By D. Glen Cardenas (c) 1994
Part 1 - Legends Of The Desert
Whenever Draman encountered an Old One, he had the strong urge to touch it, even though to do so was a strangely unpleasant experience. It was not a painful thing nor was it forbidden in any way. The fact was, to touch an Old One simply gave him the creeps. There it would sit, perfectly still like a trophy of some kind. Eyes open, looking straight ahead just as they did when it was still "alive". Thinking of an Old One as dead was in itself creepy. Even when animate, they were not alive as he understood life. The Herbin who had been his teacher defined an Old One as a Herbin that had re-assimilated. Thus, the husk was of no value and simply abandoned by the Herbin where it happened to be standing at the time.
This made some sense to Draman, able to relate the event to the death of a human like himself. The body being of no further use to the spirit is abandoned and left to rot. So it had been with his grandfather, his younger brother, several friends in his past and so it would be with him at the time of his death. However, this correlation was of little consolation to Draman. Human bodies were subject to sickness and damage as well as old age. When the body dies it decomposes, eaten by the smaller life that could not be seen but whose work was well understood. An Old One never decomposed. The skin was tough like the hide of an alligator, the body so solid that one could not compress it by squeezing. The eyes were like stones that could not be punctured nor scratched. Even years of exposure to the elements caused no signs of decomposition and some of the Old Ones had been standing undisturbed since the time of the great poisoning. Only the knowledge that the Herbin were not of his world allowed him to accept these odd features as givens.
Draman's father was one of the village thinkers, and as such was allowed to witness the dissection of an Old One a few years ago. His father was well versed in the science of life and was often called upon for advice whenever a neighbor's animal became ill. It stood to reason that he would be able to understand the inner workings of a Herbin. He could not. Their insides were solid, composed of a rubbery mass with no discernible organs or fluids. There was no brain, heart, lungs, blood, nothing! The Herbin who supervised the dissection could offer little information other than to say that all of his kind were alive for reasons different than those which governed terrestrial life. This was not surprising in that Herbin moved without moving and spoke without speaking. A Herbin simply willed itself to a place and would float over to it. When they spoke, the words went directly into the mind of the one being addressed. Even those standing right next to them would not hear the words unless it was the wish of the Herbin that all should hear at once. Luckily, the Herbin would not listen to words in a person's mind unless they were conversing. They refrained out of respect. Draman knew this to be true, otherwise his teacher would have known how often he had wished it would become an Old One and leave him to play instead of making him study.
Now that the time of his structured learning had passed, Draman missed his teacher. He wondered where it was and if it had become an Old One by now. He even contemplated the possibility that the Old One standing before him might be the husk of his teacher. It was impossible to tell one Herbin from another. In fact, the only thing that indicated a Herbin had passed on and become an Old One was that the slender trunk under its eyes hung placidly to the ground. When "alive", the trunk possessed a slight curvature which held it away from the face. Otherwise, they looked the same; a teardrop shaped body about a meter in height sitting squat on a pair of flat plates which could loosely be thought of as feet, small tubular arms without hands, unmoving, unblinking eyes and that long trunk for a nose.
He stared at it for the longest time as if trying to learn something about it. There was no way to know how long it had been there. The wind seldom blew hard enough to topple one. This particular Old One was standing just beneath a rocky ledge on firm ground. It could have been there for hundreds of summers. The sun being low to the horizon, it cast its shadow far along the cliff face. After a few more moments, Draman realized that this shadow meant he was losing good riding light and was in unfamiliar territory. It would be wise to move along quickly. The night carried many dangers this far from the villages and his friends at camp would be worried should he be much later. Safety in the desert exists in numbers and alone he was vulnerable. At camp he could rely on his comrades and they on him. The journey they were on had a great purpose. He must concentrate on that. This was just another Old One like a thousand others he had seen around the villages. To spot one out in the desert was no great find; they must be everywhere. He rode on.
