Fantasy

The Expedition | Chapter 4 | When Fortune Turns Against Us

by Scot Noel

The Expedition is a novelette presented in 4 parts.
This Posting is Chapter Four, When Fortune Turns Against Us

Cassan di Bucentar al Maggiore de Uruk-asume, Horseman.

            I cannot write.  Something writes, but it is not me.  The dream of the dragon wealth is over.  That day was our damnation, and tonight we hide from the devil that comes after us.

We sit without fire, hiding in some corner where we have cringed for days.  No one eats or speaks.  Emmerich stands alone, watching the greater darkness beyond a broken door.  It is amazing how we communicate now, not with words, but by pained breaths and the restless shuffling of our feet.  Outside, something beyond nightmares seeks us out.

###

We should not have gone, not all of us.  There was no reason.  No hoard of treasure awaited, dragon borne or otherwise.  On that day, on the day we climbed the towers, we stepped out at last onto the roof of the world.  As we did so, our boots sank into pools of waste.  The dragons of the heights proved neither noble nor tidy in their habits.  Our steps slipped through muck and the remnants of bones.

No one turned back, as if the evidence of our eyes and noses was at fault.  Something in the spirit of each of us claimed one last goal, one defining adventure.  And if there were no gold, there were Loissa’s swords, and she ready to bind the spirit of a dragon in their icy blades.

Emmerich should have stopped us.  Instead, he led the way.  With Loissa pressing anxiously at his heels, we came at last to a wall, a barrier of scales that rose to the height of two men.  It was the body of a beast.  Sleeping.  Unaware that anything could challenge its aerie home.

The dragon had lodged itself in what shadows it could, making a bed of the rubble, keeping its wings and legs out of the filth in which we stood.  The anvil shaped head lay above us, while a ripple, moving gently through the great form seemed a contented sigh.  The silence of this exhalation made us shiver.  There were no wings, at least none to see, only fleshy humps where the creature’s folded sails must rest.

As we moved closer, Loissa began her spell.  Her words moved from guarded whispers into a chant.  Rimmer, following signals previously agreed to, laid out the swords.  We saw nothing magical, but understood everything, the dance of the freewitch’s hands making it clear.  It was like the silent dance of the Mulaghal, in which everything is imagined through the motions of the player.  The moment held us, and as Loissa reached into the ghost of the beast, pulling its soul free, we neither breathed nor looked away.

That something had gone wrong, we had only the barest moment to appreciate.  Loissa faltered, her spell curtailed by some fault in the words or in herself.  All we knew was the pain that overtook her gaze, and as she fought to continue, the dragon’s body expanded before our eyes, inflated by the power of an awakening heart.  Its lungs filled with air.  Its muscles stretched taut.

The howl of the Auran dragon froze us to our marks.

A twitch of the tail sent Loissa beneath the muck.  Another struck a note like music as it swept the long-carried collection of swords over the side of the building and toward the streets below.  But one blade remained, the first upon which Loissa had focused her spell, and now this sword filled Rimmer’s hands.  It became our only defense.

Rimmer showed no hesitation as the great head rose above us and the thousand legs began to move.  He stepped forward, wielding a blade in which part of the beast’s own soul lay imprisoned.  The dragon paid little heed.  It grasped him up…

Strong as he was, Rimmer found himself drawn up effortlessly by a sea of legs, his screams cut off as he reached the open circle of the dragon’s mouth.  In the stead of teeth, a circle of overlapping blades closed upon him again and again

We ran without apology, without sense to know who we were or what we were.  Cassan recovered first, keeping purpose enough to bring Loissa to her feet, helping her even though he took a heavy blow from the beast’s tail.  That tail seemed a weapon slashing into us with unchecked rage.  Stonework too suffered from the assault, splintering and flying, filling the air with a stony fog.

I saw Loissa, recovering in Cassan’s arms, reach to her belt, presumably for the orbs we had used so freely, for the last of our explosive might.  But they were gone.  Our best weapon gone!  There was no time to search for them beneath the sea of waste, or to do anything but run.

Emmerich caught at the shocked theorists with his words and a free hand, herding them back toward the door.

There was no question of going back.  Both sight and thought swam outside my head for days, a confused muddle hanging somewhere beyond my reach.  When I could reason again, I found a new agony in the form of a broken leg.

That left Hilgwene, and me.

Falling toward me out of the writhing mass, I beheld a long glint of silver, as if the sun had been caught in a raindrop that stretched out endlessly as it fell.  I could not move in that moment but recognized the sword Rimmer had taken forward against the beast.  It was falling away from the thousand arms that had torn it blade from hilt, a long, splinter of the piece, coming right for me.

At my side, Hilgwene shuddered, her eyes gripped by the spectacle of Rimmer’s death, and as she stood unmoving, the dragon turned for her.

I moved unsteadily, backhanding Hilgwene out of the way, screaming at her to run, realizing in a flash of sidelong vision that the plummeting blade had missed me by a handbreadth, and then only because of my motion toward Hilgwene.

