“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 10:  “The House of Dackery”

 

Lindsey awoke.

 

She found herself lying in a sweaty tangle of a bed in a strange room, staring up at the ceiling.

 

She sat upright with a jerk and looked about herself.

 

Yes, this was definitely the room she had gone to sleep in the night before.  A room in an old house somewhere in the heart of the New England, belonging to one Mr. Horatio Dackery.

 

Had she gone somewhere during the night?  She could remember every detail perfectly.  The grass, the mushrooms, and the creature sitting under said mushrooms.  Had it all been a dream? Or had Elred indeed brought her back to Dackery’s house, just as he had promised?

 

She swung her legs over the side of the bed, sending a shower of breadcrumbs onto the floor.  Apparently she’d brought back a few souvenirs from her dreaming, and made a mess of Dackery’s bedroom with them to boot.  

 

A sudden thought struck her, and she glanced around the room.

 

There, on the nightstand, was a small gold coin.  Apparently the breadcrumbs weren’t the only souvenir she’d brought back from her nocturnal adventure.  She picked up the coin and examined it again. There, written on one side, was the inscription Elred had spoken of.  The words which were supposed to reunite her with the creature, who would then presumably whisk her off to wherever she wished. 

 

It was merely up to her to decide where she would go.  

 

From outside, she thought she heard a noise.  A comfortable sort of clinking, accompanied by the faint odor of bacon.  Her stomach grumbled greedily. She wasn’t particularly hungry, but still had an appetite.  Decisions could wait. She pocketed the coin and then began to pull furniture away from the door.  It was time to see what the hospitable Mr. Dackery was up to.

 

Lindsey made her way to the sitting room.  The drapes were still closed, and the lights were off.  There was no sign of Dackery. Lindsey began to explore.

 

At the end of the hallway she came upon a stairwell leading down to the first floor.  Presumably the kitchen would be down there. She descended to reach a second hallway, which she followed past a number of lonely looking rooms, a few of which appeared wholly disused, with much of the furniture draped with dusty holland covers.

 

The passage ended in a modestly spacious kitchen.  The ceiling was rather low, and the floorboards creaked beneath her as Lindsey stepped in.  On one side there was an exterior door and and a pair of tall, heavily built windows looking out into a small vegetable garden.  On the other was a great stone fireplace, although the word hardly seemed sufficient to describe it, for it was as nearly wide as was the whole room and was as tall as a man.  The fireplace was set so deeply into the wall that it formed almost another room unto itself, with a shallow ledge at the rear containing two or three small separate ovens set deeper yet into the stone.  But it was clearly no longer used for its original purpose, for much of it was now occupied by two modern contrivances, a steel double stove and refrigerator. Though ‘modern’ was a relative term, for even these were old and looked to have been in their prime sometime in the early 1950s, their teal paint contrasting weirdly with the stone around them which was blackened by three centuries of soot and smoke.  In another part of the room there was a free standing steel sink, bolted to the floor with the plumbing passing awkwardly into the floorboards, while all around the walls were papered with a decades old floral pattern that was still comfortable and cheerful even as it was faded, discolored and peeling in places.

And in the center of the room there was a large table, where stood Mr. Dackery in shirtsleeves, slicing some fresh bread.

 

Dackery looked up and gave a smile which was probably intended to be pleasant, but against his naturally brooding features it still looked more like a scowl.

 

“Good morning, Ms. Fluger.  I trust you slept well.”

Lindsey opened her mouth to speak, but in an instant thought the better of it.  She was hardly sure that she trusted Dackery, and she decided to keep the evening’s additional adventures to herself.

 

“Sure.  How about you?”

“Well enough.  Breakfast will be ready in a moment.  Please, pull up a chair.”

 

Lindsey did so.  Dackery finished slicing the bread, and then went over to the stove and brought back a luxurious platter of pancakes, hashbrowns, scrambled eggs, sausages, and of course bacon.  If nothing else, Dackery was a chivalrous host.

