“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 8:  “The Man in the Suit”

Lindsey halted, breathless and disoriented.

 

A moment ago she had been fighting for her life at Harin’s Vault, and now here she stood with her erstwhile rescuer.  The gravel had turned to floorboard, the empty pit to papered walls, the sky to a plastered ceiling, the chill air to a comfortable sort of must, and the screams and cries of her assailants into silence.  She and her companion had passed to somewhere else.

 

She was inside an old house.  How old she couldn’t be sure, but it was certainly not new construction.  The paper on the walls was faded, the floor scratched and worn, and the woodwork crackling and split here and there.  The room was all but empty, save for cobwebs, an end table here, and a chair there. Through the heavy wood-framed window the last vestiges of moonlight shone through, illuminating the room in a grey twilight.

 

The man in the suit said nothing.  He stepped to the window and looked out, as a master inspecting his domain after a brief absence.  He then pulled down an old fashioned wind-up curtain, and motioned Lindsey to follow him out of the room.

 

The hall was pitch dark, but only for a moment, for the instant they were inside with the door shut  behind them the man in the suit flicked on a lightswitch.  

 

Immediately the hall was bathed in the warmth of old incandescent bulbs.  The man in the suit turned to Lindsey, and removed his hat.

 

“My apologies for the necessary abruptness.  The circumstances afforded no capacity for gentility.”

 

“Who are you?”

 

“I suppose that I am your rescuer.”

 

“Yeah, thanks.  But who are you?  What are you doing here?  I mean not here, but at the vault……you’ve been following us all this time haven’t you?  Who are you, and what do you want?

 

“I shall answer your questions.  But first, perhaps I should show you to my drawing room.  If you would come this way miss…”

 

The man led the way down the hall into a darkened room.  The moon must have been on the other side of the house, for the interior of the room was swathed in darkness while outside Lindsey could see a hint of rolling parkland.  The man crossed the room to the windows and began to close the curtains.

 

“Where are we, anyway?”

 

“New England.  Connecticut, to be precise.”

 

“And this house?”

 

“Mine.”

 

“And you are?”

 

The man had finished closing the curtains.  He reached now to a table lamp, and flicked it on.

 

The room was heavily paneled and lined with bookshelves.  Thick velvet curtains now covered the windows. A fireplace with a colonial looking mantle filled one side of the room, over which was hung an assortment of exotic looking weapons.  Everywhere there were odd curios of some sort. African masks, old flintlock pistols, animal heads, Chinese jade and blue ceramics, and an assortment of seashells and coral. In one corner there was an old radio, in another a victrola.  The furniture was an eclectic mix of styles ranging from victorian to asiatic, colonial, and art deco, and all very old.

 

The man had turned on a second light, and was now looking Lindsey up and down.  Lindsey was keenly reminded that she was still wearing basically nothing but a scant sackcloth and a borrowed cloak, which she now drew about herself a bit more tightly.  

 

The man clicked his tongue disapprovingly.

 

“You will be needing a change of clothes, of course.  If you would follow me again, I should have something which you can use.  You can leave that in here, for now.”

 

Up to now, Lindsey had forgotten that she was still clutching the axe which she had taken from Harin’s vault.  Gingerly, she leaned it against a chair, half unsure whether it was a good idea to let herself be parted from a weapon.  However, whoever this man was he had already gone out of his way once to protect her, and if he’d had any idea of assaulting her now he’d already had plenty of opportunity to disarm her.  She set the axe down.

 

The man led the way back into the hall and into a spare bedroom filled with as equally an eclectic mix of antique furniture as the drawing room.  The man turned on a lamp and opened a large wardrobe, from which hung an assortment of old, neatly pressed clothes intermixed with bags of mothballs.

 

“Please select anything which suits you.  I have no use for any of these clothes, whatever you take you may keep.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“You’re quite welcome.  I will leave you to change.  When you’re finished I will be in the drawing room.”

 

With that, the man left the room and shut to door behind him, which Lindsey then locked.

 

The wardrobe contained a fair mix of clothes; all of them in good shape, but old.  Very old, many decades at least. After a brief inspection Lindsey selected a off-white, vintage looking drop waisted dress trimmed in green and buttoning at the front with a pleated skirt and deep pockets.  It hung quite loosely over Lindsey’s withered frame, but it was a good enough fit. As she closed the buttons her hands brushed the medallion which still hung from her neck. She paused, and turned now to look in a mirror which hung on an old vanity beside the wardrobe.

 

The medallion was composed of golden strands woven into a swirling interlace, with four lobes at even intervals and a small rose colored crystal at its center, all glittering brightly against the ripples of Lindsey’s emaciated chest.  Supposedly this thing would break the spell of Joan’s kingdom, if Lindsey could ever manage to get it there. Lindsey finished buttoning her dress, concealing the medallion between the fabric and her skin.

