Ellis L. (Skip) Knox, Mad House
Length: 56 pages
The island was a black fist thrusting out of the Atlantic. We put off from the ketch in a longboat, and I wanted to be anywhere but there. Sprites hate ships, as is well known. Humans think we're afraid of the sea, but that's not it. We're a sensible folk, preferring not to travel on a bunch of sticks over an abyss, hoping we don't sink. We don't jump over fires either. Same sort of thing.
The captain refused to get close, claiming reefs or some such, so I was in a small boat full of smelly humans-no prejudice there, just stating facts-who rowed us through the choppy waves. The basalt cliffs that gave the Black Isle its name rose straight up from the sea like an immense wall. At the base clung a tiny dock that looked to give way at a touch, and on that dock stood an elf and an ogre. The elf wore the brown robes of a Chapterhouse wizard. The island was home to one of the oldest Chapterhouses in the world, built back in one of the Dark Ages, I can never remember which one, so the place was lousy with wizards.
Which is why I was here.
The longboat pulled close to the dock. The coxswain threw my kit over, then motioned for me to follow it.
“Sprightly now,” he called, and the crew laughed. Humans never tire of that joke.
I waited for the top of the swell, then leaped. My feet hit the dock hard, but I didn't stumble. I threw a dirty look back at the sailors, but they were already pulling away, so I turned my attention to the two on the dock.
The ogre was an ugly beast. His fleshy face was lumpy and crooked, with one eye larger than the other, one eyebrow higher than the other, a nose that had been broken so many times it had forgotten its shape, and a wide scar on his cheek that caused his mouth to twist over to the side. The elf was a shabby fellow, with wild hair and a much-patched robe. I couldn't tell if he was young or old, but you never can with elves. He regarded me with an air of revulsion, as if I were some grotesque fish that had just flopped onto shore.
“Pick him up, John Golly,” he said to the ogre. Then to me he said, “it's a steep climb.”
“I'll walk,” I said, grabbing my kit. I wasn't going to let myself be hauled like a dead stag.
Then the name clicked and I looked again at the ogre.
“You're John Golly? Gian Galeazzo from the Trentino?”
The ogre nodded.
“I've heard of you,” I said.
“And I have heard of you, many times.” His voice was a gravelly basso.
I offered a bow, which he returned-professional courtesy.
I explained to the elf.
“Gian Galeazzo was a tunneler with the Lombard Wolves.”
“Quinn-the-Sprite was a tunneler with the Company of Red Hands,” the ogre said.
The elf was unimpressed. His long nose crinkled.
“So you were both mercenaries. That means nothing here. At the Chapterhouse, John Golly is a bound Warden, and you, sprite, are a hireling.” He looked me over skeptically. “A tunneler? You?”
I ignored him and spoke to the ogre.
“Can't the elf pronounce your name?”
He grinned. An ogre grin is a frightening sight, but only the first hundred times or so.
“My brother Wolves were mostly English and Welsh. They could not say properly Gian Galeazzo, so they called me John Golly.” He shrugged. “It stuck.”
Although we had served in different companies, we had been more rivals than enemies. As tunnelers we were members of a difficult and dangerous trade, though the ogre dug through physical defenses while I had dug through magical ones. Still, he was closer to being a comrade than was the elf, or those sailors. I decided to like him.
“John Golly it is,” I said.
“Quinn-the-Sprite.” That alarming grin again. Why do ogres file their teeth?
“Grandmaster Bernat is waiting,” the elf said, and he set out without a backward glance.
We followed a path that climbed steeply through a ravine. Black walls rose on either side, slick with the sea air. The slap of the elf's slippers, and the thud of John Golly's boots, echoed against the cliffs, but I sensed another kind of echo as well-a jagged, discordant sound that no ear could hear but which my fae senses could barely shut out. Something strange was going on, somewhere up above. The elf toiled onward, wheezing and muttering as he went. He climbed slowly enough that I was able to keep pace without losing my dignity by being carried.
We emerged from the cliffs and there stood the famous Chapterhouse of the Magistri Miraculorum in all its glory. The place was a mess. You might think from the name it would be some grand palace or sprawling fortress, but it was nothing of the kind. Instead, it was a confusion of buildings that tumbled across the entire island, structures of every description and design. From where I stood I saw a Jute longhouse, an Alsatian chateau, a stone something-or-other without doors or windows, a half-completed marble palace, and two thatch huts. Other buildings defied description. Every sort of material had been used, from copper to glass, timber to slate, limestone, granite, even turf. The buildings crowded one another, overlapped each other, some even appeared to have grown over the top of others. I knew wizards cared little about mundane matters like architecture but this had all the orderliness of a child's toybox.
It was shabby, too, with missing tiles, holes in roofs, broken slate, crumbling porches. Were it not for the two people with me, I could easily believe the place had been abandoned a century ago.
