I am Jack. I am of a line of Jacks that stretches back to the beginning of time. I walk the threshold between waking and dreaming, and am equally at home in either. I keep the world safe, for there are Things Outside that seek to break through in a torrent of madness, and sweep away all that we know. I hear them whispering in the black emerald I keep in a cedar box beneath my pillow at night, my sleep plagued by nightmares.
Iä! Yog-Sothoth! Yog-Sothoth is the key. The key that opens the gate. Open the gate and we will be free. Be free... Be free... Open the gate and we will be free...
I stood in a windswept moor, a place between worlds that stretched endlessly in all directions. There was a circle of stones standing there, like the ones that dotted the British Isles, erected by a long-forgotten race. I approached the circle in wonderment, running my hand over one of the rough-hewn obelisks. How many æons had it stood here?
“Well met,” intoned a deep, sonorous voice. I wheeled around and beheld a pale-skinned man wearing black Georgian finery: a black frock coat, breeches, hose, a powdered periwig and a black tricorne hat. “I knew we would cross paths one day, Jack.”
“Who are you?”
“What’s in a name? I have so many. I’ll be seeing you again, Jack. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the next day. But I’ll be seeing you again soon...”
I awoke shivering with the cold, even though I was covered in warm blankets. The blue digits of my alarm clock shone in the darkness like a burning bush. 3:33. That could only mean one thing. It was time to call Gretchen.
She was wide-awake as usual, even at this hour, but answered me in an icy tone, quite unlike her usual chirpy banter. “Good morning, Jack.”
She knew it was me. Probably because I was the only one who ever called her at 3:33 in the morning. That used to be endearing to her. Now I wasn’t sure.
“I need your help, Gretchen,” I said.
“What is it this time? Are you playing a riddle game with an owl? Or did you just kill a two-headed giant?” Some desperate calls I’d made to her recently had convinced her I’d gone off the deep end. But our friendship was strong enough that I was sure it would survive, even if it had been strained. I pressed on.
“Look, I know you must think I’m a psycho. And I don’t blame you. Can’t you give me one more chance? My stories must be entertaining at least.”
There was a pause. Then she relented. “Well...I guess it’s better than watching TV. There’s not even a Bela Lugosi movie on. You can come over. But I warn you, I have a black belt in karate. So don’t try anything, giant-killer.”
I could almost hear her smiling through the phone. I was forgiven. Yay! I couldn’t stand the thought of Gretchen being angry with me. I held the engraved cedar box that held the abysmal emerald in my hands. If I were a true friend, maybe I’d let her stay angry at me and not drag her into this mess. But I was going to show her another world—lift the veil of the dreamlands for her. I couldn’t imagine anyone who would be more thrilled about that than Gretchen. We’d have great adventures together.
Idly rubbing the bite marks on my neck, I put the box in a well-loved messenger bag. Then I donned my leather jacket and my hat with the feather stuck in the ribbon, and set off down the road once again. Travelling Jack never looked back.
I had tread this path almost a year before, in icy January. This time it was stark November, which in many ways was even colder, for the trees’ branches were only recently denuded, and I was unused to the chilly breeze that whistled through them. The last time I had come this way, I was almost eaten by a two-headed giant, who had somehow crossed into my reality—or I into his. But this time the street was as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. It was just me, the whistling wind, and the haunted emerald whispering to me from inside my messenger bag.
“Open the creak, Jack. Open the creak with the key. Open the creak, Jack. Open it up and set us free...”
The first thing I was going to ask Gretchen for was a cigarette. It was time to start smoking again. I climbed the steps to her door and paused on the porch. I was on the threshold of something big, and once I crossed it I knew there would be no turning back. Oh, fuck it. I’d already crossed the threshold last January when I first became Jack. I knocked on the door three times, as Harriet had showed me.
Thrice I smite with holy crock
With this mell I thrice do knock,
Once for God,
Once for Wod,
And once for Lok.
Gretchen threw open the door like she’d been waiting for me just inside. Then she gave me the mother of all hugs.
“It’s all real, isn’t it Jack?”
“I wish I didn’t have to drag you into this. But I don’t know who else to turn to.”
“Are you kidding? This is fantastic. So are you really Jack the Giant-Killer? Are you going to take me with you to fairyland?”
“Basically. Well, the Appalachian Mountains anyway. A place called Fiddle Creak. That’s where it all started. And that’s where it’s going to end. Can you give me a ride?”
“When do you want to leave?”
“At first light.”
Gretchen lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, as if inhaling the significance of what I had just asked her. She saw my expression and offered me her pack. I plucked one of the tubes of tobacco like a flower from a garden and lit up. Ah, nicotine. You sweet, harsh mistress. Her sting felt good.
“I’ll have to get someone to teach my class this week. But I’m sure Rob will do it. I’ll call him before we leave.” I nodded. The concern seemed trivial compared to what we were about to come up against. But I knew Gretchen’s studies were very important to her. She hoped to become a professor one day, and she wouldn’t get tenure by being irresponsible.
“And there’s something I have to show you. I need your help identifying it.”
“Well, don’t leave me in suspense. Bust it out.”
I hesitated. It was too late not to show her. I had her hooked, the poor wriggling fish. Sighing, I opened up the messenger bag and pulled out the cedar box. She snatched it out of my hands and peered at the carvings on top.
“Oh my gods!” she said. “That looks like Hyborean. Where did you get this, Jack?”
“It’s a little difficult to explain. It was part of my reward for finding the White Cup. But I owe it to the Queen of Hen’s cousin.”
Gretchen was already flipping through a large, hidebound tome with yellowing, brittle pages. She stopped on a page with a woodcut illustration of an ornate goblet. That was it. The White Cup. It looked just the same as when I had seen it. And set in the belly of the cup was a large faceted jewel, which was also very familiar to me.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
Gretchen took a drag on her cigarette, which she had already almost smoked down to the filter.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
I opened the box and the whispering in my head grew louder and more distinct. From her widened eyes, I knew she could tell she heard it too now. For she had gazed upon the emerald, as black as a thousand nightmares.
“The Eye of Set,” she said hoarsely. “Jesus Christ, you’ve got the Eye of Set!”
Iä! Yog-Sothoth! Yog-Sothoth is the key. The key that opens the gate...