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The tower, stretching high into the rapidly darkening, cloudy sky, was perched precariously on the gorge top, overlooking the surrounding empty plains. A fantastic piece of workmanship, the tower clearly defied nature itself, having stood there for hundreds of centuries of angry weather and seeming to ignore the dangers the gorge presented. Its magnificent blackened stone walls and burnt window timbers spoke of the fire that once occurred here, one side deprived of the luxurious ivy that most of the tower walls exhibited. It was a wonder that anything could or would remain inside the tower after the obvious catastrophe and yet this is where I had been instructed to seek the scroll: in an abandoned and dangerously situated tower, reeking of malevolence.
It had been just a day ago when the fiendish storm had ripped my house from its burly foundations. I had been reading when the demon had arrived, lifting my house to the air in a seemingly impossible feat and displaying it proudly, as if boasting about its awesome might before hurling it back at me with unmatched force… Imagine my amazement then, when it shattered furiously all around me and despite the devilish flying rocks, I had acquired not a scratch or bruise. It was a sign. I had been called for. My assistance was required. By whom, I knew not, but it came to me that night while I slept beneath the eerie, pale light of the stars and a full moon. I slept badly, the spine chilling sounds from the various creatures of the night provoking thoughts in my mind about the possible perils posed by sleeping outside. However, eventually my mind wandered and within a shorter period of time than one might realistically expect, I was asleep. I dreamt. I dreamt that I was needed as a priest. Needed to retrieve a scroll lost thousands of years ago. A scroll that could be rediscovered in a tower atop the gorge of Moden… Humanity itself was centered around my existence. I must go…
Thus, I had travelled here, to the remote Island of Moden where I may find the gorge and with it: the tower. The journey, which was quite a novelty on foot rather than a horse and carriage, had been relatively uneventful, scarcely a danger other than the usual; the weather had been generally kind; no wild animals had made their presence known and there was an exotic abundance of fruit to satisfy my hunger.
I stood there, regarding the tower with curiosity, a feeling of dread entering my gut as I noted the birds of prey circling the pointed tip of the tower top. I lowered my gaze marginally to look at the curious deformed shapes of the gargoyles, appearing to watch me hungrily, reminding me I was lacking company, warning me to watch my every step. The moon was gaining in height now, and a spectral light enveloped the tower, the ivy seeming golden and even the rocks which had been as black as a void appeared slightly paler. Were it not under such dire circumstances, I may have been tempted to refer to the sight as prestigious. I forced my mind from the resplendent effect back to the task in hand-my search for the blessed scroll. I started the short but unpleasant walk toward the sturdy oak door at the base of the tower. As I did so, the moonlight revealed a small circular window placed above the entrance, its frame strangled with various overgrown wall plants, the darkness beyond: a mystery.
The stairway wound steeply upwards in front of me, the grey, stone slab steps disappearing in the gloom but a metre away. A colossal spider scurried across the floor before abruptly disappearing into a hole in the wall and a cobweb brushed across my face causing an involuntary shiver. I delayed not, but travelled up the stairs in haste, not wanting to remain any longer than was necessary in such a ghastly place. My footsteps echoed noisily up and down the narrow staircase and I felt the occasional loose step beneath my feet, each time making me start uneasily. The heat provided no extra comfort, merely stirring my claustrophobia and yet furthering my
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uncertainty. Since I had entered the building, I had been wondering idly if I really was alone. My eyes informed me I was, but my mind insisted I wasn't. A sudden sound behind me caused me to spin in fright and a beautiful tawny owl landed smoothly upon a charred window sill. It gazed solemnly at me, a gaze so intense that I could feel it penetrate my line of thought. A rich and instructive voice like one might imagine their conscience to sound entered my head. It spoke intelligently and I knew its words were filled with wisdom. "Go forth to meet the keeper, Sylvester. Beware his malice and liquid breath and remember this if nothing else: If the skin of Good and Evil does touch, then both lives are forfeit." It spoke the last angrily as if it was commanding such, and then the presence snapped from my mind, leaving just an empty space, sending a chill down my spine and consequently, I felt the hairs rise on the nape of my neck. The owl which had been sitting patiently, its eye contact with me never extinguished, seemed suddenly disorientated and hooting loudly as if in alarm and consternation, it ruffled it's hazel-coloured feathers before lifting itself into the air and hurriedly flying from my vicinity, back from whence it came. I paused. My mind was in uproar and confusion and I was torn between whether to continue into