“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 7 “The Drixi”

It was a beautiful night, really.  The moon shone brightly amidst a chorus of scintillating stars, the air was clear and cool and the breeze courted the trees with a soothing rush of reverberating leaves.  Hae-jin felt a remarkable sense of peace, utterly ruined of course by the fact that he was quite busy trying to keep watch for an unknown foe in a foreign land for the protection of persons Hae-jin had only met a few short hours ago, after having been turned out from his home and branded an outlaw in his own land just a few days before…..Really, it was all a bit much.  Thoroughly mad, in point of fact. Hae-jin had been in wild and unpredictable situations before, but nothing remotely like this. In joining the Bird’s enterprise, Hae-jin had been given a chance at finding a new life for himself, and thus far it had certainly gotten off to an extraordinary start. Where indeed it would all lead him in the end Hae-jin couldn’t even begin to imagine.


It was quiet.  Distractingly quiet.  One could nearly be drawn into a trance by the beauty of it all.  But Hae-jin had to focus. The lives of several individuals were depending on his vigilance.  Though lost in a whirlwind of weird experiences, this was something he knew. Hae-jin was an old veteran.  He had long known the weight of such responsibilities, such was his way of life. This was something he understood, and this was something he could face with certitude.  Alien though the world now was to him, there are some things which never change. Honor, duty, loyalty to one’s friends.  


And one’s instinct for battle.


Something was wrong.  Was it a sound? The movement of large groups of well armed men is a difficult thing to conceal.  Perhaps it had been a muffled clatter of armor, or perhaps an errant footfall. Whatever it was, Hae-jin had heard it, and somehow already knew what he would see as he peered outward past the forest edge.


Yes, just out there.  Just a couple of them, careless perhaps, or overconfident.  Tall figures in grey robes, armed with spear and shield. At least they were well enough trained to keep their spear tips pointed to the ground, where there was less chance of someone seeing the glint of moonlight reflected in the steel.  But the damage was done, they’d let themselves been seen. These had, at any rate. Hae-jin could count only two, maybe three. But his instincts told him there were more. Many, many more.


From some distance behind him, there was a voice, desperate and terrified.  It was Lindsey, calling frantically to Hae-jin and the others.


There was no time to lose.  Hae-jin was about to head for the pit when the men in the distance began to move.  And there were more, dozens more, moving in swift order from concealment among the rocks and gullies.  One appeared on a brilliant white horse which shone majestically in the moonlight, who beckoned to the men to follow as he spurred his animal towards the woods.


Hae-jin knew he couldn’t help Lindsey now by returning.  He could only hope Ursilda or the Wogs had heard the call also.  Taking a breath and mentally preparing for combat, he stepped out into the creek bed, and drew his sword.


The robed warriors stopped their approach just out of reach, levelling scores of spears at Hae-jin’s chest.  From all around, commands and cries could be heard as more unseen soldiers converged on the place. Hae-jin surmised that there must have been several hundred soldiers completely surrounding the area of the vault.  


The warrior on the white horse spurred his animal closer, and spoke.


“In the name of Lords of the Drixi, I command you to surrender immediately.  You are under arrest as an illegal impossibility in violation of the sacred edicts.”


Hae-jin raised his sword and aimed the point at the warrior’s face.


“I am General Moon Hae-jin.  I shall kill any man who advances upon me.”


“Drixi advance upon you, not men.  You are completely surrounded, Moon Hae-jin.  Surrender, and you may yet be permitted to live.”


“Heaven alone will permit me to live or die.  I am resigned to either. Are you equally prepared to die?”


“I have no need to be.  I have already won.”


Distantly, there was popping noise that sounded to Hae-jin like New Year’s firecrackers.  The man on the horse had heard it also, and appeared disturbed.


“You will surrender now, Moon Hae-jin, or I will order my warriors to slay you where you stand.”


“Then give the order.”


“As you wish, human.”


The mounted Drixi raised a gloved fist.  With a shout, the warriors attacked.  


It is well enough to speak of standing one’s ground against overwhelming odds, but quite a bit more difficult a proposition to put into practice.  Hae-jin had only a moment to act before the warriors were upon him. Catching his scabbard up like a spear, he hurled it at the face of the leading warrior, who with well drilled instincts immediately ducked behind his shield.  But the distraction had upset his rhythm just enough, and for a fleeting moment the wave of soldiers was bottlenecked, and Hae-jin ran pell mell back down the creek bed to a point so narrow that hardly two could stand abreast. There he halted, and turned to make his next stand.


The soldiers crammed through the gully, their large shields pinned to their sides.  The sudden vulnerability of the formation was not lost on the Drixi, and the soldiers slowed their pace slightly and approached with caution, closing steadily.


It was a hard contest now.  The first soldiers were now within spear’s reach, and though only a few in the narrow confines could wield their weapons with any measure of dexterity, Hae-jin was still pressed hard to beat aside their points with his sword.


