The Fell Gard Codices


“Through the door,” said Geoffrey, but Alkahest would have none of that.

“That door is in the eastern wall,” she said. “We need to go north a little, and west.”

They had come only ten yards or so from the cave that held the mortal village. Hob-goblin bodies were scattered here and there, with elf-arrows in them. Blood was splattered about the walls and the flagstones of the floor. The stink was terrible, yet also sweet; death, but dead goblinkin. The elf had led them, an arrow to her bow. Then the knight, Amanos, in her plated mail with her shield held before her, and the big burly man at her side in his mail coat. Then Sybil and Scholastica just behind Amanos, and Alkahest in her fine leather armour after them, with Anselm beside her; the slight, sandy-haired mortal had a tree-branch that would serve him as a club, and which he used to push one of the hovering lanthorns ahead of him. Behind them both had come the cobold, Monoloke. Alkahest didn’t trust him, of course, but hadn’t yet had an excuse to kill the thing.

To their right hand, now, there was a door: a tall square oak door, with iron braces and no lock.

“The outlaws came from the other side of that door, the way I was told,” Geoffrey told her. “Means it’s worth checking to be sure it’s clear.”

“Let the villagers worry about it,” said Alkahest. “We have another task.”

“Right,” said Geoffrey, “and I don’t intend to take a sword in my back while I’m about it.” He opened the battered door, and waved the lanthorn forward. Fortune and fate, cursed Alkahest. Was the man an idiot?

“There’s nothing in there,” said the elf, looking into the darkness beyond the door.

“Bring the lanthorn up,” said Geoffrey. “Quick, now!”

“Don’t,” Alkahest told Anselm, putting her hand on his arm. He paused.

“If Alkahest says not to go, you shouldn’t,” said Sybil, simply. Geoffrey cursed and entered the room. The elf looked back at the rest of them with a pained expression, then followed, alongside the knight.

“I’m sorry,” muttered Anselm. “I should …” he hurried through behind them. Monoloke went after him.

“Maybe …” said Sybil.

“Wait,” said Alkahest. And the three of them did.

After several minutes the others came back out. “Well?” asked Alkahest.

“There were several interconnected rooms,” said the elf. “There were no living things, but several hob-goblin bodies. There was a gargoyle in one chamber, some vines with fruit growing on the wall of another, and a room with a fine rug and fetters on the wall.”

“Then it was a waste of time,” said Alkahest.

“Where did the hob-goblin bodies come from?” asked Sybil.

The others all looked to Anselm. “You want to tell her?” Geoffrey asked.

“Lina killed them,” said the priest. “Her and some of the others went exploring, not long after we awoke … here. She found those goblins, and killed them. She said she went down the wide hall after that, hearing a noise at the end. It turned out to be the Good Boy, singing. He told us to wait in the cave, that there were great dangers all about us.”

Scholastica laughed. “And you listened? Don’t you outer-worlders have any balls?”

“Well,” said Anselm, “we — wait. Surely you don’t —”

“Metaphorical balls,” said Scholastica, grinning. “The best kind.”

“Why didn’t you explore?” asked Alkahest. “That’s the important question.”

“The Good Boy,” said Anselm simply. “If you had heard him … and he showed us creatures, like, well, like that one.” He pointed to Monoloke. “One of Lina’s warriors had died, fighting the hob-goblins. So when she came back with her story, Hugh ordered us all to wait. Every so often a group of the hob-goblins came out of the dark. We made sure to kill all of them as they came.”

“How?” asked Sybil. “If they ran, how would you chase them, in the dark?”

“That’s why we made the screens,” said Anselm. “We had one up in front of the arch, so nothing could get through. Twice they caught us by surprise, a group of three or four rushing together to knock it down. We had other men standing by for when that happened. Eventually, we realised that the screens were attracting attention — they were a sign that something was in the cave. So we stopped using them, and hid our sentries beside the entrances, or near them, with a screen balanced so that if something did come into the cave, we could slam the screen down behind them.”

“And that was how we found you,” said Sybil. “I didn’t notice a screen, then.”

“I did,” said Scholastica.

“This is enough time wasted,” said Alkahest. “Let’s go. The same order, elf in front.”

