Originally published in The Realm Beyond #4 (Fortress Publishing, 2013)
The excavation site covered more than a square mile, but only a few of the ancient city’s landmarks had been chipped out of the massive ice sheet. Standing in the shadow of a broken spire, Professor Miles Gordon examined the surrounding ruins carefully. He had seen the oldest remnants of human civilization on more than one occasion. This, however, was something else, something without precedent.
He stood in the shadow of an immense, broken spire that stretched some two hundred feet above the site, but had once been far taller. One hundred feet wide at the base, the area around it was littered with chunks of worked stone that once made up its upper portion. The spire stood at the epicenter of the city; hundreds of smaller, domed structures lined the roads that radiated out from its foundations.
Gordon turned around and walked back to the tent where the research team was hard at work analyzing artifacts and samples gathered from the ruins.
The keeper was lost. The pristine streets were every bit as resplendent as the day they were constructed, but they remained empty. That, the keeper knew, was somehow its fault. Once it had known exactly what it was meant to do, but now a pallid haze obscured its real purpose.
A sudden shift in the air caught its attention. Something was different.
Slowly, the keeper walked towards the tower.
“So you’re saying that when he touches the artifact, he can witness anything that occurred at any moment in its history?”
Kristen did not look up from the artifacts laid out on the table. Professor Evans’s questions were wearing on her patience.
“Not exactly,” she said. “Psychic archaeology isn’t like reading layers of topsoil and deciding what warrants a closer look. The psychic can only experience moments that leave a strong emotional residue.”
Evans muttered something under his breath as Gordon approached them.
“What do you have for me, Kristen?”
“The pick of the litter,” she said, “or so Dr. Evans tells us.”
She gestured to the three objects on the table. The first was a metal diadem set with colorful gemstones. Beside it rested an ornate brooch wrought from a similar material. The third object was a long, sharpened item that resembled a blade. Its surface was rough and jagged, but cut with unnatural precision as if each tiny imperfection served a predetermined purpose. The artifact was one foot long and black as tar.
“These were all recovered from the chamber underneath the spire,” Kristen said. “Dr. Evans thinks that when the glacier shifted and cracked the spire, air and moisture probably got inside the chamber and caused the items inside to deteriorate.”
The tower vaulted towards the heavens and glowed with a power drawn from the essence of the stars. How much time had gone by since it stood in the tower’s shadow, the keeper did not know.
Again the unfamiliar sensation swept across the keeper’s senses. For the first time in its memory, the keeper knew it was not alone.
Gordon sat down at the table, his eyes fixed upon the artifacts. Kristen took a seat next to him, laid out a digital recorder, and opened her notebook.
“You’re ready to begin?” Evans asked.
“Yes,” Gordon said. “I’ll attempt to make a connection with the artifacts. If I’m successful, I’ll describe the mental images I experience. The recorder captures my description and Kristen will make additional notes regarding my physical reactions and any additional anomalies.”
“Some objects contain unusually powerful psychic impressions,” Kristen said. “When someone makes contact with them, they can produce a variety of psychic reactions.”
“What kind of reactions?”
“Telekinetic disturbances, telepathic images, astral projections, electromagnetic fluctuations; all sorts of weird stuff. It’s not very common, but we try to be ready to catch anything that happens.”
“I see,” Evans said. “Well, I guess it’s time to see if flying you out here was worth the trouble.”
Kristen ignored him as she switched the recorder on. She noted of the date, time, and artifacts laid out for examination.
“Ready when you are, Professor,” Kristen said.
Gordon closed his eyes and reached for the diadem.
“Very well,” he said. “I’m making contact with the first item.”
A brilliant pillar of light plunged down from the sky and struck the ground with such force that the earth itself seemed to buckle beneath the keeper’s feet. The thundering of the impact was followed by a steady hum that flooded the city streets as the keeper searched for where the light had touched down.
It was far away, but the keeper did not think about the distance as it bounded down the street. It knew only that it must reach the light, that the answers it sought could be found there.
At first, Gordon thought he was hovering above the magnificent city. It sprawled out below him like a shimmering rainbow, its brightly colored buildings refracting the beams of sunlight back into the sky. His field of vision shifted downward and he realized that he stood on a balcony atop the spire in the center of the city. Far below him, he saw a line of people moving slowly towards the base of the immense structure and disappearing inside.
The hands gripping the balcony’s railing were covered in scales rather than skin and each finger was punctuated with a finely chiseled claw. When the hands moved, the colorful scales glistened like the city far below. Finely woven sleeves concealed the creature’s arms, and he could not see more of its body.