the unknown darkness ahead and remain in isolation, or returning to my village outside and ignoring my calling to 'the church'. Even as I thought of the latter, my mind seemed to retaliate to the thought and I staggered as if struck by a potent blow. The abrupt attack intensified my desire for the scroll and I ran. I sprinted rapidly up the attenuated staircase, blood pounding in my ears, all previous feelings of vertigo and claustrophobia dismissed in my urge to find the scroll and exit this citadel of abhorrence. The black, grimy walls with their crumbling mortar blurred past my face and tears appeared unbidden to my wild eyes. I slipped and didn't feel the pain as the floor raced up to hit me. Scratching, clawing, panting and crying, I desperately crawled upwards and only did I stop when I became aware of a welcome draught on my face. I glanced up, hoping, longing that I was at the end of my horrific journey. It wasn't possible! I faced a solid rock wall no different and certainly just as detestable as any I had passed so far. A terrible wail of anguish and frustration escaped my lips. It was a few seconds before my brain was back in the condition to even attempt to think and when I finally did, the thoughts I had were thoroughly disturbing and unpleasant. What happened now? Was I to die here? In my present state I certainly could not venture back down the staircase. I would not have the courage and my claustrophobia was returning and with it, the doubt of ever obtaining the scroll. I was thankful there was not a window near me for I must have been several hundred feet into the air by now and I did not pride myself in my adjustment to heights. I shivered and realised that there was fresh, cold, clean air blowing upon my face. A thought suddenly occurred to me. I looked up. A small trapdoor built sturdily of wood was poised above me. It must lead onto the roof! I noticed a heavy rusted lock dangling awkwardly from a bolt in the trapdoor but to my surprise, it had already been opened; snapped by the sharp, jagged appearance of it, and must have been for sometime because dust had visibly settled on it and there was no obvious disturbance. I began to push up the trapdoor…
The ruin I now regarded, judging by the chains strewn around the floor or bolted securely into the walls, had once been a prison, but the sight that was revealed to my eyes no longer resembled such. Ivy made its way from one precipitous edge to the opposite wall, various rocks and loose rubble being mercilessly strangled in its path. A low desolate wall faced north, and there were none to the south and west bar the weathered, blackened rubble which had once formed them. The highest wall was situated to the east, and my vision was limited by its shadow, however, I had no inclination to view anymore of this hell hole as was entirely necessary and due to the fact the main object of my interest was situated in the centre of the floor, I explored no further. I hesitantly began to walk towards the chest before me but hastily stopped when the birds of prey I had sighted from the ground seemed disconcertingly close. Cautiously, I resumed my walk, a watchful eye on the dangerous scavengers and gained a brief moment of satisfaction when I realised they were rising in the air as I neared, as if wary of me. My concentration could again be wholly focused upon the chest. As I neared the chest, I noticed it had been imprinted with fine lettering, a poem I presumed. Of lock and key there was no sign and there was no other apparent way to open it, so I directed my attention to the text below the opening seam. I read it aloud:
"When the hour doth come, Before the ending of the sun, O one of pure heart, Unto you I shall open.
When thou shalt read the scroll, Beware the vigour of your fear, If thou mind doth call out, 'twill bring the evil keeper here"
"Ah, you are here at last. I have been waiting."
I started as the voice intruded upon my troubled thoughts, and I glanced stupefied in the strangers voice' direction and listened attentively afterwards in case he, for it was a hoarse male voice that I had heard, spoke again. I was rewarded in this, for he said: "I knew you would come, Sylvester, especially after my feat with your house. I was quite impressed too!" he gave a gruff laugh and entered into a coughing fit, which lasted for a surprisingly long time. I was stunned. He knew my name, possibly my heritage and he claimed he had created the storm which had so ruined my life. I was angry. "Enter the light man, let me see this impostor!" I shouted to the shadows for he could not have been telling the truth, could he? My mind buzzed with the possibilities and as an elderly, withered old man entered my view, I could not help but chuckle out loud at his 'impossible' suggestion. The reaction which this triggered in the man was completely unexpected. His language was vile as he spat and swore oaths in the name of Satan, condemning me with various gruesome curses. After what seemed like an eternity, the stranger appeared to calm down, breathing heavily, the air whistling noisily between his foul, few teeth. He spoke again, a grating sound, that of someone clawing a piece of wood. "You dare insult me," he snapped icily, "Your life is held at my whim and yet you dare feel my wrath?" I was scared now. His voice was sending a series of chills down my back bone and I was worried. Was he of any relevance to my trip here, or was this just