“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 1:  The Golden Bird

Lindsey Fluger was only slightly past eighteen.  What there was of her was barely over five-foot five with plain grey eyes haphazardly bordered with an excess of eyeliner, hair a dull sheenless black as can only be produced by cheap dye, a chest as flat as a twelve year old’s and stomach that refused to ever be flat enough no matter how little she ate.  And little did she eat indeed. Her jeans rode high on her legs and low on her hips, for they might have as well have been made for a child, not a young woman. “Anorexia” was an ugly word indeed, yet it was one that had been associated with Lindsey in hushed tones since she’d started high school, at about the same time at which her disposition had shifted to one of a general melancholy and discontent.

 

It was hoped that life in college would bring about a change for the better in Lindsey.  But hope had been disappointed. The few friendships she’d made in high school faded quickly, and in five months at university had so far not been replaced.  She scored only just well enough in the uninspired assortment of classes she had undertaken thus far, but among those few who sustained any degree of concern for her it was generally regarded that Lindsey was faring ill in all but the most marginal and superficial of respects.

 

It was one afternoon after a pedantic exposure to the dubious rigours of “PSYCH 2151: Social Elements of Normative Disadvantage” that Lindsey sat curled up moodily in a corner of the open lounge in the Anthropology Building Annex No. 2.  

 

She had no appetite for the wilted looking Smart-Choice Salad she’d acquired from the cafeteria for the trivial sum of fourteen dollars and seventy nine cents.  Nor had she any appetite for the sight of those perfect looking girls in panty-length shorts across from her, texting their besties while entangled about their boyfriends.  Nor had she any appetite for the billboard bearing adverts on a general diversity of topics such as Salsa Night at the Union next Thursday, the weekly meetings of Students for the Ultimate Society (free pizza provided by The Youth Socialist Front), and queries for roommates fond of animals and not allergic to cats.  Nor had she any appetite for the thought of the homework lurking wickedly inside her backpack, her empty expectations for spring break, or even the golden sun shining through the brilliant green trees outside. Lindsey sat with her back to the corner and her stick-like legs drawn up to her speckled and picked chin, and her thoughts lying in a pool of despair.

 

Lindsey sighed wearily to herself.

 

“There really isn’t anything for you here, is there?”

 

Lindsey shook her head to herself.

 

“No.  I don’t even know why I try anymore.  I just want it all to end.”

 

“Would anyone miss you?”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“What about your family?”

 

“Well….I guess they would…maybe…kind of.”

 

“For how long?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“For how long would you be missed, and how soon would you need to be back?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Stop dithering in disbelief and answer the question, I don’t have much time.”

 

“What the f….”

 

“Fine.  I’ll let you think it over.  We shall speak again before long.”

 

Lindsey started.  Everything about her seemed normal.  Had she been asleep? She must have been.  Weird. Maybe the new dosage of antidepressants was doing weird stuff, making her drowsy and giving her screwed up dreams.

 

Her next class was at one o’clock: Physics 1001 “The Physical Sciences and How they Ruin Your Life”, or something to that effect.  She hated every moment of it. At three forty-five, she was back in her dorm room, flung on the bed.

 

Her roommate had moved to the sorority house earlier in the semester.  That was fine. Lindsey would rather be alone anyway. She pulled her pillow out from behind her head and hugged it to her chest as she stared blankly at the ceiling.

 

“Well, what about it?  Have you made up your mind?”

 

Lindsey continued to stare blankly.

 

“You don’t have much time.  I need to know now.”

 

Lindsey thought for a moment.  Was she starting to have hallucinations or something?  She sat up and looked around. What on earth was going on?

 

“I’ll tell you all about what’s going on, but first I need an answer.  Are you coming or not?”

 

The voice was real.  It was a real sound, not just a hint in her head like before.  Lindsey uttered a squeak, and spun around wide-eyed towards the window, half hiding behind the pillow.

 

The window screen had been pulled straight out of its fixture.  And there, sitting on the sill and flicking the displaced screen about casually in one claw, was a huge bird.

 

The creature was of a golden, almost metallic color with highlights of red.  It was very nearly three feet tall, and on it’s head it bore a great scarlet crest like a cockatoo.  It’s beak was sharp like an eagle’s and had an iridescent sheen to it, while it’s claws were black like coal.  And likewise were it’s eyes, one of which was cocked like a polished bead, staring critically in Lindsey’s direction.

 

Lindsey stared for a moment in a hush of disbelief.  The Bird returned her gaze with an air of restrained patience as it continued to idly twirl the window screen.