“You like giving orders?” challenged Geoffrey. Alkahest glared at him.

“I was raised to it,” she said. “I’ve had centuries of practice. Also centuries to learn the ways of the dungeon. You, on the other hand, have had three days, I think?”

“Four,” he snapped.

“I stand corrected,” she said, with heavy irony. “Let’s get on our way.”

They went. Geoffrey muttered something to the knight in a language Alkahest did not know. The knight turned her head; but in her bucketlike helm, Alkahest could not see her reaction. For her own self, she glared at Geoffrey.

Beside her, Anselm cleared his throat. “He, ah, said that if all dwarf women are like you, he maybe has more sympathy for Gral,” he whispered. “It’s a language from the south. I think the knight must be from there.”

Alkahest grunted. “He can be as sympathetic as he likes,” she told the priest, “so long as he does what I tell him.”

Thirty or forty feet further north they found a passage leading west. They explored it, to find it ended after a hundred feet or so in a chamber empty but for a battered tin kettle hanging on a nail driven into the wall. They went back to the wide northern hall and went on.

After another forty feet, they came to a passage leading east, to a closed door. “Come on,” growled Geoffrey, heading to the door.

The elf, Enheduanna, said to Alkahest: “If there were hob-goblins in the other eastern chamber … then if the halls east of this hall are connected, it may be worth investigating.”

“True,” Alkahest admitted. She made a noise deep in her throat as Geoffrey threw the door open ahead of them. “Also that one will get himself killed if we don’t watch him. Everyone after him.”

Behind the door Geoffrey had opened was a ten-yards’ passage to another door. Alkahest motioned to him to wait, and went to examine it. She found no traps, and heard nothing from beyond. She nodded, and Geoffrey opened it.

Beyond, the hall went on, and turned right after another ten yards. Before it turned, two passages split off from it, one running directly north, and one north-east. In the corner where the hall turned was a niche, an alcove, where a dried-up corpse hung from a set of manacles. The smell was distinct; dust and old rot.

“The turn to the right should lead back to the other rooms,” whispered the elf, “but there was no door there.” She went a few steps ahead, cautious, to glance down the other passages. She came back, and said: “The northern one ends at a wall. The other leads to a wide hall that runs east to west.”

“There’s a wide passage like that a little further north down the main hall,” said Sybil.

“We’ll have a quick look to the south,” Alkahest told the elf. Then she saw Geoffrey walk east, to the dead body. “Careful!” she called sharply.

“There’s an odd necklace,” Geoffrey called back. “I —”

And then the jaw of the corpse opened, and it breathed out a haze that glowed with a silver ætheric light.

Geoffrey stumbled back from the miasma, which seemed to unfold into a small manlike shape. Geoffrey shouted and drew his sword. The knight and the elf ran toward him. Monoloke rushed past Alkahest. Alkahest ignored him and reached for Anselm’s wrist.

“Wait,” she said.

“Wait — to do what?” the priest asked.  Alkahest noddded. Geoffrey swung his sword through the mist to no effect. The ghostly shape laughed without sound. The elf fired an arrow right through it as the cobold and knight approached cautiously.

You know,” said Alkahest. “What priests must do, faced with such things.”

“I don’t know,” Anselm said pulling his hand away. “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

The mist-shape seemed to flare, and grew into a monstrous shape, an ogre-like thing,with foot-long fangs and terrible claws. Then it receded into its smaller shape again, which was somehow now more horrible. Geoffrey paled but stood his ground. Amanos groaned and staggered. The elf dropped her bow. The cobold threw himself to the floor, weeping.

Alkahest looked up at Anselm. Shall I teach them how to wipe their arses next? she thought. “Step forward,” she told him. “Present the sign of your faith, and tell the spirit by the power of your gods to begone.”

“What?” he said.

“Do it!” she commanded.

Anselm swallowed. He took a step toward the mist-thing, that was turning now toward them. Scholastica shoved him further on. He stumbled a couple more steps, then straightened, and gasped as the creature flew toward him. He moved his hands before his chest, raising them and opening them: “By Oak and Holly and all the gods revealed to Ossian,” he said, his voice high, “I command you to begone!”