the coincidentally accurate rantings of an old man? My opinion was now swaying desperately close to the former and I was terrified of my own thoughts. It was as if a great demon had extended its hand towards me, gripped my mind and ruthlessly battered it around in my skull, my mind was in such turmoil. I stammered to think of an adequate reply for he was gazing at me intently like a lion might gaze at a helpless lamb before leaping to devour it and I grimaced as my imagination exaggerated this image mockingly. I found I was at a loss for words. "Ha!" The man grinned cruelly, dangerously, "You like the lamb?" His eyes flashed perilously, and I noticed a sparkle in his eyes. It was pleasure. I merely stood there, my legs proving immobile when I tried to run from the repulsive old man. He continued in his monotonous, gravely voice: "He resembles you," the man was taunting me now, "and me, I am the lion. You do what I tell you or feel the consequences. Agreed?" His shrivelled, long face was directed at me and by now I was fairly positive that this dire man had some how manipulated my property and my thoughts, and I gave up all hope of ever leaving the tower alive. "People refer to me as the keeper, though my name from birth has been Giovanni. Yes, I have dominated your life since the storm for I need you to get the scroll from the chest for me because I cannot touch it or my life", at this point 'the keeper' created a small flame in the palm of his left hand with no apparent effort or pain, "will flicker away in an instant!" The flame went out as he closed his fist upon it. Even in my fear I was impressed. But the reality of what Giovanni had just explained struck me with an awful chill and I shuddered. "I'll not commit this immoral crime for a mere criminal, Satan's disciple or not." My voice sounded surprisingly confident considering I was so afraid and I managed to straighten my back to emphasise my remark. Giovanni did not appear to appreciate the body language. In a flying rage, he incanted and a blinding pain filled my head, flinging my brain from side to side and burning me inside out. My hands flew to my face, scratching, tearing at the pain and tears came unbidden to my eyes. I could scarcely breathe and in a terrible fit, I collapsed heavily to the floor. Silence. The bare feet were hardly audible upon the slippery, grimy stone floor, yet I knew he had neared me for the warmth of his body so close to my own was startling in the freezing cold and his breath could be heard whistling between his teeth again. He knelt and I could feel the water in his repugnant breath condense on my face. I managed to feebly open my eyes and he smiled grotesquely, a grin of pure malice and his words were not a suggestion but a command, "Open the chest." I crawled slowly, for my hands were aching and the pain in my head had not quite dispersed, towards the chest and upon reaching it I slumped once more to the floor. Again I lost consciousness. When it returned, I could see his ragged clothing which scarce covered his wiry body flapping casually in the wind. I noticed his feet were blistered and his ankles chained together loosely which surprised me. Had he once been a prisoner here? I barely had time to think the thought before he was again speaking. "Run your hand gently over the lettering, Sylvester." I did not stir. I could not stir. "NOW, or I shall hurl you mercilessly over the precipitous edge and find another to do this job." I squirmed. My hand reached out to the chest and I carefully drew my hand across the engraved text, and as I finished, I heard an audible click. My eyes opened wide and I saw; the chest had opened wide and in the bare bottom of it, a scroll lay resting. I heard a gasp. Adjusting my line of view, I saw the Keeper, narrow eyes glowing, mouth opened cavernously in astonishment. He could hardly tear his gaze from the scroll and I wondered if he had somehow died standing upright-I hoped so. He glanced angrily at me and gestured for me to remove the scroll from the chest. I moved not. He glared, and then gestured, again indicating the scroll. I replied in the negative with an emphasised shake of the head and gaining my feet I hurled myself at the man. He had no time to incant but he stood his ground as I beared down on him. The pain. I squealed and then screamed. My hands were liquidising. It had begun at the fingertips and now the red liquid was flowing freely from my palms. I was horrified. It wasn't possible. Pain flared again and I could not paw at my wound or hold it tight. My hands themselves were now descending down my forearms, the red patch on the floor growing with each second. I screamed again and looked up. A feather floated downwards. The owl. What had it said? "If the skin of Good and Evil does touch, then both lives are forfeit". I threw myself over the chest and thus the scroll also, while I was lay there; no evil could reach the scroll for whatever purpose. The chest was safe, I breathed my last.
PS. I'm not quite sure how the criteria works for this one, so i just bigged myself up a bit, lol!
Somerset Maugham is the acknowledged master of the short story, and his full range is ... more
represented in this collection. In acclaimed stories such as "Rain", "The Letter", "The Vessel of Wrath" and "The Alien Corn", Maugham illustrates his wry perception of human weakness and his genius for evoking compelling drama and an acute sense of time and place.