Short story: The Skeleton Key

For gifts this holiday season, I did a few exchanges with friends. This short story is for my friend Che, who invented the character of the Keyper for a meme and graciously gave them to me. The art used for the preview is also drawn by them, check out some of their works!

Now I give you this back, Che. Merry Christmas. 🙂

The Skeleton Key, by Ashe Mocaw

They are the Keyper.

They prevailed above all others to be the holder of the Keys. They alone had the ability to access the other Worlds. They were content in their job, at first, helping their employers, helping them gain power.

But there was no power left for them. For the Keyper who Unlocks doors, for the Keyper who can scout and investigate and learn. For the one who masters all languages, the one who sees beyond, the one who can find doors out of rock and salt and nothingness. They were always pushed aside, kept secret. An ace in the hole. A secret pressed in the pages of a forgotten book. A shadow.

They deserved more. So they took it. They took all the Keys, from the smallest slip of iron to the grandest piece of gold. They made a crown of them, a symbol of their power. They took whatever they wanted from the Worlds, hopping in and out at will, cackling all the while. They took from their former employers, all the hidden passwords and files, every name and associate kept hidden. They unleashed chaos into order, truth into deception. Names of secret Worlds were exposed on front pages of the papers, employee names smeared across billboards and spray-painted in alleys. Voices whispered on the wind, from protesters and politicians alike. And without the Keys, there no way to access them ever again. No way of knowing what was out there.

They are the Keyper. They are on the run. And they are not afraid. They know more, have more, deserve more than anyone else in their World, in any World. They will come and go as they please.

There’s just one problem. The only Key they’re missing, one on every tongue, a mystery and myth that may—or may not—be true.

The Skeleton Key. The Key that can Unlock any door, travel to any world. The Keyper intends to find it. And they’ll do whatever it takes to get it.

#

It’s a boy day today.

Fhure wakes up groaning—the same as every morning. He wastes no time in pulling on his clothes, finding his dirk and throwing knives, and heading out of the rundown apartment he calls home. He slips through the boarded up window, locking the mechanism he uses to keep everyone else out and himself safe inside.

Outside, the day is miserable, grey and dark without the rain that should fall. His ears, long and canine above his head, twitch at the sounds of the morning, of machines and blaring televisions reporting the latest. As of today, it’s been a month without rain, and the city, the state, the country are all worried. The news says it’s the Keyper’s doing. Fhure doesn’t know how that could be possible, but he doesn’t understand a lot of what the Keyper does. He doesn’t have the time to.

Fhure has to make a living regardless of the weather, evil corporations and corrupt governments, or all powerful beings with access to every aspect of the universe. He has to eat and survive. So he doesn’t look at the news again as he makes his way towards his home away from home: the dingy, dark, underground where his Master runs a thieving guild.

Survival is survival, after all.

He slips in through the back entrance he discovered a week ago, the one he knows the Master uses, instead of the main entrance for the rest of them. It makes him feel clever, being the only one to figure it out. He doesn’t have much else going for him: very little schooling, absolutely no public records… but he has his wits, enough wits for another three people, and he can use them.

Right then, his wits tell him something is wrong. The door at the end of the tunnel is ajar, white light spilling through it. Fhure can make out bloody footprints on the ground, facing towards him, but no body. He draws his dirk, eyes narrowing to focus in the light. One small step. Another. Silent and stalking. His Master would be proud, if it wasn’t likely he was already dead. Staying in the shadows, Fhure peeks through the opening.

A figure clad in black from head to toe stands surrounded by dead bodies, the Master included. On their head sits a crown, rusted and shiny, old and new. Keys litter their body, on chains and strings and as accessories. A large weapon sits beside them, part key, part anchor. The blood has already been cleaned off of it.

“I know you’re there.” Their voice is casual, tired, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. Golden eyes peek out from white bangs. “Come on, then. If you’re not Fhure, I’ll make things quick.”

Fhure pauses, considering his options. He has none. He’s fast, but he doesn’t think fast enough to escape a living legend. He can fight, but not as well as the Master, so there’s no point trying. He’s clever, though. He can try.

He steps into the room.

The Keyper looks much more… normal than he’d expect. Humanoid (but Fhure isn’t sure if human, part human, or something else entirely). Light brown skin. Those unnatural eyes. A grin plastered full of teeth, as sharp and dangerous as the rest of them.

“You are Fhure,” they say. Fhure gives a nod, dirk still clutched tight in his hand. The Keyper notices it and snorts. “Put that away. It’s not going to do you any good here.”

“Why did you kill them?” Less of a demand, more of a question. Fhure doesn’t want to arouse their anger, even as he puts away the dirk. He can draw it fast enough to defend himself if he has to.

“Because I’m looking for a Key.” The way they emphasize the word makes Fhure know it’s not a regular key, but one of the creations of the corporations to enter other worlds. His eyebrows narrow.

“Why would we have something like that? We’re a bunch of thieves, urchins scrounging for a living in this hellpit. Aren’t you better off searching, like, CEOs and billionaires’ vaults?”

“And what,” they drawl, “do you think your Master was before he came here?”

To that, Fhure has no answer. He’d always thought the Master was one of them: abandoned or born on the streets, far away from the high rises and glass wonders of the modern world. Sure, he had carried himself differently. Known things others didn’t, or couldn’t. Knew tricks and secrets of…

The world crashes down on Fhure for the second time in a morning. It was true. He’d not wanted to see it, but the clues were all there, all along. He should have known. But that is not the Keyper’s problem. It’s unlikely they care one way or another about the betrayal they’ve revealed to him. Instead, they lounge on their anchor, looking annoyed.

“Hurry up and get over it, okay? Your Master was a former CEO. He ran off here to escape me. And he brought a Key with him that I am very much in need of.” Those golden eyes glint, and fear chills Fhure’s form. “He said he’d hidden it. That only he knew of its location, and there’d be only one pupil of his who could track it down. Fhure. Then he killed himself, and, well, a fight broke out. You can see the rest here.”

“Me?! But I don’t know anything about a Key! He’s never mentioned it, I wouldn’t even know where to start looking!”

The Keyper hefts their weapon as if it weighs nothing. With their free hand, they grab a Key off their belt, turning it in the air. A creak, a groan, and an elaborate door appears, swinging open. He only manages to get a quick glance, seeing bright colours and gems he has no name for, patterned and glowing with a light of their own. The Keyper tosses the anchor in, closing the door and wiping their hands on their cape. The Key goes back to their belt.

Fhure is still staring at the spot the door was. He can’t find the strength to look away.

“Well, you better start searching for clues, Fhure.” The Keyper’s voice draws him back to reality. “Now, tell me. Is it a boy day or a girl day?”

“Boy.” He doesn’t bother to ask how they know. It wouldn’t matter.

“Then, boy, start looking. From this point on, until we get that Key, we’re a team. You got that?”

“I got it.”

A Key. Clues. Unravelling the Master’s secrets, his past. Being at the whims of a villain with impossible resources. Fhure has gotten himself into a mess, one that he could never have prepared for.

But one he’ll try, desperately, to live through. Survival is survival. And Fhure’s a survivor.

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