Once back in camp, Draman told the others of the Old One in the desert. It so happened that each of them had encountered at least one while scouting the area. Joshlar had seen almost a dozen while making his rounds to the east. They concluded this to be a sign and decided to proceed east at first light. According to the Herbin who requested this expedition, the cave above the ground would be found at a place where many Old Ones had re-assimilated.
The Herbin had no way of performing work themselves in that they could not hold or carry anything nor use tools. They could only think, then convey their ideas to humans who would carry out tasks the Herbin needed done. They now saw fit to locate some cave above the ground and reveal its contents to humans. To do this, the expedition had been mounted and it was the task of Draman and the others to enter this cave and bring back for study whatever they found inside to be valuable. They were twelve strong with a team of horses and a cart. No one knew what they were going to find in this cave nor why all of this man and animal power was necessary to return with it. Draman speculated that the Herbin knew down to the last detail what was in store. However, they were very tight-lipped about it. Easy for a Herbin considering they had no lips. Even so, they would reveal nothing more than to say the group was to bring back what they perceived to be the most valuable items they encountered. It was left up to them to make that decision of value.
This was a test on many levels, Draman speculated. To survive the journey was test enough, but more important, the Herbin apparently wanted to gage humanity's readiness for more advanced knowledge based on the kinds of choices Draman and his group made on this quest. This was a great responsibility, he thought. Indeed, he speculated that the future of his village, all villages, rested on their collective wisdom, courage and judgement. At least this seemed to explain why none of the Herbin had chosen to go along on the expedition. When asked if any would be joining the group, the Herbin in charge of this project said they would have to find their own way, and that it had full confidence in the group's ability to carry out this mission without any intervention. The answers would have to wait until their return, if they returned, he thought.
As night progressed, talk turned to eating, then to sleeping, then to dreaming. Draman had a most disturbing dream. He dreamt that he and his party found a great mound in the desert surrounded by Old Ones and piles of human bones twisted and distorted as a result of the effect the poison had had on its victims. As he approached the mound, he discovered himself to be alone, naked and unable to breath. Somehow he knew that if he could move the massive rock that covered the opening of a cave in the mound, he would be able to catch his breath inside. However, to reach the rock he would have to walk over piles of bones; indeed, would have to stand in them.
Forces pulled at his motives. On the one hand he wanted to breath. On the other hand, contact with the bones of the poisoned was forbidden. He felt himself growing faint from lack of air and in a panic flung the bones aside and started to claw at the great stone. Slowly it moved. As the stone moved enough to stick his head into the cave, he did so, plunging his face into utter darkness. He drew a deep breath. Then the smell came. Rot. Pungent, sickening rot unlike anything he had ever smelled. As his eyes adjusted to the light spilling into the cave around his head he saw them; Old Ones. Hundreds and hundreds of them. They were all rotting, their bodies caved in and slumped over with a thick green slime oozing from them. So great was his terror that he wouldn't move. Suddenly he realized that his head was wedged and he COULDN'T move. He clawed at the stone and tried to pull his head out but he was stuck fast. He screamed. He awoke.
Jerking upright in his bedroll, Draman came face to face with one of the horses who had sauntered over to him as he lay sleeping. He screamed aloud and the horse whinnied, reared back, then wandered away completely insulted. He looked to his left to see Joshlar convulsing in laughter at what he had just witnessed. Draman was somewhat less amused. After exchanging some well-placed remarks, Joshlar recovered enough to carry on with his watch and Draman lay back down to contemplate his dream.
