“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 6:  “A Rite of Atonement”

The sky above Harin’s Vault was full of pale stars glimmering distantly in the cold darkness of the universe, as a halfmoon gradually made its descent into the horizon.  At the feet of the vault, an array of flickering candles were scattered about, placed between an occult web of stones set at various points within an intricate pattern of interlocking circles and polygons which had been traced into the ground.  In the center of it all was a ring of pebbles containing two small clay vessels which held burning incense.


For some time now Lindsey had been sitting by herself at the periphery, reciting in her mind the sequence of incantations which Joan had taught her.  The Bird had gone to help the others keep watch from the air, and Joan had just finished putting the finishing touches on a central pentagram which she was tracing in the ground inside the ring of pebbles between the two incense burners.  Now she approached Lindsey and gently touched her shoulder. It was time.


Lindsey felt nervous.  Very nervous, rather like she was about to take a flying leap into a frozen lake and be graded on how big a splash she made.  Nevertheless she rose to her feet and followed Joan to the central pentagram. Next she changed clothes, first removing shoes and socks, and then everything else, until for a brief moment she stood before the universe in only her skin, though hardly as nature would have intended her.  For the moon shone painfully on what little flesh she had, stretched as if to breaking across so many bones that one could almost count each of them. Joan now produced a flimsy shift of rough sackcloth, open at the back and thinly woven, offering no protection against the cut of the night breeze.  Lindsey donned the penitential garment, and then knelt in the center of the pentagram, her bare knees digging uncomfortably into the earth. She now bent forward with her hands over her face in deep concentration, every rib and vertebrae she had projecting out through the fleshless skin of her pallid spine.  And then she began.


The incantations were more than just the language of magic.  Woven amidst the strange words and weird idioms, there was a thread of thought, each sentence constructed to help guide Lindsey’s concentration along a path of dark self reflection.  Bit by bit the phrases and imagery began to conjure memories in Lindsey’s mind, memories she would much rather leave buried.   


Joan had remained crouched at Lindsey’s side for a moment, supporting her gently.  Now, she drew the incense burners closer, and added a touch of some powder to each.  As the two burners suddenly began to gutter with thick plumes of dark smoke Joan at last stepped aside and retreated to the distant perimeter of the clearing.  For from now on Lindsey had to be on her own.


Lindsey shivered as the heavy scent of the smoky incense wafted up to her.  For a moment her thoughts became clouded, until abruptly her mind broke through the haze into a state of painful clarity, fixated in a terrible place where reason was absent and bleak emotion reigned supreme.  With each inhalation her imagination seemed to expand in leaps, while with each breath a new memory came to mind, each one more vivid and more agonizing than the last. She was breathing quickly now, and trying desperately not to cry.


The scenes drifted before her mind one by one, all magnified and distorted to terrible proportions.  Each memory brought a wave of associated emotions with it of the kind which had haunted her existance for many long years.  Feelings of worthlessness and self loathing, helplessness and bereavement, followed by guilt and humiliation for having succumbed to it all in the first place, which began the cycle of anguish all over again.  The pain grew as each successive wave of emotion mounted on the other, and Lindsey felt a terrible sense of exposure as a frigid breeze swept into the clearing and gripped her skin like icy claws. The pain in her heart was so great now that she was beginning to feel it in her body, starting at her fingertips and spreading across her limbs in pulsating throbs.  


Lindsey was beginning to feel light headed.  She felt her face contorting into a grimace that stretched and stretched but could never break into a sob.  She felt that in another moment, she would surely explode.


“It’s time to leave.”


She had not heard the words.  Rather, they had manifested themselves in her mind.


“It’s time to leave, Lindsey.  It’s time to let go.”


Lindsey began to feel more in control.  


“Let go.”