A cry went up, and Hae-jin took a quick look behind him.  


More soldiers, coming up the gully from the rear.  There was no point in holding out any longer, the Drixi had obviously taken the vault below.  Hae-jin broke and leaped for the treeline, skipping through the brush as best he could. From behind, he could hear the shouts and clamour of the Drixi as they gave pursuit.  Having broken ranks and climbed out of the creek bed, some of them were now free enough to throw their spears, which fell heavily about Hae-jin as he ran. One of them nearly clipped his ankle, and Hae-jin fell.  Hae-jin clamoured to his feet and stumbled again in the brush as more spears fell hard about him.  


In a moment, he was surrounded by Drixi warriors leveling a forest of spearheads at him, and the contest was over.


Hae-jin was hauled roughly to his feet, his arms were seized and were pinned behind his back.  He was all but dragged out of the woods and back to the gully, and was then marched the rest of the way to the base of the vault.


The clearing about the vault was a picture of military order.  Torches had been driven into the ground as soldiers made their way to and fro.  In the center, the Drixi commander had dismounted, and stood now beside his white horse, conversing with his lieutenants.  Hae-jin saw a fresh pile of black shale against the side of the great stone of Harin’s Vault, but there was no opening to be seen.  Three bodies in grey robes were lined neatly in a row upon the ground, apparently dead, near which stood two other figures in identical robes with the hoods pulled low over their eyes.


And in the center of the clearing sat Joan and the three Wogs, disarmed and under heavy guard.  There was no sign of the Bird, Ursilda, or Lindsey.  


The warriors stopped before their commander, exchanging a brief word before proceeding and shoving Hae-jin roughly to the ground among his companions.  He met Joan’s eye, and her gaze was steady, but she remained silent. The Wogs merely stared off into the woods, ignoring Hae-jin completely. Silence appeared the order of the moment, and Hae-jin sat down wearily without speaking a word.


For the first time, Hae-jin had an opportunity to get a clear look at the Drixi.


They were tall beings, thin and willowy of build as to appear slightly unnatural, or at least not entirely human.  They were armored in glittering steel scales sewn to the body of padded coats which reached just above their knees, with jackchains wrought in various designs running the length of the arms.  Their heads were protected by short conical helms with mantles of mail, each with a steel visor faced with linen and painted like a colorful mask. Likewise, their tall, hexagonal shields were painted with dazzling patterns and fantastic animals, and everywhere they bore images of eyes, either as prominent devices or worked into patterns.  


There was movement now where the Drixi officers had been in council.  The commander was approaching the prisoners, accompanied by two of his lieutenants.  Hae-jin watched as they approached and came to a stop just out of reach, towering over their captives with a nebulous menace.


The Drixi commander regarded Hae-jin and the others for a moment, his own eyes invisible in the shadow of his mask while the eyes engraved all around the circumference of his helmet seemed to do all the staring required; eerie inanimate sculptures keeping an unseeing watch in every direction.  The Drixi then raised a pair of gauntleted hands bearing six fingers each, and removed his helmet.


The Drixi had pale skin dotted with many freckles, luxurious platinum colored hair and wickedly pointed ears like a demon.  His face was of a fairly ordinary shape, though tending a bit towards the angular, and his lips were pale and his eyes a bright violet.  A third eye was painted in the middle of his forehead in a deep purple dye. The Drixi was exotically beautiful, simultaneously magnetic and repellent in a way which struck Hae-Jin as more like that of an uncaged tiger than anything else. Intractable, wary, unpredictable, and consummately dangerous.


The Drixi commander met Hae-jin’s eye without speaking.  Then, he addressed the Wogs.


“Well, Alwog of Wog.  Do you have anything to say to your lords?  I expect you already have a plethora of lies prepared for me.”


“Not in the least.  I have no idea why you have arrested me and my brothers.  We were merely out for a walk.”


“This far from you home?  And in full armor?”


“Dangerous out here.  I heard a rumor there were humans about.  Gotta take precautions. And when it comes to that, why are you forcing me and my brothers to sit so close to a pair of them?  Dangerous, I call it. A hazard to public safety. I’ll protest this before the Arbiters!”


“So you swear you know nothing about these humans?”


“Positively nothing.”


“You’re a liar, Alwog.”

“Never seen the like of them before!  How could I? They’re supposed to be impossible, you know.  The Drixi are supposed to have fixed it so.  Have your bosses bungled again?”


“Mind your tongue, Wog, if you want to keep it.”


The Drixi turned to Hae-jin.


“Where’s the bear, human?”


Hae-jin decided that it might be best to go along with the theme outlined by Alwog, and improve upon it.  He bit out each word carefully, as if he were an ordinary foreigner with no gift of tongues to grant him mastery of the local language.


“I…do not….understand….I do not know your language much.”


“You were speaking quite fluently earlier in the creekbed.”


“I speak only so-so, some good, some bad.  What did you say?”


“Where is the bear?”


“What is bear?”


