British Museum, 31, March,1871
Conroy Smith needed coffee. As senior curator for the British Museum’s Palestine collection, he’d spent over thirty years travelling all across the globe to acquire rare and ancient artefacts, sacred statues, dusty scrolls, and a panoply of pagan idols from the Canaanite, Israelite, Syrian, Amorite, and Phoenician civilisations. In 1841, on his first excursion into the Levant, Smith had located and negotiated the purchase of a magnificent bas relief of ‘Ishtar the Warrior’ in battle dress tiara and armour, standing beside her trusty lion companion. Locals had claimed the remarkably preserved representation had once adorned the walls of the Shakkanakku’s palace in ancient Mari, though Smith had been unable to prove such provenance. A local emir had aided in the politically charged discussions, and the litigants had finally settled upon an agreeable price, allowing Smith and his team to deliver the superb art display to its current resting place in London.
Smith’s rousing success made the youthful curator an instant celebrity amongst the antiquities set. An academic ‘feather in his cap’ to be sure, for the acquisition of the extraordinary exhibit had garnered Smith a visit by the queen, a promotion to senior staff, and a substantial rise in pay. But it was a career zenith, which he had thus far been unable to match.
It was nearing eight, and the sun had long since set upon the Bloomsbury district of west London. Smith had one final task to perform before locking his cramped office and heading home to his wife of fourteen years, Eliza Riley Smith, mother of three and wonder of the modern world. Tonight, they’d enjoy mutton stew and a game of whist with their eldest son Caspar and his wife Rhonda, followed by an hour talking politics and exchanging recipes before a cheerful fire—their usual Friday night entertainments. Life in the Smith household was indeed a good one.
Conroy, however, would never make it home that night, for in just a few short minutes, the ageing academic would be dead.
Holding a heavy iron jemmy in his left hand, the scholar squinted at three lines of fine writing on an identification tag attached to a very large, cedar crate. According to the invoice, the box held an artefact discovered in September, 1869 in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range by an archaeological team sponsored by the Palestine Exploration Fund. The intake date and item code, handwritten in black ink upon the paper tag, indicated that the crate had arrived at the museum the previous summer, but no one had yet examined the contents, for the thick wax seals upon the corners and along the front remained unbroken.
“Evenin’, Dr. Smith,” a disheveled student called as he appeared in the narrow doorway of the confined space. “You ‘bout ready to leave, sir? I could share a hansom with you, if you like.”
Smith stood over top of the curious container, his thin back bent as he traced its rough contours, prise bar in hand. He looked up at the lad, a pair of half-moon spectacles sliding down his thin nose. “Wilson, I didn’t hear you come in. Hansom? Oh, yes, I see. Ride home. That would be quite nice,” he muttered as he pushed the spectacles up higher against the bridge of his nose. “It’s this box, you see. I’m wondering why no one’s opened it. Did any of you chaps in receiving ever see it?”
“Sir?” the lad asked. “I’m not sure. When did it arrive?”
“The tag and invoice say last year. June. Something this large must be important, and it’s certainly heavy! It took six men to hoist it onto a trolley and convey it over here from storage. I’m trying to add a bit of zest to the Levantine collection, you see,” he explained, standing up and cracking his aching back with his free hand. “The public’s had enough of the tried and true, Wilson, so I thought I’d take a walk through the basement archives to see if I might find a new star, and I chanced upon this. Extraordinary, really. The contents seemed to shift strangely as we loaded it, and I could have sworn I heard breathing. Like there was some animal inside, but… Well, it’s my imagination, I suppose. Has to be, right? As you’re here, I wonder if you might lend a hand?”
The twenty-four year old set down his painted tin, dinner bucket and removed the woolen coat. “Happy to help, sir. Shall I prise it open for you?”
Smith had celebrated his sixty-third birthday three weeks earlier, and he welcomed the suggestion. “That would be very nice, William. Thank you. These old arms aren’t what they once were.”
Bill Wilson took the heavy bar and set the forked end against the first nail. “Funny,” he said, laughing slightly as he pushed down, “this seems buried quite deep. Like someone was trying to make sure your new exhibit didn’t get out. Not sure it’s gonna budge, sir… No, wait. Here we go.”
