Keeper Of the Mountain | By: C.L. Nelson | | Category: Short Story - Science Fiction Bookmark and Share

Keeper Of the Mountain

C.L. Nelson

Most people don't know that much about me. I don't like to draw undue attention to myself. I keep the mountain tended to, living simply within the boundaries that God has set. This has been the way for many, many years. God watches from this mountain. He protects us.
I guess the first thing I remember about my becoming the Keeper was the way my father would often disappear for hours at a time. One minute he'd be sitting with us, usually after the evening meal, then the next he would drift away and no one in the village knew where he went. Father was a builder, with membership in the Guild. As a senior, he would qualify for a Guild position in a few more seasons. His work was steady, and he would often return at the same time every day to join us in the evening meal.
One day, he wandered away from the village after the evening meal, as he was often in the habit of doing. I followed him out, making sure that I wouldn't be seen by him. He left the village boundaries and started up the hill toward the tall mountain range only a small distance from the village. I made sure to conceal myself in the shrubbery which lined the path leading up into the mountain. The path was a narrow one, with many twists and turns. In some places it looked as if the path was seldom used, judging from the way the grass was only pressed down and not worn away like it was along the main trails. The path grew steeper as it wound its way up the side of the mountain. Finally, I watched him enter a cave. I found his behavior to be extremely peculiar and I waited outside the cave entrance for a long time before I finally decided that I must see what it was that my father did up there.
The inside of the cave was dark, with a narrow passage I was barely able fit through. I felt my way along the walls of the cavern and was surprised to hear my father's voice. He was humming a tune!
I followed his voice until the cavern opened up into a large chamber lined with torches which lit up the otherwise dark cavern. I sat there watching him work. This was my first look at it, the thing which seemed to call him up the mountain path away from my mother and I.
I didn't know what the thing was, but Father was dusting it gently with a leaf as he hummed his tune. The object was immense! It looked to be as tall as one of the houses in the village. The base took up most of the chamber's floor. It had an assortment of large balls and wheels stacked on top of each other. Positioned just above that was a large disk, standing on end, with designs carved on it I had never seen before. On each side of the disk stood two tall shafts with some sort of object in each that looked as if they should slide down the shafts.
Whatever this thing was, Father treated it with a great deal of affection, as if it were a great treasure. He went over to one of the shafts and pulled a handle on its bottom. This forced the object attached to the shaft to slide upwards. He moved over to the other tower and repeated the same procedure. Satisfied, he picked up the leaf he was using, dusted off a portion of the balls, then placed the leaf on the base of the object. He started extinguishing the various torches placed around the cave's walls, preparing to leave. I quickly left the cave and ran ahead of my father, back to the village. I was sure he never saw me.
Later, within the same season, my life was about to change permanently, for I never knew how the object and I were to cross paths once again. My father was out with a building crew, working on some new dwellings near the southern border. Ferkal, the leader of the crew came back at midday, which was highly unusual, since they worked until the evening meal. He came into the village, asking me if I knew where my mother was. I told him she was busy with the house chores.
"What's this all about?" I asked, curious about his midday visit.
"I must speak with your mother, boy. Go and get her," he commanded, in a very firm manner.
I dutifully went to get her, since he looked as if this was a matter of great importance. He had been to our house before, I recall, usually during the festival days, when everyone celebrated. While he wasn't a close friend of the family, we usually enjoyed his visits, just the same.
Mother came outside to greet him. He put his arm around my mother and escorted her back into the house. I went to follow, but he turned and told me to stay outside. I was irked at this and protested. Mother repeated his command, and I was forced into staying put.
They didn't come back out for several minutes. When he left, I found my mother crying. I tried to ask what was wrong, and she simply grabbed me and held me for the longest time. It took her several hours before she told me my father had been killed at the construction site that afternoon.
