EDIT: I've revised this on the 27th of January 2008. If that isn't allowed, please disqualify this entry.
At last he came upon a great hall, the base of an unfathomably tall tower. The interior was set ablaze by a monstrous light that did little to penetrate the looming darkness hanging above. He moved towards the center of the hall where, resting atop a golden and ornate pedestal, lain the object of his quest. The pedestal was mounted upon a dais which burgeoned little more than an inch off the floor. The tapping of his footsteps echoed and rebounded off the walls in metered procession, and the sound of the cascade brought back to life ancient memories of the many ceaseless feet which toiled for the once great empire that built this place.
He came finally upon the object, an unremarkable and smallish ebony, stone sphere. Never had fatigue so totally conquered him. His footing at once became unsteady, and his body heaved unnaturally like a top at the end of its spin. No, he realized, it wasn’t his legs that shivered and convulsed, but the dais as it lurched aloft the ground, driven by an unseen mechanism.
A single ribbon of light dangled down wistfully from the darkness hanging above and fell precisely upon the stone. He watched with unease as the monstrous light receded from his feet towards the circumference of the dais until at last it slinked away into the void. The deliberate pace of the rising platform was bringing him further and further into darkness. Nothing was left now but the strand of light and the sphere. Perhaps he too was slipping away into nothingness, and he splayed his hands across his body, feeling longingly for tangible proof of his own existence.
The lurching of the dais as it came to a stop made his legs shiver. His hands throttled the neck of the pedestal grievingly lest he slip and fall forever into the black. All at once the darkness gave way to the sun and he skulked as if from furious judgment, holding his arms aloft like a shield. At last his eyes adjusted to the light enough to see. Above him were the sun and the languid blue of the sky. He peered warily over the edge of the platform, and into the hollow of the tower, a gaping maw hundreds of feet in diameter. He could not discern the ground. For how long had the dais made its climb?
Beneath and around him were clouds, thick and impenetrable and unnaturally still. Upon the air hung a quiet gloom and he suddenly felt profoundly alone. The tower extended many dozens of miles from the ground. The last hundred feet of its span protruded out of the thick cloudy sheet like a lighthouse upon a white and frothy sea. There it stood a millennial watch over a blank and timeless sky.
And now, in his solitude, the man was in wonder of the tortuous design of fate. In the most distant of distant past, a great few who knew too much of the world to want to keep living in it, left the stone here as a legacy of their godhood: a promise for whomever could navigate the ocean of time and find it. But how had he, a thoroughly mediocre man, succeeded in reaching it?
His vision was fuzzy. In front and around him were blobs of colour, indistinct and pulsing like the surface of a sun dappled ocean. From his waist downwards was a numbing, almost ticklish ache that alternated from vexation to screaming pain in beat with his heart. But what was truly grating, was an incessant whistling that blew clear into his face. It came again and again, each time louder and louder that he became scared his ears would begin to bleed. Now came a puffing; fast, steady and deep as the breathing of a bull to the challenge of the matador. It, too, grew increasingly loud.
In the discordance he could make out a voice. Its pitch was high enough that it could have belonged to a woman. Now, he felt a pair of hefty arms deftly threading their way under his armpits and over his shoulder. Three strong yanks, and still no movement. He tried pushing himself upwards but his legs were lifeless. He felt a sudden surge of instinctual urgency, added to by the desperate gout of vulgar curses spewing out behind him. One more pull from those strong arms and out he went at last, flying backwards onto his rescuer sending both crashing to the hard ground. “Smash!” went the train, and his car was no more.
“Am I dead?” he uttered thoughtlessly, and then darkness.
Bright, vengeful light poured in between his half opened eyelids. His body was nestled comfortably atop an old spring bed. He breathed deep. The air was musky and vaguely smelled of cabbage, not at all how you’d expect a hospital to smell.
“It’s because you aren’t in a hospital,” came the reply to a question unasked.
The patient became instantly suspicious. “Where is this?”
“Stay calm please,” the voice intoned paternally. “This is a hospice. You were touch and go for a while, that I nearly gave up on you.”
