The Gatehouse

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The 2nd Part: In Which A Boy Is Learning A Spell For A Purpose, And A Fox Is Not Helpful At All

The tall thin man in the black suit—the one who was always surrounded by rats—was holding the book open between his spindly fingers.

“Oh dear, you are getting blood on it,” the Fox chided him. She didn’t sound particularly upset, however.

“Wot? S’not even your book. An’ it’s not like he cares. I mean, wot wi’ havin’ those stains on his face an’ all.”

“Hey,” the boy said, looking up from the rune he was tracing. “It’s not rat’s blood, anyway. There’s no need to sully Mr. Mage’s spell-book. Just give it here.”

The boy did not look like a hero. He had plain brown hair, was moderately tall, and didn’t shave his few pioneering strands of stubble. He was also gangly and his clothes always looked like they were too big for him, even though they weren’t. He had a mark of fresh blood spattered across his face, which never came off, and in his opinion, the third most irritating thing in the world was his guardian’s impressive, and apparently effortless, fashion sense which he found both enviable and unfathomable. His full name, as it turned out, was Theodore Mario Praetorius, and he was the last living member of his family on earth or otherwise. They just called him Theo, though.

The Rat Man grumbled. He had been holding a large dark rodent in one hand, or rather, what remained of what had recently been a large dark rodent; its head had been bitten clean off, and the rest of its body was a mess of entrails and splintered bones. The Rat Man finished eating it in a couple of gulps, and put down the book for a moment to lick both his hands clean with a scarlet tongue. Then, on second thought, he pincered through another of the ones gathered near his feet.

As the Rat Man’s victim shrieked once, and died, Theo snatched the book and drew it towards him. He rifled through a few pages, and then finding the one he was seeking, he compared the obscure diagram on the paper with his own rendition on the soil. The skeleton-willows, watching from overhead, rustled approvingly.

“Hey guys, I think I’ve figured it out!” Theo announced, standing up and brushing the dirt from his trousers while he surveyed his work.

The Fox, sitting regally beside Theo, rustled her luxurious red tail, and her beautiful knifelike eyes lowered to the marks on the ground. Her voice was crisp. “Yes, very nice. That looks right. Wonderfully done, dear. Wonderfully done, indeed!”

The Rat Man bit into his rat ambivalently; there was a ripping sound as the tiny body crunched and tore in half.

The other two came to look too. The girl in the stained white dress had been meandering around close by, touching and examining and overturning things as usual; she straightened her broken gas mask and, after standing for a moment vacantly, she approached. She had an enormous, pale raven on her shoulder, and when she wiped her hands on her dress, stuff came off of them that was both unrecognizable and alarmingly multicolored. She tilted her head when she saw Theo’s work, and then reached out with smudged fingers to try and caress the traced rune.

“No, no,” Theo said, redirecting her hands away. “I’ve told you, Goggles. If you touch it, you ruin it.”

Goggles drew back. The great pale raven on her shoulder said nothing. Everyone was used to that, though; Theo always told the others that it just went to show that stereotypes were unfair—not all carrion-birds were talkative.

The five companions stood there in a lopsided circle for a few moments, until the Rat Man, staring expectantly at the rune and then at Theo and then back at the rune, said, “innit s’posed to do somefin’, then?”

The Fox rolled her eyes, disdainfully, with a delicate flutter of her lashes. She turned on the Rat Man, bristling with passive aggression.“It’s not for you to criticize, you silly man. Now, acknowledge Theo’s work before you hurt his feelings.” The Fox curled her tail gracefully about her paws, and pricked her ears at Theo. “But yes, it is a great pity, dear—I would love to see your first magic in action!”

“Yeah, but wuss the point if it dun do nothin’?” the Rat Man pressed.

“It won’t work near the house,” Theo admitted, “because of Mr. Mage’s enchantments.”

The Fox flashed her pin-like teeth. “Of course. But my dear, you have been working on this spell for nearly a year, and you finally seem to have done it right…this is important! This is an event!”

“Um, I guess?” Theo shrugged. “I mean, not really. Mr. Mage is probably going to say I have to keep practicing before I can beat any real curses.”

The Fox preened, and then, her sweet violent eyes widening as though with a sudden idea, she crooned thoughtfully,“oh, but dear, you’re talented—if you could show him that your rune really works. Why don’t you trace it outside of the enchantments’ sphere, I wonder? Just this once. You worked so hard, after all! What harm could it do? Why not step outside the area just for a moment, to see if the rune works?”

Theo blanched at the idea. “I can’t leave. It’s forbidden for me to leave, remember?”

“Oh, no, I understand,” the Fox answered. “But, dear, I do wonder why he refuses to let you leave, ever? You are a Praetorius, after all; the Borderlands should be yours to explore, should they not?”

“He says it’s still too dangerous for me.”