After the shock and grief had faded, I found out that Father was not killed by an accident, but as an act of war, perpetrated by the Verungi tribe. They were a race of gray, furless beings who stooped over when they walked. They had no tails, either. A race of pure evil, I'd heard people say about them. They had no language to speak of, only short monosyllabic grunts which they used in conjunction with pointing to get their message across. They lived by the seaside, but had been steadily moving away from there for many seasons, now. The territory my father was working on was in dispute, and they felt as if they were protecting their territory. Many of our people thought they were trying to take our land from us. At least that's what the leader of our Army, General Vuhak proclaimed during public meetings.
I felt a sudden need to continue Father's work at the mountain cave, tending to the object. It wasn't my choice, but a feeling inside which told me this was the right thing to do. I began spending many hours inside the mountain studying the object. It didn't appear to move very often. When it did move, it would do so very slowly. I was perplexed as to what purpose this object served. What did it do? Why was it so important to my father that he'd spend hours away from us? At first glance, it didn't look like it did anything at all.
During my time spent in the cavern, I came across a small flat board, which was made of a material I couldn't identify. It didn't act like wood, which we normally use for building. It wasn't wax, which we often used for candles and weather sealant in windows. It also wasn't parchment, which was probably the closest thing that this material could be compared to. Parchment was thin, like this board was, and could be bent or folded. However, this material could not be folded easily. It took all my strength just to bend it.
The object also contained pictures and some characters which I didn't understand. It was not an Anzee language, like our written documents were on parchment. Besides, most all of our written records are kept in the library and hall of records. Not everyone is able to write in our language, only the Scholar's Guild.
It pictured figures which looked somewhat like Anzee, and a little like Verungi as well. They stood upright, instead of stooping. Like Verungi, there was no tail to drag along behind them. Yet they appeared shorter than us, but taller than Verungi. Unlike Verungi, their hands did not drag along the ground. I wondered what it was my father was involved with!
On one particular occasion, I was tending to the object, dusting it in the same manner which I'd seen Father doing. I suddenly felt as if I was no longer alone in the chamber. That's when I saw her.
She was sitting on the floor of the cavern which led into the chamber, watching me, but saying nothing. From where I was, I couldn't get a good look at her. The torches didn't carry their light that far. I was startled, at first. I asked who she was and what she was doing here.
"I am Akima," she said, sliding into the chamber from her perch. I could tell right away that she was beautiful. She had reddish-orange fur and a curve to her tail which I found extremely pleasing. There was something about her which drew me toward her, although I was not of joining age for several more seasons.
"What are you doing here?" I demanded, upset that I had been discovered, yet not sure why.
"I was curious about you. I followed you up here. Everyone in the village finds it strange that you regularly disappear for so long."
"I didn't know it was anyone's business where I go."
"The village is always interested in those who don't fit in."
I was a little startled by this revelation.
"What do you mean 'don't fit in?'" I asked.
"I heard that you aren't doing well in your studies and that you don't really want to be a builder."
The girl had insight which I could not believe. Where had she learned all this? I wondered. She was right, I didn't want to be a builder. I found the work uninteresting and monotonous. However, it was the Anzee way for the son to follow the father, so all would continue as it had in the past. Seldom had anyone in the village become something other than what his father was, and when that did happen it was because of some defect, like being simple or disabled. No, I was doomed to be a builder, like my father was, and his father before him.
I wanted to create things. I found drawing pictures to be very satisfying. I never showed them to anyone, since no one understood them. In fact, I had been using the cavern as a work area, where I could make my drawings without being shunned, ridiculed or disturbed in any way.
"You're different from everyone else," she continued.
I didn't know what to say. She stood in front of the great object, staring at it.
"Do you know what this is?" she asked me.
I told her that I didn't. I showed her the flat object which I'd found with the strange characters and drawings on it. She took it from me and looked at it for a minute, running her fingers over the surface.
"I've seen these characters before," she said, handing the object back to me.
"There is a place in the Stone Garden where I have seen more of these symbols. I think I can translate this."
"You can?"
"Not here. I'll have to return to the Stone Garden and look for the key. I found one there the last time I went."