 

As they ate, Dackery talked.  He spoke of the building, its history, when it was built, how many times it had been remodeled by its various tenants, and his own recent efforts to keep it from being eventually noticed by the National Historic Register.  He spoke of the kitchen garden, the plants he cultivated and the fresh vegetables he acquired from it. He spoke of wallpaper which needed cleaning, old timbers which creaked, ancient trees which had become overgrown, and a nearby creek which had problems with flooding.  All in all, he talked a great deal without having recourse to ever say much of anything at all. Nothing significant anyway.

 

Finally, a full three quarters away through the pitcher of maple syrup, the conversation came around to more important matters.

 

“Of course, we will need to arrange transportation to get you home.  Plane tickets are out of the question, since I doubt the Bird brought you to the Fairworld with proper identification, but we may be able to arrange something by train.”

 

“Why don’t you just take me there yourself?  That thing you did yesterday with the cane to take us here, why don’t you just do that?”

 

Dackery shook his head.

 

“It may seem a bit counterintuitive, but gatemaking is really not a very discreet way to travel.  To be sure, it is instantaneous, but it invokes very powerful magic indeed, and for those already on the watch for such things it can be very easy to see.”

 

“Um…aren’t we alone?  How’s anybody going to see us?” 

 

“By scrying.  There are any number of methods which our enemies may be employing to search for us at this very moment.  Were I to make a gate as I did last night it could illuminate us to them like a fireworks display. Better to avoid such methods unless absolutely necessary.”

 

“But the Bird does it all the time.”

 

“And his enemies caught up with him, didn’t they?”

 

“But you were making gates too.”

 

“It was necessary in order for me to follow the Bird.  That, and I was confident the Bird wasn’t on the watch for me, nor would it have been a disaster had he eventually discovered me.  We are acquainted.”

 

“I’d kind of gathered that much.  How long have you known the Bird?”

 

“Long enough.”

 

“Are you enemies?”

 

“Not precisely.  In fact, the Bird has taken consultation with me from time to time.  It was I who suggested the utilization of Harin’s Vault as a means to complete his quest.”

 

“What!”

 

“Indeed.  Some months ago the Bird approached me with one of his schemes.  He was discreet in what he told me, or tried to be anyway, however I was nonetheless able to deduce much of the rest for myself.  Although I declined to participate, I suggested that he try opening Harin’s Vault as a means to his ends. For many long years I had sought a way to enter the vault, to no avail.  The Bird’s quest was a unique opportunity.”

 

“So the Bird tried to recruit you too, huh?  Why did you say no?”

 

Dackery shrugged.  “I do not trust the Bird.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Do you really need to ask?  Look at your own situation. Where is the Bird?”

 

Lindsey fell silent.  Dackery’s words were unsettling, to be sure.  Somehow she felt like changing the subject.

 

“So what’s the deal with Harin’s Vault anyway?  Why lock the place up like that?”

 

Dackery leaned back in his chair and cradled his fingers together in a way that made him seem like some sort of professor about to expound on some exoteric topic.

 

“Harin’s Vault was built almost two thousand years ago by the ancestors of the Drixi.  At that time the witches were at the very height of their power, and their empire sprawled outward from the Middle Wastes, from the marches of Ursiland in the north to the heart of Meridiana in the south.  So much so that they were on the verge of bringing down the entire Reman Empire itself (which of course they ultimately did). Suffice to say, it was a period of extreme instability. Even the Good Folk were marching to war.  In those days, the lands of the Drixi were ruled by one Harin the Golden, who as you might guess by the sobriquet was rather affluent. He built the vault as a royal treasury which would be secure against the tumult of that age, a magical receptacle which was locked in such a way that it required a human sacrifice (or rather Drixi sacrifice) in order to be opened.  Yes, I concur it’s a nasty idea, but in those days the Drixi were even nastier than they are now, which is no small insult. The trick though was that the sacrifice had to be both voluntary and pure. To their dismay, the Drixi soon discovered that anything that could be done to induce a person to submit to death (either by way of coercion, reward to one’s heirs, devotion to the monarch, or what have you) would detract from the conditions of the sacrifice.  They could never find a voluntary victim who did not have a profound personal motivation for the deed, and thus the Drixi could not open their own vault once it was closed. Harin the Golden was now Harin the Dead Broke. I hate to think of how many poor souls the Drixi must have gone through before they realized the matter was hopeless, or what must have happened afterwards to the magicians who put the thing together in the first place. Anyway, as the years went by the vault was gradually forgotten, only to be eventually rediscovered when the Drixi began mining the area for tin.  Then all the old scrolls and manuscripts were pulled out and read again, and as word got out people began trying to get inside the thing to retrieve all the fabulous wealth that the ancient records said were in there, for the vault had been meticulously catalogued before being closed. But no one succeeded, and there the place remained to be locked up forever…until last night that is.”