“Dangerous!” The Fox clicked her tongue. “Hm. Dangerous, yes. I suppose he would say that. But still, who is he to demand that of a Gatekeeper, really? The last Gatekeeper?” She delivered the last question with some drama, as if it were directed to some hypothetical audience.

“He says he likes having me around, anyway, and needs my help with stuff.” Theo frowned, picking up the rune-book from the ground and tucking it in his belt, careful not to interrupt the shimmering spell he’d drawn. “Why are you always telling me I should leave, anyway?”

The Fox bowed her head, her red fur fluttering in the infernal breeze like fire, or hate. “I want you to come into your own. That’s all. I worry about you, dear. Oh my, how to say this!” She furrowed her brows, and blinked rapidly at the tip of her tail, as though in distress.

“Jus’ say it?” Postulated the Rat Man, seriously.

The Fox ignored him. “My dear,” she said softly and secretively to Theo, in the manner of one sharing a difficult truth, “Alden A. Alexander is the most powerful mage since Merlin. Do you really think he needs your help? I do loathe to say this, child. But no, I—“

“What?” Asked Theo, concerned now.

“I think—I think, dear, that he’s using you somehow. You deserve better than a life controlled by a forgetful old mage with questionable motives. I’m certain he has some plan to use you.” The Fox made a soft, poisonous sound, and clucked like a mother hen.“There—I’ve told you.”

“Nah, that dun seem likely,” said the Rat Man thoughtfully. Then he caught the pitiless flash of the Fox’s lethal eyes, and looked startled; he even almost dropped the rat he was chewing on. “Um—oh. Yeah. Usin’ you, for sure.”

“You are a Praetorius!” The Fox announced, rising to her feet and padding in front of Theo. “That, my dear, is powerful. You are the Lords of the Vagueness, the gatekeepers to the Other Side, where all queer things come from.”

“Oh, yeah, totally,” added Goggles, catching onto the Fox’s drift. Her voice droned through her mask like viscous sludge, but there was probably some enthusiasm in it. “A Praetorius like you—he could be using you for all kinds of things, or planning to use you. Like those grass-snakes and fly-hoppers that he keeps in the jars on the walls, see.”

The Fox nodded provocatively.“I’m just worried—if there’s even a chance that I am right. I don’t want you to be just a part of the Mage’s collection. You deserve better than that! I only want you to get the revenge you need, for what happened to your family, dear. That is why I encouraged you to test your boundaries, and to grow!”

The pale raven just watched.

“Oh, don’t you worry. Mr. Mage says I’m still not safe; but someday I’m going to go back and avenge them,” Theo said earnestly. “I’ll avenge my family.”

The pale raven turned its ivory-shade head, the silver sky rippling across its beak like a mirror against a mirror.

Theo bit his lip, determinedly. “When I’ve mastered this spell and I can kill curses, I’m going to go back to the Gatehouse and make things right.”

The Fox’s eyes narrowed imperceptibly.

“Tha’ss intense,” noted the Rat Man.

“But the mage has no right to make you wait, and suffer within yourself, when you are fully capable—“

“But am I?” Demanded Theo. “You guys don’t get it. I don’t get to make that decision, I—I can’t. I’ve told you a million times. Because it’s my fault!” Theo swallowed, his face contorting and sharp with the sparkle of the blood and shadows. He clenched his fists. “I—I opened the Gate. I made a choice and everyone died, and I—I can’t mess up again. I’m not going to—to turn against Mr. Mage like I did my family, because he knows better, doesn’t he? I didn’t think—I didn’t know what would happen, but that still means it’s my fault, doesn’t it? I was angry, because they always said I’d never have a place—I didn’t have any of the Directions or anything—I thought, if Mom can have Melancholy West, and Dad can have Sanguine East, and—“

“You were the one out. The extra. The unwanted child. The black sheep,” pronounced Goggles in the slow, gloomy susurrus of her mask-voice. “The Unnecessary of Family Praetorius. The omen of doom. The Fifth of Four. The Antichrist.”

“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” scoffed the Fox. Then her face shifted into an unreadable expression. “I do wonder, however. Has the Mage told you why you were like that, dear?”

“What do you mean? Like what?”

“I see,” said the Fox, her sinuous voice low and pleased. “Well, my dear, you should ask him sometime; I am sure, since you trust him so much, he will gladly tell you. At least, I do hope so. I hope he has the answers you think he does. Dear, there is so much more you could achieve if you did not let the Mage hold you back and keep you as he does.”

She let the words hang in the air for a moment, but then, as if shaking off a reverie, she announced, “oh, but enough of that! Dear friends. As I said, this is a special achievement for our Theo! Let us not ruin it.”

“It’s really not doin’ nothin’,” the Rat Man insisted, but softly, so that the knife-eyed Fox wouldn’t hear him.

Theo seemed worried. As the Fox turned to pleasantly compliment the shimmering rune once again, Theo let his attention wander distractedly out across the plain towards the Vagueness beyond the end of the endless stone path. And his gaze lingered there.

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