After regarding the denizens below for some time, Gordon’s perspective shifted rapidly. The creature was moving. It made its way around the balcony, circling the narrow peak of the spire until it stopped on the opposite side and stared out over the horizon.
In the distance, far beyond the outer wall of the city, he could see what he first believed were white-capped mountains. But it was not a mountain range: it was a towering wall of ice. The massive glacier would eventually bury the city beneath millions of tons of frozen water, shielding it from the eyes of man for tens of thousands of years.
It was the doom of a species; there would be no escape from the slow, grinding ice that crept towards the city. Why, then, did Gordon feel a sense of hope rather than despair? What did this inhuman creature know that he did not?
A sheet of clouds drifted over the city and obscured the sunlight. Snow began to fall and Gordon’s vision faded.
Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the tower of light retreated into the sky and the city fell silent once more.
The keeper stopped running and dropped to its knees in frustration. It had not been fast enough. The distance was too great. Had the light held for but a few moments longer, the keeper surely would have reached it…
Kneeling there in the empty street, the keeper felt the numbing tendrils of amnesia wrapping around its mind. It lurched to its feet and clung to the image of the light.
It must not forget.
Kristen could only smile at Evans as she handed a bottle of water to Gordon, who had been in contact with the first artifact for well over two hours. The psychic quickly drained the bottle.
“This is incredible,” Evans said. “A pre-human civilization! We’ve been staring at the evidence all this time, things like the carbon dating and the ice flows, but nobody was ready to believe that this place could really be that old!”
Kristen was in the middle of switching out recorders when she stopped and put her hand on Gordon’s shoulder.
“Are you okay, Professor? You look a little pale.”
“No, I’m fine,” he said. “I’ve just never experienced an impression so vivid before. Even the strongest marks fade over time, but this one was still so powerful…”
“Do you want to take a break?”
“No!” Gordon said. “I’ll be okay. Are you ready for the next artifact?”
“Then let’s not waste any more time,” Gordon said, reaching for the metal brooch.
Again the light streaked down from the heavens and the city shook as it crashed against the ground.
It was closer this time, much closer.
The keeper had purpose once more and it did not intend to let another opportunity slip away.
It took several minutes for Gordon to adjust to the darkness.
When his vision cleared, he gazed down a long set of steps and realized that the brooch’s wearer was descending. The stairs led down into a massive chamber that seemed as large as the city itself. Hundreds of luminous stones imbedded into the walls and ceiling provided a dim light and Gordon saw thousands of narrow domes lining the floor and the lower portions of the walls.
The brooch’s wearer stepped closer to one of the nearby domes and knelt beside it. A scaly hand reached out to brush a thin layer of condensation from the dome and Gordon gazed into the slumbering face of the reptilian creature inside. The face was almost human, but the skull was longer and he noted the tips of its long teeth poking out from the closed mouth. A warm, tender sensation swept through him as he regarded the creature.
But then the feeling vanished, replaced by something colder as Gordon’s field of vision swung back towards the stairs. His guide ascended the steps and picked up something that looked like a long, black dagger. It then turned towards a raised slab of stone covered with a clear, leathery canopy.
As the creature moved towards the slab, the psychic memory weakened and Gordon’s vision dimmed.
The keeper shrieked as the light retreated into the heavens and the door of the house it so brightly illuminated slammed shut.
It had been so close this time.
The keeper’s senses and muscles wound themselves tightly as it stood in the middle of the street and waited.
Kristen jotted a few extra observations into her notes as Gordon and Evans excitedly traded theories. She was worried about Gordon. He’d never pushed himself so hard or connected with such powerful psychic impressions. It had been more than four hours since they’d started and he gave no indication that he was going to stop now.
“Kristen,” Gordon asked, “is everything ready?”
Gordon’s fingers twitched and his unblinking eyes stared at her intently. Kristen considered telling him that there was a problem with the recorder or offering any excuse that might make him take a break.
“I’m ready if you are, Professor.”
Gordon reached for the black dagger.
The keeper felt the searing heat before the light struck the building down the street. As the building’s door flew open, a roaring shockwave of pure energy nearly brought the keeper to its knees.
But it was too close this time. It would not fail now.
The keeper raced towards the open door and plunged into the light.
The darkness was much too complete for his senses to penetrate this time. Gordon heard a low, throbbing sound and he could feel the air pulsing with electricity.
Suddenly, a thunderous crack sounded somewhere above him. A slow, irregular rumble followed and continued for several seconds. When the noise above finally ceased, Gordon heard nothing but the steady, throbbing sound once again. Slowly, it weakened. After several minutes, it stopped.