“Yeah, about that.  To be honest, I still don’t feel like I understand what the heck I was doing last night.  I did what Joan and the Bird asked asked me to do, and I don’t mind having done it. It wasn’t that hard, and I feel like it maybe even helped me work through some personal stuff.  But I still don’t get why I did it. I mean, why would making a sacrifice break the curse on Joan’s country?”

 

“It has to do with the nature of the black magic involved with the curse.  Broadly speaking, “black magic” is usually defined as magic which is either evil in purpose, or evil in nature.  For example, if a person were to perform an otherwise harmless spell with the idea of using it to do harm (such as murdering somebody), that would be considered black magic.  On the other hand, if a person were trying to use magic for a worthy purpose, but in doing so utilized a harmful spell (such as one which involved murdering someone, to use the same example), then that also would be considered black magic.  This may seem simple on the surface, but in reality the issue of black magic is a complicated tangle of conflicting ethics, since everybody has different ideas of what constitutes morally good behavior.  

 

But the problem becomes even more complicated when you factor in the nature of magic itself.  You see, magic exists largely outside the realm of physics as we understand it. As such, we have no real way to perceive it, at least not without the aid of magic itself, which then presents something of a chicken vs egg type situation.  You can’t observe magic unless you already have magic. I strongly suspect that the Good Folk and possibly certain other beings have some innate ability to perceive it. But for ordinary mortals like you and I, we are faced with the difficulty of trying to manipulate something which cannot be seen or touched.  Broadly speaking, the only thing which can be directly observed are outcomes. Much of the practice of magic therefore revolves around doing things which can subtly shift the magical currents around you, sort of like making ripples in water. Performing a spell thus involves a sequence of actions which are calculated to shift the currents in a certain way for a desired result.  This might be just about anything, from a string of words, to a sequence of movements or a combination of chemical ingredients. In my experience I have found that certain kinds of actions tend to be more influential than others, but in theory any kind of action might do. It is merely a matter of finding out which ones will generate the desired result. And the way all of this plays together can be very subjective.  

 

The subjective nature of magic is such that the mechanics of the magic itself are not only dependent on physical words and actions, but also on the mind of the magician.  Thoughts, conceptions, and emotions all can be wrapped up in the mechanics of spellcraft. When this happens, what was previously a purely abstract phenomenon suddenly becomes integral to the operation of the magic itself, just like the wheels of a clock.  Obviously, this kind of thing can be very difficult to grapple with. Therefore good, functional and robust spellcraft is based purely on factors which are controllable and reproducible, with as little dependence as possible on internal biases or fleeting psychological states.  However, the reverse is true when the design of the spellcrafter is to intentionally create something which is convoluted and intractable. In this case, a spell may be deliberately crafted in order to exploit certain emotional states or intellectual concepts. This is usually a very difficult thing to sort out and deal with, which can be very useful to those who engage in predatory magic.  

