“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 14 “A Locked Gate”

The sun was hidden behind a seamless sheet of pale grey clouds, bathing the world below in a hollow light.  Below was a landscape of rolling uplands, with sloping plains carpeted by tall brown grasses waving gently in the breeze, disturbed here and there by pockets of leafy brush and scrubby trees.  Zebra, antelope, and other grazing animals foraged in silence among the plants as all around a soft chorus of insects filled the air, punctuated now and then by the gentle chirrup of birds.  In all else the world was totally silent, for this was a place forsaken by man.    

 

At the summit of a low rise there was a place where the grass was broken by a crumbled platform of worked stone, upon which there was a lonely stand of battered and bleached marble pillars, piercing the sky forlornly like an isolated copse of limbless stone trees.  Many long years ago this had been a temple, but now all that remained were the fragments of a portico resting upon shattered foundations.  

 

At the foot of one of these pillars a lone girl was sitting, her back propped against the stone column and her elbows resting on her knees as she gazed pensively out across the savannah.  

 

A day had gone by since Lindsey had fled Dackery’s house in Connecticut in the company of its proprietor.  Immediately after having passed out of the house Dackery had made another portal, which they then passed through as well.  He then made another.  And another.  And still another.  According to Dackery, if one were obliged (as they were) to make an escape via gatemaking while likely being scried upon, the best approach was to create and pass through as many gates to as many places in as brief a time possible, so as to confuse anyone who might be watching by various arcane means.  All day they had passed through one portal to the next, jumping from place to place and only ever pausing briefly to allow Dackery to rest between making gates, for channelling the energies needed to make a gate was a physically demanding task.  By nightfall they had come to this forlorn temple deep in the midst of a desolate savannah, at which point Dackery all but collapsed.  

 

It was morning now, only a couple hours after dawn.  Lindsey gazed out across the plains, idly watching the various animals as they grazed sedately not very far away from this desolate spot, yet never actually approaching it.  Perhaps they were disturbed by the presence of two human wanderers.  Or perhaps there was something about the temple itself which pushed them away, maybe some sort of enchantment or curse which repelled all living things.  Either way, it was a hopelessly lonely place.  A monument to the past, existing in the present yet cutoff from it, standing serene and immutable while everywhere the world went on without it.  

 

Meanwhile, somewhere nearby, Horatio Dackery was likely still asleep.  Lindsey hated the thought of waking him, but it was probably time enough all the same.  She needed to talk to him.  With a sigh she arose from where she sat and descended the crumbling steps.

 

The only portion of the temple which still possessed most of its integrity was a small outbuilding just off the main platform.  It was a small square block of mottled stone which stood a few yards away from the main temple itself, yet still within the protective aura which Lindsey suspected the temple to possess, for it was dry and clean and devoid of any vermin.  At one time it may have been a storeroom, or else might have contained some sort of secondary altar.  In any event, last night it had served as an erstwhile bedroom for two weary travelers in need of a resting place far from the reaches of civilization.  

 

Lindsey approached the small structure and peeked inside.  The interior was dim and cavelike, but in one corner she could still see Dackery’s great shape stretched upon the floor, undisturbed in his repose, almost as if he were part of the temple itself.  Lindsey was not about to bother him.  She stepped back outside and sat down in the grass a few paces further down the hillside.

 

She was still determined to go on with her mission.  Now more than ever, really.  Yesterday she’d seen a man die while in the midst of trying to kill her.  If Gurth’s agents were able to track her all the way back to her own world and ambush her there (as they’d already done once), there was no reason to suppose they’d ever let her alone so long as she remained a threat.  There was a good chance she would be unable to get out of this now even if she’d wanted to.  Which she didn’t.  As she was thinking her hand stole up and reached inside her dress to feel the medallion from Harin’s Vault hanging there next to her skin.  She was going to see this through.  Gurth and his minions needed to be stopped, and Lindsey had made a promise which she was determined never to break.  Not in a million years.  Somehow she had to get to this place called Linster.  She’d already lost the enchanted coin given to her by the mysterious individual who called himself Elred, so there was no getting there on her own.  She was going to need help, and there was only one person in the universe who could provide it now.

 

A shadow fell across the ground before her.  Lindsey turned and looked upwards to see Dackery standing behind her, gazing out across the savannah.  Despite having spent the night bundled  up on a stone floor he still appeared immaculate, fully dressed in a suit which hardly looked any worse for wear.  

 

Dackery looked down and touched the brim of his hat.

 

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

 

“I guess.  Do you think we’ve shaken them, Mr. Dackery?”

 

Dackery pursed his lips thoughtfully.

 

“Having already underestimated them once, I’m hesitant to proffer reassurances now.  However, we couldn’t have covered our tracks much more than we did yesterday.  That being said, I’m not sure what should be done now.  I’m sure they haven’t given up looking for us, and were I to take you to your own home I doubt you’d be in much less jeopardy than you are now.”

 

“Yes, about that.  I’ve been thinking, Mr. Dackery.”