In the time of his youth, he had been told many things by his grandfather which his father later insisted were falsehoods and superstitions. His Herbin teacher had likewise debunked a lot of the old legends of his grandfather's generation. Dreams being prophesy was one such false superstition. Still, he could not help reflecting on his sleeping vision. He looked at the elements of the dream and tried to analyze their origins. The mound and cave were simple enough to understand. He was on an expedition to locate this cave above the ground. His nakedness and solitude must be fear of the unknown. Being unable to breath until inside the cave was his curiosity driving him to explore. What about the rotting Old Ones? What could have caused that? Why was he trapped there? Then there was the pile of bones. In times past it was forbidden to touch the remains of the poisoned, but his teacher had told him there was no danger in this. For a time after the poisoning the poison lingered in the bones and those who touched them were also poisoned, but this had not been the case for hundreds of summers. The old poison had died long ago.
What was this poison? Why did most of the people on Earth die in mass at the time of the great poisoning? What was the meaning of the strange writings they had left behind? What were their mysterious tools and machines used for and why did their knowledge die with them? The Herbin had been here from the time of the poisoning and knew all of those answers, but when asked said only that in time, "you will learn the harmless truth of your ancestors." Harmless truth. What did that mean?
Draman pondered, "Why do we have to wait? The old machines must have served the ancestors well, for the desert was littered with chunks of them. Why can't we learn to build and use such machines? Why do the Herbin guard us so closely?" The bones of those machines were as confounding as those of the poisoned.
Draman knew he had no answers and part of the reason he was out here with Joshlar and the others was to bring back pieces of those answers. "The Herbin will not teach us all at once, but are making us discover the truth for ourselves slowly with their guidance. That must be it," he thought. "They hold us back for a reason, but what reason?" After some time spent running the circular logic of this argument through his mind, Draman fell back to sleep and dreamed of his boyhood. He went back to the times when his grandfather filled his thoughts with the legends. Back to the time when knowing was not as important as asking; when the truth was not as important as the answers. Back to the time of poisoned bones.
Dawn happens slowly in the desert. The sun first lightens the sky then takes its time rising above the mountains that skirt the desert some forty days to the east. Draman was awake at first light, still uneasy from his dream during the night. He watched the growing light with little attention. It was the same as he had seen every morning since his party had entered the desert fifteen days ago. Even the features of the mountains had changed little in the course of the journey. The sun now rose to the north of the peak called Vulture Head where as it had risen to its south at the start. This was the only proof that they had made any progress north. Otherwise, the desert looked the same now as it had half of a moon cycle ago. There was no life, no features, no water, nothing.
The legends said that before the great poisoning this area had been alive with crops. Except for the occasional traces of pouredstone pits marking once standing dwellings and some rusted metal from time to time, nothing gave away this wasteland's heritage. Even the bones of the poisoned had been swallowed by this place if there had been anyone here at all. The legends also spoke of a great river a hundred or so more days to the north but no one he knew had ever seen it. In fact, he and his group were some of the first to venture this far north. When his grandfather was a boy, some of the village hunters had traveled this way never to return. None had tried since. Now the Herbin said it was safe and it was time. So here he was, watching the sun rising to the north of Vulture Head.
The group broke camp quickly and headed to the east where Joshlar had seen all of the Old Ones the day before. After six hours of travel they came to the area, noted the gathering of those rubbery statues and carried on. After four more hours they found another concentration of Old Ones. Fifteen or so at first, then another fifty, then a sea of them. As far as the eye could see there were Old Ones standing. Due north, Draman saw something very odd. It was a great square in the desert. They were still too far away to make out what this object was, but it was large and standing in the midst of dead Herbin perhaps another hour away. The decision was made to camp here just behind the ocean of Old Ones and send a party ahead to investigate. Thamis, Drewen and Pheen were chosen to scout the object while the others made camp. Three hours later, they returned with an amazing report. The object was a massive structure of some sort, very old and sealed by a great sheet of metal over a door sixty hands wide and about as tall. This was the cave above the ground. Not a cave at all, but a place of the poisoned still standing intact!
The excitement was overwhelming. No one in the group could hardly eat except the horses of course. They ate very well indeed. Best they should, because tomorrow they would have to bear some sort of great load. Just what, that was up for speculation. One thing was sure. Tomorrow would bring many answers and surely many more new questions. This subject was discussed well into the night and by morning some were still discussing. Needless to say, no useful conclusions were reached. That was of little consequence. The fact was, some simply couldn't sleep. Even with this there was no lack of energy or enthusiasm when camp was broken and the party made its way to the big square in the desert.
