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Beast of the Endless Moment

by Kathryn Zurmehly 30 days ago in Short Story

Always triple-check your Atlantean translations

What lies beyond the sealed door?

“What do you mean ‘slumbering ‘til the master comes’?”

“That’s what I think it says,” Alistair said, “’The…elder god?’ That’s always fun, though for the record there is nothing weird like that in Antarctica… ‘is slumbering until the master comes.’” He traced the carved letters delicately with a brush as he spoke. Kim doubted even a hammer could have marred them. The doorway and many of the walls were made of something that wasn’t metal and wasn’t stone- or maybe was both. Her analysis was still running.

Working for the Librarium Draconis took you to the most interesting places.

Kim Echo peered closer at the letter. They were and were not Greek and were and were not Egyptian hieroglyphs either. She shook her head and rubbed at her temples. She was happy to stick with rocks. Alistair Caesarion could take the nonsense letters, the fame, the glory, the ambiguity.

“I’m not getting any further on this today,” the man said, “If there’s any further to get.” He grinned at her. He was a handsome and charming man. He’d said, and the rest of the Mu Research Team backed him up on it, that he and his family were the descendants of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. He looked like the romance novel version of Caesar, too, which was no doubt pure chance, because even the genetics of great men don’t work that way over the course of millennia.

She knew it was coming the moment she saw that dashing grin. “Miss Echo,” he said, sketching a small bow that didn’t match his dirty jeans, “Would you like to get some coffee?”

Kim curled a lip. “You mean the flavored water?”

“No. I know where Professor Tanaka hid his good coffee.”

She was tempted. The Librarium had sent them across the Atlantic and under it, to Atlantis itself, and forgotten to include actual coffee on their supply manifest. What they had were small packets of coffee beans pulled from Meals Ready to Eat. Mornings were tense at camp. Some of the team had taken to chewing the coffee beans from the packets.

Professor Tanaka, the biggest coffee drinker at the Colorado campus and unrepentant caffeine addict, had not.

Also, Alistair, descendant of Julius Caesar, had a very dashing smile and wonderful grey eyes. It was both irritating and pleasant.

Everything in Atlantis was two things at the same time, and still not quite either of them, she swore.

“Echo, Caesarion!” They both turned as Professor Tanaka danced through puddles over to them, eyes bright behind his glasses. He was an old man, American as can be but of Japanese descent, but spry and lanky. He was wearing a t-shirt that had either the structure of caffeine or the structure of cocaine on it; the mud made it hard to tell. “We have time before dinner!” He gestured to the dark doorway with a large flashlight. “I think I have it figured out!”

Alistair cleared his throat. “Professor, the translation is probably a warning and last time in Egypt—”

“It ended well. We learned that Aten worship survived until Christianity reached Egypt. Well worth the risk.”

“Risk?” Kim asked. She’d gotten thrown into the linguist-historian team for the last few days for lack of bodies to hold lights and brushes. Rocks were not turning out to be as relevant as everyone had thought, at least right now. She didn’t know about anything that happened in Egypt.

“Besides,” the Professor continued, “only one out of every five of these warnings have any teeth. Lighting may strike twice, but it’s not likely to strike us twice in a row.”

“It’ll be fine,” Alistair told her, “It really does only come out to twenty percent and we’re not helpless.”

She somehow doubted Librarium service pistols were very effective against eldritch monsters, but she wouldn’t know. “I’ll defer to your experience, I guess.”

“A wise approach,” the professor said. He fished around in a cargo pocket and pulled out a glassy object the size of his palm, “Here is the key, I believe, to that door that’s been annoying me.”

Kim and Alistair peered at the object. It had been carefully carved into some kind of stylized crouching animal, though it was rounded like a bead instead of having a flat base. Kim didn’t think it was crystal; the lines were very fine. They’d seen wondrous things here, but no evidence that the kind of technology that made hardstone carving less rough than it normally was in ancient times. It had a rather organic shape even with the carving and a yellow-green cast to it- meteoric glass? An import, probably, though who knew what the rocks of Mu landmass had been like.

“And the keyhole?” Alistair asked.