 

Dackery cocked an eye at Lindsey.

 

“You’re going to go through with it then?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Dackery remained silent.  He didn’t actually sigh, but his usually inscrutable countenance bore a look of resignation.    

 

“Well, that’s that then.  I respect your decision, of course.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“But how do you propose to proceed?”

 

Lindsey hesitated.  She felt she knew exactly what needed to be done next, but that meant asking Dackery for help.  She hedged a bit.

 

“I guess I’ll just have to get to Linster somehow and figure it out from there.”

 

“I will have to take you there then.  You have no other means of reaching that place.”

 

“Yes, I know.  I’m sorry to be a pain.  If you could just drop me off there I’d be really grateful.  Once I’m there you can leave.  You don’t need to do anything else.”

 

Dackery turned to face Lindsey head on and looked her straight in the eye.

 

“What do you take me for, Ms. Fluger?  You’ll be in for a world of danger if you so much as set one foot in Linster.  I will not permit you to go there alone.”

 

“Well, I’m going.  You don’t have to permit me to do anything.  This is my decision, and I won’t drag you into it.”

 

“Frankly, Ms Fluger, you won’t have a chance without me.  You won’t survive alone, and all your allies have gone missing.”

 

“I don’t want anyone else to get hurt because of me.”

 

“People are going to get hurt whether you want it or not.  Gurth’s interest in Linster is significant. Even if you manage to lift the curse he won’t let go of his hold on the country without a fight.  People are going to die.  It’s not your fault that all of this is happening, but it will all be for nothing if you are foolish and try to tackle this on your own.  You need my help.”

 

Lindsey gritted her teeth and tried to keep from crying.  She didn’t like the way things were going, and she certainly didn’t like hearing it from Dackery.  Especially given that he was right.

 

“I’m grateful, Mr. Dackery. I really am.  Here I was thinking I would have a hard time talking you into taking me to Linster at all, and now I’m having to try and talk you out of coming along the whole way with me.  I really appreciate it.  You’re a fine man.”

 

Dackery seemed pleased, and just a little bit embarrassed.

 

“Ahem.  Well, it’s not as if I haven’t been in a sticky situation or two before.  Gurth’s men are following me now as well, and I’d just as well like to see his loathsome enterprises put to an end.  Besides, there are other things to consider.”

 

“Like what?”

 

Dackery made no reply.  Lindsey looked at him and tried to meet his eye, but he avoided her gaze.

 

Dackery cleared his throat.

 

“Well, there’s no point in remaining here any longer.  It would be helpful if we got to Linster earlier than later.  Our first order of business in Linster will be to establish ourselves in a secure place somewhere in the wilderness from which we can learn the lay of the land, and we would do well to have as much daylight as possible.  If you’re ready, I think we should leave immediately.”

 

Lindsey took a deep breath.  This was it; she’d committed herself.  There was no going back now.

 

“I’m ready, Mr. Dackery.”

 

“Good.  Shall we begin packing?”

 

It didn’t take long to gather up their meager possessions, and in a short while Lindsey and Dackery were standing together at the foot of the temple.  Muttering some inaudible words, Dackery raised his walking stick and traced an arc in the air before him, leaving a trail of fire hanging on the breeze like a invisible burning thread.  Dackery then tucked his walking stick under his left arm and drawing the curved saber which hung at his waist he stepped through the portal.  Lindsey had a sudden feeling of dread as he did so, for the danger of their circumstance was quite apparent.  Who indeed knew what might be waiting for them on the other side in Linster?  Taking a firm grip of her own axe, Lindsey followed Dackery through.

 

Suddenly, Lindsey felt as if the world had dropped out from under her.

 

It was only a momentary sensation.  For a second she had felt completely disoriented, only to recover again almost immediately.

 

Lindsey looked about herself.

 

She and Dackery were standing inside what appeared to be a stone structure.  It was a pentagonal room with a high vaulted ceiling and solid stone walls on every side, and on the floor there was the shape of a pentagram with each point touching one corner of the room.  The place was dimly lit, yet no source of light was to be seen.

 

And there were no doors.

 

Lindsey turned around and around bewilderedly.  In every direction there were nothing but impenetrable walls, without an opening of any kind.  

 

Lindsey’s heart began to race as she fought against a sense of dread and panic which was rising within her.  Were she and Dackery trapped?  Had they fallen into some kind of ambush, or bumbled into some impenetrable cistern?  She calmed down as she reminded herself that whatever it was they were in, Dackery could probably just make another gate and take them out again….at least, she hoped he could.

 

Meanwhile, Dackery had been walking the perimeter of the room, feeling the walls while muttering thoughtfully to himself.

 

“Interesting….very interesting indeed.”

 

“Mr. Dackery, where are we?”

 

“Not in Linster.  Or at least, not there in any meaningful way.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I believe we are somewhere between spaces.  Not quite where we were, and certainly not where we were going.”

 

“Come again?”

