It has been far too long since I have posted here. Too much life to deal with and not enough things to say. But I am hoping to post a little more regularly as I finish the final edit of the Dragon Star sequel (The Lost Temple). Toward that goal, here is Chapter 3.
THE TEMPLE —
VERDANT VINES with wide leaves and thick stems enveloped ancient stones worn down by countless years of wind, rain, and ocean spray. Raedalus cast his eyes around the ruins of the ancient, alien city and the broad, curving avenue before him. He stood with the others of the exploring party that included Junari, Bon-Tao, Kantula, Jupterus, the captains of the four surviving ships, several strong pilgrims armed with hatches for cutting vegetation, and an older man named Tanagaal — a seer from Juparti. Three seers had accompanied them across the Zha Ocean. Tanagaal, the most experienced of the three, had been the most useful. In part, because he was the only one to survive.
Three of the pilgrim men held long ropes coiled and slung over their shoulders, while the captains each held unlit oil lamps in their hands. Taksati and her helper, Atula, handed out water skins to each person. Two of the pilgrim men carried dried fish and stale dinbao in bags over their shoulders. The old woman had pointed out that they had no idea how quickly they would find the temple, and that they should be provisioned for a long day. When Junari requested her to accompany them, Taksati had demurred, insisting that someone needed to remain and organize the pilgrims for what came next. Raedalus wondered what would follow their arrival. Finding the temple? Rebuilding it from ruins? With the absence of the Goddess’s guiding dreams, he no longer knew what the future held.
He looked back at the ships moored along the crumbing stone piers of the dead city’s port. While it appeared as though the harbor once held berths for over a hundred ships, they had been lucky to find four not completely crumbled into the rough waves of the ocean. The several hundred pilgrims who had survived the long voyage helped to unload the ships of the remaining food supplies and construction equipment. Barrels of dried fish lined the broken stones along one side of the docks while crates of rope, hammers, and chisels filled the other.
“I think we are ready.”
Raedalus turned back to the sound of Junari’s voice. She looked around at the party of men and women. She appeared apprehensive. At least to him. Probably no one else noticed. Bon-Tao possibly, but not the others. The man had spent a great deal of time in Junari’s company during their journey to the Forbidden Realm. Enough to stoke a sharp jealously in Raedalus’s breast, but not so much that he suspected them of consummating their clandestine courtship. To the rest of the party, Junari presumably looked excited. He knew her too well not to recognize the trepidation in her eyes.
“We have paid a painful price to stand here in this mysterious city.” Junari looked past the people nearest her toward the crowd of pilgrims along the docks. She paused a moment, a flicker of sadness crossing her face. Then she turned back to the city proper. “Let us move with caution. These ruins are older than anything I have heard of in any realm, human or otherwise. It looks as though the jungle vines are all that hold the walls of these ancient edifices together. Touch nothing that looks unstable. And stay close together. We do not know what manner of wild beast may make its home in these long-abandoned structures. May the Goddess bless us and guide us to her temple.”
Junari nodded to Bon-Tao and the two of them walked side by side into the city. Raedalus walked behind her with the seer, Tanagaal. Jupterus and Kantula followed, and the rest of the party fell into line after them. As they passed from the docks, two massive stone structures loomed between the buildings, marking the entrance to the main avenue. Raedalus thought of them as sculptures, though they looked like no statue he had ever seen. The stone appeared melted and warped, the intended shape left indiscernible, more so due to erosion over time. He could not tell if the statues were of animals, only that they stood on four limbs and possessed rounded bodies and a large head. He looked away from them, an unsettling sense of foreboding filling his gut.
They walked in silence along the spacious, curved avenue, the eyes of each party member scanning their surroundings. From the reports of the sailors who had climbed the central masts of the ships in the harbor, the boulevard they walked along from the docks comprised one of three such thoroughfares, each turning in a rightward spiral toward a wide plaza in the center of the city, where a three-storied domed structure sat. They hoped this building proved to be the temple from their dreams. Side streets cut from the main avenues, allowing quicker progress toward the city center, but most appeared overgrown with dense vegetation.
Raedalus glanced down at his feet as he followed behind Junari and Bon-Tao. While the wide paving stones of the streets were largely intact, the passage of time left many of them sunk into the ground at odd angles, making progress slow. He had tripped once already that morning at the docks. The avenue featured several trees grown up from overturned paving stones, but it remained mostly free of vegetation in the center. As they walked, bird calls filled the air, their songs as foreign as the colorings of their wings. He spied a large brown creature with a wide tail darting behind the vine-encrusted wall of a crumbling building up ahead. The Forbidden Realm seemed to hold only the unfamiliar, from the wildly over-sized leaves of the vines and trees colonizing the long dead city, to the garish, bright flowers shooting up between weeds in the cracks of the paving stones, to the strange beasts that lurked in its ruins, to the husk of the city itself, formed of an architecture that had once likely been imposing and elegant, but which now, in its decay, gave the impression of a great beast left to rot in its demise until only a flora-enveloped skeleton remained.