After traveling about half way, Draman suddenly realized something. This great mass of Old Ones were all facing the square. As he looked ahead he saw nothing but backs. Behind, he saw nothing but hanging trunks. This struck him as singularly peculiar. At almost the same time, Amad, who had been riding beside him began to notice this too. The two looked at each other, then at the array of Old Ones, then back at each other. Both brought their horses to a stop. The rest of the party also stopped.
Joshlar and Thamin galloped over and looked at Draman inquisitively. They asked what he had seen. Draman only pointed around at all of the Old Ones. Then they too realized the odd nature of their orientation.
"The legend!" Thamin uttered in a very quiet voice. Draman nodded in agreement.
"It is as my grandfather used to tell. He told of a time when the Herbin tried to move things by gathering in large numbers and thinking it to happen. The Herbin had discovered a place of the poisoned that held the answers to many questions but they could not enter it directly and so tried to think their way in. It is said that many of them devoted their lives to the task of trying to find this power, but the power never came. After a time the Herbin who spent their lives at this task were thought of as insane. These must be the crazy Herbin. That square must be what they were trying to open."
"May we have better luck," remarked Joshlar. A note of sarcasm was clear in his voice. He was a very fearless hunter. Nothing quickened his heart short of mortal combat with, say, a bear or wildcat. Sometimes Draman wondered if even that really effected him. It was obvious by the smirk on his face that Joshlar was ready to take on whatever challenge this square had to offer. The others too began to chuckle, then one by one turned their mount back toward the square and rode away. Draman was the last to continue on. He was the one who had had the dream. Now that dream haunted him like the legend of the crazy Herbin. There was bad magic ahead. He felt sure of that. Falling in line behind the pack horses, Draman pondered the rotting Old Ones in his dream. Nothing came to him. He hoped that nothing he was about to experience would hearken back to it either.
Without any further conversation, the expedition made its way to the great square in the desert. Once within fifty feet of it they had to dismount due to the concentration of Old Ones in close proximity. Walking in silence they came to the structure and Joshlar placed his hand on the wall. He felt of it and tried to judge its size. About a thousand feet across and fifty or more high he concluded, and announced as much to the group. Draman then put his hand to the wall. It was stone; almost. More accurately, it was stone blocks laid in a staggered pattern. The blocks were maybe five hands long and three tall. In between each block was a kind of stone mud that joined them together. These blocks were very smooth and cut so evenly as to defy speculation of what kind of tools were used to quarry and shape them. Furthermore, all of the blocks were EXACTLY the same size and positioned in perfect symmetry. None seemed damaged or even weathered. This was truly a wondrous thing.
Two of the group walked the length of the wall and soon disappeared around the side. Some time later they emerged from the other side and called with great excitement that all should come to see something they had found. Themis offered that his comrades had likely discovered the metal door he and the other two had found the day before. That was indeed the case. Once around the corner, a massive flat sheet of metal came into view. It covered almost half of that side and was recessed a bit into the wall. This made for the impression that the sheet was indeed a door of some kind. It fit flush to the sides of the recess so perfectly that perhaps even the air within could not escape around the joint.
"It is well and good that we have found our cave above the ground," Joshlar mused. "Now how do we get in; by incantation?" The others chuckled. Draman did not.
"It is expected that we should stand around and think it open until we all go insane," he continued. "Rather, I choose to eat. Let the Old Ones fret over it for another hour. I don't think they'll mind."