The long, iron nail screamed sharply as it slid uneasily through the cedar, complaining to be removed from its resting place. Soon, its companions also abandoned their sentry duty, no longer guardians of the box; free to find a new home in an old drawer or melted down as scrap—reborn as delicately wrought gatework or cast into animal-shaped bakeware. Thirty-three nails lay upon the floor by the time Wilson finished his labour, and the newlywed’s striped cotton shirt had dampened beneath his waistcoat. “I reckon that’s done it,” he said, triumphantly, wiping his face with the back of his hand. “Shall we see what’s inside, Dr. Smith?”
Conroy Smith remained silent for a moment, his large ears trained on the strangely compelling crate. “Do you hear anything?”
Bill Wilson stared at his mentor. “Sir? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Ssh! Listen! Like it’s…I don’t know… Breathing. Perhaps whispering. Not English, though.”
“Probably just me you hear, sir. I’m a bit winded.”
“No, it’s not you,” Smith insisted, his face a clammy white. “More like the faint cry of a desert bird, echoing against the night sky. I’ve not heard that sound since my last trip to Syria. Oh, never mind, William,” he muttered, seeing the concern in his student’s eyes. “Just my half-starved brain in need of a bit of supper, I imagine. Grab that end, will you? Let’s see what Warren’s crew put in here back in ’69, eh?”
The two men lifted the top of the cedar box and set it to one side. Mounds of pale, yellow straw met their eyes, and upon the top lay a leather envelope, tied with waxed cotton string. “This might be a detailed description,” Wilson said. “Shall I, sir? I can read whilst you take a peek at your new treasure.”
“Capital idea!” Smith agreed, and he began to comb through the straw with his ageing hands, making sure no small items were concealed within. The box was over four feet in length, and as the curator reached the last of the packing, Smith’s knobby, arthritic fingers touched a hard surface. “Oh, now, this explains the weight. Feels like limestone, though strangely warm. I can perceive several lines of carved writing. Why hasn’t this been exhibited already?” he wondered aloud.
The last bits of straw had been piled upon the floor, and Conroy Smith felt like a child at Christmas. The five-and-a-half-foot-tall archaeologist knelt gingerly upon the wooden floorboards, praying his bony knees would hold up, and he gazed giddily at the stone.
“It’s a stela!” he exclaimed, a broad grin pasted across his wrinkled face. “Magnificent! Oh, this is a prize, indeed! What does the description say, William? Does it give the stone’s provenance?”
“That’s hard to say, sir. It’s written in a dialect of Arabic I’m not familiar with. I can make out parts of it, but not all.”
“No matter. I’ll translate it later. Oh, this is beautiful! The patina indicates a very old origin, but it appears someone’s cleaned it recently. Warren’s team, I imagine. It’s broken horizontally across the midsection, but I can still perceive the writing. Some form of ancient Greek, I think. I’ll require stronger light to read it, though. Would you hand me that small lamp, there on the right side of my desk? Ignore the clutter. I’ve been conducting an inventory all week.”
The younger man found a brass oil lamp, lit it, and handed it to his friend. Smith held it close to the enigmatic stone. The buttery light danced upon the thick lenses of his spectacles, whilst illuminating the roadmap of sagging lines in the old man’s eager face. “Such a beautiful stone,” the curator muttered to himself. “You know, it feels as if it’s vibrating.”
“Vibrating, sir? Most likely just the passing of a train outside.”
“Ah, yes. Surely.”
Wilson held the Arabic enclosure up to a wall sconce. “I can read some of these characters, Dr. Conroy,” he said as he puzzled through the complex description. “It’s from the PEF, all right. Warren’s group that explored the Levant in the late ‘60s. The same crew that surveyed Jerusalem. There are several words here that mention a temple. I wonder if that might be the ruins of the Herodian temple of the Hebrews? No wait, perhaps not,” he continued, holding the paper closer to the flickering sconce. “Not the Hebrew temple at all. This section says something about Mount Hermon and a place Warren names as Qasr Antar, I believe. I’m not familiar with such a site. Hermon, though. That’s in the Anti-Lebanon range, isn’t it?”
Smith looked up, his rheumy, grey eyes rounding above the flat rims of the spectacles. “Did you say Mount Hermon? Really? Now, that is curious. Do you know the Book of Enoch, William?”
“Enoch? As in the Old Testament prophet?”
“The very same. An Irish colleague of mine, Robert Charles, has been studying and translating the Book of Enoch into English, and he’s given me several copies in various ancient languages. Charles believes the book is essential to understanding the mindset and mythologies of the ancient tribes, and I agree. The contents tell of a singular event that occurred upon that very peak! Mount Hermon, I mean. It’s the real reason that Warren’s team was sent there, you know.”
