Samir opened his eyes to darkness. He turned his head to look around and something scratched against his skin, like fingernails against his throat. He didn’t scream. The reflex to make noise had long ago been trained out of him. Instead he took a deep breath, sinking into his body. Making certain of himself before he tried to figure out where he was and how he had come here.

He couldn’t see, but the rest of his senses were working perfectly well. It was quiet. Not a peaceful quiet, but the dull, muted silence of death. There were no sounds of men or horses, the endless restlessnesses of a camp at night. No smell of fire or flesh. If the air around Samir smelled of anything, it was a faint, wet rot.

He was lying down, but not on the bedding he’d carefully spread out inside his tent. The surface beneath him was solid and flat—not the soft, but uneven mossy ground he’d gone to sleep on.

“Krys,” he whispered, and relief washed through him as an urgent chittering came from above. Krys sounded worried, but not panicked, and Samir adjusted his own emotional barometer accordingly.

Time to risk some magic. Samir called light—a very small light; barely even a candle flame—to the air above him.

Again he had to swallow a scream as shadowy spiders appeared just inches from his face. Another couple breaths and the shadows resolved, solidifying into fingerling branches. A weedy bush. That was what he was lying in. Dead—no leaves. The branches were what had scratched him.

Samir sat up carefully, pushing through the dead bush, to look around at where he was.

A small stone room that had long ago fallen to decay. A single window, high above, showed night outside, stars shining cold and dark in a sky that was nearly black. Black, knotty roots and desiccated weeds were well on their way to crumbling the walls in Samir’s corner. Another nest of roots had broken through the ceiling, as though a tree were growing in the floor above. Krys hung from one of these roots, watching Samir carefully with her sharp, dark eyes. A doorway across from Samir held no door, but all Samir could see was darkness beyond.

What he heard was the scratch of movement. Someone, or something, was outside. Scrapes against the stone. A faint movement of air that could be breathing.

Quiet as a cat, Samir got to his feet, crept towards the door. He held a hand up, signaling Krys to stay where she was. He kept the light steady where he’d summoned it and crouched low, ready to peek out.

When he saw the card.

A fate card. On the floor, in the doorway. It was lying face down, but from the design on the back, Samir could tell it didn’t belong to his deck.

He picked it up, flipped it over. A four-sided fortress with a moat, surrounded by fog. This was the four of water. Samir knew this card. He knew all the cards. This one represented blindness, helplessness. An inability to see or stop unseen forces.

Who had dropped it here? Unlike everything else, the card was in pristine shape. It hadn’t been here for long.

Outside, whoever or whatever approached was drawing nearer. Samir would worry about the card later. He dropped it…

And began to fall.

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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