The 3rd Part: In Which He Returns To The Gatehouse, Because The Mage Loses His Shoes
Then there was one of those days that seemed to exist purely to prove to Alden Arden Alexander that, after eight hundred years, he hadn’t seen half bad yet.
First of all, he couldn’t find his shoes.
That discovery, naturally, threw the mage into a panicked frenzy. After hollowing out all of the closets in the house, overturning beds and disintegrating mantle-pieces, breaking down several Forbidden Doors, casting about a dozen highly destructive searching spells in the living room, and yelling in panic for the Shadowcat to help him (who, having had just about enough of being summoned for that kind of thing, wouldn’t budge from the windowsill) the house got angry and threw a tantrum. At which point, courtesy of the moving hallways, the seesawing floors and the bucking stairs, Alden found himself ejected from the front door and ran headfirst into the boots he had been looking for.
Well, to phrase things more correctly in the classical sense, he ran into Theo. But from Alden’s point of view, he saw the boots first, and a moment later realized that Theo was attached to them.
Theo held them out in one hand, and—because of the height differential between himself and Alden—dangled them in directly in front of the mage’s face. A moment of confused silence followed, as the house smoked irefully behind Alden. Then Alden scratched his nose.
“Ah. There they are.”
He reached out to take the boots, and found that they wouldn’t budge. He pulled at them a couple of times, and then it dawned on him that the resistance probably had something to do with the fact that Theo wasn’t letting go of them.
“Mr. Mage,” said Theo, readily, “I need to talk to you about something.”
Alden tilted his brow at the boy. He lowered his hand. “Wait—wait a second, have you just been standing here this whole time, kid?”
“Um. Yeah,” said Theo. “Like I said, I—“
“So you took my boots to get my attention.”
Alden thought about it, and then nodded to himself. “Clever, that.” Then, his voice thickening with emotion, he chided, “kid, I almost had a heart attack. Well, not really, but you get my point. These are one of only three pairs of knee-high chimera-skin boots in or out of existence, and half my wardrobe would be obsolete if I didn’t have these. You understand? Half my wardrobe! Hundreds of years of careful collection and curation would go to waste!”
The mage’s look of supplication didn’t evince any compassion, but it did persuade Theo that if he didn’t give the shoes back, he would never get a word in edgewise. Alden hugged them to his chest, and kissed them dramatically, and starting polishing a small spot on the sideof one of them while looking much happier than Theo thought anyone had a right to be over an article of clothing.
“So, what I wanted to talk to you about,” Theo prompted again.
Alden made some effort to bring his attention around to the boy. “Oh, right! Yeah. What was that? The scorpion you found? No. That was last week, wasn’t it?”
“That was over a year ago, Mr. Mage.”
“Was it, now?” He didn’t seem particularly flabbergasted by his faulty estimation of time. “Well, the days fly when you’re old. At least that’s what everyone keeps telling me—”
“I want to try the rune-spell outside of the area,” Theo blurted out, loudly.
Alden’s sentence was derailed, and crashed. “Sorry?”
“I said, I want to try actually using the curse-killing spell. Away from the house. Away from your enchantments.”
Alden twirled a very expensive dragon-bone ring on his finger, and studied Theo for several moments, noting the defiant, hopeful posture, and the way the boy was all but holding his breath in anticipation of the mage’s reaction. “Why do you want that? I’ve told you, if you leave this area, you’ll regret it, and just as importantly, I’ll regret it. So don’t.”
“My friends say that I’m strong enough now, and that I should really practice where I can be sure my spell is working.”
“Your friends, huh?” Alden was suddenly very serious. A pensive, disquieted look found its way into his eyes; he moved the boots to one hand, and dropped the hand to his side. “Hey, let’s sit down for a bit, kid,” he suggested.
A short while later, the gangly teenager and the impeccably dressed eight-hundred year old little boy sat together on the steps to the house. It was still grumbling to itself and rearranging its rooms, but from the outside, it had ceased its writhing and returned to its rightful stillness in between the bleak plain on one side and the bleak plain on the other.
Alden placed his boots safely against the wall, and patted them lovingly before turning and frowning at Theo. “Do you remember what they are, kid?”
Theo furrowed his brows, uncooperatively.
Alden closed his eyes, a little vexed. “Those four. Do you remember what they are?”
“We grew up together. They saved me from what killed my family, and they brought me here. They’re my friends.”
Alden sighed, as if it wasn’t the first time he’d heard a variation of that answer. “No, kid,” he said, sadly, and with resigned disquiet, “they really aren’t.”
Theo bristled petulantly. “I don’t think you get to decide who my friends are, Mr. Mage.”
“And I don’t think you get to decide what they are, kid. They grew up with you? Hah—you couldn’t even see them until three years ago.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Let me ask you: how do you even know what you told me just now?”
“I—“ Theo seemed momentarily to draw a blank, but his defiance overrode his uncertainty. “I remember.”
“No you don’t, kid. Who killed your family?”
“Well, I—I opened the Gate, I—“
Alden huffed. “I mean, what killed your family?”
Theo opened his mouth, and wavered for several moments, but nothing came out. His irritation flared out of his bewilderment. “Mr. Mage, why do we have to talk about this? I just want to practice my spell outside of your enchantments, that’s all.”
Alden frowned at the boy’s flustered behavior, his gaze introspective. “I’ve watched year after year as they’ve worked themselves into your brain. Twisting your memories. Man, I should’ve done something earlier, shouldn’t I.” He scratched his head. “Things slip your mind when you’re old, you know.”
“You’ve watched me?” Theo turned away, crossing his arms. “What a joke. I had to steal your shoes just to get your attention, and you couldn’t even remember that it’s been a year since the scorpion incident.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s kinda true.”
