I AM A WATCHDOG. MY NAME IS SNUFF. I LIVE WITH MY MASTER JACK. JACK IS A PLAYER OF THE GAME.
Tonight the game will reach its climax. Tonight those players that are left in the game will meet at the place of opening to help or hinder the Elder Gods passage. By dawn the world will have been won or lost.
My Master strives to keep the gate closed. There are many feral things in the world – Jack is one and I am another – there are many things wrong with this world – some would include myself and Jack in that number, but a world rules by the capricious fiat of the unspeakable old ones would be eldritch indeed.
The openers wish to bring the elder gods into this world. It must be that they believe they will be advantaged by the gods dominion. Since he summoned me to be his watchdog the gate has remained closed at the culmination of each game. And I have seen the openers shrivel and shrink into themselves. Unharmed, but all spirit gone. None has ever returned to the next game.
So many years since the game has been played. I do not trust the other players. None have played before and their ways are strange. The Old Lady has told my master that she may leave today. I am a calculator, I plot the lines of power from demesne to demesne, from item of power to player, until I know the place. But she calculates with numbers, with writing spidering down the page, with ivory rods engraved with symbols and still she found the place of opening. Jack tells me that she has found the place of stars as they fly in the night. I saw him eye the rods though he would not touch them since they held unknown potential. And yet she tossed them in a desk as though they were but common tools.
She would be a worthy opponent. Her monkey, Swing, has made it clear that she is an opener. I would not want to see the spirit driven from the old lady; I hope she leaves with her family and not just because that would be one fewer opener.
Her brother could manipulate them too and kept a wooden set in his coat pocket. The old man is no player; though I thought he was for many days. Nor is his son, another of the calculating sort. The son’s friend, however, will stand by Jack as the moon reaches its zenith.
The ways of men are perplexing. Barely a boy, he plans to take the calculations of the Old Lady and recast them in a Jacquard loom. As she makes my calculations mundane, he will make them mechanical. I did not like the Old Lady’s rods; they enable any player to calculate and my value to Jack is reduced. I care for the notion of the Boy’s mechanism even less, yet he is a fellow closer.
As the morning mists cleared I walked round to the little house by the Observatory. Swing pelted me from the Chile Pine. I still do not like to think of what he threw. I do not like Swing.
“My mistress is calculating,” he called, “we do not need you, Snuff.” His missiles seemed thrown with less effort; his heart was not in it anymore.
“Your Mistress knows she must find a reason to leave. The Writer lost her protégés and left. She is the last opener in this game.”
“It will be nineteen years before the game is played again. My Mistress can calculate that, but she cannot play again.”
“There is no reason why not.”
“ She is too old, Snuff. Your Master does not age.”
“The Unspeakable Ones will not give her more life.”
“It’s her last hope.” Swing leapt, true to his name, and left me sadder.
The Writer’s cottage stood empty. I still needed to take it into account in my calculations, but it was just a place.
As I came to the Poet’s lodgings I spied Strike, sleepy-eyed in the daylight.
“Good day, Snuff. A last check of the positions?”
“You know they have been fixed for a fortnight now, but, yes, a last check on players before the moon rises.”
“The way things are happening there will be none left to open or close the gate. We go back to town, back to the city. Back to creating eldritch visions on paper for the paying public.”
“Then one last question. Was your Master an opener or would he stand with my Master?”
The owl laughed, “ that would depend on the phase of the moon.”
I snarled. In daylight I would have a chance to size him.
“He wants change, but not by giving power to another despotic hegemony. I doubt even he knows”
“Go and go quickly.” I said quietly, “Go while you have the chance.”
I returned to Jack’s and took a catnap. To night I must be alert to give aid to Jack.
As the sun sank below the horizon, we set out for the gateway. Tonight there no mist and the gleaming snake in the sky was visible almost before the stars. The last full moon, the Hunter’s moon, had risen large and clear, but the moon before had been blood red in the sky. The astronomers, the calculators with their pens and paper, seek to capture the moon in a web of figures. I thought that the moon was mutable to evade their scribblings, but not so. The Old Lady had expected the red moon, had taken it as proof that she had caught its motion. Still, Jack trusts my calculations and I am reassured.
Jack carried his wand and knife and back of ingredients for the bane fire in a knapsack. We met no one else on the road. A good thing: we were the image of a poacher and his dog.
At the place I looked around. It was unremarkable: flat, grassy, with only a pattern of old trees around.
“Are you sure, Snuff?” asked my Master.
I could not answer yet, and he knew this full well, so I contented my self with a rumble in the throat.
“Well now,” said Jack, “If no openers remain, a fire is wasted effort.” He gazed around. “And yet, if one should come late… They do not know the niceties of the game, these newcomers.”
We build a fire.
I had to gather wood.
It is well that Jack is my Master.
The moon rose high to the zenith as midnight approached. We has seen no sign of any who could be players until there was the sound of horses walking across the grounds. It was almost silent until they came within the fire’s light. Three riders and one walking. And the midnight hour and I could speak.
“I came to give my formal goodbye,” said the little Old Lady, not looking at Jack. “I find the chance of recognition and reconciliation with my family means more to me than serving another, not matter who.”
She wheeled her steed and left the circle of light followed by the Old Man and his son, who gave a wave of farewell to the man, or Boy, still standing in the light.
“Do you come to help or hinder?” I snarled at him.
He started but recovered well. I suppose a talking dog was not the most unusual thing he was expecting to see this night.
“I don’t want to see the rules of the world changed,” he said, “I am only just understanding the rules we have now. I want to know the world, I want to know and to know more.”
“Sit there,” I said as gently as I could. I don’t have to snarl though it comes easily to me. “Sit there while my Master seals the gate. If you want to master this mundane world it would be best to refrain from using tools of power.”
He held up a jumble of cogs and struts. “I brought it in case you needed me.”
“The gate is barely formed. With no Openers it would die with the dawn even if it was not shut.”
“See the patterns rippling in the grass? That is the most that will happen tonight. Quiet now, let me concentrate and I will seal the gate.” Jack stood and nonchalantly made the passes of the wand to finish the game for this year.
I can tell when Jack is trying to impress. It’s usually a young woman, but this Boy could play again as a grown man and there would be no harm in dazzling him now.
So many years without playing, and now this half-hearted game. Perhaps it’s for the best, the astronomers say it will be nineteen years before the next game. Jack and I will be ready.