 

Because of this, cultural context becomes a critical factor in the practical application of magic.  Every society has its own systems of normative morality. Scruples and taboos are prevalent wherever you go.  It could be anything from blasphemy to using plastic bags while shopping; if an individual or society holds these things as prohibited it can become a taboo.  When a person engages in magic which involves violating their own taboos, these ideas may become integrated into the fabric of the magic itself. I believe this is what Gurth did in Linster.  He convinced the people to engage in various acts of spellcraft which systematically violated their own cultural mores. It doesn’t matter how trivial or superstitious those taboos may or may not have been, the fact is that their beliefs became incorporated into the system of magic wrought by Gurth.  Any attempt at breaking Gurth’s enchantment would necessitate directly addressing these culture-bound beliefs in some way. This is what you did at Harin’s Vault. You successfully neutralized the factor of belief by assuming the role of the savior figure and performing an act of personal atonement on behalf of others.  In a word, you were a sort of magic scapegoat. It was a straightforward and effective way to untangle the problem, and to their credit the Good Folk worked out a way to pull it off neatly with as little harm as possible. Indeed, by your own admission it seems to have had something of a therapeutic effect.”

Lindsey was silent for a moment as she digested this information.  It seemed to fit together, in a weird sort of way. Assuming of course Dackery knew what he was talking about.  Or that he was being truthful with her. After all, he did seem to have his own personal agenda of some kind.

 

“So what did you really want from the vault, Mr. Dackery?”, Lindsey at length asked, “Was it just the book?  It must be pretty valuable, otherwise you wouldn’t bothered with it and tricked the Bird into having me open the vault for you.”

 

“I did not trick the Bird, I merely offered a suggestion, one which seems to have worked out exactly as was required…except that it hasn’t.  You’re here after all.”

 

“We’ll get back to that, but right now I want to know what you’re up to.  All you took from the vault last night was just the one book, so I guess that was all you were after.  What was that book?”

 

“As I said, the vault was thoroughly cataloged before it was closed.  Years ago I uncovered references to a certain valuable manuscript of which only a few copies ever existed, all of which are either lost or thoroughly inaccessible (even to a man of my own substantial resources).  One of them was recorded to have been placed in Harin’s vault, and so it was….it’s not there now, though.”

 

“Well, what is the book about?  Why do you want it.”

 

“I think I may be permitted to keep my own confidences.  That book is my affair, not yours.”

 

“You only got hold of it because of me.”

 

“And I have already told you more of it than I would have otherwise.  But perhaps we shall yet speak again on the subject. In the meanwhile, I need to place a call with Amtrak to see about arranging tickets to get you home.  Worst case scenario I may have to pose as your guardian. Forgive me, but may I enquire your age?”

 

“Eighteen.”

 

“That should do.  We’ll tell them you’re sixteen and under my care.  I think I may concoct something else to further dim the curiosity of the good officers of our national railroad, just in case.  Security requirements are of little value if you’re too befuddled by burnt arigrocia to properly apply them.”

 

“Thanks.  I really appreciate what you’re doing.  But I haven’t decided yet where I am going to.”

 

Dackery cocked an inquisitive eye at Lindsey.

 

“By that do you mean you are considering continuing with the Bird’s little adventure?”

 

“I think I may be permitted to keep my own confidences, thanks.  I need some time to think about it.”

 

Dackery eyed Lindsey keenly for a moment, his expression seeming to betray a strange mix of dissonant emotions, disappointment and disdain mingled with admiration and regard.  For a moment it seemed as if Dackery had no response for Lindsey’s reply.

 

Dackery held Lindsey’s gaze for another moment, and then shrugged.

 

“Very well.  Please take as much time as you need.  I shall need to clean up here; no don’t get up, please allow me to be a proper host and clean up myself.  Perhaps you would care to take a walk? Last night I was concerned that we might have been followed, but it has been several hours now and there has been no sign of the witches.  If they’ve not acted by now then they must have lost our scent. At this point they probably have no idea where we are, so it should be safe enough to go outside. The grounds are quite spacious, and I find nature to be conducive to thought.  The kitchen garden is just outside that door, and there is a path from there leading to the creek.”

 

Dackery began clearing the dishes away, and Lindsey stepped outside into the garden.

