The Expedition is a novelette by Scot Noel presented in 4 parts.
This Posting is Chapter Three, The Auran Dragon
Before evening, I managed to engage Yasu in swordplay. I told him it was a favor, saying I had had little practice on the journey. After all, tomorrow we are to enter the city and who can know what awaits?
The day’s hunt had not fatigued Yasu as much as I supposed, and he took to it well. He has little experience, but as practiced men know, it is the fool to watch out for. They blunder ahead with great energy and strike from unexpected quarters.
He soon found the blade difficult for his wrist to bear, and I rained blows upon him. Still, he smiled when able to parry, and once, when I allowed him to catch me with the flat of his blade, he cried out.
“With practice you will have mastery,” I assured him. “Each time it will become easier, giving you new experiences you did not expect.” I must admit, I was being philosophical about more than our practice.
“The best swordplay is never between two strangers. If you want to see mastery, watch warriors who have trained together, who practice together over many years. They come to know everything; one about the other, and when they move it becomes a dance of power. No storm is more frightening, no sunrise more beautiful.”
Leaving Yasu to inspect his new bruises, I approached the sound of Loissa’s laughter, so much like my memory of love that it put a spell on me. As I approached, I found her there against the fading horizon, and I would have spoken with her, if not for what came from above!
I have no words to describe what passed out of the city that night. A creature. Difficult to see, angling away from us as it took command of the sky. It was of a kind before which nightmares cower. We did not see it again that night, nor the next day, though we kept a careful watch and slept ill at ease.
We entered the city today. It tells us much. The debris in the streets, the dust on the buildings.
For one thing, this was a city of men. Oh, they may have been taller or shorter, perhaps filthy and hungry at the last, but they were men. To rise, they walked stairs from floor to floor. Right angles comforted them and gave order to their thoughts.
Nor is this city of men so old, nor so long abandoned as the Auran gateway on our own world. Something unaccountable has happened here. The life about, from the many floaters to the sinewy grasses, does not belong here.
The gateways have allowed these forms to migrate here and to displace the native kinds. It has happened on a level far greater that what has occurred back home, and with singular success. The tendrils have made the soil their own, and the floaters have filled the sky with darting schools. It can only be natural that a predator has followed.
We saw the first several days past at twilight, and since have grown familiar with its kind. They are lords of the ruins. Their aeries cap the highest towers, from which, with night approaching, one or two launch themselves, spreading a host of wings. Imagine it: wings wide as mainsails, others held high like skysails, in all carrying a body through the heavens like a clipper ship, with a spanker sail bringing up the sternmost. Yet these sails embrace the fading sun like stained glass, and, at a turn, can hold the viewer spellbound.
While we might only guess at their numbers in the city, from our observations it is fair to assume the beasts feed infrequently. Each night we see a different character or two and have yet to repeat the passing of our first sailed predator.
It is safe to say the dragons do not regain their strongholds by flight. Towers used by the creatures are easy to find. At their base and up their sides rises the marks of the beast. Claw-work scores the stones and goes up as far as we can see. We have heard them scuttling up in the dark.
The body beneath these wings defies description. To call it a dragon is altogether untrue, yet it has something of that sinewy grace. From what we can see, the body is segmented, like that of an insect. But where the common pattern is for the head of an insect to be a specialized segment, with false legs having the role of mouth parts, this predator has a blunt, battering ram for a skull, so smooth it seems devoid of eyes and ears. And no bug was ever so big, or tacked against the wind like a ship in a battle. Its wings fill the air with thunder.
I slowly made peace with Hilgwene and with myself. It would be easy to excuse my behavior as a kind of madness, but we are all prone to it, to the ebb and flow of impulsive actions.
As to what Hilgwene wanted in the balance, I remain uncertain. It is obvious I have shattered the trust between us, yet her eyes hold no glances meant to stop my heart.
In any case, once within the city walls our time was not our own.
From early light to the point our eyes could no longer endure, we examined every object and ruined wall. We explored with a vengeance and plundered too.
Gradually, we built up the idea that these people had left with some urgency, but not in a panic.