All the structures of the city possessed two obvious qualities — they were far larger than expected, and they beheld no straight lines. The walls of all the buildings, whether close set or far apart, curved to create convex structures with domed roofs. Often several curved buildings combined to form a single, sprawling complex. What Raedalus assumed to be windows were circular as well, although devoid of anything that might have been glass. The doorways of the buildings were all high and rounded, implying that the city’s absent inhabitants had stood quite tall. While the wooden doors had long ago rotted away, what could be glimpsed of the darkened interiors gave little indication as to their original purpose. They took the time to examine a few buildings but found them mostly empty — expansive round chambers bereft of much beyond tall stone tables in the middle of the rooms.
Raedalus could not discern which structures might have been shops or homes or served some civic function. Even the taller buildings, which never rose above three stories, displayed no obvious utility. Evidently painted in various bright colors long ago, the harsh sun of unnumbered years faded the pigment until only the vaguest impression of color remained upon the gray-black granite and basalt stones that interlocked in a mortar-less fashion to construct the city’s dwellings.
They passed through a small plaza as the avenue widened. He noted two more statue-like structures, their features as uninterpretable as those near the docks, although they stood only to the height of a single building. A side street ran to the right beside one of the statues. Overgrown with vegetation, its narrow, curved walls lay darkened in shadow even under the bright sun of mid-morning.
“What do you think?” Junari asked as she paused to peer down the side street. “Shall we try to cut our way through or follow the main path?”
Raedalus did not bother voicing a reply, as he knew the question had been posed for one man alone.
“Chopping vines takes time,” Bon-Tao said in stilted Mumtiba. “Best follow big road. Find better path later.”
“I could try to push them away with The Sight,” Tanagaal offered as he squinted into the impassable street.
“No,” Junari said as she began walking again. “There may be need of your skills later. As we have learned, it is unwise to exhaust your mind unnecessarily.”
“True.” Tanagaal looked away and said nothing more. The lesson Junari referred to had been painful for everyone, most especially, Tanagaal himself.
They walked on for a time before crossing a similar small plaza with another plant-obstructed side street and a set of misshapen statues.
“I think they have been vandalized.”
Raedalus followed the outstretched arm of Tanagaal toward one of the sculptures. Like the others, the stone of its features sat twisted in disconcerting lines that obscured its intended image. The party came to a halt as Junari stopped and looked from Tanagaal to the statue.
“I’ve seen that done to a statue before.” Tanagaal wiped the sweat from the dark-brown skin of his balding head. “Stone can only be contorted like that with The Sight, and it takes a powerful seer to accomplish it.”
Raedalus watched Junari as she shifted her gaze between the distorted effigies and then back to the rounded buildings lining the avenue.
“If one possessed The Sight with such skill, why not simply destroy them?” Junari rubbed her chin. “And who would do such a thing?”
“Who or what?” One of the captains, Tunadar, shielded his eyes against the sun as he examined the mangled features of the closest statue. He’d been the leader of their small fleet and the captain of the vessel Raedalus and Junari traveled aboard. A good man to have close when things went wrong.
“And how long ago?” Tanagaal added. “Where did these people all go?”
“There are too many questions in this city.” Junari sighed and looked away from the others.
“Possibly the temple will provide some answers when we find it.” Raedalus stared down the spiraling avenue, wondering how long it might take to reach the temple that had once called to them in their dreams each night. Dreams that since the beginning of their sea voyage had been bereft of the Goddess’s imprint.
“Yes.” Junari nodded with a small smile at Raedalus, and he responded in kind. “Let us proceed.”
They continued along the main avenue, following the curve of the spiral through the decayed remnants of a long dead civilization unknown in all the realms. As they walked, Raedalus listened to the strange calls of mysterious birds and the sound of the breeze whistling around broken walls and rustling the leaves that grew over them. He thought of the questions posed by the city and those presented by the temple they sought. What manner of beings had once walked this avenue? Why had they left? Had they died out? Had they moved to another location somewhere else along the expansive coast or deeper into the vast interior of the Forbidden Realm? And why had the urris banned this realm? Were they responsible for the disappearance of these people? Or had the urris been the inhabitants of the city in an age long before the Origin Time?
Junari spoke truly — this city posed too many questions.
Raedalus nearly thudded into Bon-Tao’s back as Junari and the man came to a halt. She pointed to a side street that appeared somewhat less engulfed with greenery than those they previously encountered.
“What do you think?” Junari walked closer to the street. “Is the vegetation thin enough to make passage possible? It may cut an hour or two from the day. I would prefer to return to the ships to sleep tonight rather than need to make camp in these strange streets after sunset.”
“Not so many vines.” Bon-Tao pulled his sword from the scabbard at his side and swung it at a swath of emerald and yolk-colored vines. The blade swept through the plants with ease, opening the entrance to the side street enough for a man to pass through.
“Yes.” Bon-Tao nodded to Junari and then turned to Kantula, Jupterus, and the pilgrims with hatchets at their belts. “More hands.”
“Allow us, Mother Shepherd.” Kantula placed herself between the side street and Junari.
