PRW Runner-up Tour: That Which Came Before by Drew Hayes
The grinding of ancient gears sounded like the rumble of a giant’s bones. It filled the cavern where Setna waited, breath held in excitement tinged with fear as he watched the gate slowly open before him. He didn’t fear what might lie beyond this gleaming metal door; his only worry was at what may not be present. So many years spent searching for it, so many dead ends. He didn’t know if his heart could bear another failure.
When the doors were fully parted, Setna shone his touch-lantern into the darkness ahead. The walls were smooth, constructed of the same strange metal as the gate. It was surreal; to step from these weathered catacombs into a place so sleek and alien. Setna had seen chambers like this before, one was where he found the touch-lantern currently lighting his way, but never had he encountered one so grand.
“Is this it?” Anherru asked, peeking over his brother’s shoulder. Anherru was the curious sort, which was why only he, out of all their siblings, had followed when Setna left their village. Back then, he’d been a gangly young man clothed solely in breeches handmade by their mother. Time had grown him upward, and their adventures had added some muscle as well, so he now wore the countenance of a strapping young man. Were they still in the village, Anherru would have been beset by marriage requests almost daily.
Setna knew he still looked much the same as when they had left. His talent had never lain in the strength of his arms or the speed of his feet; Setna’s only gift was a nimble and inquisitive mind. For many that would have earned then a peaceful life and uneventful death, but Setna had also been born without fear of the village’s taboos. He’d gone digging in the forbidden lands, started reading the hidden texts, and once his thirst for true knowledge was wet he thought it would never be quenched again. That was, until he learned of the book.
“It may well be,” Setna said, his voice soft and cautious. Not all of the old places welcomed visitors, and given how much effort he’d gone through to find this one it seemed likely there might be some countermeasures in place.
As they peered down the smooth metal hallway, blue lights began to flicker on one after another, until the whole of it was lit as brightly as if the sun were shining inside. Setna clicked off his touch-lantern but kept it close at hand. One never knew when darkness might descend once more. He stepped forward carefully, always watching for the changes that preceded a trap being sprung. Anherru was good for much, but he lacked the keen eye to spot such subtle warnings. Thus, Setna was the one who led the way, with Anherru staying close behind.
Their shoes made little noise as they walked across the metal ground, for these were foot garments of ancient build. Like most of their clothing and tools, their shoes had been scavenged from the forbidden sites that Setna and Anherru plundered over the years. Each shoe was light as whisper, yet sturdy as a father’s promise. The same could be said for their pants and shirts, though the price of looting rather than crafting was that their ensembles were mismatched. This trait, even more than the tools they wielded, marked them as heretics and scavengers; those who would seek to uncover what was sealed.
Setna and Anherru reached the end of the hallway, only the find it continued at a downward slope. They followed the path as it moved, first down, then to the left, and finally forward again. It ended in a vast room; easily the size of two villages put together, perhaps three. In this room was a large metal slab, atop which rested a sculpture of a man forged from metal and circuitry.
Setna’s heart paused it’s beating for a moment as his eyes fell upon what lay on the metal man’s chest. There was no mistaking it; even though it looked nothing the rough leather clad books Setna had grown up with, this sleek black device resting only yards away was unmistakably the object of his desire.
“The Book of Thoth,” Setna whispered, his voice restrained by awe rather than caution. “Just as the texts described it.”
“The Book of Thoth indeed it is,” said a new voice, one that was neither Setna nor Anherru. They searched the room, quickly finding the source. She was a beautiful woman, wearing strange clothes not unlike the ones Setna had found in his travels. Her most striking feature was neither her looks nor her wardrobe, however. It was the fact that she was composed entirely of flickering blue light.
The woman glided across the floor, moving with deliberation as she gazed upon the two young men. “You have come here seeking The Book of Thoth? The book that contains all knowledge, and was thusly sealed away from mankind?”
“I do,” Setna replied readily. He had not seen this particular bit of old magic before, but he’d dealt with enough to know honesty and forthrightness were the best methods to employ. “I seek to regain what our people have lost.”
