of its school. You must understand that dragons do not have families; they hardly have childhoods, or old age. They are as old or young as they like, and they organise themselves in schools of esoteric philosophy. All the mysteries of all our mortal guilds, all our degrees and rites, all masters, journeymen, and apprentices — these are all things we learned of dragons, who devised this social structure in order that they, who being cold-blooded have no affection or fellow-feeling for each other, could work together without violence. All of this is important to the story that follows.

“As I have said, Nil was high among the mysteries of its school; that was the school of the Empyrean, which studied what is beyond all created things — the act of creation, and indeed what is beyond that. Now dragons are cold-blooded, as I have said, and Nil’s school had always believed that creation was to be understood as power. To dragons, in the end, all things are to be understood as power.

“Nil was an unusual dragon. It had an unconventional mind. It became fascinated with a minor mystery, a mortal characteristic called love. Dragons had long since discarded this love as of no interest, a function of the delusive mortal psyche interpreting the urge of its flesh to reproduce. Nil suspected there was more to love than this. It noted that mortals spoke of love in many ways; they would say that dragons loved power, for instance.

“This was not accurate, I should say; dragons love nothing. They cannot. It is not in their nature. But this was what Nil realised: that while dragons believed they had an understanding of what the mortals’ many words for love meant, in truth they knew only the word alone, the signifier, not the thing signified. How, then, could they really understand what was involved in love?

“Nil therefore decided to learn more of love. It took another dragon, that was among the least of all dragons, to experiment upon; a neophyte of the Mist school, who studied the veil of all things. Neophytes, of course, are the least of all initiates; and the Mist is the least of all dragon schools. One thinks of the Mist Dragons as at the far end of the scale from the Empyrean; but there are those who say they are next to each other, as twelve is next to one on the clock. I don’t know the truth of this.

“Nil experimented on the Mist Dragon, who was called Reprisal. For a dragon to try to change the essence of another dragon was forbidden by all the laws and understandings of dragons. Indeed it was believed — by dragons — to be impossible. Yet because Nil was brilliant, and a grandmaster, it succeeded in instilling love within Reprisal. A love, in fact, of Nil.

“There is much more that I could say in detail, here. How Reprisal took it upon itself to teach Nil of love, and how Nil could not learn.

“Of course the story came out in the end. It always does. Reprisal by that time had advanced far in its school; because it understood love, it understood Mist, the veil, better than its cousins. When the source of its knowledge was exposed, it was sentenced to be expelled; but Reprisal fled before this could be done. You see, Nil had been reduced in rank by the other Empyreans, who were disgusted by its actions, and further had been exiled into the æther. Reprisal, being in love, went to seek Nil therein. Of course all the other Mist Dragons declared Reprisal their enemy forevermore, and threatened death if it should return to them.

“I never knew what had happened to them both. I suppose now that Nil, in the æther, watched this new court of Fell Gard form, and took its opportunity to return to the Master Dungeon. And Reprisal … I know a little of Reprisal, who had lowered itself to seek help from the powerful mortal wizards, who dwell in the Heart of Fell Gard. But wizards are not always as trustworthy as dragons, I fear.”

As Tilde told Hochelaga all this story, they watched Nil arrive, and fall as Reprisal ascended; they saw the Mist Dragon on the shore like a mountain arisen from ocean. Hochelaga was afraid of it. Then the angels came, and it wasn’t so bad. Then after that Nil was reborn again, and she watched it grow as Tilde spoke, becoming every bit as large as Reprisal; and she saw it breathe fire all about, and when it was done she saw the nightjack and his darklings had marched out to the dragons.

Hochelaga could say nothing to Tilde. She didn’t know if the woman’s story was real, although it seemed to explain very much.

Tilde took a deep breath. “And this is how I know the truth of that story, and why I must avoid Nil at all costs.” She took a long drink of wine; and told Hochelaga the rest of it. Hochelaga gasped. She was almost as afraid then as when she had first seen Reprisal. But there was nothing else for it.

She knew she had to go to them, to get there before any decisions were made that could not be unmade. But it seemed that the nightjack was already speaking.

Hochelaga took off her circlet and slipped it into her satchel. One never knew with dragons and magic. She said a charm, that would let her run very fast, and raced away.


Nil arose on the shoreline south of Reprisal, and grew until it was as great as the other dragon. Gryselde ordered the mortals and other speaking creatures to back away southward as it grew. Then Nil breathed fire, all about. It was careful, and did not touch any of them. But when it had done, all the land up to the forest was bare rock flickering with white flames.