 

The kitchen garden was arranged in rectangular beds framed with faded grey timbers and planted with fragrant herbs and leafy vegetables.  There were several such plots laid out like a blocky maze, the gravel paths of which eventually passed through a rickety picket fence and rolled downhill from there towards a meandering line of bushy trees which betrayed the presence of the creek.  Dackery’s house was located on a low hill, and all about it was rolling farmland. Green fields bound with hedgerows heaved and shifted like an earthen sea, dotted here and there by a white farmhouse or red barn bobbing upon the ocean of grass like upright buoys, while a little further beyond the grassland gradually broke upon a tide of lush green woodland heaving in great swells of hills which faded off into the grey distance.  

 

The morning air was cool, and even had a slight chill as the wind whipped about Lindsey’s bare legs as she approached the creek, the silent waters of which could hardly be seen between the thick foliage of the trees which enveloped it.  As she reached the treeline Lindsey turned to walk parallel to the creek, and tried her best to concentrate. She had a great deal of thinking to do. It was perhaps her first real moment of introspection since yesterday when she left the world she knew, and to be sure it was a gross understatement to say that a lot had happened in that time.  She had met a talking bird, stepped through a hole in her bedroom floor and landed in another dimension of some sort, met all sorts of queer beings and finally landed up back in her own world, on the run and in fear of her life. All in all, Lindsey was now finding it rather difficult to wrap her mind around it all, and she felt a bit like her head was about to cave in on itself under the pressure.  Not even calculus had been this bewildering. Yet somehow she had to piece all this together for herself, and soon, for she needed to make a decision.  

 

Lindsey reached into her pocket and retrieved the gold coin Elred had given her.  The metal shone brilliantly in the morning sun, and Lindsey found herself gazing vacantly at it.  What on earth was she supposed to do?

 

For some time Lindsey walked along the edge of the creek, absorbed in her own thoughts while anxiously turning the gold coin over and over in her hand and hardly noticing anything else. 

 

She could always just go home.  She hadn’t asked for this adventure, and she certainly hadn’t asked for it all to have gone wrong the way it had.  She would be perfectly within her rights just to call the whole thing off. The Bird, wherever he was, had made a hash of things.  He could just go ahead and sort out the mess he’d made of everything, and leave Lindsey out of it. Lindsey found herself thinking of the giant, Barri.  He’d had that bird pegged, alright, and so did Dackery. Lindsey was just a foolish little twerp for having ever trusted the creature.  

 

But then again, the Bird wasn’t the only one involved.  As mad as she was at the Bird, there was still Hae-jin, Joan and the others.  None of this was their fault, and wherever they were they were probably still in up to their eyeballs in this mess, maybe even worse off than she was.  All Lindsey really knew of their mission was what Joan and the Bird had told her, but it seemed pretty apparent to her that this man Gurth wouldn’t likely be any nicer to them than he would be to her.  The others could be in terrible danger right now, for all she knew. And presumably she herself held the key to solving the whole problem. She still had the medallion around her neck, and taking it to Linster would supposedly break the curse and put an end to the whole thing.  Afterwerward, Hae-jin, Joan and the others wouldn’t be any threat to anyone anymore and everybody could just go home in peace, and the people of Linster wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. All in all, there were an awful lot of people who were depending on the success of the Bird’s mission.  And right now, it seemed that such success now wholly depended on Lindsey.

 

Maybe she didn’t care about the Bird.  But she cared about Hae-jin. She cared about Joan.  She cared about Ursilda, and she even cared about the Wogs.  And she had made a promise. The Bird might break his promises, but Lindsey was determined that she would never do so.

 

Lindsey’s mind was made up.  She didn’t like it, really, but she was going to do it anyway.  She’d have to go find Dackery and thank him for everything, and tell him that she’d decided to try her best to finish what she’d started.  She’d given her word, and she intended to keep it whatever happened. With a sigh, she tossed the glittering gold coin lightly in the air and caught it again, turning around to return to the house as she did so.

 

And then, Lindsey froze in her tracks.

 

Just above her, hardly a few feet away, there was a large bird perched in one of the nearby trees.