 

After a few moments, the Bird casually tossed the screen aside, scratched at itself, and then brought its gaze back to bear on Lindsey as it spoke.

 

“Well, now that you’ve had a good look, I hope you’re sufficiently satisfied that I am not an illusion that we can talk.”

 

Lindsey could still barely get her words unstuck.

 

“I…..”

 

“Don’t feel embarrassed, I often have this effect when I appear unannounced, particularly to persons of this world such as yourself, unacquainted with what lies beyond.”

 

“What lies beyond?”

 

“Quite.”

 

“Lies beyond what?”

 

“Beyond the horizon.  At the other end of the rainbow.  Around the corner, on the other side of the door, over the fence, on the far side of the water, and across the field under the trees.”

 

“What…..what are you talking about?”

 

“Why the Fairworld, of course.  Or whatever name you wish to give it.  Fairyland, the elf world, the realm of faerie, I’ll leave the choice of nomenclature up to you.  But hurry, we haven’t much time, I need you to make a decision.”

 

“….what decision?”

 

“Are you coming, or are you not?”

 

“…coming?”

 

“To the Fairworld.”

 

“I don’t believe this.”

 

“I’m not asking you to believe, I’m asking you to decide.  Belief will attend to itself, according to your decision.”

 

“What do you want from me?”

 

“A decision!”

 

“No, I mean….why do you want me?”

 

“That’s a different question entirely.”

 

The Bird scratched himself again as Lindsey watched, still largely dumbstruck with the whole situation.  A moment later and the Bird again cocked a beady eye at Lindsey and spoke.

 

“You have noticed, I am sure, that I am not an ordinary sort of bird.  I have certain capacities which distinguish me, such as keen intelligence and witty conversation, as you may also have noticed.  But another of my gifts is that I have a certain ability to read a heart at a distance. Very often, I can merely observe a person from a long way off and be able see what sort of a person she is, which is how I have come across you.  You see, I spotted you particularly as I was flying over this world in search of someone like you. You have character and potential, you see. I read these things in your heart. And I read also that your heart is rather heavy laden, and it occurred to me that you could really do with an opportunity to do something especially good and out of the ordinary.  Do you follow me thus far?”

 

Lindsey stammered.

 

“I…..I guess…..kinda.”

 

“Good enough.  ‘I guess kinda’ is well enough to be expected under the circumstances, and we can improve from there.  If, that is, you decide to come with me to the Fairworld. You must give me your answer quickly, for if you won’t come then I must find someone else as soon as possible.”

 

Lindsey didn’t know what to say.   Silence hung for a while, until at length the Bird spoke again.

 

“Well, if you won’t ask questions I can’t give you answers.  I can’t stay any longer, but I can give you until nightfall to make up your mind.  Here.”

 

The great bird hopped off the sill and into the middle of the room, a sudden motion which instinctively sent Lindsey hiding further behind her pillow, if such were possible.

 

The Bird looked at the floor, cocked his head first this way, and then that.  Then, seeming to abruptly make up his mind, he drove his beak through the thin dormitory carpet, and then proceeded to drag it backward while cutting out a crude square of carpet about two or three feet across.  In all the shock and astonishment of the moment, Lindsey nonetheless found herself wondering how on earth she was going to explain the condition of the floor to the resident hall director.

 

When he was finished, the Bird clucked to himself in a self satisfied way, and spoke.

 

“If you decide to come, just peel off the carpet here and step in.  If not, don’t, and it should seal up again by tomorrow. Goodbye.”

 

And with that, the Bird hopped out through the window and disappeared into the sky.

 

How long Lindsey remained fixated on the spot which the Bird had vacated she couldn’t be sure.  At such times, bewilderment has a tendency to hold sway above most everything else.  

 

At length the numbness subsided a bit, and Lindsey was very nearly convinced that she had been asleep and dreaming.  Except for that torn up bit of carpet. Ah, of course, the carpet must have been torn already, and she had merely fallen asleep while staring at it, and dreamed the rest.  Of course that’s what happened, and she could prove it to herself.

 

Lindsey rolled lightly off the bed.  Then she remembered that the window was still open with the screen popped out.  Vacantly she walked to the window, shut it and drew the curtains with a shiver. Then she crouched down to where the line of tattered fringe protruded above the carpet’s weave.  With a firm self assured grasp, she seized a bit of the torn filaments, and pulled. With only a slight popping tear, the section of carpet came away in her hand.

 

And Lindsey fell backward with half a scream as a blinding light burst forth from the floor beneath her fingertips.

