A moistureless wind wormed its way through the northern desert of Sovam. Yawning, the Keeper moved to the window at the apex of the stone tower to look down upon the rust-streaked dunes. Outside was desolation. There was nothing on Sovam save for an artifact crafted by the lord of gods, Zalama, and the spire of a monument he had left to contain it. Few knew of this, so it was no surprise that the Keeper spent most of his days in meditation or slumber.
He had awoken only due to their sheer numbers. None of the glory-seekers he sensed in the lower floor of the monument held power enough to worry him. He was undaunted. His duty was to protect the Heart of the Dragon at any cost, and he would.
So far, none who had come seeking the ancient artifact had succeeded in their quest. The Keeper had not been chosen lightly for his role. Should anyone beat him, they would become significantly more powerful, gaining godly increases to their stamina and durability. Should they also beat the Keeper in Universe 1 (whom he had been told looked nothing like him, and was probably of inferior stock (though saying such was mere speculation, and not fit for this type of commentary)), acquiring the Heart of the Dragon's piece in that universe, and then combining the two, they would unlock the artifact's full potential: the devices, combining together and then being swallowed, would attach to the user’s spine after being ingested, allowing for seamless and fluid time-rending abilities. To turn back time was taboo, but Zalama ranked over the Angels in that opinion. It was not up to them to determine that. One who had acquired both artifacts could go back in time a fraction of a second, or perhaps even more, depending on one’s strength. Power was one of the most unpredictable factors in opponents.
He jumped into the gravity lift that would take him all the way to the planet’s surface. The monument’s lowest floor was little more than a meditation room for those waiting to do battle with the Keeper. Yet it was vast enough to hold more than ten thousand prospective fighters. The room was overflowing with the amount of life he felt down there.
The monument to Zalama’s artifact was two thousand meters tall. It was the only structure on Sovam, and the Keeper the only permanent living resident. He didn’t entirely mind the bleakness. Its looming nature haunted him when he visited the desert. Blinking, he felt his boots touch the ground.
He supposed one of the reasons he was never anxious in these situations was the fact that he was six meters tall. Apparently few alien species could grow to a size rivaling his own.
Clicking their mandibles, the alien throng surrounded the Keeper. “Easy now,” he said. “Remain calm, prospective challengers.”
They would not.
“Well? Are you here to challenge me? I will take all of you on at once.”
The beasts were bug-eyed, each with pairs of front and hind wings on their backs, shimmering black, metal blue thoraxes, and five-pronged mandibles mouths full of rows of dagger-like teeth. There were thousands of them, spreading out in the chamber as far as the eye could see.
They said nothing to him. Those who had surrounded him had only done so out of curiosity and were now returning to feasting on the glowing golden energy flowing down from the lift tunnel. That was from the Heart of the Dragon; for him, its heat output was useful for nothing more than to give him a nice three second warm up while traveling up or down the lift in the dead of winter, when the desert would freeze solid and he would have to use his own energy to heat the monument. They were gulping in the glowing heat as if it sustained them. The more audacious ones crawled over their peers, slapping each other aside, clawing and growling and clicking their mandibles in a frenzy to suck in as much of the divine energy as they could before being kicked away by stronger, or hungrier bugs.
Revulsed, the Keeper stepped back, raised a palm, and rolled out an acidic yellow wave of energy matter, instantly dissolving a vast segment of the swarm. He wondered if they were addicted to the artifact’s energy… but how could they be? This was the first time in his life that he had ever sensed or seen a member of this species of space wasp, or whatever they were.
He was hit by a wave of vertigo, and feeling nauseous, hunched over as the remaining wasps stepped aside to let their queens rise from the swarm dominating the wide hall.
“We mean you no harm, foreigner. We are the Atatu. We are here to finally reunite with our creator… he who saved our species during the twelfth dynasty long ago. We are of the three hundred ninety-third dynasty, of course.”
Their eyes radiated a silky, pale blue as they spoke; their heads were gigantic and fan-shaped, with darker blue and purple veins bulging out from their foreheads that glowed whenever they spoke. “Shut up. I don’t care whose dynasty you rule. I have one job here. You want the artifact?”
“It contains some trace of our lord… we are sure.” The wasps clicked their mandibles frenetically in response.
“Then you’ll have to fight me for it. To the death. Don’t worry, I’ll take all of you on at once.”
The Keeper clenched his fists, then ran a finger of his left hand down the back of his meter-long scimitar of an ear like he always did before every fight.
The queens never blinked; they never expressed emotion or opened their mandibles for even half a click. They stared pensively, wings spread.
“We do not want violence, stranger. We o–”
The denizens gasped in unison, and he saw it too late. The golden light faded and was replaced by darkness (and a little purple from the gravity cannon). Some desperate wasps crawled up nearly into the lift, sucking uselessly at the air like addicts.