“I have theories.” He tucked the carving back into his cargo pocket. “Which we will confirm here in a moment.”

“Can’t we save it for tomorrow? After breakfast?”

“I’d prefer Professor Wells does not notice that one of her artifacts is missing during her evening inventory.”

Kim exchanged a knowing look with Alistair. Professor Wells and Professor Tanaka had an adversarial relationship, one that seemed to stretch far back, probably stemming from the fact that Tanaka lived in a constant chaotic whirlwind of caffeinated curiosity and Wells was a meticulously organized archeologist who seemed interested in the field because broken pottery and old bones couldn’t mess up her labeling system.

If she noticed that one of the artifacts she’d been collecting was missing, the whole camp would be upended until it was found. If she found Professor Tanaka had stolen it…

“So where’s this door?” Kim asked.

Professor Tanaka grinned. “This way!”

They tramped through the Atlantean halls. It was dim but not dark; prior to the expedition’s arrival, another team had set up lights through a wide range of the halls, all connected to one of the main camp’s generators.

Still, there was an eeriness to the damp corridors. No one had lived in these places for millennia. Much of the city was decaying in the ocean depths, but the palace complex had been shielded, somehow, when it had sunk. They’d found signs of life, the scattered evidence of vibrant life that had run through these corridors like blood through veins, but now it was all long, long gone. There was only the slow drip of saltwater and the hum of the ever-flickering lights.

“The imaging shows it leads deeper into the complex,” Professor Tanaka said.

“Let me double-check,” Alistair said, “We hadn’t taken a look at the text in that room since we had that breakthrough. This place…it can get pretty strange.”

Kim nodded. “Just last week, one of the archeology students had to go home because he looked into the eyes of a crystal skull and had a vision of the birth of the solar system.” By all accounts, he’d be fine once he got back to the Librarium campus and got some help.

These things happened when one explored Atlantis, apparently.

Tanaka made a dismissive noise. “I don’t intend to go digging around in the mud.”

“No, we’re just going to go around opening random doors,” Alistair growled, “Much safer.”

“We have the imagery!”

They made their way into a large room illuminated by floodlights. It wasn’t big as far as chambers in the complex went, but the door that dominated it was truly massive. Two massive tailless monsters were carved into the stone, standing rampant and alert.

Kim stopped to stare at the carvings as the two men rushed to the door, Tanaka to search for a keyhole, Alistair to translate the text below the monster carvings. She wasn’t sure what kind of animal they were. Claws, fangs…eyes that seemed to be on fire…

She missed rocks. You described them and that was what they were.

“Tied to the text I was looking at earlier, I think,” Alistair said, “’Beyond dwells the Beast of the Endless Moment…slumbering until his master comes…’”

“Probably referring to some mythological guardian,” Tanaka said, feeling along the door’s seam.

“We’re standing in Atlantis.”

“Is there any guidance about how to open the door, Caesarion?”

Alistair sighed and stepped back. “Not really, just some…” He waved a hand at the door. “Poetry.”

“What does it say?” Kim asked as Tanaka muttered and began pacing the edge of the room.

“Beyond dwells the Beast of the Endless Moment

Slumbering until his master comes

Relentless….eh….in pursuit of the…round? Prey? It’s a kenning…

To and fro, until it is seized in…slavering jaws, or beneath sharp claws,

Then he shakes and tears with a contented growl,

The Beast, the…” He paused. “The elder god.”

Professor Tanaka flapped a hand. “A common sort of warning. There’s never an ‘elder god’. I’m not sure they even exist.”

“Plenty of other things do,” Alistair said.

The professor let out an excited noise, then slotted the figurine into a spot. Something clicked and they all tensed, watching the door.

It did not move.

There were several thunks and clicks, then one of the intricate patterns in the center of the room began rising up into a tiered column. Kim watched in amazement. There were plenty of doors with intricate locks and openings in Atlantis, but this was something else.

The tiers locked into place with a thunk and then water began gushing from its center. It was a fountain, standing about chest height and flowing as easily as if it hadn’t been inactive for thousands of years.

The three of them scrambled to the fountain to see it more closely. The Professor dipped a finger in the water and tasted I, his eyes lighting up. “It’s fresh!”