Where stores of goods and foodstuff were found, the shelves lay decimated, but not cleaned bare. Much of what remained had decayed into heaps, for though the towers might stand a thousand winters, a few centuries had turned vessels and packets to waste. Still, there were prizes to be found. Mine was a jar of sweet-skinned fruit, its seal healthy. Except for a sugary sludge at the bottom, the contents had not noticed the passage of time.
The others are intrigued by their own discoveries. Emmerich has found a library, one not altogether intact, but which has yielded some interesting, if undecipherable volumes. From within a more palatial building, Rimmer brought out several swords, and these he offered to Loissa for her collection. They proved elaborate in their handiwork, boasting blades clean and polished, as if having enjoyed recent care.
At first, we retrieved artifacts with care. Tools both practical and magical were unearthed. Knives that carved stone as easily as wood. Hooks that lifted objects without damage, abolishing their weight. We discovered fireless torches, still able to glow, and we lit the night with them.
Today the sun is mine, “from rainbow to reckoning,” as the Mulaghal say. I found a treasure!
Imagine a sledge, low to the ground with neither wheels nor rails. One that floats and can take the dip and rise of any landscape at will. Of course, that is not what I saw at first, but only a shape, somewhat like the bow of a sleigh, its surfaces dinged and scarred by years of decay.
But it was not the sleigh that drew my attention at first, but a glimmer. Something all but hidden in the shadows. Getting closer, I made out that -of the many vessels strapped to the sleigh- one had developed a small tear along its side. Within that tear, some undying ember had retained its purpose for centuries.
With a stone, I broke the vessel open. A handful of orbs tumbled into the dust. These spheres, each the size of a calf’s eye, held within the glow I had seen. A few burned brightly.
I picked up all I could find, slipping them into my waist pouch. I did not know the half of what I had found.
I have never seen a boy so determined as young Nathe to prove his worth. It serves his father right. No sooner had Uzzel determined the sledge to be a horseless carryall of some sort than his eager progeny leapt aboard. Nathe fumbled with this and that, scraping away debris and caked filth with his fingers. He made every effort to divine the purpose and the motivation. Imagine our surprise when the damned thing moved!
With a groan, it lunged against the fetters of its grave, breaking the hold of universal decay.
Nathe appeared as startled as a bride on a wild mare. He could barely hold on and knew no way to steer the headstrong sleigh as it drove forward, overtaking the retreating Uzzel and knocking him flat. Whatever held the transport aloft, the Theorist felt it run rough over his backside while, above him, his son let out a terrified whoop in passing.
Next nearest stood Yasu, who proved more clever and quicker than I had thought possible. He leapt aboard and managed to manipulate one control or another and bring the wild sleigh to a halt. Of course, the broad tower wall into which they soon cracked and tumbled helped out in the stopping too.
The adventure with the sleigh was but a lark. ‘Twas the orbs the boy found could have ended us all. These prisons of light are a true find, each holding within itself the violence of great events. My sisters taught me well in the explosive art, for its magic can open doors or level buildings. It can hold back armies or bring down mountains in search of gold.
Looking back, I see the decay at its beginning, those two or three days when our expedition turned from the wonder of discovery to the agitation of plunder.
The sleigh we immediately adopted. Its self-motivated energy remained strong at first, allowing us to carry more than our abandoned pack animals could have endured. The vehicle easily bore the weight of us all, and upon its back we rode deep into the city. At times we felt as gods, speeding along more swiftly than a spirited mount at a dead run. The passing wind brought smiles from everyone.
With us came the glowing orbs. Because of her knowledge, Loissa took charge of these. We used them tentatively at first, neither doubting the witch’s expertise nor failing to notice the respect she gave them. The weakest of the embers could shatter a stubborn door. They gave us entrance to previously inaccessible reaches, to places of government and commerce, to halls of memory and magic, to the interior of domed temples grander than those of the Mulaghal.
At first, we retrieved artifacts with care. The Old Man asserted his command, calling us to work in unearthing and recovery. We fell to it with a will.
Tools both practical and magical were unearthed. Knives that carved stone as easily as wood. Hooks that lifted objects without damage, abolishing their weight. We discovered fireless torches, still able to glow, and we lit the night with them.
No sooner had we gained familiarity with our awesome toys than the extent of what was available to us began to be understood. The city, ruined on the surface, held beneath its skin a treasure no single lifetime could uncover.