Gordon listened intently for some time, but heard nothing further.
The air was still and dead.
He felt cold.
A new sensation suddenly ripped through the keeper’s body. Pain. Terrible pain. The light burned its eyes and the hot air scorched its skin. Unprepared for the experience, the keeper frantically tried to step back outside.
But it was trapped, confined within thick, suffocating layers of bindings woven tightly around its body. The light dimmed after a moment and the keeper recoiled at its bizarre surroundings. Strange looking creatures scuttled about and spoke in tongues so dreadful that the keeper wished it could tear itself apart to escape the sound.
Then, something familiar. It held in its misshapen hand the very object that had long eluded its fragmented thoughts.
And finally, amidst an onslaught of unbearable pain, it remembered.
At long last, the Keeper of the Tower had awoken.
The time had finally arrived.
Moments after touching the dagger, Gordon screamed.
The sound he made was inhuman; Kristen dropped her notebook as she fell from the chair and clamped her hands over her ears. Around the tent, computer screens shattered and sparks flew from every piece of electronic equipment. Evans dropped to the floor in front of her and covered his ears.
Only after the scream ended did Kristen dare to open her eyes. She grasped the edge of the table and pulled herself off the ground.
It was only then that she realized Gordon was gone.
A groan nearby caught her attention and she bent down to help Evans.
“Are you okay, Professor?”
Evans nodded as Kristen pulled him to his feet.
Kristen shook her head, dumbfounded.
“I…I don’t know.”
“Where’s Gordon?” Evans asked.
Evans glanced down at the table.
“Wherever he went, he took the last artifact with him,” he said.
Kristen thought back to Gordon’s psychic observations.
“The spire,” she said.
Kristen was already running from the tent by the time Evans spoke.
The keeper ripped and tore at its confines, but to no avail. Whatever nightmare it had entered, the keeper knew, would be over just as soon as it performed its appointed task and earned the peaceful slumber it so rightfully deserved.
Although the way to the tower had not changed, the keeper noted that the streets were not as they should be. The ice had receded–that much was clear–but the streets were not clean; they were filled with bits of stone and cluttered by strange objects it did not recognize. Crude looking creatures shuffled past it as it made its way to the tower.
Something was wrong. If those misbegotten things had done something…
Kristen had not yet visited the spire, but the trail Gordon left behind made it easy to follow him. First there was the discarded clothing: his sweater, his undershirt, and his pants.
Then she saw the blood.
Moments later there was another inhuman shriek from somewhere up ahead. Kristen picked up her pace.
What had they done?!?
The keeper screamed again as it beheld the devastation of the tower. It did not know what the destruction meant for those who yet slumbered, but it was too preoccupied with its own physical pain to consider the implications of the tower’s damaged condition.
The keeper clenched the device tightly in its clumsy hand and rushed inside.
Kristen paused when she finally reached the base of the spire. The gaping entrance was dark and seemed to absorb all light. Heart pounding, she took a hesitant step forward just as Evans caught up with her.
“Wait,” he said, panting heavily as he thrust a flashlight into her hand. “You’re going to want this.”
Kristen’s eyes drifted down to the wet ground and she saw the trail of blood leading into the spire. Evans gestured towards the entrance.
“The stairs just inside lead down to the chamber where we found the three items.”
“Only one way to go, then,” Kristen said as she stepped through the entryway.
Something was not right.
The keeper’s gaze lingered on the stone slab in the center of the chamber. It should have awoken here, not outside the tower.
Another wave of pain drove the questions from the keeper’s mind and it resumed its mission.
Most of the wall was covered with frost and the keeper chipped a section away to reveal the locking mechanism for the great gate. It thrust the device into the open slot and turned the handle. The locking mechanisms sprang to life and the stone floor slowly opened to reveal a massive staircase.
Perhaps there was yet hope…
Another wave of pain lanced through the keeper’s body. Its confines were almost unbearable. The keeper clawed at them desperately. Strange sounds came from the creature’s mouth and the keeper gnashed its fragile teeth in an effort to silence them.
Kristen and Evans stopped their descent when they heard a voice somewhere ahead of them. Kristen switched her flashlight off and motioned for Evans to do the same. They waited and listened.
The voice was vaguely human, but spoke in a language unlike anything Kristen had ever heard. At times, she could almost identify it as Gordon’s voice, but its pitch fluctuated erratically and was accompanied by frequent gurgling. An unpleasant scrapping noise caused her to clench her teeth and shiver.