"The last time? How many times have you been there? I've been told its dangerous to go there!"
She twitched her tail, nodding her head in agreement, "It is, but I haven't seen anything dangerous yet. Will you go with me?"
I sputtered for a moment, trying to decide. All my life I had heard of the perils of the stone garden, with the fanged beasts which roamed its lengths and the great cracks which could swallow an Anzee up with no difficulty. I heard of the raging fires and sudden explosions which occurred for no apparent reason. This was a place of many terrors. And it was a place I would surely follow her to, just to be within her sight.
The Stone Garden was at the base of the far side of the mountain. We got an early start. The sun was just rising in the sky. We climbed up through the mountain pass, following the path as it led away from the cave. It wound through thick woods and rocky passages. Finally, we were on the other side of the mountain. I could see the scattered rocks spread out for a great distance. It was as if the whole field was nothing but rocks, yet the rocks appeared to be laid out in an orderly fashion. There were piles of white stone scattered in long lines and narrow passageways which criss-crossed each other at different points. Akima motioned for me to follow her. She went down the path which widened as we neared the Garden.
She knew exactly where she was going as she navigated her way through the narrow paths, going left, then right, then left again. I feared if she was to leave me here, I'd never know how to get out, much less find my way back to the village.
"Where are we going?" I asked, getting tired of snaking through the passageways.
"We're nearly there," she replied.
We came to a cave entrance which lay flat on the ground. She stepped into the opening, motioning for me to join her. Reluctantly, I did so, stepping into the cave entrance. This cave had a series of steps which led us deeper inside. However, at the bottom of the stairs, there was a light, emanating from the roof of the cave! It was a bright, white light which filled the cavern. It reminded me of entering a temple.
"I think it's here," she said, rummaging through a pile of debris on the cave's floor.
"What is?"
"The key. We'll be able to translate your board with it--maybe."
"How do you know so much about this place?"
She turned from the debris pile, "I'm fascinated by this place. There are hidden treasures here no one in the village would understand. I think if we learn what we can from this place, it would help us. There may be answers here to questions we Anzee have been asking for generations."
"How many times have you been here?"
"I can't count them anymore. I first came here many seasons ago. I took a wrong turn while I was out walking and arrived here. It was so beautiful, I had to come back again. Soon, I found I had to continue returning to this place."
I found a pebble on the cave floor while I waited for her to search through the debris pile. The floor was very flat, unlike most caves. The pebble made a mark on the floor when I dragged it across. I began to draw, just to pass the time.
She glanced up, noticing the image on the cave floor.
"That's very good!" she commented.
"Thank you. It's you when you were talking about being here."
She came away from the pile to examine my drawing.
"That's what I looked like?"
"Yes, why?"
"My expression is the same as when my mother looks at my father."
I though I heard something approaching us in the cave. I cocked an ear so I could hear it better.
Akima noticed my actions, but continued searching through the rubble.
"Here it is!" she said, pulling a large object out of the pile.
I didn't know what to make of the object. It was red and rectangular, with rounded edges. Akima was grasping the object through the an elliptical hole in top of the object.
"What is it?" I asked her.
"It's the key! I think the writing on the panel you showed me can be read using this."
She showed the object to me. The object's surface was made up of little keys, which caused a door to pop up, revealing a picture hidden underneath when you pressed down on one of them. It was bright and colorful. The keys were smooth. Its texture felt like wax, only much harder.
"Look at this," she said, showing me the object's function, "See how this symbol denotes the item pictured underneath?"
"It can be used as a translation device. Each of these characters are positioned on the front of the panel. There is a picture, with more of these symbols underneath the object, see? I think that the character on the top of the doors is the one which begins the sequence in the symbols underneath, see?"
I saw, but I didn't totally understand. The growling noises were getting louder now. I felt that we were in great danger if we stayed here.
Akima turned around and her eyes opened wide.
"Run!" she screamed before turning and bolting down the tunnel.