With lighthearted laughter the group made for the horses and lunch. Only Draman stayed behind to stare at the massive metal door. Something was stirring inside of him; a fragment from another of his grandfather's legends. He began to recall a story about a great village in the far north. A place laid out with huge huts of stone reaching to the clouds and inhabited by thousands of people. This place had wide ribbons of pouredstone that linked all of the huts and upon these ribbons traveled machines to carry the people around. This village was both a wondrous place and an evil place. Those who fought the evil came from the country and from among his ancestors who at the time lived in the mountains. The rulers of the great village would punish the country and mountain people for supporting the fighting by rounding up the women, the old and the very young. They became hostages against the warriors. These prisoners were forced to live in great stone structures where they were tortured until the warriors agreed to stop fighting. The fighting continued and so the rounding up continued. Then came the poisoning. Great stone structures...
He looked up at the top of the metal door as if to see some kind of emblem that might mark this place as one of those structures. He saw nothing except more metal and stone blocks. He turned and walked away. Several times he looked over his shoulder as he walked, almost expecting the square to be following him. Perhaps not the square itself but the evil within it; an evil he knew they would find once the door was breached. These Old Ones; they had died here in the desert trying to open this thing. "What is inside this place that they felt so obsessed to reach," he wondered. "Why did the Herbin show such trepidation in coming along with us. Do they fear this place? Should we?"
Draman did not eat well, nor did he join in the foolery of the others as they ate. He set alone with a wheat loaf and skin of ale farthest from the square and closest to the horses. The only comfort he could draw from this journey was to think that if he should live to reach home, this day would be one from which legend are made...if he lived to reach home.
Once again, the group stood before the perplexing metal door and pondered. Joshlar took his best ax and challenged the obstacle with a mighty swing. Not only did it damage his blade, but the resulting thunderous reverberation from the contact deafened his comrades and frightened the horses. Only a small dent resulted from the effort. Joshlar figured that having already ruined his ax, nothing would be lost by a second attempt. His ax blade shattered on impact, a piece of it flying back and cutting his arm. In an act of defiance and revenge, he then beat on the door with the bare handle while venting an impressive array of curses.
Draman took it upon himself to test the stone with his ax. He fared no better. Some of the party started to scrounge through a small pile of machine remnants to see if anything usable as a battering ram could be found. Everything was so rusted that it turned to dust when touched. This left them back at square one. Joshlar parked himself on the ground in front of the door and drank from his water skin. The bleeding of his arm had stopped and he took the opportunity to wash the wound and dress it with a piece of cloth from his pack. Draman sat down beside him and drank as well. A few of the others joined, some tended the horses, others wandered around the square aimlessly.
"Would the Herbin have sent us to this place if they thought we wouldn't be able to get in?" Draman asked of Joshlar.
"Who is to say what those little bastards would have us do," he answered bitterly. "Maybe they sent us out here to die as an example of some sort. We have only eighteen days of water and food to return home. We are seventeen days away as it is. There is no time for solving puzzles. If we do not enter today, we will leave and that's that."
Joshlar slowly raised himself from the ground and made for his horse. After scrounging in his pack for a moment, he returned with a parchment. It was his log. Opening to where he had made his last entry, he read aloud to Draman.
"Day sixteen - we have reached the cave above the ground as prophesied by the Herbin of the village. It is a great square structure with a massive metal door which we must somehow open. I have little faith that we will, as the sea of Old Ones that surround this place can attest."
Joshlar put down the scroll. "I don't know what I can add to this. The breaking of my best ax perhaps? The wound on my arm? The stupid looks on the faces of my comrades as they circle the square over and over? What?"
"This is but another test for us," Draman offered. "The Herbin do this to force us to seek our own answers. They can give only so much to us themselves. The rest must come from within. That is their way; that is nature's way.
"You have always been the bravest of my friends, Joshlar. Sometimes though you try to think with your iron heart and not your head. This place will not be entered by the ax, it will be by cunning. Think with your mind. This place is not a battle of strength, but of wits. Granted, it may be just as deadly. If so, it will be from us killing ourselves. There is nothing alive here to fight. Don't now turn on yourself. There is bad magic here. Very bad. Keep your wits about you my friend. We will all need them."