Even more disorder reigned beneath the surface of plainsight. Like most Chapterhouses, the place had been built as much by magic as by masons, but here I detected a stewpot of spells-human, elfin, merfolk, even orcish. Spells wound about each other, interpenetrated, competed. The whole complex was like a web woven by generations of insane spiders.
Low clouds scudded across the sky, throwing fast-moving shapes over the scene. Brilliant light alternated with deep shadow, as if the sky echoed the strange ferment below.
“Quickly now,” the elf said, “no time for admiring.”
Admiring! All I wanted to do was get out of there. For the first time in my life, I actually wished to get on a boat. I took a deep breath and forced myself forward. The elf walked ahead while John Golly held back a bit to match my pace. It was a chance to get some information.
“What is wrong here?” I said, stretching my neck to look up at him. “I'm sensing all kinds of ....”
He shook his head slightly. “Not now.”
Even that much was information. It at least confirmed something was wrong, and John Golly wanted me to know about it. The terms of my employment were strange enough, but the ogre's dark hint coupled with the uneasy weirdness of the Chapterhouse made me increasingly anxious. Not so anxious I wanted to go back, certainly, but anxious enough that I would look for any chance to slip the leash.
I tried a different angle.
“So, what's your job here,” I said, “Head Wizard?” Open with a joke, I figured.
“Ogres have no wizardry,” he said, “though we do have a head. Some of us even have two.” A low chuckle rumbled down at me.
“Funny. So, what do you do?”
“I am Warden. I keep the House.”
Something in the way he said that told me he did more than just sweep the floors and greet visitors.
“And how does a tunneler with the Wolves wind up a Chapterhouse Warden on the Black Isle?”
He shook his head again and put one blunt finger to his crooked lips. More secrets.
“Here,” the elf called back to us.
He was standing in front of a heavy oak door leading into a three-story building that would have been at home in any town in Mecklenburg, complete with lacquered paint and some kind of motto running along a heavy beam just over the door, written in Plattedeutsch. The elf went inside; John Golly motioned I should go first, then he followed me, ducking his head under the lintel. As he did so, he whispered to me.
I didn't need the warning, but I appreciated it. I would have appreciated more knowing exactly why I needed to stay sharp.
We entered a hallway, which opened into a vast central chamber filled with the kind of deep gloom that sometimes lurks in the empty spaces of big houses. The shafts of light that slid down from high windows only served to deepen the shadows. There were no chairs or benches, no tables or shelves, only the tall, empty room with a wide staircase opposite. The wood floor was covered with threadbare rugs piled three or four deep. As we crossed, one rug rose into the air, folded itself, and settled to the floor again a few feet away. I didn't know if that sort of thing was normal in a Chapterhouse. I try hard never to enter one.
The staircase had polished railing on both sides, and newels upon which carved wyverns crouched. At least, I hoped they were carved and not real. When I put my foot to the first stair, it groaned like an animal in pain. I took another step and the next stair groaned, but in a different voice. Up ahead neither the elf nor the ogre elicited any sort of noise from the stairs. I shook my head and wished all wizards a long holiday in hell.
We went from the stairs into a hall that led to another staircase. Then again, and then again. At the top of the fourth, I stopped.
“We've come up four sets of stairs,” I said, “but the building is only three stories high.” The elf gave me a contemptuous look.
“We are no longer in that building,” he said.
He continued on his way before I could think of a reply to this. The three story building was the tallest among its neighbors, so how could we be any higher? I looked around for a window whereby I might gain some insight, but there was only the bare hallway and, some distance ahead, still another staircase. I had to trot to catch up.
We passed several rooms, but all the doors were shut. Strange sounds came from two of them, and a perfectly hideous smell emanated from a third. We passed from a carpeted hall into one with bare floor. The wood here was old and untended. Some of the boards were warped, and a layer of dust covered all.
I wasn't too worried about magic. We sprites are frail enough in our physical bodies, but set us down among magical forces and we are as armored as Hannibal's elephants. What worried me was the clear sensation that the magical forces around me were in chaos, as if a fire had broken out of its hearth and was rampaging through a village.
“Stay to the right,” John Golly said.
“Why?” I said, peering around me.
“The boards on the left are not real.”
They looked solid enough.
“How far over do the real ones go?”
I asked this as I was moving over. Two strides later I was falling through the floor. The non-existent boards flashed past my eyes as I tumbled forward, then I was in another hallway, still falling. I nearly hit the floor below before my wings came out. Above me, the ceiling looked perfectly solid, but I aimed left and flew back up, making sure to land next to the wall.
“Stay to the right, you see,” John Golly said.
And some people say ogres have no sense of humor.
Copyright © 2020 by Ellis L. (Skip) Knox