I immediately followed. I could hear the growling sounds turning to a series short, throaty noises as the animals neared me from behind. I saw Akima jump up into a space in the ceiling. She called out for me to jump up as well. I tried as best I could, leaping with all my strength. It wasn't enough to propel me into the opening, but Akima caught my hand and pulled me up inside.
I could see what the animals looked like now. They were fierce creatures with four legs, pointed noses, and extremely sharp-looking teeth. They were jumping and growling, frustrated by our sudden escape. After a short passage of time, they grew bored and went off, probably in search of easier prey.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"I don't really know. I think we're below one of the stone piles. I just noticed this hole while we were being chased."
"It's dark up here," I commented, "Do you think its safe to come out?"
"They can't have gone too far, yet. It's better to stay here for a while."
The opening was small, but spacious. There didn't appear to be an end to the opening above the tunnel. It looked like it had been intentionally put there, rather than formed naturally, as most caverns are. I was curious as to how all this happened. I looked over at Akima, still playing with the translator she'd found earlier.
"What is this place?" I asked again.
"I told you, I don't know."
"No, I mean the Garden itself. How did it get here?"
"I don't think it was always a garden. It may have been built by someone."
"Well, it's plain to see that Anzee weren't involved. I think it may be the race who used to live here, before the Anzee came."
"Before? There was a time before the Anzee?"
"Of course there was. Things are always in a certain state before something else happens to alter that state. It's the effect of change. Things which are wet were once dry, things which are hot were once cold. Therefore, something had been here before Anzee."
"What could have been here before Anzee?"
"Remember the figures on the panel you showed me? They were not like Anzee, with a tail and stooped over. No, they stood upright and had no tail. They were the ones before us."
I was shocked by her observations, but since she'd spent many days in this place, she would qualify as an expert on the subject of its contents.
"There's so much we can learn from them, how they live, what they did. We could discover their eventual fate before the Anzee repeat the same actions that made these creatures disappear," Akima went on.
"We don't gather stones together in piles," I replied.
"Not yet, but we might decide that this is a better way of sheltering ourselves in the future."
I was tired and it was cramped and getting cold in our hiding place.
"I want to go home." I said.
I went over to the opening which we'd leaped through earlier and stumbled over something. I reached down to pick it up. The outside of it was worn away, but most of the interior was still intact. I saw that it was a collection of thin pages, which were joined together much like our books of today, except the pages were much, much thinner. I flipped through them. They felt fragile as my fingers passed over them. They certainly weren't parchment.
"What do you have there?" Akima asked, moving closer to inspect the object.
"I think it's a book."
Akima grabbed the object out of my hand and started excitedly flipping through its pages.
"It's in the same writing as the translator!" she exclaimed with much exuberance.
Akima looked around, noting more of these objects, scattered around the floor. She picked another one up.
"Here's more of them. This looks like another copy. Look how the symbols match on the top of the page. There are more pictures, too, look!"
The pages contained several pictures on each page, with symbols underneath, similar to that of the translator.
"This is an important find!" Akima remarked.
"Let's take it with us."
"Agreed. It should be safe, now."
We made our way back up the tunnel and out into the light. The sun had begun to set, but was still visible over the mountains. We gathered up all the objects we'd found and began to make the crossing over the mountain, back to the village.
We decided that it would be best if we stored our new artifacts in Father's cave with the object. After dropping off the items, we started back for the village. It was now dark, but we could find our way back easily enough. Unfortunately, in the short time since our absence, things had changed in the village.
A large contingent of soldiers approached us as we reached the village border.
"Halt! Come forth and be recognized!" a guard demanded.
We slowly approached them and they shone a lantern upon us.
"Just a couple of kids," one of them commented.
"Doesn't hurt to check them out, anyway," suggested the other guard.
They herded us into a tent which had been erected a short distance from the path. We were directed to sit down on the dirt floor and wait. Another soldier, of some high station entered the tent, eyeing us critically and carefully, observing our actions as we sat there, terrified.