And then came a tall lean manlike thing in fine black robes, at the head of a small army of cloaked darklings. A fair-haired mortal was with them. Gryselde heard Gral spit beside her. “Jeroen Halfjack,” he said. “Do not trust him.”

“He comes with the jack-of-dreams,” said Enheduanna. “What shall we do?”

Gryselde had free action, now, so far as she knew. Nil had come, Kate had been returned. All the things that had been hidden were now revealed.

But she had no answer for the elf. She did not know what to do next.

Gryselde looked to the angels; but they gave no clue, waiting patiently in the sky. She felt the presence of the Graf, awaiting the slightest wrong move. Awaiting the future.

Then Nil turned to the nightjack. “You,” it said. “I have known you before, in my dreams. I know you now therefore as having to do with … that inspiration I have had.” Nil’s voice was like chiming bells, greater and louder than any bells Gryselde had ever heard; and yet the dragon’s words were perfectly formed. Gryselde wondered absurdly how it knew which language to use — but then halfjack and nightjack both bowed to it, and she realised that if it had seen them in its dreams, it would know their tongue.

“Grandmasters Nil and Reprisal,” called the man with the nightjack. “We are gladdened to see your reunion. Grandmaster Nil, I am Jeroen Halfjack, and I speak here for my brother, that is a Jack of Night and Dream. We will lay out for you all that we have done to bring this moment into being.” The halfjack looked around at all the mortals. No-one spoke. Even with the angels flying above, no-one, before the shadow and flame of the dragons, dared raise their voice.

“As a Jack of Dreams,” said Jeroen Halfjack, “my brother knew all the dreams of all the mortals that had been brought into this part of Fell Gard. He also, of course, sensed the mighty dreams of both yourself and Reprisal. And he spoke with Reprisal in those dreams. We agreed to bring about your reunion, if Reprisal would condescend to support the aims of the power we brothers serve, and urge you to do the same. Reprisal agreed to this.”

Jeroen waited. “And you would not come to me because you knew I desired no reunion,” said Nil. “Not until I had drunk of the potion of inspiration. Very well. Continue.” Its flames still burned on the bare rock around it.

“You know the mortal outlaws of the Falcon Rising, and you know the mortals of the House of Sorine Gryselde,” said Jeroen. “We played upon the dreams of the Falcon knights, promising the little princess Katherine to the male. We knew, it has to be said, that you would be fascinated with the girl if you saw her; we understand in what directions your studies have turned. We ensured that the girl would come to you! We believed that you would not slay her out of hand, nor whoever accompanied her; we knew that her companion, whoever that might be, would deal with you to recover her, and so promise you the draught of inspiration if you wished it. Therefore we brought goblins down into these halls, and directed them against the Falcon outlaws at the right time to drive the princess to you. We also sent dreams to orcs, bringing them up from below, forcing much of the rest of the sorine’s House to the westward — having first lured a boy of this mortal town to them. Now we watched to be sure that they would find Reprisal and free her on their way; and so they did.

“You may see, Grandmaster, how we have conspired for you, that you might have Reprisal, and this cauldron of inspiration — and the princess, if you wish us to regain her for you.” Jeroen Halfjack smiled, and bowed.

Gryselde became aware that many of her House were waiting for her to take action.

What was she to do? Now that her choices were free, she was paralysed with indecision. Was it all true? Had they been manipulated every step of the way?

And then William stirred. “There’s more, isn’t there?” he called out. “The ruby cup. Why not say all?”

For a moment Gryselde feared for William; the dragons turned their gaze upon him, their eyes like moons shifting in the sky. And then from William Nil and Reprisal turned to Jeroen Halfjack, who bowed his head before them, and, unable to meet their dreadful gazes, fixed his own glaring eyes on William.

“Of course we knew also that the cup and ruby of Enlilitu the Perfected Androgyne were drawn separately to this new court as it formed,” he said. “We were aware of Enlilitu’s dreams, which, you must understand, are very powerful. Now if such a creature as Enlilitu were on the point of returning to Fell Gard — well, you can see why it seemed to us best that we find not the ruby alone but the cup that would bear it. Thererefore my brother sent his creatures out to every hand. We gave them messages to deliver, hiding their true purpose, but they were to look for the cup … one of them indeed found it, but the cup’s magic worked strangely upon the darkling. Which turned from us, and concealed the cup. Nothing of this is to do with you, Grandmasters.”