A large sphere came bobbing to the top of the fountain, whirling in place on top of its own column of water.

Alistair peered at it. “No text. None on the fountain, either, that I can tell.”

Kim took a few steps towards the fountain, peering closely at the orb. “It’s not like the rest of the stone,” she said. There was a sheen and transparency to its golden-bronze color that was different from the fountain itself, which resembled the green-bronze metal-stone of most of Atlantis. “Might be crystal.”

“We know they used crystals to store data as the unfortunate incident with the skull indicated,” Professor Tanaka stated, “though I still argue that was not an eyewitness account, though we won’t know until poor Mr. Cox is debriefed and put back into his right mind.”

“Aliens?”

Professor Tanaka snorted. “Not even they were around long enough to witness that. No, I believe it is an interpretation of events rendered psychographically, which would be a shock to the modern mind since we are not equipped…”

Kim allowed her droning to go on. It was, if she understood correctly, all out of the Professor’s wheelhouse, anyway. She stared at the orb. The sheen of it had become captivating. It was rolling as the water pushed at it, like a novelty fountain. Was it glass, like the figurine? Or crystal?

In helpless wonder, she reached for the orb.

At her touch, lights came on deep inside it, blinking rapidly. She jumped back.

Alistair gently caught her arm. “Careful,” he whispered. The three of them stared at the orb. “It must be the real key.”

“Interesting,” Professor Tanaka said, “None of the other doors required such complex mechanisms to open.”

The column of water stopped and the orb rolled off, bouncing towards the door.

The door threw itself open before the ball hit it, revealing a deep darkness that the floodlights barely pierced.

They all watched as the lights bounced into the dark and came to rest suddenly against something.

The claws of some vast paw clenched around the orb.

To the side, eyes opened, two huge blank burning windows into some violet-blue star-strewn void.

Kim backed away, trying to break away from that gaze.

“Run,” Alistair grunted between his teeth “Run!”

The trio turned and ran into the muddy hallways. The Professor almost slipped as they crossed the room’s threshold, but Kim caught him as he stumbled, Alistair tugging at both of them.

Behind, there was the sound of pounding feet and claws clicking against the hard floor.

The still blinking orb came bouncing past them, thrown out of the doorway. Alistair jumped over it and they kept running blindly down the hall. Behind them, the lights started to go out.

Kim chanced a glance back and wished she hadn’t.

It was a huge shadow, a four-legged monstrosity from the depths of primitive memory. The burning, starry eyes were wide and somehow…delighted?

Then she saw the teeth. They were lightening white in the dimness, a tongue like fire dangling down between them. Sparks cascaded down the Beast’s black flanks as the lightbulbs blew.

“Run!” she shouted, turning back as she nearly tripped.

They charged around a corner and ended up in a chamber that split into two hallways.

“Go back to camp. Get help,” the professor said, “I’ll draw it away.”

“I’m—” Alistair started.

“You think speed makes a difference?” He shoved Alistair and Kim towards the other hall. “Go!”

They both hesitated as the professor began running down the hallway, making as much noise as possible. Kim shook herself out of it first and tugged Alistair into a run. “Come on, staying here won’t help him!”

The monster skidded to a halt in the large chamber. For a few moments, the only sound was human footsteps and breathing as Kim and Alistair rushed down the hall.

Then the thunder of huge paws sounded on their heels.

Of course. Of course it wasn’t going to do what they planned.

Alistair pulled Kim into a small hallway and against a wall. They pinned themselves to the wall and Kim tried to hold her breath.

The Beast paused at the human-sized doorway and snuffled at it. Its breath smelled like hot cinnamon. Kim and Alistair stared at each other as it took another long, loud sniff.

Then it walked away.

They both let out the breath they’d been holding as the heavy footsteps faded away.

“Is that one of your dashing hero moves?” Kim whispered to Alistair. She could barely see him in the gloom.

He gave a quiet laugh. “It’s more of a mood. I improvise the specifics.”

“How do we get it to go away to…wherever?”