“That which you seek was not lost,” the woman replied. “It was buried. Cast away and sealed so that those who survived might not follow the same path as we.”
“And who are you?” Setna asked.
“I am Ahura, wife of Nefrekeptah, he who first sought The Book of Thoth. It was his will that constructed it, and it was he who paid the greatest price for it. Tell me, those who would take the book, what are you called?”
Setna bowed deeply, which his brother mimicked moments later. “I am Setna, and this is Anherru. We have searched for years to find this treasure, and I must insist we depart with it in hand.” Setan pulled himself back up and rested his hand on the small satchel strung across his hip. “I do not wish to be rude, however I have learned much in my travels, and I have the power to take the book by force if needed.”
“Tell me then, why do you seek this book?” Ahura asked. “Does your land not bear ample fruit, are the animals not bountiful and tame? You should know no sickness, and there cannot yet be enough of you for war to have been rekindled. Your world should be perfect, Setna and Anherru. We made it so when our time drew to an end. So pray tell me, why do you seek this book so fervently?”
“Because we know there is so much more beyond this impotent perfection,” Setna answered. “There is knowledge that can make us masters of the heavens and earth. I have read of the power that the old ones commanded. Your kind were like gods, and we are now mere mortals.”
“Gods, perhaps, but gods who destroyed themselves and nearly took the world with them. Your life is better, your kind happier. My husband was like you, Setna. He always wished to know more, always believed the next discovery or bit of knowledge would fill the burning inside him. The Book of Thoth was to be that which fulfilled him at last, a joining of all the knowledge that had been fractured and segmented by geography or politics. It was to be his happiness. Instead, it took from him his family, and his life.” The woman’s face grew sad, and Setna made note that she had said family, not merely wife. “You liken us to gods, Setna, but we were not gods. We were as you, and we reached beyond what man is meant to know. The true gods do not look lightly upon those who tread atop their toes.”
Setna nodded, chancing a glance at Anherru, who was looking less certain of being here by the moment. “Perhaps you are right, Ahura, but please tell me this: if the knowledge in the book is so dangerous, so forbidden, then why was it not destroyed? Why hide it in a shrine, rather than sending it into the heavens?”
Ahura dipped her head, looking at the ground, then at the metal man atop whom rested the Book of Thoth. “When we lost our son, I begged my husband to do just that. Our technology had grown too great, the lines between human and machine too blurred. He refused. When our society began to crumble and bodies withered away in droves, he refused. Even when the great ending came, and those of us who remained saw that only through destruction could salvation be attained, still Nefrekeptah would not tell us how to destroy the book. He believed to the end that it was our society that was flawed, we who lacked the sense of self to handle the world beyond. Nefrekeptah was sealed in this tomb, determined to hold the book until a new people were ready for it.”
“And you were left to stop him from doing that,” Setna realized.
Ahura nodded solemnly.
“I am greatly sorry for all that you have lost, but I’m afraid I remain resolute in my goal. Please give me The Book of Thoth, do not make me take it from you by force.”
“The book has never been mine to give,” Ahura said. “If you will not be denied, then you must take it from Nefrekeptah.”
A question died on Setna’s lips as he once more heard the grinding of ancient gears. From the slab, the metal man that Setna had taken for a sculpture rose, eyes burning with the same blue light as what glowed through the room. He moved slowly at first, shifting his mechanical legs onto the ground while clutching the book. As he rose, he took in the sight of Setna and Anherru, the latter of which was doing his best not to shiver in terror.
“If, after hearing my wife’s tale, you still demand The Book of Thoth, then perhaps you are indeed the right man to take it,” Nefrekeptah said, his voice a mix of strained notes conjured from a box deep within his metal breast. “But you must prove to me that you truly are worthy before I shall relinquish my greatest treasure, and sin, into your hands.” He gestured once, and a board of light appeared between them. On it were a set of draughts, much like what Setna had played as a child.