"What keeps you out so late at night?" he asked.
I tried to speak, but could only gurgle unintelligibly. Akima just looked down at the ground, shaking her head.
"What insolent brats are these! Do you not speak when you are spoken to?" the guard bellowed, kicking me from behind.
He reached down to pull Akima's face closer to the light of the lantern he was holding. He let out a breath, letting her go.
"Child of Elthar! Why do you cross our borders at sunset when you know we are at war?" he said. He summoned one of the guards to send for Elthar.
Elthar! I thought to myself. His comment took me by surprise. Elthar was our spiritual leader and was well-known throughout the village. He was the one who summoned our inner strengths during times of famine and starvation. He was the one who presided over joining rituals, and conducted the last rites of passage to the next world for those who had departed. I never would've guessed that the girl I'd been traveling with into an area which was considered to be forbidden was the daughter of Elthar! I knew then that our discovery wouldn't be kept secret much longer.
Later, Elthar entered the tent and immediately chastised his daughter for being out so late. She began to argue, but eventually fell silent to the words of her father. He wanted to know everything. Since we'd left, everyone had begun to mistrust each other, as if spies were infiltrating our village in an effort to conquer us in some future battle. The Verungi, I had found out, were now at war with us.
After Elthar was done with Akima, he turned to me. He looked at me for a minute, and I thought that he may have seen me before.
"You look like Magdel's boy," Elthar said, still looking me over.
"Magdel was my father, yes," I told him.
"Magdel was a spy for the Verungi!" the guard exclaimed.
"What? No!" I gasped.
"He would disappear for long periods of time, and then return with no reason for his disappearance. No doubt giving vital information to the Verungi! Their only mistake was that when the war began he became one of the first casualties," the guard sneered.
"Let us not fall into false accusations," Elthar interrupted.
"Then, boy can you account for your father's whereabouts?"
I told the guard that I could not. He picked me up and grabbed me about the throat. Elthar protested, but the guard continued his assault on me.
"Magdel was a spy! You are the son of a spy, and thus shall be dealt with according to our laws."
Akima shouted in protest. The guard drew his sword, holding it at my throat. I could feel the cold blade across my neck as it rested directly upon my skin. Soldiers were the only ones to possess swords, by royal decree. I was defenseless.
"Aren't you going to tell them? Are you going to die for you father's secret?" Akima screamed.
Elthar tried to escort her from the tent, presumably to avoid her having to witness my execution. I didn't have any sort of strategy for this. I didn't really know what was going on. One minute I was going home, the next I was being accused of high treason! I didn't want to betray my father's secret, but I doubted whether it would be his wish for me to be executed under false pretenses, either.
Elthar and another guard were trying to drag Akima out of the tent.
"Tell them! Tell them about the mountain! About the object!" she continued shouting.
Her remarks piqued the guard/executioner's interest. He lowered his sword. Elthar turned towards me as well. I found that I was once again able to breathe.
"What about the mountain?" Elthar began, "My daughter does not tell falsehoods."
I gathered up my wits, still shaky from the brush with death that I'd just suffered and told them about the object in the mountain, and about how I'd followed my father there and saw what he did while attending to it. I told him Akima and I had been in the Stone Garden. I told them everything. I left no secret unspoken, sure that this was the price I had to pay if I was to avoid being summarily executed as a spy during wartime.
The next morning, Elthar, Akima, a small contingent of guards, and I all went up to the mountain. I showed them the way in, and where the object was located. One of the men accompanying us there was General Vuhak, the leader of our village defense forces. He seemed interested in the object and what it was used for. I told him I didn't know what it was for, but he didn't seem to believe me.
We entered the chamber where the object stood, and everyone fell silent. Elthar began to pray after gazing at the object. The General stood and stared at it, stroking his chin. The others simply gaped at it in awe, except for Akima and myself.
"This is a shrine," declared Elthar, "The most holy of places. Surely, only God himself could have created such a thing!"