“I might have taken the cauldron my own self,” said Nil. “Then you would have been spared this absurd scheming. In fact it seems it was your plot that led to the covenant being invoked upon me. Your goblins drew me from my home, sacrificing their lives, and so led me to the princess. And the sorine. Their presumption I would overlook, for the sake of inspiration. But yours? It seems to me now I should kill every living thing in this cave, to efface that shame.”

“We could not know one of them would call on the covenant, Grandmaster,” said Jeroen. “We thought only that they would bargain with you for the girl’s life, and their own. Our rich dream-logic was needed, you see, for otherwise, at the moment the potion was ready, it would have been given to the chosen of Urthona. Is it not so? Is this not why you had never gained it before this? The forest ladies are jealous of their draught, that is so rarely made. Well, if you had come before the potion was ready, they would have spoiled it, before letting you take it. Even if you would have killed them after. And of course, come too late, and the potion would have been drunk. No; we had to arrange matters such that the mortals of their own will gave up the potion to you. That meant giving you the princess.”

“I could have threatened to kill them if they did not let me drink,” said Nil. Jeroen sighed.

“Ah, but mortals are fools,” he said. “And they do know where the spirit of Enlilitu is to be found. What if, fearing for their lives, they had freed her to fight you? Of course you would have killed her. Of course. But how much of the court would be destroyed? And how could we humble jacks have hoped to survive such a war?”

Nil made a rumbling noise in its throat. And as it did, Hochelaga came at a run.The girl dashed around the crowd of several dozen darklings and southward to the mortals at the edge of the woods, before the flickering fires. “I have a story to tell,” she said to Gryselde. Gryselde stared at her, confused. A story?

What was this madness?

Then Nil spoke, demanding answers.


William regretted now that he had stood forward. He felt he was involved, now; implicated in the matter of dragons. And at a wrong word, any of them there on the shore might die. At least, any of the mere mortal things.

The angels watched, smiling.

“I note you humble jacks and your darklings did not free Reprisal your own selves,” Nil said. “Now why is that? Eh? Dream-logic and mortal pawns. You were afraid, weren’t you? Not of Reprisal. Of Reprisal’s jailer. Weren’t you? The wizard that had imprisoned Reprisal would surely know who had freed that rare prisoner. And what then? You want to avoid notice. You want to avoid a mighty wizard looking closely at your nightmare machinations. Why is that? What’s behind you, little jacks? And what surety did you have, that you believed it was safe to free Reprisal, and risk a dragon’s … gratitude?”

“I gave them my name, to seal my promise,” said Reprisal. William felt as though a storm was about to burst.

Nil turned to Reprisal. A gaze passed between them that held ages in it. “To a jack,” said Nil in wonderment. “Why?

“For you,” said Reprisal.

Nil stared at the other dragon with an unwatering lizard’s gaze. Then turned, and breathed fire again, all around itself, on the rock where already its fires had scoured the earth. William raised a hand before his eyes and crouched back, but there was more light to the flames than heat; and when Nil was done the fires did not die but continued to dance before the singer, pale fires higher than his head, fueled by rock or air or water, or else by ætheric moonlight, or perhaps by nothing at all but itself. Nil and Reprisal stood unmoving, utterly still, far above the tops of the flames: light and shadow, watching each other.

Then Nil said, “I know now that inspiration is not simply language or idea. You have taught me this. I do not feel love as you do, but I find I understand your choice. This is not what I wanted. This direful inspiration. It is not love. I sympathise. That you should face such a choice. That you would give your name!” Nil turned away from Reprisal, wings raised above its head. “That I should feel this cost!” it bellowed, in its great chiming crashing voice of resounding brass.

Nil glared at the mortals and other creatures beyond its flames; its terrible gaze fell upon William, and the jacks, and the elves, and everyone there on the shore. Only the angels flew in the air above it all. “Inspiration,” it said like a challenge. “Your word. As though it were natural as breath to you. Inspiriting. Courage. The influence of gods. Untrue; this is suffering. Empatheia, in-feeling, knowing the pain of others. That is what I have learned. Am I mad, now? Possibly, possibly. And you? Do you think you are not, none of you? Do you not see how inspiration makes mad, how you are all lunatic, seven times moonstruck? Come. What more have I to learn? Come through my fires. I will teach you. Fires of my inspiration. Come. Your madness is not strong enough. You know nothing. Will you cross the fires? Any of you? Come, I shall show you the Empyrean. Reach behind the veil of creation. Inspired then: make a wish! It shall be real! Come!” It roared, a clattering of all the bells in the world: “Come!”