Now, the doctor came in to view. He had tired, friendly eyes, and pursed lips masquerading as a smile. “Your name’s Timothy, correct?”
“Tim is fine,” he said tersely then quickly added, “Were you the one who saved me?”
“Yes,” came the quick answer. “Can you stand?”
Tim had been too afraid to try. He imagined the bones in his legs smashed like terracotta chips, and dreaded the painful punishment his body would exact on him for daring to move. Noticing his hesitance, the doctor gave him a sharp and hard kick to the thigh.
“You jerk!” Tim yelled unthinking, then suddenly realized how completely unscathed he was. He sat up, briskly checked himself for wounds, and finding none, stared at the half smiling doctor bemused. “How is this possible?”
“Are you always so reckless?” the doctor rejoined.
Tim blinked. Immediately his heart fluttered with panic then as quickly sank into despair. The doctor noticed this changed demeanor and for a moment regretted asking the question.
Tim looked out to a window he had just noticed was there. The view was of the usual collection of drab tenements slightly obstructed by clinging bits of condensation on the frosted and sordid glass.
“I was going to see my wife,” he said crisply. “I got a call at work. The man on the phone said she had a stroke. He told me she was an organ donor and I needed to rush over to sign off on her paper work 'cause she wasn't gonna make it anyway.” His voice rose, “Can you believe that? Who the hell says something like that over the phone?” Sighing, he turned to the doctor. “And so I rushed over, flipped my car onto the rails of an oncoming train and somehow came out of it without a scratch on me. Your turn now, doc. How is this possible?”
The doctor answered without pausing a beat. “In my basement is a stairway to heaven.”
“Say that again?” Tim edged slightly away from the man.
“Of course, I mean that metaphorically,” the doctor smiled wryly. “Now, let me tell you a story.” He sat himself upon the bed and spoke as a father would reading to his child, “This building was once a boarding school a long time ago when this place was prosperous. I was an inquisitive child, and while the others played, I explored. Under the school was an endless maze of black corridors, the hollowed remains of a bomb shelter left standing after the war. There with me was an odd sort of man, gaunt and grizzled by time. For whatever reason, this janitor plowed through those empty hallways sweeping, mopping, and polishing with I alone to admire his thorough work. Seeing me one day, he beckoned and I followed. Navigating those indistinct corridors, we came finally to an unremarkable door. Behind it, he told me, was a tunnel which burrowed into the deepest reaches of the earth and under the sea where it emerged into an unfathomable tower that led straight up to heaven. And there, waiting for whomever would undertake the journey, was a promise. One a man.”
“A promise?” interrupted Tim, unexpectedly intrigued.
“Only that. He would say no more.”
“And you believed him?”
“No, naturally not. I left and never spoke to him again. But out of a misplaced sentimentality, years later, I returned.” He paused a moment, “And then I opened that door.”
“And behind it?”
The doctor giggled demurely, “The tunnel, just as the old man had said!” He spoke with vigour now, just managing not to stammer. “I must've spent an entire day scurrying through it. Past it was a cavern, more tunnels, then the tower. And inside, was the promise."
“What the hell was it?”
“A sort of jewel, as small as my hand and black as midnight.”
"But what was it?"
Tim’s excitement smashed against a wall of confusion.
“I'm a doctor. I believe in what I do. So I asked for a cure. Panacea. A thing that undoes completely any injury that either nature or man suffers upon man. And that is how you flipped your car onto the rails of an oncoming train and yet came out of it without a scratch on you.” The doctor knew and expected what would be said next.
“Then, you can use it to cure my wife!”
The doctor replied solemnly, “I run a hospice and not a hospital. I have spent my life curing with magic those who could not be mended with science. But I am not a magician, and this is why you are the only patient here now.”
Tim, too, knew what would be said next.
“There was only so much of it, and I’ve spent the last on you.”
The both of them had spent the better part of a day hazarding a barely navigable course of moist dirt with nothing but a kerosene lamp to brighten the way. It was not so much a tunnel, but a hole hewn from the living earth without form, design, or care. They who ordered the tunnel's construction had but one command: dig. But what was lacking in craftsmanship was made up for in sheer scale. Thus they journeyed for the Panacea once promised to the doctor.