He did not seem strong; but his faith must have been certain. The ghostly thing before him stopped suddenly, and mimed a scream, and then retreated, falling back on itself until it was again within the corpse’s jaw, which closed with a snap.

“That was what we call a spook,” Alkahest told them all. “It is a minor ghost. There are far more terrible spirits in the dungeon, though perhaps not on this court. It is one reason among others to be careful in exploring.” Geoffrey glared at her, then turned to the corpse. He growled, and slammed a gauntleted hand into the side of its head. The skull snapped off, and rolled across the floor. The big man took something from its neck and threw it to Sybil, who gave a little shriek, but caught whatever it was.

“There,” he said. “That’s magic. Isn’t it?”

Sybil gasped, holding it up. It was a fine silver chain, ending in a large black stone — no, not a stone, it was ink, a huge drop of ink. It was liquid, and yet did not drop or spatter. “Very magic,” Sybil whispered, and set the pendant around her neck.

Around the corner of the hall was a dead end; but Alkahest found a secret door, that led into one of the rooms the others had found before. Well enough, but no real help. They went back, and took the north-east passage. It led to a wide hall, as the elf had said, that stretched back westward to the northern passage. To the east there was a bare wall, and also a curious device before the wall.

It seemed to be made of two sturdy interlocking wood frames, one horizontal and one vertical. The vertical frame held a large screw connected to another flat piece of wood. The horizontal one was set on legs, like a table; Enhedunna reached under the frame — carefully — to draw out a wicker basket.

“What is it?” asked Anselm.

“It’s some kind of wine press,” said Geoffrey. “Don’t see how it’s supposed to work, though.”

“There’s something in the basket,” said Enheduanna. “It’s heavy.”

“Leave it alone,” said Alkahest. The elf ignored her.

“It’s filled with metal … trinkets?” she said. She took one out, carefully. It was a kind of decorative plug, Alkahest thought. Iron; nothing really to look at.

“Is it a trap, maybe?” asked Scholastica. Alkahest moved forward. She looked it over carefully; very carefully. Then extended her search to the hall around her. The others waited, and watched carefully.

“I find nothing on that … device,” she said. “But one of the floor-stones is trapped, there.” She pointed, first to the floor and then the ceiling. “It will bring that block down, cutting off the way westward.”

“Can we go away from here?” Sybikl whispered, staring at the odd wine-press. She had a hand over the ink-drop at her neck. “This feels wrong.

Geoffrey grunted. “The whole dungeon feels wrong,” he said. “All right. Let’s go. Carefully.”

“In order,” said Alkahest. “Elf. I’ll go with you at the front.” She looked around at all of them. “If that stone block had been in the rooms you searched on your own — would you have found it? Or would one of you have been caught underneath? Listen to those of us native to Fell Gard.”

“I’ll listen,” said Geoffrey. “And decide things for myself.”

Alkahest glared at him; but the elf was going on her way, so she had to turn and accompany her rather than debate the point.

They made their way past the trap in the floor, back to the wide hall running southward to the mortal village and northward to the edge of Alkahest’s ætheric sight. Alkahest saw a door on the western wall, just a bit to the north. There were no other exits westward, other than the passage they’d investigated before. She led the elf to the door, which opened on to the hall. Examining it, she found it neither locked nor trapped.

“The elf and I will face what’s beyond the door,” Alkahest told them. “The rest of you, take the lanthorn and stand along the northern side. Anselm, you open the door at my order, staying behind it and to the side.”

Geoffrey thought for a moment, and shrugged. They all arranged themselves, then, and at Alkahest’s nod the priest pulled open the door.

Alkahest and Enheduanna saw a passageway stretch ahead of them for about ten yards. On the far side of an archway it opened up into a room. They went forward, carefully. Enheduanna dropped her bow and took out her sword. Alkahest watched for traps. She saw nothing.

They reached the arch. The room beyond was thirty feet to one side, fifty to another; their hall entered it on the middle of the long side. Another hall stretched onward to the west across from them. Alkahest could see a second hall to the north, and an opening on the south wall into another room.

The elf made to enter the chamber. Alkahest grabbed her wrist. “Stay,” she whispered, then went back to the others, still waiting beyond the door. “Come forward,” she said. “Careful.”