She discarded the rough sackcloth shift, leaving it folded on the bed, but she took Joan’s cloak.  She didn’t want to owe the strange man for anything more than necessary, and she had a feeling she might wind up needing the extra warmth.  Besides, she may someday be able to return it to Joan. What had happened to Joan, anyway? And the Bird and the others? Where were they when she called?  Had something bad happened? Were they alright? Why did they leave her?

 

At any rate, apparently she was now back in her own world.  Though in this house full of antiques and collectibles, she wondered whether she hadn’t been transported back in time eighty or ninety years.

 

She didn’t have too much difficulty finding her way back to the drawing room.  The door was left open, and there were more lights on. She returned to find the man seated comfortably in an easy chair, wearing an old smoking jacket and examining the axe she had left behind.

 

The man looked up.

 

“Ah, very nice.  That dress belonged to one of my nieces.  I always thought it was quite fine, it suits your complexion very well.”

 

“Thanks.  Won’t your niece want it later though?”

 

“All of my nieces are now deceased, I’m afraid.”

 

“That’s awful!  I’m so sorry!”

 

“Thank you, but it is not so harsh as that.  They all lived long lives by the measure of men.”

 

“What do you mean by that?”

 

The man did not reply.  He looked back down at the axe.

 

“Quite a remarkable specimen.  Vorpal, and good quality vorpal at that, possibly of ancient Sauvlandic origin.”

 

“Vorpal?”

 

“Yes.  You can tell by the violet hue of the steel.  The color varies in intensity, depending on where the steel was forged, the quality and so forth.  The shaft of course is Black Narwhal, quite rare indeed. Have a look at it.”

 

The man handed Lindsey the axe.  Before her attention had been focused entirely on staying alive, and it was only now as she held the weapon in her hands again that she really took a good look at it.  It seemed relatively light weight for its size. It’s shaft was a grey-black bone about four and half feet long, which was weirdly springy for bone and helically spiraled to a sharp steel shod point.  The head was very wide but also very thin, with a long sweeping edge which was canted slightly forward. It was made of a brightly polished steel with a faint violet hue which became more intense further away from the sharpened edge.  

 

The man was still speaking.

 

“..Vorpal of course is an elven alloy.  It is not particularly extraordinary as steel goes, quite average and even a little on the soft side, and it often has to be laminated at the edge with ordinary high carbon steel in order to produce an object which can retain any degree of sharpness.  What makes it special is the ease with which it can be enchanted. In particular, a weapon of vorpal is typically used with spoken or otherwise triggered enchantments which can enhance the weapon’s performance. A skilled user can perform feats which might otherwise be impossible with an ordinary weapon (such as splitting hardened steel or intercepting large numbers of fast moving projectiles), but in unskilled hands it’s really just an exotic looking weapon, nothing more.  Vorpal weapons have been produced by the elven smiths for millennia, but this particular weapon is quite ancient, and I daresay valuable in the extreme. It would likely be worth a king’s ransom in the Fairworld.”

 

“Speaking of, we’re not in the Fairworld anymore, are we?  You said we were in Connecticut.”

 

“Correct.”

 

“New England.”

 

“Yes.  New England just as it has been for generations.”

 

“So you’re from my world…our world…you’re not from the Fairworld at all?”

 

“Not originally, no.  Like yourself, I am one of the many few who have crossed between.  By that I mean that while there are many like us who have crossed, our numbers are ultimately quite few as a proportion of the human race as a whole.  You see, there is a sort of constant leakage between the Fairworld and our own. Since the dawn of history the fairy folk have enticed humans to their world, and though they have always tried to conceal their existence from the world at large their influence is nonetheless unmistakable.  Once you’ve seen enough of both you can clearly observe the cultural continuities across both worlds. On occasion they have seduced entire populations, absorbing whole tribes and fiefdoms into their world and erasing them from human history. The exact degree of their influence has varied in different places and periods.  The last substantial interaction that I am aware of seems to have occured in western Europe sometime during the mid 14th to late 15th centuries, and has greatly diminished since then.”

 

“But where did you learn to cross between worlds?  That thing you did with your cane earlier….”

 

“Yes, the technique is a secret which the fair folk guard very closely, for they certainly don’t want us all to come and go from their little world at will (as they do).  But they couldn’t keep it from me, not forever. It took years, but I eventually wrested the secret from them and learned the ways of Gatekeeping.  Speaking of gatekeepers, I notice that the Bird wasn’t there when you needed him: I had to return for you.”

 

“Where was he?”

 

The man shrugged.  “I warned you back in Zhongyang not to trust the Bird.  I see I was right.”

 

“Yeah, I guess you were, maybe.  Thanks for coming back for me, by the way.  Why did you do it?”

 

The man shrugged again.  “It was the decent thing to do.  Would you care for something to eat?”

 

The man indicated towards a tray which was newly set on one of the tables, containing coffee, plates of cheese, crackers, and what looked like salami.  Lindsey declined politely. The man regarded her critically for a moment, but said nothing, and Lindsey instead sat down in one of the chairs.

 

“How old is this house?”