A loud hiss suddenly overpowered the other sounds coming from the room below and a warm gust of air swept up the frigid stairwell. When the hissing sound subsided, the silence returned.
After waiting for a few moments, Kristen turned her flashlight back on and hurried down to the bottom of the stairs and shone her light upon the chamber.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “He opened it.”
Evans followed down after her and dropped his flashlight when he saw that the floor of the room had been lowered to create a massive staircase leading down to the dim light below.
Something was wrong.
The slumbering ones refused to rise. The womb that should have sheltered and sustained them was utterly without life.
The keeper did not understand what had happened, but it could identify what did not belong in its world. The foul, base creatures above had defiled the sanctity of its brethren and thus doomed them all.
Pain gave way to rage, confusion to hatred.
Evans didn’t bother to pick up his flashlight and instead dashed down the stairs.
“Wait!” Kristen said, giving chase. “He’s down there somewhere!”
The chamber at the bottom of the staircase was huge, far larger than the base of the spire above them. Luminous stones imbedded into the ceiling and walls provided ample light and the walls and floor were lined with narrow pockets about six feet long.
Everything was exactly as Gordon had described.
Evans was crouched next to one of the pockets when Kristen caught up to him.
“Look here,” he said.
Kristen gasped when she peered inside and saw the shriveled remains of a vaguely humanoid creature. It had the general proportions of a man, but its skull was strangely shaped and there was something unusual about the bone structure. The corpse was perfectly mummified, its dry, scaly skin stretched tight over the hairless body. Kristen could do little more than stare as Evans hurried to check the next compartment.
“There’s another one here!” he said.
Kristen looked up at the wall and focused intently upon the scores of pockets that lined the wall.
“There are thousands of them,” she said. “But they’re all dead. He said they were still alive when the chamber was sealed, like they were in some kind of stasis. Why are they all dead?”
She turned back towards Evans and screamed.
So much lost.
It was their fault.
They would pay.
The bloody dagger glistened in the chamber’s natural light as Gordon withdrew it from Evans’s back and let the lifeless body drop to the floor. Red scratch marks scored Gordon’s naked body and something alien shimmered behind his pupils. His face twisted and writhed as if some unseen tormenter assaulted its nerve endings.
Horrified, Kristen took a hesitant step backward.
The thing that had been Gordon hissed at her and blood ran out the corners of its mouth. She could see that it had bitten off portions of its tongue.
It stepped towards her.
Kristen turned and ran.
The keeper had found a new purpose, a new charge to uphold. It would scour their filth from the streets of the blessed city. Perhaps then it could fulfill its appointed duties.
The pain had become almost unbearable, but the keeper fueled each step with its hatred and rage.
Kristen’s lungs burned as she scrambled back up the stairs. She could hear her pursuer lumbering after her and though it seemed to shamble and stumble more than run, it moved deceptively fast. The steps leading from the upper chamber to the surface were wide and slippery and she stumbled several times. Each time she lost her footing, the hissing thing behind her came closer.
At last, she saw the sunlight a short distance ahead. A loud shriek sounded just a few yards below her and Kristen threw all the energy she could muster into climbing the last few steps. She felt the sunlight hit her face.
Then the thing’s hand clamped down on her ankle.
The creature was fleeing from whence it came, back to the company of its own degenerate kind. But their numbers did not matter. They would all die by the keeper’s hand.
Suddenly, there was a flash of light and a shrill, piercing sound overpowered its senses.
And then the pain stopped.
“Are you okay?”
Kristen looked up and met the concerned eyes of one of the site’s researchers. She took his hand, and he helped her to her feet.
“Yeah,” she said, realizing that the question was only meant to address her physical condition.
Professor Gordon’s naked body was sprawled on the steps just inside the spire’s entryway. It twitched for a moment longer before it finally stopped moving.
The black dagger had clattered harmlessly to the ground next to his body. One of the researchers moved to retrieve it.
“Don’t touch that!”
Her cry caused the researcher to jump back from the artifact.
“Don’t let anyone touch it.”
Kristen watched the medic examine Gordon’s body. He shook his head and said something about a stroke.
Everyone soon turned to her with questions, but Kristen found herself unable to think coherently, much less speak. She pushed past the confused researchers and ran. The ruins of the spire obscured the sunlight and she felt as if the shadow itself sought to crush her.
Kristen fell to her knees and cried.
The keeper thrust itself against the door with a hellish fury, but it was no use. Staggering back, the keeper looked around the city street and knew that what it saw was a lie. It had to get back through the door to finish its work. There was no other reason for it to exist other than to fulfill its charge.
The keeper stepped back from the door and waited.
It would open again…