 

“This space, this room.  It is sort of an illusion.  Our minds are filling in the blanks with an image of something which is quite real, yet has no true existence on any physical plane.”

 

“But what does it mean?  What’s causing it?”

 

“It means that the gates to Linster have been shut.  All of them.  While the enchantment lasts no one will be capable of making any gateways in or out of Linster, nor likely any gates within it.  I’ve seen things like this done before, but never on such a scale.  Quite a remarkable feat.”

 

“So you mean nobody can enter Linster at all?”

 

“Not through gatemaking.”

 

“But how did they know….no, I guess that’s a silly question.  They knew about the Bird, and they know he’s a gatekeeper.  So they’re trying to keep him and me out.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“But how do you know they’ve sealed off the whole country?  Couldn’t we find some place that they don’t have protected, or perhaps make a gate just outside the country and then walk the rest of the way?”

 

“Like I said, I’ve seen gatemaking being blocked like this before.  But only involving very specific locations.  I’m afraid I don’t know the geography of Linster, so our place of arrival would not have been in any way precise.  As such, the fact that they’ve managed to snare us at all means that they must have cast their enchantment very wide indeed.  The magic of gatemaking is highly subjective in its operation, and good deal of how it works depends on the intent of the user.  The enchantment “knows” that we’re trying to get to Linster, and as such it will block us out as far as it has to in order to prevent us from getting there.  I doubt I could successfully make a gate to anywhere within a thousand miles of the place.”

 

“But what are we going to do?”

 

“I don’t know.  But we can’t stay here.  Come Ms. Fluger, I think it is time that we left.”

 

With that, Dackery took up his walking stick again, and traced out a pattern of flame in the stone walls, and he and Lindsey stepped through.   

 

Suddenly they were plunged into darkness.

 

Lindsey instinctively reached out to find Dackery.  Instead, her hand struck against something hard and smooth which seemed to fly away the instant she touched it, followed a half second later by a ceramic sounding smash coming from the floor.  Apparently she’d just knocked something over.  Lindsey bit her lip to hold back a flow of curses as she reached out again more carefully this time.

 

Suddenly there was a bright spot of light.  Lindsey could now see Dackery a couple feet away, holding aloft a lit cigarette lighter which cast a faint golden glow over their surroundings.   

 

They were inside a short, tube-like room with a low vaulted ceiling of red brick which reached all to the way to the floor on both sides of its length.  At one end there was a vertical wall into which was set a small wooden door, and everywhere there was all manner of bric a brac; Barrels, crates, old chairs and neglected tools, and many shelves and tables piled with all manner of mundane items.  Immediately to Lindsey’s right there was a shelf stacked precariously with an assortment of small ceramic pots, one of which was now smashed on the floor at her feet.  

 

Lindsey spoke in a hoarse whisper, still shaken from the disturbance of the fallen pot.

 

“Where are we now?”

 

“Inside someone’s cellar.”

 

“Yeah, I kinda guessed that.  But where?”

 

“The kingdom of Anachrona, which is a few thousand miles or so southwest of the temple where we slept last night.  Pardon me a moment, I think a more permanent light is in order.”

 

Dackery was now picking his way over to a table and was rummaging through a small wooden box which was sitting on it.  In a moment he had dug out a tallow colored candle and after a bit of fiddling managed to get it lit and mounted on a candlestick, after which he closed and put away his lighter.

 

Suddenly, there was a gentle cough from the door.

 

A woman was now standing there, wearing a heavy nightgown and shawl with her hair wrapped up in a nightcap.

 

And in her hands was a compact blunderbuss, the gaping bore of which she leveled menacingly at the two intruders.  

 

The woman regarded them silently for a moment.  Then suddenly a look of recognition came over her face and she lowered the muzzle of her weapon.

 

“Good Lord, but if it isn’t Horatio Dackery himself!  What on earth are you doing in here!”

 

“My apologies, Mrs. Helwig, for intruding on your home unannounced.”

 

“And hiding in the basement no less.  Popped in out of thin air as usual, eh?  You could at least have materialized outside somewhere and then knocked on the front door properly.  Fine thing sneaking about in people’s cellars in the wee hours of the morning, I could have shot you just now!  You’re up to something, I’ll warrant.  Who’s that with you?”

 

“This is Ms. Lindsey Fluger.  She is under my protection.”

 

Lindsey felt a bit uncomfortable as Mrs. Helwig ran a critical eye over her, with a particularly curious look being directed at Lindsey’s bare knees.  She felt she should say something.

 

“I’m sorry, I think I accidentally broke one of your pots.”

 

“Hmph.  I knew I heard something.  Well, I suppose you better come upstairs the both of you.  Come along, and mind you don’t knock anything else over.  I’ll go tell Angela there’ll be two more for breakfast.”  

 

Outside the door there was another room which contained a small staircase which led upwards through the ceiling.  Mrs. Helwig led the way upstairs into the house as Lindsey and Dackery followed.  For the moment at least it seemed that they had found a place of security.

 

More coming soon!