Still no words.  Just thoughts in her mind.  She began to take control of her breathing.  She took deep breaths at first, easy, measured, and serene.  As she did so her state of consciousness began to shift again.  She felt herself drifting into a dreamlike state as a distorted version of the world around her was beginning to take form.  She saw herself sitting in the midst of a warped and bleak landscape at the foot of a great shadowy caricature of the rock of Harin’s Vault, while far in the distance black mountains were silhouetted against a flaming horizon.  As she gazed on the imaginary vista around her, she realized that this was exactly the sort of place she had been living in for so many years. Dark, hopeless, and twisted beyond recognition, a place where reality itself had long since disappeared into a void of numb mindlessness where only sorrow existed.  And there was no reason to stick around. Far in the distance, she could just hear the faint refrain of a lone flute echoing defiantly through darkness, while from somewhere outside this chimerical vision Lindsey felt a cool breeze against her skin as a current of fresh air from the real world wafted into her lungs.  For years she had been living in a private hell all her own. And she wasn’t going to live in that place any longer. With one last look at the spectral hellscape around her, Lindsey got up and walked away.  


And then in a flash, it all disappeared.


Lindsey’s eyes snapped open.  The imaginary world was gone, and she was back in reality.  She was still kneeling in the exact spot where she had begun the ritual.  The incense had burned itself out, the gravel below her was thrust painfully into the thin flesh of her knees, and her freezing skin was drenched with a cold sweat.  Suddenly exhausted, Lindsey collapsed to the ground and began to cry.  


Joan was by her side in a moment, wrapping up Lindsey’s chilled body in her cloak and hugging her tightly while murmuring soft words of encouragement.  It was over. But all was not yet complete.


Lindsey rested her tear stained face against Joan’s breast, still breathing heavily from crying as Joan held her.  A proper, thorough cry had relieved Lindsey enough that she could at last bring her mind back into focus. The nightmare was over, and Lindsey now breathed in the cool, refreshing air of reality all around her.


“Well done Lindsey, you did it!  Look, the vault is open!”


Lindsey turned her eyes toward the great black rock, somehow looking not quite so large and black as it had before.  In its side there was now a opening, a domed arch above a tall doorway from which streamed a warm light. A broken shale of rock was poured out before it, creating a sort of ramp which was the only approach.


Joan helped Lindsey to her feet.


“It will seal up again in a moment.  Go inside now, there’s not much time.”


Lindsey paused to pull her shoes on nonetheless.  She was not about to be going over all that sharp rock in her bare feet.  Wrapping Joan’s cloak about her, she clamored up the rockfall, and slipped through the door.


The door led to a stepped passageway no wider than was the door itself, spiraling upward into the heart of the great stone.  The interior was perfectly smooth, bored out of the living rock without any sign of brick or mortar, and was illuminated by a golden glow which seemed to come from nowhere.  The passage must have curled nearly all the way around the inner circumference of the rock before it opened into a great vaulted chamber which was taller than it was wide, rather like the interior of an egg, and filled with warm light which seemed to emanate from the very walls.  


And it looked to Lindsey like some sort of Tut’s Tomb.


In the center was a great golden statue of some being which looked half man, half dragon with six eyes on its face, each composed of different colored gemstones.  The perimeter was completely lined with a dazzling array of precious objects. Statues, urns, goblets, crowns, swords, shields, mirrors, books, talismans, scrolls, and heaven only knew what else.  Everywhere there was gold and silver and a rainbow of brilliant gems. Lindsey stood dumbfounded by it all, distantly wondering to herself who had gathered such a hoard and why it had all been locked away so many ages ago.


But that was speculation, unimportant at present.  Lindsey had a job to do. She began to wander the room, looking for something small she could carry out with her easily.  


Suddenly, she had a sense that she wasn’t alone anymore.  She turned quickly, wrapping her cloak more closely about her.  


Through the door there loomed massive figure, a towering man in a double breasted suit and grey homburg hat.  


There was no mistaking him.  He was definitely the same man who had given Lindsey his handkerchief and iodine in Zhongyang, and had apparently been following her ever since.  The man met Lindsey’s eye and tipped his hat cordially, as Lindsey backed a bit further in the room, wrapping her cloak about her more tightly. What did the man want?  Was he an enemy? Lindsey glanced about her for anything which she might use to protect herself, and reached for a rather fearsome looking battle axe. As she did so, the man raised one finger.


“I shouldn’t bother with the axe, miss.  It would be troublesome to carry. A small trinket perhaps would be more suited to your purposes.”


The man stepped over to a small gilded cabinet, and perused its contents briefly.