“Don’t lie to me, we were told that the Wogs were seen with three humans, a bear, and a golden bird.  The bear attacked my warriors and gravely wounded two of them before fleeing into the woods. I want that animal, human.”


“I do not know about bears.  Why not ask bird you speak of?”


The Drixi held his temper.  He turned a glaring eye upon Joan.


“Well?  I assume you can’t speak Drixi either.”


Joan stared dumbly back at the Drixi, opening her mouth and gurgling while pointing to the back of her throat.


The Drixi snorted.


“A mute, and a feigned one, I’ll warrant.  We’ll loosen your human tongues soon enough.”


The Drixi turned to his lieutenants.


“Continue to search the area.  We’ll hold this lot.”


“Shall I direct some of the men to interrogate the prisoners, sir?”


“We’ll leave that up to the Arbiters.  Leave the prisoners unharmed unless they attempt to escape.  Kill them immediately if they should attempt so.”


And that was that.  


Hae-jin and the others sat for what seemed like hours, hardly moving and without speaking.  The Drixi went to and fro, passing orders and reports. It was remarkable to Hae-jin that they should be going to so much trouble.  Based on the snippets he could overhear, he estimated that there must have been at least three hundred Drixi in the area. So many troops to apprehend just a few alien intruders….the Drixi must be very fearful of foreigners indeed, or at least fearful of humans.  That, or there was more going on than first met the eye…..


Hae-jin found himself regarding the two robed beings standing beside the row of bodies.  They were not dressed like the warriors, though their robes were of a similar cut and color.  Nor were they participating in the search. They remained aloof and interacted with no one save the Drixi commander, who spoke to them briefly only once.  The Drixi likewise kept their distance, hardly even approaching them. In all the bustle of the operation, the area about the robed figures remained clear save for the two who stood and the three who were dead.  The Drixi seemed to Hae-jin to be remarkably sensitive to order and detail. Why did they leave the bodies? They didn’t even seem to care about enquiring….or perhaps to dare enquiring.


Dawn was beginning to break.  The Wogs had fallen asleep in a pile.  Joan’s head was sagging at her breast, and Hae-jin kept catching himself nodding off.  It had been a thoroughly miserable night.


From somewhere, a horn sounded.  The prisoners all snapped awake (as did a number of the Drixi) as a minor commotion spread through the ad-hoc encampment.  In a moment there was a second horn blast, and then a third.  


Three horsemen now entered the clearing.  Two of them were clearly Drixi, armored as were the others with their helms surmounted with brilliant plumes, and their cloaks held with great broaches.  The third was swathed entirely in grey robes, and Hae-jin noted the robed figures at last abandon their vigil by the bodies and approach the newcomers along with the Drixi officers, who saluted the mounted Drixi by touching their temples with an open palm, which appeared to represent the act of covering their eyes for a moment (yet without actually doing so).


The Drixi officers spoke to one another, while the robed figures remained silent.  They gestured towards the prisoners on a number of occasions, and Hae-jin was hardly surprised when at length a group of soldiers was dispatched in their direction, and Hae-jin, Joan and the Wogs were hauled roughly to their feet and marched over to the group of officers.


The two mounted Drixi sat on their horses with their helmets resting on the saddle, their violet eyes tracking the prisoners and their faces inscrutable.  As they approached, Hae-jin was marched past one of the grey robed figures, and he took that moment to take a quick look at them up close for the first time.


Just beneath the rim of the hood, Hae-jin saw something dreadful.  


A long, reptilian sort of snout, covered in dark scales, and just the hint of a pair of yellow, serpentine eyes.  From beside him he heard a suppressed gasp from Joan, she too must have seen that face. Whatever the creature was, it was like nothing Hae-jin had ever seen or heard of.  Like most everything in this blasted country, really.


The Drixi officers interviewed them.  Again, the Wogs forswore any knowledge of Joan, Hae-jin, and the others.  Joan continued to play the mute, and Hae-jin continued pretending not to understand the language.  The Drixi were not in the least bit convinced by any of their performances, but did not press them further.  The robed creatures said nothing.


It was apparently decided that the prisoners were to be taken away by the newcomers while the original troop to remained behind to continue their searching the area around mountain.  Before they departed, Hae-jin observed the robed creatures at last conversing with their newcome fellow. Meanwhile the bodies were lain on carts, along with the seized possessions of the prisoners, and horses were provided for each of the robed creatures.  Apparently they would be accompanying the prisoners too. Hae-jin shivered.


Hae-jin, Joan and the Wogs had their hands bound now, and they were strung together like fish on a line.  At last, they were marched out of the dreary pit surrounding Harin’s vault, exhausted and stumbling into the light of day.


There were perhaps a couple hundred more troops now, freshly arrived reinforcements to help bolster the search, while another substantial company of soldiers were to escort the prisoners to wherever they were going.  The Drixi certainly took no chances.  


And then the march began.  To where, Hae-jin could not even guess.


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