Everyone nodded their head in agreement. Most of the time, when Elthar spoke, everyone agreed with him. They agreed not because he was right, but because people seemed to want favors from him. The General, however, didn't appear convinced. He approached the object, inspecting its innerworkings as if looking for something which would reveal its purpose to him.
"Gather the people around, we must begin a worship ceremony immediately," Elthar commanded.
"Before we do that, shouldn't we observe it for awhile?" asked the General.
"To what purpose?" Elthar argued, "Surely it is not harmful, the boy has admitted to spending a great deal of time here."
Some other members of the General's entourage spoke to him in inaudible whispers. The General nodded his head every few times while they spoke.
"I think we may be able to use this against the Verungi," the General finally declared.
"This is not an instrument of warfare! This is a holy shrine, intended for use by those who worship--"
"You believe what you want, I'll believe what I want." the General snapped, cutting him off.
While this argument was taking place, I noticed Akima discreetly carrying the plate with the strange symbols on it out of the cave. In the confusion, no one saw her. The argument between the General and Elthar continued.
"It is not up to you!" protested Elthar
"By the power vested in me by His Majesty, the King, It is my decision to make. Therefore, I declare this place a military zone, off limits to all civilians. That means you, Elthar," the General sneered, satisfied he'd had the last word.
"You can't!"
"I most certainly can."
The General made a motion and guards surrounded Elthar as well as all the other non-military people. We were quickly escorted back out of the cave.
We found ourselves back in the wooded area. The soldiers left us to return to the cave. I think they were going to establish a camp there. I saw a runner leave toward the village about the same time we were ejected from the cave.
I felt as if things had really gotten out of control.
"We still have the key and the other book," Akima whispered in my ear. She was holding the large panel in her hands.
We arrived back in the village and didn't see each other again for many days. I didn't know what had become of Akima, thinking that she may have been forbidden to see me after the incident with the soldiers. I went about my business much as I had before the death of my father, assisting my mother with the household chores. However, very little could keep my mind off of Akima. My head was filled with thoughts of her. I feared I would never see her again and I was not prepared to face that.
Finally, Akima came to find me, saying that she'd been working to translate the strange symbols. It seems that each symbol was part of a string of sounds, rather than representing one single idea, which was the way of our communication. The pictures on the key showed the object which the symbols were trying to convey.
"The big book was the real help," Akima explained to me, "Each of the symbols appear in an orderly fashion. I would say that this order has some sort of meaning to their culture."
"What about the board you left near the cave entrance?" I asked.
"I think I know how to get that. We can sneak up there tonight."
Her plan was to have me feign an illness to distract the guards at the cave opening. While they were attending to me, she would slip into the cave entrance unnoticed. Since she'd already placed the panel near the opening to the cave, she wouldn't have to enter the chamber where the object stood. I agreed, although I was a little apprehensive of the plan's chances for success.
We started up the hill right about nightfall. All that day I saw soldiers moving about the village. There seemed to be extra soldiers guarding all of the village entrances. Still, we paid no attention to them as we started up the hill. We were reaching the last part of the journey, where the path curves upward toward the cave entrance when disaster struck.
"Halt! Who goes there?" a gruff voice demanded.
We stood frozen, afraid to acknowledge the challenge. At first, I thought it was a battery of guards which the General had positioned outside the cave entrance. There was something un-worldly about the voice. It was deeper than most, almost a grunt as if the speaker was trying to speak in a language other than his native tongue.
The voice once again demanded to know who was there. I heard Akima gasp in the darkness, for night had fallen now and there was no light by which to see. I heard a rustling sound through the forest when a lantern appeared out of the darkness.
As far as I could tell from his appearance, the figure holding the lantern was that of a soldier. His armor clanked as he walked forward, holding his lantern. He made grunting noises to another soldier who accompanied him.
"Well now," the figure holding the lantern said, holding it up to our faces, "These two far from home, eh Gadwal?"
I remained silent, afraid of what would happen next. Strangely enough, I felt less concerned for my safety as I did for Akima's.