“Aha, I thought as much.  Something such as this will do.”


He extracted a small piece of jewelry, a medallion of some sort on a silver chain, and tossed it to Lindsey.


“Now if you will excuse me.”


The man stepped over to a pile of books and scrolls, and began rummaging intently.  Suddenly, he snatched up one of the books, opened it, turned a few leaves, snapped it shut again and then thrust it into his coat with the savage swiftness of a tiger.  


He turned to Lindsey, and tipped his hat again.


“Thank you miss.  You have been most helpful.  Good afternoon.”


And the man stepped through the door and disappeared down the passage.


Lindsey stood still for a moment, wondering what the hell and just happened, with a vague feeling of having been used in some way creeping over her.


Suddenly, it occurred to her that wherever the man had come from, he must have come past Joan and the others.  Why hadn’t they……


A jolt of panic shot through Lindsey.  Had something happened to the others? Still clutching the medallion, she ran out of the treasure room and down the stairs.


Outside, the candles had been extinguished.  Joan was gone. The man in the suit was gone.


And before her stood six tall beings in grey robes with hoods pulled low, obscuring their faces.  


And each now began approaching her while reaching into their robes and drawing short, wickedly curved swords which glittered in the moonlight.


Lindsey thought quickly.  She didn’t think she could run down the shale fast enough to get away, not without falling.  If she went back in the vault, she’d be trapped.  


The robed things were starting cautiously up the shale now.  Lindsey knew she had only a few seconds. What to do?


The loose shale.  Lindsey bent and snatched up a sharp rock from the slide and threw it at the leading figure.


The rock missed as the thing ducked, but all six suddenly hesitated, and Lindsey began frantically throwing rocks at the whole group.


“Joan!  Hae-jin!  Anybody!” Lindsey’s voice all but screeched as she grabbed for more rocks, barely able to keep up the barrage much less aim.  The robed things were part way up the slide now, halting and ducking as they tried to anticipate each projectile. One of them began to charge straight up the rockslide, and Lindsey turned and ran back inside the vault.


She made it breathlessly into the chamber, her pursuer maybe only a few seconds behind her.  Frantically casting about, Lindsey grabbed the large axe she had picked up earlier from the piles of treasure, and swung it straight at the door just as the robed thing came charging through.


The thing fell with a hideous sort of gurgle.  Lindsey didn’t even stop to see if she’d hurt it, she leaped over its collapsed form and headed back down the passage.  She wasn’t even thinking now, all she could do was run.  


She nearly ran straight into the rest of the the group, who were just now pressed at the door.  With a shriek Lindsey swung her axe at the lead one, who careened backward against the unexpected attack, stumbling into his comrades as he did so.  All five seemed to lose their footing on the shale simultaneously, and they rolled backward down the rock slide into a heap on the ground.


The rolling shale was still piling up after them.  Lindsey started to make her way down but backed off right away as she nearly lost her own footing on the moving shale.  The robed things were untangling themselves now even as the last of the shale was tumbling into them. Lindsey slung the medallion over her neck, and brandished the axe.  She had a sickening feeling she probably wasn’t going to make it this time.


Then, down on the ground to one side of the robed figures who were just now back on their feet, the man in the suit returned, appearing out of nowhere in the midst of the pit.  In one hand he clutched a silver knobbed cane, in the other a small, nickel plated pistol. And as he approached the group of robed figures, he began firing.


The robed things scattered in pandemonium against the unexpected attack, some of them apparently hit.  The man in the suit cooly changed magazines, and continued to shoot.


Lindsey knew this was her chance.  She scrambled down the shale as the robed figures screamed in some horrible sounding language to one another in confusion.  She made it to the bottom and ran behind the man in the suit.


The man in the suit reloaded again, and continued to fire at the robed figures.  Two of them were writhing on the ground and one was still, while the remaining two were running towards the perimeter of the pit.


The man turned to Lindsey.


“Now’s our chance.  Come with me.”  


With that, he slashed at the air with his cane, tracing an arc which left in its wake a thin trail of fire.  Jamming his pistol into a pocket he grabbed Lindsey’s wrist in an iron fist and dragged her through the ring of fire.


And both then disappeared into the night air.


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