 

It was definitely not the Bird.  No, this was a different creature entirely, smaller, shabbier, and colored like soot.  It stared in Lindsey’s direction over a long drooping beak with a pair of sharp black, intensely focused eyes, fixated on something in Lindsey’s hand:  The gold coin given to her by Elred.

 

Instinctively, Lindsey knew she was in danger.  

 

She clutched the coin more tightly in her hand, and had begun to back away when the dark bird uttered a hoarse cry, and spreading its great wings hurled itself towards Lindsey, it’s wicked talons clawing at her hand.

 

Lindsey screamed and began to beat the bird back as hard as she could, but it was no use.  In a moment the claw transformed into an iron fist crushing her wrist, and suddenly the bird was gone and was replaced by a man in dark shabby clothes.  The man twisted Lindsey’s arm and would have broken it had not Lindsey released her grip and dropped the precious coin. The man softened his grip a bit as he reached down to pick up the coin, a significant mistake, for at this juncture Lindsey bit him.  With a howl the man released his hold on Lindsey completely, and Lindsey broke and ran.

 

No time to worry about Elred’s coin, she was a dead girl for sure if that man caught up with her.  Frantically Lindsey ran back towards the house, while behind her the man began to shout indistinctly.

 

Lindsey ran faster than she ever had before, unable even to look behind her to see if the man was in pursuit.  All she could do was run. In the distance, she thought she heard a series of pops like firecrackers going off.  

 

She made it as far as the kitchen garden, and halfway to the door she at last caught her foot on the edge of one of the vegetable beds, and fell down scraped and bloodied onto the gravel.  

 

The man was right behind her, and as she turned she say him towering over her.  He was of medium complexion but his clothes and hair were as dark as that of the bird from which he had transformed, and there was a wild, determined gleam in his eye as he stood poised above her.

 

Suddenly, the kitchen door was flung open with a bang, and Dackery heaved his huge frame through, pistol in hand.  He stretched out his arm and unloaded several bullets straight into the man’s face, and the man collapsed onto the gravel.

 

Dackery stepped into the garden and hauled Lindsey roughly to her feet.

 

“Quick, get inside.  Now.”

 

Dackery bundled Lindsey inside of the kitchen and then bolted the door shut behind them.

 

“Come on.  We’ve got to leave.”

 

“I thought you said they couldn’t find us?”

 

“I was wrong.  Quickly, we must go now.”

 

Dackery led the way out of the kitchen and into the hall.  There, in the middle of the floor the was a dark, huddled form.  It was still, unnaturally so, and as Dackery ushered her along Lindsey realized it was the dead body of a human being, dressed in dark clothes much like those of her previous attacker.  Lindsey felt sick.

 

Dackery led down the hall a short ways before he came to a bathroom.  The window was tiny and locked shut, and Dackery thrust Lindsey inside and handed her the pistol.

 

“Lock the door, I’ll be back momentarily.  I will knock three times, like this. If anything else tries to get in, shoot it.”

 

And with that Dackery closed the door, and Lindsey was alone.

 

It seemed like an eon before he returned.  In in the meanwhile, all was quiet. There were no cries, no shouts, and no more gunshots.  Either their adversaries were all dead, or they had withdrawn temporarily. Lindsey paced the tiny space feverishly, turning the pistol over in her hands and vacantly wishing she knew more about guns.  

 

Suddenly, there were three knocks at the door.  Lindsey tried peering through the keyhole to make sure it was Dackery, but she couldn’t see anything really.  Steeling herself, she opened the door.

 

Dackery stood there, hat on his head, a vintage suitcase in one hand and his walking stick and Lindsey’s Vorpal axe in the other.  Draped over one arm were a couple of coats, and buckled at his waist was a curved, oriental looking sword.

 

Dackery collected his pistol, and handed Lindsey her axe.  Then, he dragged his walking stick across the wall and an opening appeared, wreathed in thin flame.

 

And then, Lindsey Fluger and Horatio Dackery stepped through and disappeared, and the opening faded away, leaving behind an old and empty house somewhere in the heart of New England.

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