I don’t remember much else, but as we retreated, I found that broken steel in my grasp, cutting me by the hold I used, but still something to wave before the advancing beast.  The dragon must have been disoriented, unable to choose between so many retreating forms, for if Rimmer could not match its strength, what chance had I?  But I did manage to fend off a lunge of its great, anvil head.  By the hair of a chance, we escaped through a nearby doorway and downward into corridors it could not follow.

###

Uzzel Wodan, Theorist

We have taken the sleigh and left the safety of the buildings behind.  I argued against it. Screamed even. My throat is raw with the effort, but Emmerich hears nothing.

Our transport sleigh moves in starts and fits, so heavily have we burdened it with greed.  “Dump half of this,” I tell them. “Three quarters!”  By itself the sleigh could deliver us to the gates before dark.  But we walk at its side, half our time straining to lift it above some obstacle or force it over a minor slope.  Now we wait while the weakest catch their breath.  There is no time, no time!  Dusk is almost upon us.

###

Roald Emmerich, Expedition Leader

This will be the last entry, before returning home.  We must redistribute the cargo.  The way back to the road is too uneven for the sleigh to manage, fully loaded.  We will take as much as we can upon our own backs.  I have assigned each their share, with Cassan rigging packs by which they can bear weight and still have hands free to heave the sleigh forward as necessary.  To lose anything now is to lose a limb, or an eye.  We have come too far to lose a morsel.

The women argue that the journals should be burned.  They have been at this madness for days, believing the gods will see it as a prayer, a petition for our safe return!  I have taken all the books and given them to the scribe, to be under his protection.  These records of our progress cannot be lost.  If only the Mulaghal had crushed that ritual by which pious scribes and charcoal sellers make their living, burning letters as entreaties to heaven.

###

The place where we entered this land, the semi-circle in the hill, stood quiet.  It beckoned us through the twilight, as what we took to be the active gateways held about them an aura of phosphor, radiant only to the corner of the eye.  We knew well the portal leading home and spied it early, each of us having marked it in our minds.  That it too still glowed buoyed our spirits tremendously.

Over the last mile, everyone dug in and pushed, for the sleigh appeared to be failing.  We were sweated to death, and our hands bled from the effort.

It was then the gods betrayed their easy promises.  At first it seemed the sleigh had encountered an obstacle, something to bring it up hard and short.  Its cargo flew about us and our ears filled with the groan and tear of the docking straps.  I saw Uzzel push his son from danger, never looking out for himself in time to avoid the fall.  A weight of tumbling artifacts claimed him.

I couldn’t see everyone in the dim light, and as I tried to sort them amid the crashing mess, it was then I realized: the dragon was upon us!  Having dropped its tail like an anchor, without so much as a warning shadow, it had raked the sleigh, scattering much of our hard-won booty into the high animal-grass beyond the road.

The beast tacked quickly, turning in the air, disappearing into blue shadows and failing light.  Even its wings rose in perfect camouflage against the clouds.  We heard nothing as it approached again, save the rush of blood in our ears and Uzzel’s awakening moan.  It hit again like a thunderbolt, tearing up the ground with a thousand legs, coming to loom over us with only our brave Horseman, Cassan, and his short spear to oppose it.

I went first to Nathe, thinking to pull him back from his father.  I feared the elder to be dead already and his son too stricken to run.  Loissa and Hilgwene were long strides ahead, for they alone proved quick enough to drop their packs before the dragon made landfall.  Now the two women kept together like matched racers, running headlong toward the gateway.

But of us all, the young Theorist did best.  With a quick will and taking leave of his father, Nathe mounted the sleigh and turned it on its side, tumbling what vessels remained out of the broken straps.

With its freight suddenly unleashed, the sleigh rebounded to a good man’s height above the ground.  Nathe checked its rise and, bracing himself as he could, maneuvered at speed toward the dragon, swelling the pace until he drove against the beast’s skull.  Nathe was all but thrown from the sleigh by the jolt and had to struggle mightily to pull himself back aboard.  The noise of the impact sickened me, but such was the effect on the dragon that a thousand legs curled inward, and a host of wings, neatly folded to the skin, fluttered out again and rose like confused kites trying to break free.

That gave us our moment, the opportunity to pull Uzzel from the wreck of our dreams and secure him to the sleigh, which Nathe had circled back around to land near us.  Emmerich helped in this while Cassan expended his efforts trying to finish off our gigantic foe.  But his short spear proved no match for its brickwork skull, a head with neither eyes nor ears to provide a target.

Leaving the dragon to writhe behind us, we abandoned the treasure, hoping only that we seven riders might enjoy our escape.  Nathe slowed alongside the women, and though we frightened them at first, coming from behind as we did, it took no effort to bring Hilgwene and Loissa aboard the sleigh.  They fairly flew into our arms.  Yet in all this we had lost track of the sky, of anything above us, for with our foe grounded we had abandoned any reason to watch for dark shadows.