William knew that the distinction between magic and poetry was often purely notional, if that. He knew that a verse repeated in the right place, within a circle, containing the right names, could call spirits. He knew, also, that there were many stories in which dragons granted wishes, out of their infinite wisdom. He was then, not surprised, as Nil raised its head to stare again at the unmoving Reprisal, that among those gathered before the fires some came forward, answering the dragon’s call. Not everyone, of course, not most. Some were afraid; some did not understand; some knew themselves to be unfit. But some dared. Was it wise? What was wisdom, in the face of dragons? What was wisdom, in the House of Creation?

The nightjack sent a darkling into the flames, and no-one thought to stop it. Anyway the little thing screamed, and died, wrapped in black fire instantly burned away by the paler flame of the dragon.

Ulric, in no way dissuaded, stepped into the fires, and gasped, and fell still among the flames. Robert dragged him out — “the enjoyments of genius,” William heard Ulric mutter, “which to angels look like torment and insanity” — and then went in himself. The old piper came back out moments later, seeming puzzled; then went in again; and again came out, saying he felt nothing and saw nothing but whatever way he took led him outside the circle again.

A woman from the party that had been led by John of the Inner Book stepped into the fire. She was lost in the light. There was the sound of a scream, and she fell back out. One of her friends grabbed her; the woman that had been through the fire shook, whispering dreadful poetry.

A murinean went in, and almost instantly crawled back out, small white sparks flickering in its fur, but with no smell of singed hair. It clasped its fellows’ hands and would not move.

Kezia went into the fire singing. William heard her song arise within it. She emerged with white flame wrapped around her. The elves all knelt, but she did not look at them or anything in the world.

William stepped forward, unwilling. Someone took his arm. It was Jeroen Halfjack.

“Wait,” the halfjack said, his voice low. “Let me go. Believe me that the fate of Powys-Terrwyn hangs in the balance.”

William wanted to, desperately. In fact he wanted nothing more, having little taste for more dialogues with dragons. Ah, but he knew well that he could not trust the halfjack; how greatly now did he regret ever having listened to the man’s whispers? “I find that difficult to believe,” said William, “and I repent me of all I have done, at your urging.”

“And yet I have told you nothing untrue,” said Jeroen swiftly. “Nor do I now. Simon Tristram dreams of Empire. But there are greater forces than he within this dungeon, and I tell you my brother and I are agents of just such a power. That is why you were sent to this place, William. To help me. To help us. We know secret ways out of this dungeon. You will be our messenger, connecting us to the druids of Powys-Terrwyn. Do not risk yourself in the dragon’s fire.”

William knew there were many things he might say. He thought of some of them.

He thought: And if I do not? How can I refuse this test, and be who I am?

He did not say this.

He thought: You told the dragon that the ruby with the spirit of Enlilitu was on this court. You did not say it was here, now, and held by Entemena. Do you think Nil does not know? Do you think it does not realise that you drove the orcs and the goblins that drove the elves here? You schemed to set up all these many factors. And in speaking to the dragon you as good as told all of us that Enlilitu has the power to hold off the dragon Grandmasters. You want us to summon the Perfected Androgyne. How far will you go, to push us to the point where we must call that spirit out of ruby hell?

But he did not say these words, either.

He thought: You know my dreams. Did you see in them, I wonder, how greatly I fear the imprisonment of my spirit? More than I fear this fire.

This above all he would not say.

Instead he asked, bitter-voiced: “Ah, but you will risk yourself?” The halfjack grinned. William said: “I think I have done too much at your bidding already. If what you say is true, then surely Powys-Terrwyn is best served by both of us chancing this flame.”

The halfjack stared at him; then nodded. “We go together, then,” he said. “And may the truer bard win through in the end.”

They stepped forward into the fire.

It was the greatest agony William had ever known in his life.


Gral decided the time for his play had come when William went into the fire with the halfjack. All eyes were on the flames. Gral opened his pack, whispered to his demons, and watched them go.

He had not understood, when Yune had told him to run, to go to the lake shore. But of course the clockmaster had known better than he. Gral saw it, now.

Gral went to Ulixa and plucked at her sleeve. “Come,” he said, as urgent as he could make himself sound. “I must speak with you. In the woods. Come.”