They did, Geoffrey behind her pushing the lanthorn ahead of him. Enheduanna was waiting, frowning and impatient, by the arch. Geoffrey walked past her with the lanthorn. The elf followed at once. The knight and cobold went with them. Alkahest held up her hand to the others, signalling they should pause —

— short spears came arcing from the northern hall, and a flood of rats came from the southern room, more spears arcing through the air above them.

Enheduanna shouted as one of the spears took her in the head; her close-fitting helm protected her, but she staggered. Monoloke hissed as a spear caught him in the back, only partially turned by his hide armour. The huge black rats swarmed them.

Ignoring the battle in the centre of the room — Only rats, she thought, surely they can deal with such things — Alkahest ran toward the southern opening. As she did several more spears flew out; then hob-goblins came running. She tried to strike one, but they moved too quickly. And when she turned to attack, she saw more of the hob-goblins coming from the north. We are outnumbered by far more than I like, she thought.

The hob-goblin she’d tried to stab turned to lash back at her. She dodged. Behind her she heard Sybil scream. Swords clashed against armour. From the corner of her eye Alkahest saw the cobold fall; but almost all the rats were dead.

Alkahest swung at the hob-goblin, and then again. The thing ducked away from her, laughing. It struck back at her, and she blocked it, desperately. Alkahest realised she was worried. She knew how to use a sword, but not well. This is a hob-goblin, she told herself. I can kill one of its weakling kind, at least.

Behind her the mortals were standing their ground. More. She saw the fight in glimpses as she struck and parried, struck and parried, driving the hob-goblin before her. A rat still hung from Geoffrey’s arm, and he was bleeding terribly. So was the elf. But both of them were still fighting well, as was the knight. Their heavy armour and sheer strength were beginning to tell — and Alkahest realised Scholastica was with them, attacking the hob-goblins bare-handed. She touched one lightly in the throat; it died.

Alkahest swung at again at the hob-goblin before her. Again it ducked away. Then it ran.

For a moment Alkahest paused, stunned. Then she leapt forward, slashing at its back — but it was too fast. It was ahead of her. All the hob-goblins left alive were running, she saw as she turned, four of them in total. And the surprised mortals were too slow to take advantage.

“No!” shouted Alkahest. “Don’t let them get away!” If they warn their mates about us, she thought, we’re doomed.

It was too late. The elf didn’t have her bow. And the hob-goblins were running too fast.

And then they weren’t, as one by one their feet went out from under them.

They got back up, but too late. Alkahest drove her sword deep through the back of the hob-goblin she’d been fighting, feeling her sword glance off its spine. The elf and the mortals were staggering toward them. Geoffrey dropped his sword, grabbed the great shadowy rat still scrabbling at his armour, crushed its head in his grip, roaring, and then brought its carcass down on the skull of a hob-goblin, who fell.

Alkahest stabbed another hob-goblin as it ran, and then Scholastica caught up with the last one and killed it. “Well,” said the monastic. “That was fun.”

“Glad you fucking think so,” growled Geoffrey. He turned to the hall where Sybil and Anselm were watching. Alkahest realised that Anselm had been badly hurt as well, with a deep cut in his side. A hob-goblin was dead before him; he was trembling, and there was hob-goblin blood on his club. Meanwhile, another of the goblinkin was bound before Sybil, bound in some kind of black rope. Sybil was stabbing it over and over again with her knife. “You!” Geoffrey bellowed to Anselm. “Heal him!” he pointed to Monoloke, who lay still.

“I — I don’t know —” said Anselm.

“Do it!” Geoffrey cried.

“Geoffrey,” said Enheduanna. “You’re wounded. I’m wounded. Amanos —”

“I don’t care,” Geoffrey roared. “That cobold is my first subject, and I will not have him die on me!”

Anselm stumbled forward. “He — he is alive,” the priest said.

Heal him,” said Geoffrey.

“Heal the others,” said Alkahest. “Heal yourself.”

Geoffrey turned, raising his sword. Enheduanna and Amanos grabbed his arm.

“Heal yourself,” said Alkahest clearly.