The soldier grunted once more to the companion he addressed as Gadwal, who replied in the same fashion.
"You're Anzee, aren't you?" the lantern holder asked.
"Y-yes, " I stammered.
"Come with us," replied the lantern bearer.
They led us away from the cave toward an encampment of soldiers who were of similar size and shape. I could tell once we came into the lighted tent that they were Verungi. We were escorted into a tent and we faced another of their kind, sitting before us in front of a small table. The soldier cocked his head sideways, scratching his head. He grunted something to the others, and they grunted back. The lantern bearer grunted and pointed to us, setting the lantern down.
"Let me introduce myself," It was the soldier who was holding the lantern earlier. He spoke in an unusual manner. His grammar made him hard to understand. Still, I imagine it was a tremendous feat for a Verungi to have mastered our speech. I've always heard that they hadn't the intellectual capacity for it.
"My name is Morok," he continued, "I am only one who can speak you. You inside Verungi camp now."
I thought I was going to faint at this revelation. We would now surely die. I cursed myself for not being more careful.
"I do not think you soldiers. You are small."
I nodded my head in agreement.
"You know where soldiers Anzee are, no?"
I didn't want to tell him anything, but I feared for my life. I resolved to tell them only what was necessary for us to be released. They didn't act as if we were very interesting to them. I just hoped they weren't going to extract information from us then eat us when we'd outlived our usefulness to them. They had a reputation for being ruthless and violent, preferring to take things rather than build them themselves. They were also not as sophisticated as we were. Our weapons were superior to theirs, but their physical strength was twice that of an Anzee. This was probably why they were such warlike creatures.
I decided it would be in our best interest to tell them what they wanted to know.
"At the cave," I answered.
Akima gave me a harsh, disapproving glance.
"What cave?" asked Morok.
"At the end of the trail to the mountain."
Morok grunted at the soldier behind the table.
"Show us!" he demanded.
We left the tent and began back up the trail toward the top of the mountain. We were followed by a small group of their soldiers. I noticed that they were staying far enough away from us, hidden from plain sight. Their swords were drawn. There was no way to escape them. I had to make good on my agreement.
"Don't you realize what's going on!" Akima whispered to me harshly.
"I'm trying to save us," I replied.
"They're going to attack and you're leading them right to our soldiers!"
"If we run away, they'll kill us for sure."
A voice called out to us from the top of the hill.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
This voice belonged to an Anzee soldier defending the cave entrance.
"Excuse us, we've lost our way. Sorry to bother you," Akima called out.
"Akima!" I counseled her sharply.
"Akima, is that you?" another voice asked. It sounded like Elthar.
"Father?" Akima replied.
Elthar stepped into plain view. He held out a lantern, shining it on our faces. The Verungi remained out of view.
"What are you doing out here?" he asked her.
"I--was on the way home."
Elthar held the lantern up to Akima's face.
"Child, you look frightened. What could cause such an expression on my precious child's face?"
"I'm fine, really. What are you doing out here so late?"
"I am about to reclaim the temple as God's property. I have received the approval of his majesty, the King. A small band of worshippers are with me and we're going to tell the General--"
"You tell General nothing," Morok interrupted.
"Who..?" Elthar sputtered.
"Elthar we're in danger! Get out of here!" I shouted, ignoring our current predicament. If there were more worshippers with him, all of us would become victims of the Verungi.
The Verungi advanced, raising their swords.
"Not so fast, Morok!" shouted General Vuhak from the shadows.
Morok looked around for his challenger.
"You Verungi never did master the art of cover and concealment. Now, if you would hand over all the prisoners, we can continue."
The Verungi grunted among themselves for a minute. Then, quite suddenly, one of them grabbed Akima and put his sword to her neck.
Akima screamed.
"You savage! You think you're tough because you can kill an unarmed girl?" taunted the General.
Elthar tried to intervene.
"Please, you have my daughter. She is young and will do no harm to you."