“I’ve never met anything like that. Don’t think fire or bullets will work. Its eyes…”

She drew a shuddering breath at the memory. She could almost see the burning eyes in front of her, wavering like flame, a window into some distant cosmos. “I was promised cosmic mysteries when I signed up, but I wasn’t expecting monsters. Not like that. Maybe fish-men or sentient squid or something flesh and blood.”

Alistair touched her arm. “One thing you learn with the Librarium, the universe you thought you had sorted out is more complicated than you thought it was.”

The Beast’s footfalls sounded again. Was it running? Walking? The size of it meant that Kim had no real sense of how fast it was moving by sound alone.

It stopped outside their hiding spot and snuffled again.

Then dropped the flashing orb through the doorway and let out a low, rusty whine.

Kim looked from the blinking lights of the orb to the blazing eyes.

“Elder god,” she said.

Alistair was trying to pull her back to the wall. “Yes!”

“Are you sure that’s what it said?”

“Yes, why?”

Kim kicked the ball back out the door.

The Beast bounced and hopped after the ball as it pinged along the hallway. “Because it’s a dog.”

“What?”

She stepped through the hallway to see the Beast standing there, the ball in its giant mouth, and what she assumed was a stubby little tail on its backside wagging.

“It’s the Elder Dog, Alistair.”

He stepped out into the main hallway and stared at the monster. “A…dog?”

She pointed to the floor. “Drop it.” The dog obliged, tail still wagging. The eldritch eyes demanded that she throw the ball again. Kim obliged and kicked it again. Away went the Beast, chasing after the flashing lights through the hallways of Atlantis. “It’s a dog.”

“Well. I mean…the Atlantean word for divinity is not that far off from the one that probably means dog.”

“Probably?”

The Beast came bounding back, dropped the ball and Kim caved. She picked the ball up- it was covered with some sort of evaporating slime- and tossed it like a basketball. Away the Beast went, tail wagging.

“I just learned Atlantean a month ago. It’s not that easy! It’s been dead for eons!”

“Beast of the Endless Moment was right, though?”

“I’m sure of that one.”

Kim thought about it. “Dogs don’t really get time, right?” The Beast came back and she threw the ball again.

Alistair shrugged. He was even more charming when he was confused and not trying, slightly muddy and sweating. “Never had one.”

“You never had a dog?” She’d never imagined feeling sorry for Alistair in this way. “Well, when you leave a dog, the dog has no idea how long you’re gone. It could be seven minutes or seven months, he doesn’t know. He just knows the moment”

“So Beast of the Endless Moment.” The Elder Dog brought the ball, looked at Alistair for a moment, then dropped the ball at his feet with an expectant look. “Here you go, buddy.” He heaved the ball down the hall. “I’m, ah, I’m sorry.”

“You know, I’m not sure I would have believed it if you had translated it.”

“We need to head back to camp to see if we can get Professor Tanaka on the radio, or get a search party looking.”

The Beast took the ball to Kim. She picked it up and was very glad the drool was ephemeral. “Okay. Let’s, uh, let’s take our friend back with us so he doesn’t make things worse.” She tucked the ball under her arm and gently reached a hand out to a nose that was large, cold, and wet. She couldn’t help but smile at the touch. “No more play. We’re going to go for a walk.” She had no idea what to give this thing as a treat, but he was a dog. “Treats? Do you want treats? Let’s go get treats.” She tugged Alistair down the hallway towards basecamp and the Beast followed.

“It’s funny,” she said as the three of them made their way through the mud. The lights were staying on as the Elder Dog followed. Maybe he only caused that when he was excited. “I’ve been missing having a dog. That’s supposed to happen sometime, you know. You think about getting one, and then one just shows up.”

“You think your lease can put up with this?

She shrugged and reached over and up to the massive flank. Not only was his nose cold and wet, but he was also furry! The Beast’s fire-like tongue licked her entire side, leaving her coated in slobber. She grinned. “I don’t think a lease agreement is going to stand in the way of an Elder Dog from the depths of Atlantis.”

Her new dog let out a resounding bark that set the whole hall shaking to back up her point.

Short Story

Kathryn Zurmehly

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Kathryn Zurmehly
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