“I, I’m sorry,” said Anselm. “I can’t. Monoloke will die right now if I don’t — I’m sorry. I have to.” He touched the cobold. Alkahest saw the cobold’s wounds close, and saw him begin to stir. Anselm stood, and stumbled over to the elf. “Lady,” he said, “I have — I can feel Oak and Holly yet —” he reached up to take her face in his hands.

“You’re hurt —” Enheduanna said, then gasped. A bad cut above her cheek closed.

Alkahest shook her head. She dropped to one knee where the fleeing hob-goblins had — tripped? Stumbled? There was a black liquid coating the floor. As she watched, it slid across the stones to Sybil, and leaped up to the pendant about her neck. So did the rope — what had seemed to be rope — that had bound the now-dead hob-goblin. Sybil looked at her, and said “Very magic.”

“Who is hurt, then?” Alkahest called out.

She was well enough herself, and so was Sybil; Scholastica, too, despite having been in the middle of the fight. “How’d you manage that?” asked Geoffrey. The child monastic stuck her tongue out at him. The big man had several wounds, but swore they were nothing. Amanos took off her helmet, and though her face was grey she too said, through Geoffrey, that she was prepared to continue. The elf was still hurt, but not badly, not anymore, and the cobold was as good as new.

As for Anselm: “I have — never been — hurt like this,” he gasped, sitting. “I’m sorry, I — I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes. Tears leaked from between them.

“Go back,” said Alkahest.

“No,” he mumbled.

“You’ve no armour,” said Alkahest. “If you can’t heal us any more, there’s nothing for you to do. There is no worth in you risking your life. Go back, tell the others what we’ve learned.”

“I want to stay with you,” said Anselm. Alkahest knelt beside him and took his hand.

“It’s more use this way,” she said.

“The man wants to stay with us,” said Geoffrey. “Let him. Let him be a part of us.”

“He is a part of us,” said Enheduanna. Geoffrey glanced at her. She shrugged. “The dwarf’s right.”

“You can send your cobold with him,” said Sybil. “It’s just a quick walk, back down the hall. Then we can go on, west or north or wherever.”

“The northern hall here ends at a wall,” said Enheduanna. “There’s water trickling down it.”

Alkahest grunted. “A good position for a guard post,” she said. “Anselm. I do not know how to judge the health of mortal bodies. This must in the end be your decision. I will tell you to judge what you think is best, not for yourself, but for all of us. What can you do now that will help us the most?”

“No,” said Geoffrey. “No. You can keep going.”

“Geoffrey,” said Enheduanna. “Let him choose.”

Anselm stared at Alkahest. “I’d never seen a dwarf before you and the others,” he said. “We’d heard of them, in Innsdene. The other villagers said there had been one once that stayed at the inn. Your kind aren’t common in the … in the outer world, is what I mean. Are you — how old are you? Is it true, what they say?”

“Some hundreds of years, you would measure it,” Alkahest said. “I would need to speak to the clockmaster to be sure. But I can remember … six new courts.”

“About six hundred years,” murmured Sybil.

Anselm nodded. He licked his lips. “In mortal terms … are you still a girl? Or older? Are you what we would say, twenty, or thirty, or such?”

“I don’t know,” said Alkahest. “We mature differently. Quickly for fifty years, until we can have children, if we choose. Then more slowly. We change little, my kind.” She looked at Sybil and Scholastica. She whispered to Anselm: “Though I think your kind changes less than you think.”

“Maybe,” said Anselm. “Is that — is that what I am?” He was silent a moment. “Have I changed … I’d better — I’d better go back.” He closed his eyes again, and made a little whining noise. “It hurts so much,” he said. “If I make a noise … no, I should go.”

Alkahest looked to Geoffrey. He shrugged. “All right,” he said. “The man made his choice. You speak Ibia?”

To Monoloke, Alkahest said, “Your master orders you to lead the mortal that healed you back to his folk. You understand?”

The cobold looked at Geoffrey, who nodded. “I understand,” said Monoloke. He reached down to help Anselm to his feet.

“Wait,” said Alkahest to Monoloke. “Do not harm him on the way. If you harm him we will kill you. Do you understand that?”