“You’re a terrible guardian, you know that?”
“Yeah,” said Alden. “But I’m also an Archmage, and a really powerful one, too. Five years ago when I brought you here I told you that you’ve got a Shadow curse on you. Do you remember that?”
Theo raised an eyebrow, obstinately.
“Do you remember?”
Theo shrugged, moodily. “Those four are my only friends, and I don’t know what you’re talking about, but they’re going to help me get strong and someday, I’ll go back to the Gatehouse and I’ll get revenge for what happened to my family.”
Alden didn’t respond. Beside him, among the sepia shadows and the peeling paint of the deck-boards, the Shadowcat had materialized and was watching. The tension in the air was electric; the Shadowcat pricked its ears at the little lightning-bolts crackling between the mage and the boy.
“Look,” Theo exploded after a moment,“if you don’t like my friends—”
“Its not about me liking or disliking them. Come on, kid, don’t you notice things that just don’t add up about them? Like, that they’re always there when you think they are?”
“Uh, yes?” Said Theo slowly, in a tone meant to express that he though the question was marvelously dimwitted. “I mean, the only reason that’s not true of you is because you refuse to move places like a normal person.”
“Or that all they ever try to do is get you to leave?”
“All you ever do is tell me to stay!”
Alden sighed. “You would never have said you wanted to go back, before. I’m not teaching you to fight a curse so that you can blunder to your death, kid. That wouldn’t do anyone any good.”
Theo laughed, evasively. “Teaching me to fight the curse? You’re trapping me here, you’re—you’re holding me back. I’m—I’m the last Gatekeeper, and I have a right to live my own life.”
Alden shook his head.
“Y—you are trying to use me, aren’t you. Why did you even take me in, if you’re just going to lie to me?”
“Lie to you?” Alden sounded more tired than indignant. “Alright, listen. You’re the last Praetorius. Yeah, of course you have a right to a lot of things, and you’re the only one in and out of reality who can close the Gate again. But it isn’t that simple. That Curse has Marked you. It’s chosen you. It’s not going to let you go, especially not if you don’t let it go. Look, I need you to get stronger before you can close the Gate or your Curse will get past the Borderlands into the real world. If you’re not ready, you’ll just get killed or you’ll get stuck on the Other Side. You’re the Fifth Praetorius—and that’s only happened one other time before, when the Seven at the Beginning were released from the Other Side and your family first started guarding the Gatehouse. So yeah. You’re important. And you should live your own life and all that. But in order to get anywhere, you need to stop pretending those four are your “friends”. You’ll carry them with you forever unless you let go.”
Theo leapt to his feet, pointing accusingly at Alden, his hair rustling in the infernal winds. “You’re doing it too. You said you need me to get stronger to close the Gatehouse.”
“Yeah, and a lot of other wise things too, actually.”
“So you’re keeping me around so that you can use me to close the Gatehouse! You’re using me because I’m the Fifth Praetorius!”
Alden scratched his nose. “Now I feel like you’ve just been waiting to say that to me.”
“And she said you’d try to get rid of them.”
“My friends. I should’ve seen this. You don’t care about me.”
“Woah, woah, kid, slow down,” said Alden, raising a hand.
A mad, odd light was in Theo’s eyes now. The blood spatter across his face was shimmering as if with its own hypnotic, insane life. “They’ve been protecting me from the beginning, haven’t they? But you’ve had them under some kind of spell, so they wouldn’t be able to influence me. You wanted to take my only friends from me. You wanted to use me, like some lab-snake, keep me on your schedule and prevent me from realizing my potential by trapping me in this…this magic soup. You goddamn hypocritical—“
“Alright, kid, that’s enough!” Alden finally snapped, rising to his full height—such as that was—in a swift and sudden rustling of priceless clothing. A sudden darkness exploded through the air with a hush, and then was gone, as the mage closed the hand he had upraised and jerked it towards him. His expression was uncharacteristically stern.
The remainder of Theo’s insult stuck in his throat, and the boy’s eyes widened as he realized why. He wheezed, and buckled over, coughing; and then, as he stumbled backwards, a dark, writhing insult came out of his mouth like string and, after a moment of resistance, shot towards the mage.
Alden caught it tightly in one hand, and looked at it as it squirmed. “Really?” He murmured, grimacing. “You were going to say that to me?”
Theo regained his balance, and rubbed his throat, glaring at Alden with the bitterest resentment and disbelief. He shook his head, eyes wide and tearful with rage and budding fear. “That’s it,” he yelled, backing away down the path below the skeleton-willows. “You can kiss your boots and blow up your house and—and—and go to hell, Mr. Mage, I’m leaving!” With that, the boy spun on his heel and ran down the path into the silver-red twilight.
Alden watched his tall gangly form become smaller and smaller, until it was almost like a silhouette, rushing blindly down the endless stepping-stone path. His face had taken on a sort of blank, nonplussed expression, which only shifted when he noticed that four figures had suddenly joined the boy and were moving beside him. One was tall and thin, and one had a stained white dress on, and one was in the shape of a red fox; and the last one soared above the rest on pale wings.
A dark mist was forming about them as they moved, and it thickened the farther the boy went from Alden’s house.
Alden made a face. “Well, I guess that wasn’t a great move.” He looked at the squirming insult in his hand. “But seriously, he was going to say this to me? I mean, look at it! That’s just nasty.”
The Shadowcat padded forwards, and settled beside him at the top of the stairs.
“Well,” the mage proceeded, “what am I gonna do with this? Guess I should put it in a jar.”
The Shadowcat flicked her ear, and turned her white-pool eyes in the direction of the Vagueness.
Alden pouted his lips. “Yeah, fine,” he answered, after a moment. “Just let me get a jar first.”