“Let us play, show me the mind that you feel is worthy of all the knowledge in the world. Should you fail to defeat me, I’m afraid you will have to remain here, lest you tell others of my tomb’s location.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t-” Anherru began, but Setna silenced him with a single glance. They had come too far, been on the road for too long, for him to turn back at the mere threat of imprisonment. He locked eyes with his brother, and mouthed a single word that neither Ahura nor Nefrekeptah could see.
“I accept your terms,” Setna said, coming forward to the board.
“So you have bravery. That is a good first step,” Nefrekeptah replied, also taking position. He moved a piece, to which Setna responded, and the game had begun.
“What will you do, should you win?” Nefrekeptah asked as they played. “Will you remake our world as it was? Will you try to elevate humanity beyond their humble status?”
“I will make a world in which our power and that of the gods is indistinguishable,” Setna answered. He chanced a look at Anherru, who gave a subtle nod, followed by three blinks. “I will raise our people to a place they never dreamed of.”
“You’re right, Setna, they don’t dream of it. I’d wager most of your kind is happy in the world we left them. They want nothing more than to live out their days in simple peace. Only you, and those like you, are different. You seek a new world, and you’ll drag the others along whether they like it or not,” Nefrekeptah said. He took two of Setna’s pieces in a single move, no expression on his mechanical face he surveyed the board.
“As did you before me,” Setna agreed. He made a defensive move, the sort that would only delay the inevitable. “It is the duty of those who see grander things to call them into existence. We cannot allow ourselves to be held back by the limits of the masses.”
“There is truth in that, but to be the conjurer, one must be willing to pay the price.” Nefrekeptah took three more of Setna’s pieces. “And here me well, child. There is always a price.”
“Then I shall pay it.” Another move by Setna, another failure to move closer to victory.
“No, I don’t think you shall,” Nefrekeptah replied. “You will lose this game within another round.” To illustrate his point, he took another two of Setna’s pieces off the board.
“To be honest, I knew that was coming. I’ve never been great at draughts. I am, however, quite adept at planning, strategy, and resource management. Now Anherru!”
On cue, Anherru took the device from his own bag, the one he’d been setting ever since Setna gave him the signal, and hurled it onto the ground. Lightning shot out from the ball, racing across the metal floors and stretching out through the most of the room. When it hit the brothers, nothing occurred, but Nefrekeptah found himself suddenly unable to move.
“Amulet of Ptah,” Setna explained, walking over and calmly removing the book from Nefrekeptah’s grasp. “Temporarily halts all of the old world’s wonders. Been saving it for years, just in case I needed it today. I’m sorry if you see this as cheating, but I think of it as showing exactly why I’m smart enough to handle the book’s wisdom.”
“Setna, we need to hurry,” Anherru warned.
“Right. Sorry again, Nefrekeptah. I promise to do right by your book.” With that, Setna and Anherru raced back through the hallway, up the slope and out the metal doors back into the relative safety of the stone catacombs. They kept on going, hurriedly running up and out lest they were followed. Only when they reached the cavern’s entrance and emerged back into the soft grassy hills did Setna pause to examine his prize.
At a touch the book opened for him, filling the air with diagrams, models, and numbers that Setna could not yet understand. That didn’t matter to him, though. What he saw was potential. Potential for what had once been, and what, under his guidance, could be again.
As he combed the books’ treasures for the first of countless times, The Amulet of Ptah ceased it’s sputtering, and movement returned to Nefrekeptah. He crushed the artifact beneath his metal heel, then turned and began walking back to his metal slab.
“What will you do when he returns, seeking guidance for the terror he has unleashed upon his people?” Ahura asked, watching her husband.
“First, I shall make him return the book. Then, he will supplicate himself before me. Perhaps then I will free him from the curse he’s put upon himself with today’s actions.” Nefrekeptah lowered himself onto the slab and looked around his tomb, the last vestiges of his once proud and vibrant culture.
“Then again, perhaps I will damn him to live with his actions. It would serve well as a lesson, to all who would dare to try and take up The Book of Thoth.”
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