 

Lindsey stood in the corner of the room, still clutching a square of carpeting in her hand, while from a matching hole in her dormitory floor a soothing yet painfully bright blue ray of daylight radiated from beneath.  A cool breeze wafted from the hole, along with the smell of fresh air and faint sounds of wind rippling through vegetation. All was still. Save for Lindsey’s panting breath and racing heartbeat, at any rate. Lindsey stared at the outrageous reality before her in a mental whirlwind of both utter disbelief and absolute certainty.

 

“I’m not asking you to believe, I’m asking you to decide.  Belief will attend to itself, according to your decision.” 

 

The recollection of the Bird’s words echoed through Lindsey’s mind as she faced an inescapable quandary.  There was a hole in her floor. A confounding invitation to another world, an impossible reality just sitting there brazenly in the middle of her bedroom.  And there she was, standing there. What in the world was she supposed to do with a thing like this?

 

Gradually, her mind began to adjust to her situation as her thoughts flew about frantically to set themselves to order.  Alright, be calm now. You have no idea really what’s going on around you. You’re probably hallucinating. Just stay calm, and think.  Try touching it, see if it really is a hole. It will probably disappear the moment you reach for it. Maybe you’ll just wake up and find out it’s all just a dream.  Try pinching yourself. Ouch! Okay, just stay calm. That still doesn’t prove anything. Just take a look at that hole.

 

In a moment, Lindsey had made a decision:  She was in control. She still didn’t understand what was happening, but she knew she was sane and more or less thinking clearly.  With a casual strength that would have been impossible a moment ago, she walked forward and knelt beside the opening in the floor, and cautiously looked in over the edge of the carpet.

     

Inside the hole, she could see grass mingled with an assortment of weeds and wildflowers such as you might find in any ordinary field.  It was daylight, and somewhere the sun was shining. The ground looked to be about three or four feet or so below the hole, an easy enough drop if she were careful about it.  It was only a matter of choosing.

 

And there it was.  A truly unimaginable opportunity before her.  It was simply up to her to choose. And in that moment, Lindsey did the most reckless thing of her entire life.

 

With a cautious, almost giddy sort of feeling, like the moment before one slips into a cold swimming pool, Lindsey sat down and swung her legs into the gap.  The cool wind below tickled at her bare ankles and sent a shiver up her spine. She hesitated for just a moment.

 

And then she jumped.

 

The drop was a bit further than she had thought.  In a terrifying second, she fell to the earth and landed hard and stunned on the springy turf.  For a moment she lay dazed on her back, unmoving save for the heaving of her breast in the wake of the alarming fall.  She was staring up at a dark square hovering above her in a clear sky of glorious blue. The smell of wild flowers surrounded her, and the breeze carried the quiet buzz of insects and a distant bay of sheep, along with the occasional hollow clatter of animal bells.

 

Lindsey’s mind was still trying to catch up with everything that was happening.  In a moment she realized that the dark square hovering above her was actually the hole in her dorm room floor, appearing dim and faded against the luminous blue of the sky.  How far she had fallen she couldn’t really guess, but she was sure that it was too far for her to reach the hole in the sky above her to escape whatever consequences might follow from her decision.  She was just wondering what the possibility of acquiring a ladder might be in this place (wherever she was) when she realized that the hole was disappearing as the dark square opening faded away into the sky above.

 

Suddenly panicked, Lindsey scrambled frantically to her feet, but it was too late.  The hole, the gateway to the entire world as she knew it, was gone.  

 

And Lindsey was alone in the Fairworld.

 

The Fairworld, or whatever it was that bird had called it, was to all appearances not all that much different than the world Lindsey was accustomed to.  Not hereabouts, at any rate. Lindsey’s surroundings were much as one might expect to find in any number of places in the world. It was a mountainous land, with rocky crags and wooded hills obscuring her view of the horizon on all sides.  Small patches of meadowland undulated through the sharp dips and rises of the earth, pierced at all places with islands of bare rock, while trees and shrubs made scattered intrusions upon the grasses here and there. The patch of grass on which Lindsey had landed was itself nearly enveloped by an assortment of boulders, and having had a look at her surroundings she was rather grateful she hadn’t landed a few feet further in any direction. 

 

Voices.

