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The hermit stepped out of his shack and into the sun. He squinted, covering his eyes with one leathery hand, and glanced up into the sky. The sun seemed to be closer today than usual, and moving more quickly. Perhaps the day would pass more quickly if it was. Stepping out onto the hardpan dirt, he hurried around to the side of his shack where a split-rail fence surrounded his little vegetable garden. Rooted more in sand and loose dirt than in real soil, it was difficult to maintain, but not impossible. The straw-man he’d propped up in the corner helped to keep the crows away, and they were as destructive on the few green plants as the sun was. He pulled a wide-brimmed hat off the straw-man and slipped it on his own head. His eyes immediately began to adjust to the shade. He turned, unable to see, and took two steps before his foot caught on a small rock. He stumbled and dropped to one knee. The old man rubbed the knee for a minute before standing and gathering his robes around him.
Glancing back up at the sun again, he blinked his eyes and struck out down the slight hill, away from his shack and toward the pen where he kept his goats. Tending the goats was at least a three-times-a-day venture. Milking and feeding in the morning, feeding in the evening, and giving them more water early in the afternoon, but it was necessary. It took him only a few minutes to shuffle down the bare hill to the pen and check the trough. It wasn’t empty, but it would be within the hour. He sighed as he always did, and reached for the pump handle nearby. Faded by sun and time, the once-blue handle was now barely gray. He used both hands to loosen the handle. When most of the shrill squeaking stopped, he continued to pump, using only one hand. He rested his other arm on the top of the short fence and leaned against it. As he waited for the trickle of water to appear, he looked north toward the horizon.
The vast wall of the Kohina Mountains scratched a jagged line across the sky, its edges blurred by the clouds that frequently gathered across the peaks. He’d traveled there once. Storms of rain were common in the spring and summer there; in the fall the peaks were blanketed with frozen water – what the locals called snow. He’d played in it like a child, never having seen anything like it before. He’d seen it a few times since, but in the Gethren Mountains to the west, where the tinkers lived. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, he’d load his cart and push it across the desert floor and up into their town. He’d trade what he could for more seeds and more wood. Nearly all the wood on his plot came from the trees high above the tinkers’ town. It would take him three or four days to make the journey, but in their vehicles, they could bring the load of wood in less than a day.
He glanced down at the pump. The first trickle of water had started to splash down the chute and into the goats’ trough. He switched positions and worked the pump with his left hand now, found himself staring south into the rocky, rugged mountains he’d never visited. He had dealings with the dragon-men, but no interest whatsoever in visiting them. He’d never return from a visit to their town, or their village, or their city, or whatever it was they lived in. He’d never given them any reason to take him, but going to them would likely be reason enough.
The trickle had finally become a flow and he focused on working the handle for a few minutes more, until the trough was full. Before he was done, he picked up a bucket lying on the ground and sat it upright. He swiveled the pump-chute to fill the bucket. He wasn’t dry yet, but it couldn’t hurt to have a little more in the house.
When the bucket was full, he released the handle and rubbed his hands together. His fingers ached just a bit, but it worried him. If the time came when it hurt too much to work the pump, he wouldn’t be able to survive out here. He might then have to go elsewhere. Maybe the tinkers would take him in. He picked up the bucket and started up the hill. As he did, he glanced east, toward the vast plain and horizon without mountains. As always, the only things he saw there – excepting the scrub brush and sedge grass – were the three flat-topped stone obelisks. Each stood a mere three feet high, and about three feet across. Each was sixty feet away from the other, in a perfect triangle. The cylindrical sides were carved with all manner of images, but he didn’t know what any of them meant. He knew what they did, and that was enough.
He was halfway up the hill when the ground began to rumble.
He stopped where he was and glanced up, into the sun, then down toward the obelisks. It couldn’t be. The rumbling continued. A crow, no longer frightened by the hatless straw-man, cawed and flew away from his garden, frightened by something else. Another one flew up out of some scrub near one of the obelisks, its wings beating furiously as it escaped the trembling.
He set the bucket on the ground and began to hurry back down the hill. After a few seconds, he heard a roll of thunder from above, and glanced up again. A dark cloud was forming directly over the stones. Confused, he stopped running and pulled the hat off his head. The stones themselves were vibrating. This was wrong, all wrong. Above, the clouds congealed into a roiling black ceiling. He heard a second roll of thunder as a bolt of lightning leapt from cloud to one of the obelisks. He rubbed his eyes. A second and third both struck the two remaining stones. As he watched, the obelisks shuddered and the rumbling grew louder. This was entirely wrong. Slowly, the obelisks began to grow, rising from the hardpan, revealing their nature as huge columns hidden under the desert. Three-foot cylinders grew into ten-foot columns, and continued to climb out of the sand. He’d never seen this happen – not this early. This was nearly two months early.
He turned and ran toward his shack. Behind him, lightning struck again, dancing from the flat top of one growing spire to another. His hat fell away from his fingers as he scrambled up the bare hill. As he burst through the open doorway into his home, the obelisks had risen nearly thirty feet and were still reaching into the sky. He ran through, rushing around the table and chairs in the center of the room. Most of his belongings were on open shelves built into the walls themselves, or hung from hooks, but there was one cabinet in the room, one cabinet with doors that closed.
He dropped onto the foot of his bed and flung open the bottom door of the cabinet next to it. Inside was the device given to him by the dragon-men, the device he used to call and alert them whenever the obelisks rose. He’d never called them this early, and didn’t know if anyone would be listening. They might be angry, but he knew they’d be furious if they found out that he hadn’t alerted them. He reached for the device and pushed the red button on its front.
The button clicked and glowed red. The small black box hidden in the cabinet began to hum loudly enough to be heard over the rumble from down the hill. Three switches protruded from the front of the device, but he was only supposed to touch the first one. He flipped the switch up; a burst of noise that the dragon-men called “static” filled the room. The hermit found the coiled cord atop the device and the palm-sized piece it was attached to. He grabbed it and wrapped his hand around it. There was one button on this piece, and he had to push it to talk into it.
“Dragon, are you there?” He released the button and waited a few seconds. No one answered.
“Dragon, are you there?” He released the button again. He waited then called a third time.
“This is Dragon. Is that you, Hermit?” The old man didn’t know the other voice, but he seemed to know him.
“Yes, this is Hermit.”
“What do you need, Hermit?” The voice sounded angry, but he couldn’t be sure. Living alone meant one never quite knew how other people were thinking.
“It’s the obelisks, Dragon. They’re rising now.”
“What? Hang on, Hermit.”
He waited, holding the device until a new voice came out of the black box in the cabinet.
“Hermit, did you say the obelisks are rising now?”
“Yes, right now.”
“They’re early. Are you sure, Hermit?”
“Okay. It’s going to take us a little longer than usual to get some people up there. You know what to do.”
“Good. Hermit, you better not be wrong.”
He considered answering, but he felt certain that he’d been dismissed. Leaving the cabinet door open and the device on, he set the hand-piece on his bed. He stood and went back to the doorway. The obelisks had risen out of the dirt to about sixty feet in height. The rumbling had stopped and the clouds were beginning to disperse. Perhaps they’d spew a little rain before they did; they had before.
He looked west, into the mountains, and wondered if the tinkers would be watching. If they were, would they be able to get here and get out before the dragon-men arrived? For that matter, would the dragon-men get here before or after the new arrivals started to appear?
Two months early – something was going to go wrong. This he knew.
Part I - The Vanished, Chapter One - The Driver - Coming Soon!