Monoloke did not look at her. “I understand,” he said. “I understand my master tests my tolerance for weakness. I understand this prophet healed me when he could have healed himself, because my master ordered him to. I understand he is weak, and my master is strong.” Now the cobold turned to stare at her, unblinking. “I will not hurt him, now, because my master has ordered it. Someday you and I will test our strengths, maybe.”

“Maybe,” agreed Alkahest. The cobold led the priest, stumbling, away to the east; Alkahest followed, and then watched them go back southward down the long hall to the cave with the mortal town.

Behind her, she heard the elf say: “With all that done … I do not fully understand why we are not dead.”

Geoffrey grunted. “Hob-goblins are weak.”

“Yes,” said Enheduanna. “I know that well. But not so weak as this, surely. We were outnumbered; they had set their rats on us; and we were taken by surprise. The fact that only one of us was hurt to the point of death is incredible.”

“We are becoming heroes,” said Alkahest, returning to them. Geoffrey laughed.

“You don’t become a hero by killing a few hob-goblins,” he said.

“What do you know of it?” asked Alkahest. “How many had you fought, before Fell Gard?”

“None,” said Geoffrey. “But I learn fast.”

“Really?” said Alkahest. “Learn this. When you go out into the dungeon to seek your fortune — you die or become a hero. The magic of it shapes you.” She tilted her head, staring at him. “I have heard that it is a painful thing, to be a hero. I have decided to find that out for myself.”

“You ran away from your home, didn’t you?” asked Geoffrey. “Wherever that is. Whatever you are.” He looked from her to Scholastica, and then to Sybil, who was in the smaller southern room where the hob-goblins had been lurking. “You’re all runaways.”

“We made our choices,” said Alkahest. “Now we can only see how they will play out.”

They waited. Monoloke was back before long. He said that the older priest had come forward and taken Anselm, and then begun berating him. “That sounds right,” Geoffrey muttered. To the south, Sybil gave a joyful shout.

She came out of the southern room holding a spidersilk scarf. “Look,” she saids. “Words are worked into the weave — it’s a text! It’s a charm!”

They found nothing else of interest in either room, and so when they had rested set out to the west. As before, Enheduanna and Alkahest were in front, the others behind. The western hall ran along a short way to a door; on the far side of that door the hall went on westward for a short way, and then turned south. At the edge of her ætheric sight, Alkahest could just discern another hall branch off to the west.

“We could go back, and go north,” said Enheduanna.

“To the bone-floored hall?” said Alkahest. “Yes; but mortals passing by there drew hob-goblins, at least once. And I would rather not face another fight, if one can be avoided. No. Let us go on, and go westward, and see if we can find some way around them.” She shook her head. “I wish Sybil had not killed the one she bound,” she whispered.

They went south; and found to their surprise that at the crossroads, recesses in the walls held dusty but serviceable weapons. Swords, flails, axes, arrows. None of them were particularly fine, but all were usable. “That’ll be good for the folk back in Innsdene,” Geoffrey said.

“We’ll take them on our way back,” said Alkahest. “No point in weighing ourselves down now.” She squinted south. “The hall ends a little way further on,” she said, “but I think there’s an opening to the west.”

Geoffrey grunted. “Go ahead, then,” he said. Alkahest glared at him, and nodded to Enheduanna.

They found that the opening gave onto a large room. Walls angled off north-west and south-west, then turned and ran directly west, then angled back again to meet on the far side. In the centre of the chamber were two huge high-backed chairs of stone, with a table between them. Alkahest moved shifted her stance, left to right. “There’s someone sitting in the far chair, at least,” she whispered to Enheduanna. “Too big to be a mortal. Too big even for an elf.”

Enheduanna frowned. “There’s something …” she whispered. She took a step into the room. “Greetings!” she cried.

Elves, thought Alkahest, are mad, one and all.

But there was no reaction from the thrones. Alkahest and the others followed Enheduanna into the room. They found that both the chairs held stone statues, perfect hairless forms, one male in outline and one female. They would have been perhaps ten feet tall if they had been standing.

“Why would you make naked statues,” said Geoffrey, “and not put nipples or cunt? Or manhood on the other, come to that.”

Alkahest was looking at the table between them. It was a game-board, made to scale with the statues. It was a backgammon board, with the counters and dice separate pieces. You could have played a game with them, and indeed it seemed a game was in progress. Geoffrey reached out for a die.