He went ahead of her. She followed. He slowed once they were through the first screen of trees, letting her get a step ahead of him in the sinister dank forest.

Now, he thought.

He punched her hard, in the back above her kidney. She gasped and stumbled, and he brought his fists clasped together down on the back of her skull. Ulixa sprawled on the forest floor before him, groaning.

Gral thought of Alkahest, promising initiation at the cost of a death. He thought of his oaths, to bring death to mortal thieves.

He drew his sword.

Behind him there came a shrieking. One of his demons, his minikins, was flying toward him, with a circlet of gold in its hands. Hochelaga ran after it, swatting at another of the demons as it flew in and around the sweeps of her arms, to trip her or tie knots in her hair, hissing with laughter. The third of the minikins rode Concordia Salus, arms wrapped around the cat’s horn as it faded in and out of sight.

Gral looked away, and felt the pockets of Ulixa’s coat until he found the scarab. He cut the pocket open, and took out the stone; then took the circlet from the demon.

“That’s mine!” cried Hochelaga.

“Do you want it back?” asked Gral. “I think in a moment I will give it to you, and more. Come.” The demon riding the alicorn cat wrestled it so that it flew into a tree, its horn embedded in the bark. Then it joined its sister in plaguing the girl, as she tried to follow him back toward the dragons.

Why did he not kill the mortal thief?

Why had he not killed the cobold, by the shamed altar to Father Stone?

Perhaps true initiation made all you thought you knew to be uncertain; even what you thought you knew about yourself. Perhaps not. In any event he did what he did, and did not do what he did not. And there was an end to it.

As Gral emerged from the forest Jeroen Halfjack emerged from the white fires of Nil. He was screaming. He fell to the floor, burning with cruel flames. Gral watched the halfjack’s brother step toward him. The nightjack held out its hands; the fires on the fair-haired man died down. But Jeroen Halfjack’s eyes were still mad.

“Power’s the only dream,” he muttered. “Reprisal!” The halfjack threw back his head and cried: “Reprisal!

“The dragon cannot help you,” Gral said. Both jacks turned to him. So did others among the mortals and elves. Some screamed when they saw the demon-beset Hochelaga. “I have a greater power than it.”

Jeroen stared at him; it was the gaze of a man that had gone beyond all feeling, that had passed through the heights of emotion, and now did not know how to respond to an unexpected thing. It was a kind of madness, perhaps. “Nonsense,” he said. “We know your dreams. We know you.” He looked around at all the company there on the shore by the woods: “We know all of you!”

They must sleep,” said Gral, implacable. “They must dream, and you walk through these dreams and know what they know. But I do not sleep. I do not dream. And I know things that you do not.”

The nightjack watched with its dark eyes. Jeroen Halfjack gasped laughter.

Gral said: “I know Vocath, the Coronet of Obtestation Noumenical. I know Ablatis, the Scarab of Velleity Allodial. I know Jussion, the Amulet of Subjection Quintessential.”

“Reprisal,” said Jeroen Halfjack, “kill every living thing in this cave.”

The dragon spread its wings above him, and for a moment the ætherial light was blotted out. Just for a moment.

It breathed fire.

Gral closed his eyes, and felt the power of the ancient artifacts; and called upon them, using the dragon’s fire as it washed over him. He drew it into the Three. Where should any greater magic be found? He felt nothing in himself. But he perceived a tearing, a rent. There were gasps and shrieks from all around him. And then Reprisal shouted in fear or rage or shock, a noise like the plates of the earth shifting.

Gral opened his eyes. To every hand there were youths and maidens, with wings and burning swords; there were wheels of eyes, and flaming serpents and lion-headed men and women. Also there were grimblers and minikins; there were things with their heads and hands on backwards, and dead babies with bat-wings and fangs, and bent blue-faced old men, and tall things made of fouled rags, and shivering yellow creatures covered in thorns, and things shaped like nude grey-skinned mortals with pink eyes and cracked frothing lips that endlessly whispered secrets. Armies of good and evil. Enough surely to fight the dragon.

Only battle then began between all those summoned things, as Reprisal drew back from the fray.

Every sort of hell has broken loose, thought Gral, and all the heavens too.

Paradox and the Good Boy flew down to the fight as a war of angels and demons began, and a grandmaster of dragons prepared to burn them all.


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One Response to “Part 3, Chapter 19: The Oath of Reprisal”

  1. Perfidius the Rogue

    Hell – meet handbasket.

    *runs for cover*

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