Draman got up and faced Joshlar. Both smiled. Joshlar often resorted to his physical power to solve problems. Draman was more of a thinker. The two had been friends for most of their lives and one thing they had both learned was that they needed each other to balance. Draman, the cautious one. Joshlar, the fearless one. Surely the task ahead of them would require the best of both. Joshlar had tried his way without success. Now Draman had to try his.
In the tradition of his father, Draman began his approach by looking at the facts at hand. There was a structure made of stone blocks with a metal door. It was impossible to break in. There was no handle for the door. All four sides had been explored without adding any new clues. That left the top. What was on top? Scaling the wall would be a formidable task, but the time had come to try. If any clues remained undiscovered, they would be found there.
As his luck would have it, Draman was the most skilled climber of the group. Logically he would have to make the first climb and secure the rope ladder for others to follow. In that Joshlar was the strongest, he would have to try to toss the climbing hook and rope to the top. Even Joshlar doubted if he could throw that far and tested his arm with a few small rocks. It would be close.
After a few moments of twirling the hook above his head and meditating, Joshlar reared back and gave a mighty fling. The hook struck the wall almost fifteen feet short of the top. Three other tries produced little improvement. Some other way had to be tried. A slingshot was proposed and so several bows were disassembled and re configured to make one. After a few tests, this too fell short of the goal. Pheen had an idea. The main problem was the weight of the long rope attached to the hook. Perhaps two slings could be used; one to send the hook and another to propel the rope. This idea was refined to having Joshlar fling the hook while the sling tossed the coil of rope in the air behind it. The idea worked on the first try.
It was not known what the hook had caught on some fifty feet above him, but it held fast and Draman was faced with the task of making the climb. He wasn't looking forward to it. Draman was not a coward, but likewise was no fool. He had his reasons for not wanting to make this climb. Not the least of which were his dream and the legend about the prisons. Somehow he knew that fewer than the twelve who started on this expedition would live to make the return trip. He didn't want to be one of those left behind in a desert grave. He had a bad feeling about this place, but also had a responsibility. It was his honor as a leader among his comrades that pulled his weight up the rope, not his eagerness to enter and conquer the stone square. Such motivations were Joshlar's, not his.
About half way up he felt the hook slip almost a foot. He froze. Looking down, he knew that a fall from this height would likely not be fatal on contact. It would surely cause him to suffer for a day or so before death took him. He hoped that he could make it at least another fifteen feet so that should he fall he would die and be done with it. The rope held. With a grunt and blessing under his breath, he reached the top and found a flat pouredstone roof upon which he could stand. He also found that he wasn't alone up there. More Old Ones covered the place and something else was there. It looked like a bubble of some kind sitting in the center of this roof.
He capped his curiosity long enough to pull the rope ladder up and secure it to the pipe that had snagged the hook after slipping along the ridges of the pouredstone. Only one chance in a million of the hook finding that pipe, he thought. Heaven was on his side; so far. He called for Joshlar and Pheen to join him. As soon as they had made the climb, Draman pointed to the bubble. Joshlar grinned from ear to ear. Now they were getting someplace.
Filtering through the profusion of Old Ones, the three confronted the bubble. It was about four feet across and made of something clear. It looked like glass but had to be very durable to have lasted all of this time. Joshlar put his face to it and looked in. He almost leaped back in astonishment.
"I see light from within!" he proclaimed. "And there is a full skeleton in clothing just under the bubble. It doesn't look like a poisoned one. None of the bones are twisted like the poisoned. Yet, it is still very old."
"A survivor?" asked Pheen.
"I don't know. I don't think he will be telling us either. Check around and meet back here. If no other options are forthcoming, we will try to get in through the bubble." Draman hoped another way could be found. Survivor or not, he wanted nothing to do with this skeleton. Somehow though he knew it would all come down to these bones. Courage, he thought; courage.