Vaults of precious metals. Untouched libraries. Volumes of parchment.
Then came the collections of magical apparatus, outclassing in a single room, so Loissa believed, the entire heritage of our practitioners back home.
Our sleigh became overburdened. We loaded it to more than the height of a man in bundles and crates, and though we used excellent straps and ties recovered from a shipping dock, there remained little room for Nathe to pilot the thing, and it swayed badly at each turn.
Still, we became ever greedier for the things of the new day.
The explosive orbs now fell from Loissa’s hands with abandon. They cleared away collapsed walls and made quick work of vaults, the locations of which Emmerich and Uzzel deduced from maps uncovered in our rampage. We took no pains to clean ourselves or to sleep. We were as gods or princes, a new power sweeping through the abandoned haunts of our ancestors.
Our attitudes transformed, and we began to act as though the city owed us. We no longer appreciated it or held the slightest thing in awe. We walked with heavy boots over fallen artifacts and buried images, taking no pains to save the many precious heirlooms that passed beneath our feet. Having lost all heart for preservation and study, we sought the glitter and the style of the lost empire and cared only for dreams of glory.
The men have gone mad. Loissa too. They are possessed.
We have jewels and gold, maps and books. Magic. We have more than the sleigh can hold. More than we can carry. And still they shake the towers with their fire orbs.
I have more than I want. More than I need.
I wish Loissa would listen. Instead she looks up, to the towers. To the top. The others look with her, and their eyes are clouded. We are going up there. I know it.
Dragons hoard treasure. If it is not a fact, certainly it is a part of every tale. As I stare on and on, into the past, in the end this emerges, the idea that the great demons, the beasts for which the constellations are named, these -the Auran dragons- hoard treasure.
I have seen them hunt. If any beast deserves the name dragon, these murderous wind sailors are the ones. Leaping from the heights, they unfurl wings, many wings, as if setting spars and reefing sails; they look a clipper ship maneuvering through the surfs of heaven. And down they come, faster than any of the floaters, like a bolt set to strike the ground. But they come as arrows, as well set to their target as the best archer might attain. In an instant their wings are furled and their target engulfed in a mass of flailing limbs. In that instant, the prey is torn apart.
What says this about treasure? I cannot be certain. There are only the stories, and the heights above us: the one place in the city we have not seen. There may be more gold up there than any tale printed and sold for the fascination of peasants can buy.
I am tired. In the firelight I see my fingers roughened by the work. My hands tremble as I write. Tonight, I am the only one with a journal. The rest have lost interest or are too spent.
Tired yes, but hopeful too. With each day, Loissa finds another moment to smile. Words come to her more easily in my presence. She has talked of her dreams, and though I tried to persuade her that we have gone beyond those dreams, still she looks up. She will not waver from the fixed idea. That is something a warrior can understand.
In the end, Loissa did me the greatest honor, and with a kiss upon my cheek asked if I would help her. How could I refuse? Tomorrow morning, when we ascend one of the towers, I shall assist Loissa with her swords.
Emmerich, Cassan, Rimmer, all seemed assured of our wealth and confident in our return. We’d been lucky, I agreed. But a sleigh burdened with things I didn’t understand, and more than half of which I could not name, was this wealth? I began to trust no one’s judgment and wanted only sleep.
The joy that invigorated the others like a fire took no hold of my bones. I was depressed, thinking only that we had become like birds, those that steal shards of colored glass for their nests.
I had found only one thing that talked to my heart, speaking of a value I could understand. It was a ring. Oh, there were fine jewels among the furbelows we had stolen. Gold plate and ancient tomes. But what does a student, the son of a farmer know of such overweening things? A bright ring, good and solid, is more than we might earn in a year. I can understand it. It is real to me.
Now I began to think. With this one piece which had whispered to my heart, I formed a plan of giving up the band to Hilgwene.
I’m certain I did not mean it as a wedding pledge, but only to give up for our cook something of value to me, from the heart. It didn’t seem enough, but even as this thought turned over in my head, I began to realize, through the words passing about the fire, that by general agreement the expedition had decided on a course I had hitherto considered unthinkable. With the morning, we would ascend to the realm of the dragons.
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