Something in his neck spasmed. “If you’re still here by the time I return, I will take that as a challenge for Zalama’s artifact. I will kill you.”
Then he was gone, back up to the small holding chamber at the top. He could sense them now. They were eight. Closing his eyes, the Keeper thought of his duty to Zalama, to Geene, to the universe. It was his job to prevent anyone unworthy from stealing the device, let alone use it. They would pay severely for their breach of protocol.
The thieves had gathered in the artifact’s chamber. That left the Keeper more on edge than usual. The doctor had never missed his drop-off dates before. This time, he was two days early. His first instinct was to believe the convicts had broken out of their holding cells and escaped to Sovam themselves. He arrived at the top of the tower with such speed that the lift spat him out all the way to the center of the room, where the Heart of the Dragon usually hung in mid-air, surrounded by a bubble of divine golden light.
No such light remained. In the cramped, yet sparsely-adorned room, he was able to take in all of the intruders with a single glance: one lay on the floor at his feet, cradling a burnt arm; three more huddled around a fourth, who was holding the slender, gold-tinted artifact; two more were standing guard at the far wall, where they had melted their way through, letting the dry desert in with an indulgent exhale of sand and alien air, not quite tolerable enough to spend an entire afternoon in.
“Come on, Tarvesh, he’s here! You’ve gotta do it now! There’s no time, man. Go on, you coward!”
The man holding Zalama’s artifact was shaking, his skin having gone a sickly brown color. He tugged at his beard and shook his head. “You’re sure that’s what I have to do? Sure?”
“Aye! Just do it, Tar, do it!”
The prisoner behind him was sneaking closer. Without wasting time, the Keeper teleported to him, elbowed him to the floor, and clamped his foot upon his spine until he felt it shatter. His comrades screamed.
The Keeper contained his rage. “Did the doctor send you here?”
There was quiet, and some whimpering, before they broke.
“Yeah, yeah, alright! Yeah, he did, alright?!”
“Helian, what are you doing? Shut up!”
“What, Guwa, what?! What’s it matter, anyways? He’s gonna kill us!”
The Keeper’s pose became more defensive, yet no less threatening. Sparks of lightning popped around his fingertips, waiting to be unleashed. “What did the doctor order you to do after you were brought here?”
“Steal the artifact! That’s it! Honest sir, honest!” one of the thief’s blue-skinned buddies squealed. “Please, just let us go, we didn’t mean you no harm!”
A wry smile cracked the Keeper’s worn face. “Once a month, Dr. Kommon brings to me, here, eight criminals on death row from the Galactic Prison whose execution dates were scheduled for that very day. You are this month’s batch, it appears, but you are also two days early. I will make note of that next time I see the doctor. Hmph! You were never supposed to touch the artifact. After all… you must face me first.” He exhaled, standing as tall as he could, raising his hands above him. Small though this chamber was, it had been built tall enough to accommodate the Keeper’s needs. “Come.”
He clenched his fists, then ran his finger down his ear.
“B-but… why?!” the female barked. “Why send us here? The doctor promised us freedom! We were free… he swore… I heard him say… you heard him say…”
They exchanged nervous looks.
“That’s true. You’re free to leave if you defeat me. If you have that power, you may leave. Come, test yourselves.”
The woman was murmuring something to the bearded thief. Another one of their companions, a crustacean-looking fellow, brandished his claws and jumped between the Keeper and the artifact-holder. “What if we don’t want to? Say we leave–”
“No. You’ve stolen the Heart of the Dragon. That crime cannot go unpunished. Either you will die, or I will. Make your decision. There are seven–well…” The Keeper slammed his foot over the moaning man with the burnt hand who had not moved from his spot on the floor. The Keeper suspected it had been he who had greedily reached into the golden light enshrouding Zalama’s treasure. “Six, now. You would be wise to formulate a plan for your survival.”
They exchanged looks and quiet words, and he fell into a more offensive fighting pose, still with both arms raised. Now the itching in his fingertips was growing unbearable; the Keeper released two cyclones of colorless ki at the guards by the busted window. His energy mingled with the wind howling into the inner sanctum, mixing sand and ki and electricity. The guards, both of whom were furry and large, with three big black eyes apiece, were torn apart in half a second into their fruitless scamper back to the rest of the pack.
“Come on, Tarvesh, you have to do it now! We’re out of time!”
“He lied about bringing us to freedom, Guwa! He could’ve lied about that too!”
“Enough! We’re out of time, Tar! We’re all gonna die right here, right now if you don’t swallow it!”
“I’m not doing it, Guwanu, I’m not!”
She took him by the throat, slapped his cheek, and the artifact fell from his hand. The Keeper’s concentration broke, and that’s when the crustacean and the yellow-scaled lizard alien jumped at him, claws out. A torrent of red energy flew from four hands, coating the Keeper in boiling plasma. Steam and smoke wrapped around his body, obscuring him from view.