The second dragon hit us as we reached the gates.  I saw Cassan fall, one eye torn from its socket.  Having caught us in passing, the dragon set the sleigh into a spin, and we tumbled from its back without ceremony.  For a second the world became a warm and inviting place, as sweet as my boyhood bed.  I lost consciousness for a moment, only to awaken a second later to the smell of blood and iron.  I realized my head had met the ground ahead of me, and now my thoughts fought to escape from it in great, throbbing waves.

When I looked up, it was to see Emmerich’s face, set like death’s own countenance.  Never have I seen a more grim or stony expression.  Only now do I realize that he was pulling me backward through the gateway, though I must have looked half dead and the dragon could have taken us at any moment.  The Old Man brought me home.

Later Emmerich would tell me what he saw of the others.

Uzzel, still unconscious, had been strapped too securely to the sleigh for the dragon to dislodge.  Nathe went for him, and managing the straps and buckles, drew down his father’s weight, and though he must have failed at the effort in any reasonable circumstance, while standing upon the brink of death, the boy found strength enough to pull his father to safety.  They disappeared through the portal closest to the sleigh.

Having turned on the women, the dragon cut off any possibility of their escape, or at least their hope of reaching our gateway.  Between them they held Cassan, a dazed body with one arm bent and a face bloodied beyond recognition.  As Emmerich saw it, Loissa released the Horseman at the first charge of the beast, and though the Old Man could not keep the events in sight, partly due to his exertions with me and partly because of the wild movement of the dragon’s wings, in the next instant the dragon was engulfed in flame.

Emmerich supposed Loissa must have had one more of the explosive orbs hidden away on the sleigh, or in desperation remembered some fire spell we had never before seen her use.  In any event, it gave them the all needed moment to escape.

With Cassan once more between them, Loissa and Hilgwene evaded death and the  beast’s thousand arms.  They pulled Cassan backward into another of the gateways and disappeared.  Recovering, the dragon made every attempt to follow.  Whether it succeeded in its mad scrabble, Emmerich could not say, for with one great pull he had me through the gateway, and the winds of home embraced us.

###

There was no question of going back.  Both sight and thought swam outside my head for days, a confused muddle hanging somewhere beyond my reach.  When I could reason again, I found a new agony in the form of a broken leg.

Emmerich did his best to set and splint my bones.  He kept me fed and warm, staying close during those first hard days.  Yet when the time came, he pushed through the stream where it undercut the gate, making for the base camp and what help he could bring.

When Emmerich returned, it was to frighten me with the expression playing behind his eyes.  The camp was gone, he said.  The men and animals left there to greet our return and ease the way back home had vanished.  We were alone.

After another day of rest and a meal of raw gasbag flesh and berries, we headed out.  I almost drowned at the stream, and the pain afterward made me long for the peace of drowning.

Because of my condition, Emmerich fashioned me a crutch, and still he lent his strength to mine at any instant I began to falter.  He brought us haltingly to the southeast, keeping the mountains on our right.  We hoped to find a village further down near the gulf, a crescent of blue water Emmerich’s map depicted as lying to the right of the highest peaks.  If present, it was hoped the villagers would know of passes or that their trade with the Mulaghal might aid our journey.

Yet even as I grew stronger, Emmerich began to wane.  The exertions bore down on him.  He complained of a fever.  Within a day, he collapsed into delirium.

Thank the gods I had not dropped my pack in attempting to flee the dragon, and though Emmerich had carried it for a while, I now rummaged its contents for some advantage.  The journals were there, a coil of rope, the broken length of sword, some biscuits, the maps we had found, and the ring I had never given to Hilgwene.  Of these, the blade proved most useful.  Wrapping pack cloth about it for a handle, I hacked away at nearby saplings, gathering what materials I could for a litter, something I could put my shoulders into and pull Emmerich along behind.

Imagine a man with a crutch trying to make this effort.  It all but drove me mad and was as successful as you might imagine.  In the end, it was only my crying out to the gods that saved us.  I had gained the attention of a goat herder, a weathered old man stopping to drink from a nearby stream.

###

Within days, Roald Emmerich died of his fever.  To the end, he remained convinced of our impending wealth and fame.  The villagers treated him with such great care, he took it for adulation.  For that, at least, I am glad.

This then is the end, for I burned the journals.

High above the glistening waters of the gulf, I sent their pages to heaven.  We can’t write the truth, or even admit it to ourselves, because the truth is bigger than we are and cares nothing for our plans.

How long I stood watching the flames, watching the ashes of our hopes rise to heaven, carrying my thoughts, myself wondering over and over again about the fate of my Hilgwene and the others, I cannot say.  I know only that I have lost my taste for dreams, but not for dreamers.

In the end, I remember a single ember of the last journal page rising high to catch the wind.  It seemed to wing ever upward, higher than I could follow at the last, perhaps high enough to conquer the mountains and return the spirit of its writer home.

###

Read Chapter One of The Expedition – A Scribe Loses His Warm Bed

Read Chapter Two of The Expedition – Breaching the Wall

Read Chapter Three of The Expedition – The Auran Dragon

Sign up for our Newsletter today!

Be excited! We’re creating a print, illustrated Science and Fantasy Fiction Magazine, launching Valentine’s Day, 2019. Support us on Patreon!

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also

Close