35 Years and Nine Months
A short story about communication.
The flies were becoming a major annoyance. We had expected a lot of them, going into the part of the Plains only recently stolen back from the warm ocean's depths. Still, I myself had underestimated just how buzzy these pests were. Jo didn't seem to mind, methodically stepping through the swamp with an uncanny apathy. I guess I was the one of us both with less focus on the objective, owing both to the airborne distractions and my general excitement.
No one at the Geohistorical Society had been able to quite believe it back then: reports of massive, obviously artificial, earthen mounds in the most fascinating irregular shapes unearthed (or rather, unwatered) by the most recent reclamation efforts in the south. Even after months of research and preparation, we'd found out nothing except that we were currently nearing a site whose creators went to impressive lengths to showcase to others whatever importance they assigned to it. Speculations and hypotheses, as always, were provided eagerly and in great quantity: Could it be a place of worship or a ritual site? A king's tomb? A memorial? Some sort of astronomical device? A piece of art, even? No one knew for sure, but many felt the urge to share their thoughts on the matter.
We neared the complex from the south and reached its outskirts in the late afternoon. The reports we'd read did not even come close to doing justice to the dimensions of this site. It was a triangular plateau, raised about half a metre from the surrounding earth, stretching far beyond the horizon, with each side about a two hours' walk long. Immediately behind the slightly sloped edge, the surface was covered with hundreds of massive earthen dams pointing inwards to the center. Their jagged, almost menacing structure made me somewhat uncomfortable, almost as if we weren't meant to be here.
Still, this wasn't the first site on which I felt spooked only to emerge from my assignment wholly unharmed. I reassured myself this one wouldn't be any different. We made camp next to one of the berms. Even though it was coated with moss and a major part in the back was missing altogether, it was one of the ones in better shape. A little farther to the east of the structure we'd seen a hole in the otherwise regular berm-space arrangement whose size hinted at some three or four dams just missing. A night of ominous and unsettling dreams about the structure folding into itself, the lightning-shaped mounds acting like teeth in some massive triangular mouth bent on swallowing me — not necessarily in whole — later, we set out to the center. About fifteen minutes in, we came across a partially eroded dark monolith with some indecipherable engravings near the bottom. It was fairly high, triangular like the whole area itself, and cast a long shadow westwards which lead us to a very similar monolith about ten minutes away. This one was in somewhat of a better shape, probably because two of its sides had been protected from erosion ever since it'd fallen over in a preceding era.
With a lot of effort, we levered and rotated the pillar onto its exposed side. The carvings on the other sides were a lot more recognizable, and even more: they were inset with some sort of elaborate small metallic plates, each fitted to one carving. Jo called attention to the repetitions of various symbols, maybe it was some sort of language? There were seven blocks of markings on each side, all of about similar length, though almost every block had unique symbols not appearing in any other. On top of these, there was another block with markedly bigger carvings and a rather crude effigy of an either amused or horrified face, along with a simplified depiction of a flower. A remarkable find! We carefully copied the symbols, filling in gaps on one side with the other side's glyphs. I pondered on the meaning of the stone: the carvings couldn't possibly one language — the symbols were way too diverse to belong to only one set. On the other hand, seven languages, so distinct from each other? That couldn't possibly be true either: Even though the known world harbors around ninety different languages, one doesn't need to be a scholar to recognize that they all are extremely close relatives. The idea of languages having so completely distinct writing systems and glyph styles, too, was completely alien to me. The only remaining explanation I could conjure on the spot up was … art. It didn't make enough sense to convince myself, let alone Jo, but that was all I got. Not that I had much success interpreting the work.
After a brief lunch, we continued our path to the center. We passed another pillar about thirty minutes after the first one. To be exact, we found its remains — the outer surface had been almost completely eroded by the waters. The remaining bits were far more interesting than any inscription could have been, though. Contrary to our earlier assumptions, the pillars hadn't been cut out of one massive stone, but assembled out of different materials. While the first pillars had a polished — even after all these eons under the sea! — deep violet exterior, their core was made up of a uniform dull gray and rather porous material that apparently resisted the depths of the ocean far better than its shell. We scoured the surroundings for one of these pillars in better condition, only to find fourteen more long meaningless obelisk corpses arranged in this inner ring. After we returned from our circumnavigation unsuccessfully, Jo opined that it was time to move on.
We arrived in the early evening. The dead center of this mind-numbingly massive site was definitely fascinating by itself, but, given the previous dimensions, rather anticlimactic. It consisted of three about eight by two metres large walls, with an exterior identical to that of first row's pillars and similarly covered in seven distinct inscriptions, surrounding a small pyramidal building, which I promptly nicknamed "The Temple". We set up camp just outside the Temple, to whose nickname Jo objected, because nicknaming it like that would "taint our assumptions about this site" and "could introduce subconscious bias to our conclusions" or, more likely, because Jo's a grump. This night's dreams weren't much better than last one's, and the brief fragments that I did remember involved shadowy figures burning me alive with beams of bluish light. Nothing to worry about, I repeated to myself while shivering in my sleeping bag.
The interior of the temple was pretty much entirely covered in moss. Since we wanted to look for inscriptions in here too, we cleared the majority of moss using an improvised blowtorch. The smoke! The stench! Our Temple cleanup took up most of day three. But the big revelation of this day came to us much earlier than the evening did. We had started burning moss on the floor, since we really wanted to avoid slipping while holding a dragon's worth of flames in our hands. In the moment we broomed away the remaining ashes, it hit me. Emblazoned on the floor was a triradial glyph, which I had previously assumed to represent a flower. That couldn't be further from the truth: it was nothing less than the emblem of the Priesthood Undivided, an religion from older ages that had faded into obscurity soon after the rise of the current order. My nickname-guess had been correct!
Jo shared my amazement about this discovery (not that it would've been visible to the untrained observer) but unsurprisingly refused to address the "tainted assumptions" comment from yesterday. I didn't care about missing out on an apology. This was big! The Priesthood Undivided was notorious for their extensive underground bases and their penchant for hoarding knowledge, resources and ancient manuscripts. Judging from the size of the overland structure, we could've very well run into one of their mysterious "Permanent Retirement Sites", which was Priesthood-speak for some combination of tomb for what they called the Active — probably their leaders — and community center that also served as refuge in times of anti-Priesthood purges, which apparently used to be a relatively common thing at some point. Because it had to have been untouched for millenia, we had the incredible chance of finding some written records inside, even though all of their archives were supposed to have been destroyed long ago. Maybe some sort of translation keys were buried here too? Hell, this underground maze might even have an explanation for the odd choice of exterior decoration. It's impossible to imagine what we could find if we only dug hard enough…