The space crab clicked his claws gleefully, signalling his ally to join him. As they charged what they assumed was the charred remains of a very large body, the smoke cleared, revealing the Keeper unharmed, malice in his eyes. There was a second, perhaps two, where the convicts could have stopped or turned around. They felt that moment wash over them in an adrenaline-fueled panic that quickly gave way to uncontained arrogance. They were not afraid of him; they would not run from the man who had murdered their friends.
The moment before their fists made contact with the Keeper, who stood there glowering at them, his defenses not even raised, their foe’s blood orange eyes flashed a deep shade of indigo, and so too did his aura instantly change. “You’re destroyed,” he said calmly, and a pulse of that same indigo energy exploded out from his body in a wave of burning ki, overcoming both men before their fists could make contact with him, vaporizing them into nothing.
Guwanu had kicked Tarvesh away.
In a gust of wind, the Keeper was on her. His purple aura had faded to white. She tried to put the artifact in her mouth, but he grasped her head, placing his palm against it and pressing her face deeper and deeper into the floor, shattering the stone tiles. Blood poured from numerous cuts on her cheeks and ears and chin, and she was groaning in pain from the ki he had materialized around his hand that was cooking her flesh and hair.
“Tar… Tar… you gotta…!”
And that was when he felt it. Not her skull crack like a cooked egg under the pressure, but a sliver–something stinging him in the heel. At once, the Keeper’s body locked up, hands out, feet spread, and he fell onto his side. His breathing became erratic, and he didn’t move one bit (although he bit his lip).
The thief began to laugh. He laughed for a good long while as he got to his feet again, walking slowly around until he faced the Keeper, who was looking up towards the empty artifact pedestal, a layer of sweat coating his face.
“That would be Syaneaus venom, thank you very much. Paralyzes on the spot, hah. You can thank the Atatu tribe for providing us with a few of these, hah!” He marched around gleefully, throwing the empty syringe aside before coming to a stop in front of the fallen Keeper. “And oh, look at this! You’ve done me another solid, hah! You’ve killed her, boyo! Bravo! Excellent work. I do applaud a fellow artist when I see one, but I’m sure you understand, hah!”
He plucked the Heart of the Dragon from her bloody carcass, wiping it off on his pants. “So, just me and you. And that paralysis won’t last ten minutes. I know I won’t get away if I run, hah. I’m not scared, trust me. Trust me, boyo.” He patted the Keeper on the shoulder.
The Keeper couldn’t even manage a grunt in reply. His face had turned almost gold in the blush he had assumed; he was sweating and biting his lip so hard that a trickle of blood was now making its way down his scarred chin. His eyes were wide, staring at Tarvesh with unfiltered ire. The convict seemed to like that. He took a moment to stare back before continuing his rant.
“Ooh, that’s gotta hurt. Gotta hurt, eh, boyo? Hah! I can’t imagine what you’re experiencing. That’s the worst stinger in the universe, I’ve heard. Top o’ the charts, yeah? Real nice thing the doctor hooked us up with in the end. He was a damn liar, but the Atatu were just stupid enough to be useful, hah!” The man’s beard swayed in the wind. As he moved over to the window, watching the sunset on Sovam, he casually leaned against the wall, tossing the artifact down and up in his free hand. “Well, this worked out nicely, yeah. Real nice, hah! I’ll be paying that doctor a visit soon after this, you can count on that. Damn liar. Alright, boyo, you ready to die?” He spun on his heels, his eyes bulging out, his voice raised, his lips quivering. It was admirable, to say something, that he was able to muster up so much emotion in so little time. “Watch this, boyo! Now I’m going to become a god. And as my first act as God of the Universe, I smite you, pathetic warden, for bastardizing your role. Have you no shame?!”
Spitting, then smirking, then winking, the thief popped the artifact into his mouth and swallowed it. For a second, nothing happened. He stared at his hands, moving his fingers about, as if trying to grasp onto the godly power of the Heart of the Dragon from thin air, and a dry wind blew in through the hole in the window, causing the Keeper to shiver.
The Keeper’s pain was acute, to say the least, but he was never one to complain. His muscles were locked up, but in that moment, the venom’s potency began to dissipate, and that was just enough for him to roll onto his stomach and start crawling over to the convict.
The alien noticed, and bemused, strolled over to the Keeper with a triumphant flair in his step. “Oh, you’re able to move again already? Oh goodie. Now I’ll be able to hear your screams, hah!”
Sweat dripped off his chin. Panting, holding back his groans, the Keeper looked up at the man with almost a panicked tone in his voice: “Are you divine?”
“What?! What kind of a stupid question is that? Of course I am. I ingested the Heart of the Dragon like the doctor said, boyo. Don’t be stupid.”