 

“It was originally built in 1681.”

 

“How long have you lived here?”

 

“I was born here.”

 

“Oh.  I guess it must be nice to live in the same house you were born in.”

 

“I suppose so.”

 

“And this is still the twenty-first century?”

 

“Yes it is.”

 

“Good.  For a while I wasn’t sure, this house feels like something straight out of the old days.  It could be a museum. Where did you get all this stuff? Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t be asking so many personal questions.  I still don’t even know your name.”

 

“Yes, I suppose I have been most remiss.  Allow me to introduce myself.”

 

The man stood up and towered over Lindsey, his visage somewhat terrifying as his frame faded into the darkness above the light of the table lamps.

 

“My name is Horatio Dackery.  I am, shall we say a student, rather like yourself in a way.”

 

Lindsey stood up and extended her hand.

 

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Dackery.  My name is Lindsey Fluger. It’s nice to have a name for a new friend.”

 

“I suppose it is.”

 

They shook hands and sat down again.

 

“How did you know I was a student, Mr. Dackery?  I guess that was because you were following the Bird and me.”

 

“Correct.  I was following you.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I have been searching for a way to get inside Harin’s Vault for many years.  When I learned that the Bird was going to make an attempt, I thought it was the best chance I was ever likely to get.  I was right.”

 

“Huh.  The Bird sure isn’t very good at keeping a secret, is he?  You got what you wanted, I assume?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What was it?”

 

“Oh, just a book.  Like I said, I am a student of sorts.  I study magic.”

 

“Yeah, I kind of guessed that.  How did you get involved with the Fairworld?”

 

Dackery was pouring himself a cup of coffee.  He cocked an eye now at Lindsey.

 

“How old do I look to you, Ms. Fluger?”

 

“Huh?  Oh, I dunno.  Um…forty maybe?”

 

“Would you be surprised then to know that I was born in the year 1889?”

 

“What!  You’ve got to be kidding….though I guess with all the stuff I’ve seen today….but that would make you…”

 

“One hundred twenty-eight.”

 

“Well, you sure as heck don’t look it.”

 

“I really haven’t aged much over the last eighty years.  But I am still getting older. I feel it every day.”

 

“How did you manage to extend your life so long?”

 

“I’ve studied the magics of longevity quite extensively.  It is, shall we say, one of my pet interests. Some have even rather rudely referred to it as an obsession.”

 

“But how did you get started?”

 

Dackery leaned back in his chair, and sipped at his coffee.

 

“The study of spiritualism and the occult were quite fashionable when I was a young man.  I acquired a keen interest in it, and began drifting among the various esoteric societies that were cropping up everywhere back in the early nineteen hundreds.  I quickly found the occult world to be populated by an assortment of charlatans and self deluded megalomaniacs. Though I confess to have participated at first, I gradually became disgusted with their grotesque rites and amoral excesses, and I turned to studying on my own.  I learned to discount the various forgeries and fantasies which were being circulated in those days, and began instead to travel among the great libraries of Europe and America to study the secrets of the past. There too I found all manner of nonsense, paranoid ramblings on witchcraft and so forth.  But then, at long last, I discovered something real. Hidden amidst millennia of gibberish from strained human minds, I began to find references to another world. Just hints at first, enough that I had an idea of where to look further. And the more I looked, the more I found. And eventually, I found a gate.

 

I was amazed, of course.  And overjoyed. I began to explore the Fairworld, and sought out the fairy folk everywhere I could.  And I found them, and offered them my worship. But they rebuked me, and condemned me for treating them as gods, which is perhaps the truest thing they had ever done.  For I learned quickly that they are not gods in the least. No, no gods could be so capricious as they. They have their rules, you see. And they use them to hoard their magic for themselves.  They do not care about the suffering of the human race, not here in this world and not even in their own really. They entice people to their world only to leave them to stagnate in whatever backward social state they originally came from.  Wars, plagues, famine, crime, hate, heartbreak. All of these things plague the human race of both worlds, and what have the fairy folk ever done about it?”

 

“I think they try to help.  I mean, that’s what they brought me to do.”

 

“Yes, they brought you to do it, didn’t they?  Why couldn’t they have done it themselves?  Why do they have these little games where people have to do this or find that, running errands for the fairies, and all for what?  To do what the fairies should have done for humanity in the first place.”

 

Dackery set down his coffee.

 

“Ah well, that’s neither here nor there I suppose.  You’re in the middle of all this, and that’s what counts.  It’s quite late now, and we both could use some sleep, I think.  I have no great love for the fairies, but they at least are not as bad as the beings who tried to kill you tonight at the vault.  We should be safe here for now, but they are a resourceful lot. Though the fairy folk do their utmost to prevent it, sometimes witches do manage to open gates to our own world, and if they are really irritated they may try to pursue us.  You may have use of the guest room I showed you earlier. Be sure to keep the door and window bolted. My own room is in another part of the house, but I shall sleep in here tonight to ensure you are not disturbed.”

 

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