“Jesus, doc, how much further does this go?” Tim said and spat, granules of dirt crunching in his mouth.
“I can't exactly say, but it shouldn't be much further on.”
The decline tilted a further two degrees and the doctor was breathing very heavily now. Tim leaned him on his shoulder, and the two hobbled along like a clumsy, swearing, spitting four-legged beast. Another timeless span, and at last, relief.
“I think it's starting to ease up now,” said Tim.
He hadn't realized when it happened, but the earthen walls were gradually replaced by stone bricks. Where there was once the chaos of half-wrought nature was now engineered geometric precision. The clearing was only a few feet away now, and for the first time in a long while, the both of them let out a gasping laugh.
“Let's rest here a while, Tim,” said the doctor already on his knees beneath the eaves of the tunnel's mouth.
Settling down beside him, Tim asked facetiously, “You know, doc, I don't even know your name.”
“Doc is fine,” came the terse but cordial reply.
They were now inside a capacious cavern. The rock was pristine. The only other obvious structure was a wooden bridge, two feet wide, some distance ahead which bounded over a sickeningly deep crevice. A second tunnel opened up on the other side. Tim wondered at the strangeness of it. Who would build a bridge of wood within this monolith of stone? Rested, they made their way towards the edge.
“That bridge looks rickety. Not at all how I remember,” said the doctor, smothering a frown.
“It worked well enough for you the last time,” said Tim unconvincingly. Even in the relative dimness, his face was visibly livid. “It's the height, doc,” he said, preempting the question. “I've been scared of heights since I was a kid.”
“Well, let's not take any risks. Take the lamp and head on across, slowly,” He grabbed Tim by the shoulder whose head cocked back startled, “Remember, take small steps,” said the doctor, “I'll follow a little bit behind you.”
Tim brought his right foot down first and the bridge growled as though vexed by it. His left foot was coming down now, and again the bridge moaned. It went on for at least a hundred feet and he uttered an obscenity for each step it forced him to take. Twenty feet left, and he was moving fast now. He could hear the doctor whimpering from behind. No, it was he who was whimpering. The doctor was yelling for him to slow down. Only ten feet left to safety. To hell with the doctor, he thought, and he made a dash for it. Then the unthinkable happened.
First a slackening of the bridge, the sickening screech of wood tearing to pieces, and then very suddenly the both of them were beholden to gravity. Tim grabbed fast to the bridge's anchor as he fell while the doctor dangled pendulously several feet down, his hefty arms wrapped around the part of the deck that managed to stay in place. Hoarse pleading for help floated up from below.
Tim began lowering himself down using the collapsed deck as a ladder. He offered his hand to the doctor who, reaching too eagerly, fell even further down. Tim again made his approach, but he was spent. He dredged deep within himself, frantically searching for that desperate morsel of courage that could make him extend his hand only two inches more. He could find none, and so he climbed.
Reaching the safety of solid ground, he ran into the tunnel on his end of the divide, away from his shame. There, huddled around the dimming lamp, he wept bitterly. And when the doctor's muffled cries for help at last stopped, he rested.
It surprised him that he had never thought to ask the doctor how the stone worked. Was it enough just to touch it or was there a ritual needed to be performed? Possessed by a painful and desperate need, he made his way to the pedestal. With a broad stroke of his hand, he snatched the stone off its mount. A response came instantly, not with words but ideas. His mind was filled with conflicting visions at once faint and booming, timeless and immediate. But the message was clear.
It spoke of an ancient people who had sought to elevate themselves above the cosmic order and failed. Mourning the end of their once glorious empire, the wisest of their number gathered here, atop this tower, to vouchsafe their most powerful artifact. And thus it said plainly, “Whatever you ask of me, I will give to you. I promise.”
He considered, with himself, the reply. And brooding over the singular nature of the promise, he wondered, “What thing could sate a heart that wanted so much?”
The man answered, “Give me power.” And it was his.
I wonder if you can ask for more.. hmm.. I wish many of these stories were true lol
Well written ending