“No, you fool! Were you divine before you took it in?”
“Before?! N-no… don’t be absurd, hah! Of course not. How could I have been?!” the man spun a finger through his beard lackadaisically. “That’s absolute nonsense. You become divine once you acquire the artifact. That’s how it works, you inbred cretin. And now, I will use its divine powers to destroy you.”
He raised a fist, hot white energy forming around it. The Keeper did not move. The wind was cool on his face.
“If you’re not divine already, then…”
Suddenly, the thief wheezed, standing up straight and dropping his energy attack on the floor, where it blew up harmlessly, sending dust and ash in all directions. Before the alien could utter a cry, his head exploded, and his body fell with two delayed, sloshy impacts.
He was on his feet, though he didn’t remember standing. The Heart of the Dragon was never to be touched by the Keeper. He would never touch it, never be tempted. With simple telekinesis, he pulled it out of the foolish man’s chest, purifying and sterilizing it in a ball of orange-black ki before returning it to its pedestal. As soon as it was returned to its right place, the golden bubble re-formed around the artifact, and the heat output of that divine energy once again began streaming down towards the lift, and out of the inner chamber.
The Keeper exhaled and collapsed; the pain was still acute. He would not let it dominate him. The Atatu were still down there. Perhaps they weren’t lying. Even if they were, he could vaporize the lot of them in one blast. The pain made his back spasm, and he jerked to the side, biting his lip again. No, he would not destroy them. They had merely been pawns in the convicts’ game of deception; he would leave them for now.
As for Dr. Kommon… well, he would have to think that over later. The venom still held the Keeper in its bitingly warm embrace, and he knew he would not be able to form rational thoughts while he was under this much stress. He closed his eyes and began to meditate, and eventually, the heat in his leg began to dull, and the venom’s grip began to wane, and he wasn’t shaking, and he wasn’t dying, and it wasn’t over. There was no more hate, no more rage, no more retribution, and after that, no more pain.
Cool desert winds from the north were blowing through the wounded tower, ushering in the night, and as the Keeper lay there, he thought it felt nice on his face.
The Custodian was the Keeper’s only companion, though it wasn’t a living being. It only came out after battles to repair any and all damages to the monument. The inner sanctum glowed gold, and he still felt weak. Watching the Custodian replacing the window, the six-meter-tall man hardly noticed a pair of devious aliens appear behind him.
“Keeper… it’s been a while.”
“Lord Geene!” He fell to a knee, bowing his head. “It is good to see you. What brings you to Sovam, sir?”
“Get up.” He did. Geene was standing nonchalantly, his arms folded, smirking. “The Supreme Kai said he was sensing unusually high power readings coming from Sovam, so I thought we’d stop by to check things out. We were concerned about the well-being of the artifact. I don’t want it falling into the wrong hands. But it appears you have once again done your duty admirably.”
“Thank you, my lord. It wasn’t anything you need worry about. Just a pack of Syaneaus–the Atatu tribe, to be precise. They were drawn here by the Heart of the Dragon’s heat output… said it reminded them of a god who once saved their species long ago… They weren’t here to fight for the artifact.”
“So you let them go?” Martinu, the God of Destruction’s rather plump attendant, asked.
The scaly god gave him a dispassionate look. “You’re an Agent of Destruction, Keeper. I’m surprised you, of all people, would let them go.”
“I have allowed them to return to this place once per year. Who knows… perhaps this will be the start of a thriving tourist industry on the lower floor. What do you think, my lord? The halls are wide and empty. There is room for it. We shouldn’t let all that space go to waste.”
“Yes, yes, Keeper. We’ll see about that next time I come to visit. You remember when that is, don’t you?”
“Correct, my lord,” he said. “You will train me further in destruction techniques precisely seven months, four days, and fifteen hours from now.”
“Have you had a chance to use the destruction technique on anyone yet, Keeper?”
“No, Lord Geene.”
“I see. Very well, Martinu. We can go. And Keeper… do not use that technique until I return. We shall go over its powers and limitations in our sparring session. Until then, use it on no one who comes here. Do I make myself clear?”
“Very much so.”
And there was a look in the god’s eyes, a flicker of some trickster relishing in what he had just done, but he knew if he pulled back, he was lost. He stared down the man, fearlessly, his bones turned to ice. It was only when they were gone that he realized he had been clenching his fists. Exhaling deeply, the Keeper returned to his meditation pad, hoping to clear his mind, hoping to return back to a place free of the terror and constant vigilance his post required.
Even under his eyelids, though, he could see the phantom trails of golden energy leaking out down towards the bottom of the lift, as if coaxing any would-be hero onward and upward, and to that end, the Keeper wondered if Zalama’s artifact was truly on his side or not. Then he would close his eyes, and meditate, and things would continue on, as they had for a thousand years, or had it been more by now?