Wilson scratched at a fly, buzzing about his face. “But I thought they were sent to survey the land in preparation for building a road, sir.”
Wiping his lenses with a paisley print handkerchief, the older man explained patiently. “You’re not alone in that misconception, William. Road-building is ever on the minds of the British government, of course, particularly in Palestine, but the unstated purpose for the Warren expedition was to settle a bet ‘twixt Reverend Stanley and Sir George Grove. Strange reason for mounting such a costly expedition, but Stanley is convinced that the Enochian text is a true telling of an actual, historical event. Sir George, on the other hand, believes it mere allegory, if not complete fiction.”
The senior curator held the lamp beside the limestone stela, and to his eyes, it seemed that an ethereal, blue luminescence glowed from within the ragged crack.
“I say, Wilson! Did you see that?” he asked the younger man sharply. “I think there’s something inside!” the curator gasped, his excited breaths shallow and rapid. The strange blue glow disappeared just as Smith raised his lamp. “Never mind. Must be my imagination, or else a trick of the poor lighting in here,” he concluded, wiping his spectacles.
Wilson’s only response was guttural, as if he’d cleared his throat rather than risk a remark that might sound disrespectful.
Smith ran the creased palm of his left hand along the deep carving and peered into the horizontal fissure, but the light refused to reappear. “Perhaps, I’m just tired. Strange, though. This inscription. It’s an archaic form of Greek, I think, William. I’m a bit rusty, but I believe it says, ‘By the order of the great god most holy; those who take the oath, proceed from here’. This cannot be coincidence! I’ve seen this same statement before! It is precisely what the Book of Enoch describes as the oath taken by the two hundred sons of God—those whom Enoch called the Watchers—when they entered our world from atop that very mount! Incredible. Absolutely incredible! Wilson, this stone proves the story is true! All true! I say, William, do you realise what this means?”
There was no answer, and the room grew inexplicably cold. The coal fire still burnt brightly, but Smith could see his own breath, clouding the air with silvery mist as if the carbon dioxide vapour froze the moment it emerged from his lungs.
“William? Bill? You all right?” he called again.
The only response was a strange, staccato breathing—like the panting of an animal. Only this time, louder, closer.
Right next to him.
Smith turned, his grey eyes rounding into startled saucers. A long shadow crossed his face, and for the briefest of seconds, the half-moon spectacles reflected a creature of immense proportion.
“Good heavens!” Smith shouted, starting to rise, but a fist slammed into the elder man’s face, breaking the nasal septum and causing the lenses to fly from the thin nose bridge and sail towards the far wall. The next blow slammed the curator against the rough cedar boards of the crate, fracturing his left arm in four places and shattering the greater trochanter of his left femur. The third blow split his upper lip, cracked six teeth, and partially dislocated the left temporomandibular joint. Blood filled the curator’s mouth, and his mangled lips poignantly formed the word ‘why?’ as the possessed archaeology student picked up the heavy, iron prise bar and raised it high overhead.
The hellish entity, released from its stony prison and now inhabiting and forever altering William Wilson’s appearance, used the once human eyes to stare at the fragile old man for several seconds. It mentally examined the meagre contents of the curator’s pockets, read his thoughts, counted every thread of his six-year-old suit, mapped the wrinkles on his hands, and determined the precise cadence of the old man’s failing heart; summing up sixty-three years of life into one final judgement.
“You have freed me from my prison, so I offer you one chance for life. Whom do you serve, human? Will you throw away your love on The One, whom you call I AM, or will you follow me to glory and riches?” the being asked.
Nearly unconscious, Conroy Obadiah Smith thought of his beautiful wife Eliza and of their three children, all grown, all successful, and he summoned up the courage to reply. Though his speech was garbled, his mouth filled with clotting blood and acrid bile, the valiant human spoke unflinchingly to the ancient creature.
“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand in the latter day upon the earth,” Smith quoted. “No matter what you may try to do to me, Watcher, you are forever damned!”
“You have chosen poorly,” the thing replied, and the iron bar slammed into the parietal bones of Dr. Conroy Smith’s delicate skull, disintegrating both along the coronal suture, and cleaving the gentle curator’s brain in two.
The Watcher knelt beside the broken body, touching the blood and examining it, smelling it. “Human blood still tastes sweet,” he said, licking at the warm, sticky substance. “Too long have I slept. Let us see just how this world has changed in five thousand years.”