 

Yes, voices alright, just barely carried on the breeze.  Coming from somewhere over that way-ish. Lindsey could only assume that the Bird had meant to meet up with her here, wherever here was.  And, even if it were not the Bird she were hearing, she would certainly need to connect herself with humanity in some way (assuming of course that ‘humanity’ was what inhabited this place).  Having taken quick stock of herself she had promptly concluded that with only her clothes to her possession, her worldly resources at present were distinctly limited, and it wasn’t as though she were a girl scout or something who could tell you which roots and berries were healthy and nutritious and which ones would instead leave you with spasms and a short future.  Whatever was about to happen, she would certainly need to find help in short order if she expected to survive all of this.

 

Following the voices wasn’t particularly easy.  The wind was irregular, whistling randomly through the rocks and throwing sounds around like dry leaves on a windy autumn day.  And if that weren’t enough, there were plenty of other noises to confuse the navigational ear. The rush of the wind itself, the buzz of insects, and the sound of sheep.

 

It didn’t take Lindsey long to find the sheep.  They seemed to be everywhere, clumping their way to and fro in shifting schools like fluffy fish with legs, pausing to nibble here and there at grass and weeds only to suddenly drop everything and trot off again with the herd the moment one of them took a fancy to random motion.  They were not feral, that was for certain. The bells were evidence of that. So many bells! Every move was accompanied by a sonorous clank, and the air was filled with a soft chorus of bells and bleats. It seemed impossible to isolate any other noises. However, where there are domestic animals, there is usually to be found a domesticator.  If Lindsey couldn’t find the the Bird, her next best chance for survival would be to find the proprietor of this livestock.  

 

It was in observing the ebb and flow of the bleating wool producers that Lindsey noticed another queer characteristic of her surroundings.  Many of the stones were unusually sharp and regular in shape. In point of fact, they were cut. Though broken, scattered, and weathered, it quickly became obvious that a large number of these stones had been worked by the hands men (or at least creatures like men).  And more still, some were still stacked. Blended into the rocky terrain and obscured by vegetation and centuries of decay, there were ruins. Square stone in stacks and rows hinted at what were once walls, floors, and foundations.  

Yet these ruins were not the only thing nearby which bore the mark of intelligent builders…intelligent of a sort, at any rate.  For amidst the crags and slopes, only partially visible from Lindsey’s vantage, there was a great stone mound.

 

There was no mistaking that the thing was built that way on purpose.  As Lindsey teetered on a rock for a better view, she could see clearly that it was a great heap of stones; some plucked raw from the earth, some chiseled and broken, and all heaped together in a haphazard mess whose only guiding principle appeared to be to make the most massive rockpile imaginable.  Lindsey couldn’t be sure of it’s size, but from what she could see she thought that it must be something like a hundred feet high at the very least. That such a monstrous thing could have been the work of random geology seemed to her impossible.

 

The wind carried forth again the sound of voices.  This time, Lindsey thought she could clearly make out a direction:  The voices came from somewhere near the great mound of stone.

 

Another moment found Lindsey picking her way across the rocky maze towards the mound.  The mound was further away than it had at first appeared, and further still given the meandering route which Lindsey was obliged to take in order to reach it.  Indeed, it was well nigh an hour before Lindsey at last found herself at the foot of the edifice.

 

It was truly immense.  Less tall perhaps than Lindsey had at first thought (for it was perched on a hill), but no less impressive by girth.  And as crude as it had appeared at a distance, closer inspection revealed a greater measure of architectural consideration (for want of a better phrase).  While there appeared to be no particular regularity to the overall shape, the mound was partially encircled by rings of massive pillars of varying sizes; some of made of stacked stones, others composed of single upright rocks.  There were perhaps twenty such pillars in all, set in two or three uneven rows at differing heights on the mound. It appeared to Lindsey that the idea was perhaps to ultimately ring the whole mound with the things in several tiers like a great lumpy wedding cake, for it was clear to her that the structure was unfinished.  Grass, weeds, and small shrubs sprung from between the worn stones at lower levels, which became thinner higher up as the stones appeared less settled, stacked with gaps and colored unevenly where one part had lately been buried and another exposed. The pillars too showed signs of labor both old and recent, some of them fresh and others weathered and grown with moss.  And looking closer still at the nearest of them, Lindsey could see that some were engraved with freshly cut inscriptions; crude pictograms and disjointed lettering. If nothing else, Lindsey was impressed that whoever was building this monstrous thing was not the most gifted of craftsmen.

 

It was at this moment that a shadow passed fleetingly over Lindsey’s head, and a large boulder made an abrupt landing about halfway up the mound with a resounding crash, only to begin rolling back down part way again with a shower of pebbles and shards.  Lindsey darted out of the way even as the bulk of the avalanche rumbled to a stop some feet away.  

 

And then an awesome thing appeared.

 

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