“No!” snapped Amanos, before Alkahest could. Geoffrey looked at her, surprised. “No,” she repeated.

Geoffrey pulled his hand back. “All the words of Wican she could have learned, and she picked that one,” he muttered.

Alkahest stared at the statues. At the board. Haven’t I heard of this? she thought. Wasn’t there a legend?

“Wait,” she murmured. Without touching the table or game-pieces or any of it, she examined all of them, closely, looking for traps or she knew-not-what. The eternal gamesters, she thought. I’m sure there was … “Sybil,” she said. “Does this seem familiar to you?”

“What do you mean?” asked Sybil.

Alkahest drew back. She had found nothing wrong. The statues were just what they appeared, so far as she could tell. And yet she did not trust that conclusion. “Gamesters with dice and counters,” she murmured. “Playing their slow game as they guarded … what?” She looked at Sybil. “Guardians,” she said. Sybil shook her head. “Leave them,” Alkahest concluded.

“There’s a door on the north wall,” Enheduanna said. “Could it lead back to the hall we saw, going west?”

The door was locked, Alkahest found, but not trapped. She soon had it open. As Enheduanna had guessed, they found the hall leading to the armory. To the west, it seemed to lead to another north-south passage. “Let’s go a little further,” Alkahest muttered. “West, then northward.”

She and Enheduanna took the lead, and went forward; and then after about ten yards Alkahest felt a stone sink under her foot.

For a moment she felt panic. A trap she had failed to spot —

Then there was mist, everywhere around her. Thick, cloying mist, white and blinding. It smelled of some flower she did not know the name of.

“Enheduanna!” she called. Her shout echoed strangely. She heard the elf shout. She heard the others shouting. “All of you stay still!” she cried; but even to her own ears her words were strange.

She stumbled. She was dizzy. “Stay still!” she called again; but she had to stumble forward, just to keep her balance. The mist is affecting me, she thought. The world was spinning around her, and there weren’t even any landmarks to guide her; only an endless field of white.

Alkahest found herself constantly stumbling forward, then running to catch herself. Which way was was she going? West? East? Were the others near her, obscured by the fog? She slammed into the wall. To the side? Ahead of her?

“Where are you?” she cried. “All of you?” She stumbled away. In which direction?

How long had she been going? How far did the mist go? Had her sense of time grown confused?

She thought some little black shadow raced by her.

Alkahest fetched up against a stone railing. She held it tight, then groped her way along, hand over hand. She thought the mist was lessening.

The railing angled about in confusing ways — or it seemed confusing, in the fog — but then it suddenly ended, and, yes, the mist was thinning ahead of her.

“Scholastica!” she called. “Sybil!” She took a few steps forward.

A room opened before her, an oval in shape. She had entered at one end of the oval, and there was another opening across from her at the far end. The floor was white marble; except that at the centre there was a ring of green marble, and then within that ring was a circle of black marble. Above the  left-hand side of the room was a curving canopy, a silken cloth held aloft on black basalt pillars. It was another oval within the greater oval, stretching from one end of the room to the other.

Alkahest took another step into the room. It was empty —

Was it?

She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. It grew colder.

“Show yourself,” she made herself say. “Where are you?”

By her ætheric sight she saw — something — gather, coalesce, within the black circle of marble.  The circle of green is a binding circle, Alkahest thought with a terrified clarity.

“What are you?” she whispered.

I am a story, whispered whatever-it-was in the centre of the circle. I am an old power.

There was a woman there before her, smiling, spectral, in spectral robes, with flowing spectral hair, and smiling a spectral smile.

“You’re a ghost,” she whispered.

Clever, the ghost said. Do you think you know your way, in Fell Gard? Yet here you have come to me blinded and faltering. Ah, well. That’s life. As I remember it. Sooner or later an error will always find you; something not remembered, something not understood, an opportunity missed. And so: here you are now.

“Who are you?” asked Alkahest.

I am your future, the ghost said. I am a twist in the legend you are writing. Whoever you are. The ghost nodded. Let us talk, you and I. And perhaps you will find all your hopes answered.

Alkahest found herself doubting that would happen.


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