"Hah! She will harm us by creating more soldiers for us to fight! Better she dies now." Morok grunted savagely.
"Have you no compassion? We are all God's creatures, each of us."
"They don't have any God to speak of," the General explained, coming out into plain view holding his sword, "They don't even know why they're here. Nor do they care. All they want to do is suck the blood out of all the living things they can get their stubby little gray hands on."
Morok growled, throwing Akima onto the ground. He swung at the General and they began fighting. A roar sprung up from the soldiers as they slashed at each other. I searched for where Akima had fallen and saw a soldier about to run Elthar through.
I leapt up at him, knocking him down. Elthar rolled away, into the surrounding brush. The soldier turned on me, chopping his blade down where I laid. I rolled quickly, avoiding his attack. He turned to swing again and I dove into the brush. The woods were alive with the sounds of both Anzee and Verungi soldiers shouting at each other and metallic clangs resonating throughout the woods as swords met in combat. The ground had begun to turn red with the blood of the fallen soldiers. There were heavy losses on both sides, yet neither would yield to the other.
All of a sudden this loud, strange, powerful noise resounded from the cave. It was metallic, like a bell, only softer. It's vibration shook my very insides. This noise repeated itself, one after the other. I counted a total of twelve times.
All of the soldiers stopped what they were doing while these sounds were being made and looked at the cave, horrified.
Verungi dropped their weapons and ran, as did some of the Anzee forces. Even the General appeared to be affected by the loud, melodic sounds produced by the cave.
All at once, the battlefield was empty. Only Elthar, Akima, the General and a few of his aids, and myself remained among the scattered bodies of those who had fallen during the battle.
"Behold! We have been spared by our merciful God!" shouted Elthar.
Elthar's God had made his presence known. Elthar picked an abandoned sword up off the ground, pointing it at the still-shaken General Vuhak.
"We will no longer live by this!" he said, tossing the sword away, "We shall no longer follow the path of hatred you have lead us down. We will follow the way of peace. The way of God!"
Elthar motioned to the cave entrance as he finished his declaration.
The General stood speechless.
The next day, everyone in the village had begun to hear of the battle and its miraculous outcome. There were only a few soldiers on duty around the village entrance this morning. No one had seen the General.
That morning, Akima came by. She showed me the panel, explaining the various symbols and their meaning. She said that she had been right about each symbol representing a single sound, rather than an idea, like ours. She'd spent all night deciphering the symbols on the panel.
"Quite simply, the object in the cave is called a 'clock'," she explained.
"A clock?"
"That's what the symbols say."
"What an odd-sounding word. So what's a clock?"
"I don't know, but the actions you've been performing as a ritual in remembrance of your father is actually allowing the clock to continue operating. These actions keep tension on the mechanism that makes it work. This board shows you how to do this, see?"
I looked carefully at the figures on the board. Although it was hard to determine at first, they were illustrating the motions I had been performing as a ritual in Father's memory.
However, no one ever discovered how or why the clock made such noises as it had that night long ago. Perhaps no one ever will.
And that was that. The King decided that the object in the cave would be cared for by somebody, out of gratitude for its saving our people from certain destruction. Since I was the one who knew the most about the object, the King named my as Keeper of the Mountain. Since then, the clock never made anymore sounds and no one went to war with anyone ever again.
The Verungi have since settled their differences with our people. Whether is it by choice or outright fear of the object in that cave, they continue to pursue peaceful relations with us. The mountain still looms in the distance as a reminder of God's immense power, should we lose our way once again. God watches over us and I, in turn, watch over the mountain.

Author's note: During the last part of the 1990's work has begun on the design and construction of a "millennium clock" which would measure time not in minutes and seconds, as we experience time, but in millennia. The clock, engineered by Danny Hillis, will chime for each millennia, starting with the year 2000, on which it will chime twice. This is a big undertaking, and I would like to see it completed. I think, considering man's nature of being consumed with the passage of time, that this is a fitting monument to both what man is now and what man is destined to become.
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