“Our ocean voyage has not left me an invalid,” Junari said as the others cleared the street. “I can help. Give me a blade.”
“It may not be safe.” Jupterus frowned at the wall of foliage before them. “Maybe the next street we clear.”
Jupterus and Kantula stayed close to Junari, slicing through what remained of the vines as they brought up the rear of the group just behind the three captains, each with a green-stained sword in his hand.
“Sometimes, I forget that I am not really responsible for this endeavor of ours.” Junari looked to Raedalus at her side.
“We are all responsible for different things.” Raedalus pushed the slender branch of a small tree out of her way. “You were responsible for leading us here, and they are responsible for keeping you safe, so you can lead us to where we go next.”
“And you would not prefer to make yourself useful in our current efforts?” Junari’s voice held a teasing tone.
“I believe we are all aware that I am more likely to be a danger than a service to our party if I swing a blade.” Raedalus heard a soft snort of assent from Bon-Tao at the head of the group but ignored it. He stepped over a thick root crawling along the paving stones and reached out a hand to help Junari. She accepted his assistance as she raised the hem of her dress and stepped over the obstruction.
“I should have worn something more practical.” Junari continued to hold her dress high. Raedalus made a concerted effort to avoid looking at the well-muscled flesh of her calves. He did not need such distracting thoughts clouding his mind.
“I’m certain Taksati can fashion you…”
A guttural cry of panic rang out among the leaves and stones. One of the pilgrims struggled with vines wrapped around his torso and limbs.
“Get it off!” the man yelled.
Raedalus twitched at the man’s frenzy but froze as his own fear filled him from the bottom of his stomach. The vines around the pilgrim were not moving in response to the man’s motion — they bound him of their own volition, pulling him away from the center of the narrow street. The man yanked at the vines, but they wrapped around his neck and head, long thorns drawing blood as he called for help. Bon-Tao, Captain Tunadar, and the others rushed to assist him. Raedalus saw that the living vines emanated from a leathery green-grayish lump the size of a large dog. It looked like a massive turnip that somehow attached itself to the stone wall and whose roots now yanked the hapless pilgrim toward it.
Bon-Tao hacked at the vines, cautious to avoid striking the man entangled in them. As the man’s leg touched the root-rump of the plant, all of its creepers burst into a bright white flame of extraordinary intensity.
Raedalus raised his hand to shield his face even as he placed himself before Junari. Bon-Tao leapt back from the flames that enshrouded the poor pilgrim trapped by the incendiary plant. Kantula and Jupterus pulled Junari away, back down the street toward the main avenue as she struggled and shouted out to the wailing pilgrim caught in the blaze, calling out a prayer of protection to the Goddess Moaratana. Raedalus expected the prayer would have as little impact as all those spoken for the pilgrims who died on the long passage to the Forbidden Realm. Their goddess, once active in the world, their lives, and their dreams, had been silent for many weeks.
Beside him, Tanagaal dropped the sword in his hand and raised both palms to the inferno of plant vines burning around the screaming pilgrim. Bon-Tao, the four captains, and the other pilgrims stepped back, the blaze too hot to risk greater proximity. Raedalus watched Tanagaal as the man focused on the fire. He knew what the seer attempted to accomplish — extinguishing the conflagration — but whatever manifestation of The Sight he sought to render remained impossible to produce.
“It resists The Sight.” Tanagaal stepped closer, his jaw clenched tight.
The pilgrim trapped by the burning bramble ceased to struggle, his moans becoming quieter until they faded to silence. Tanagaal lowered his arms, his shoulders slumped in defeat. They watched until the fire-plant exhausted its fibrous fuel and became little more than a smoking mass of charred flesh and vines. As they walked back toward the exit of the side street, Raedalus noted that none of the other vegetation near the fire-plant did more than smoke. The nearby plants appeared immune to the flames. What manner of land did they walk in, and why had their goddess brought them to such a dangerous place?
In the main street, Junari stood beside Kantula and Jupterus, tears in her eyes.
“Nothing could be done.” Bon-Tao reached for her hand but stopped before touching her fingers.
“We could have stayed on the main path, as you suggested.” Bitter self-recrimination filled Junari’s voice.
“You could not have known this would happen,” Raedalus offered. “None of us suspected these plants to be so dangerous.”
“And we have paid for our incautiousness, my recklessness, with yet another innocent life.” Junari sounded on the verge of shouting her words. He understood her pain. She blamed herself for every failing of the pilgrimage, every death, and never gave herself credit for any of their successes, extending that glory to the Goddess instead. He had told her repeatedly that no one could maintain such a disposition indefinitely, even one as strong of mind and heart as herself.
“They are not plants.” Tanagaal spoke loudly enough that everyone turned to look at him. “At least, not in the usual sense. They were created with The Sight. That is why I could not extinguish the flames of those vines.”
“You mean someone used The Sight to fashion plants that can trap their prey and burn them alive?” Junari blinked in obvious frustration. “Whatever for?”
“I cannot say.” Tanagaal shrugged. “Maybe they were not intended to be left in the streets.”
“And how long have they been in the streets?” Raedalus looked around at the layer of vibrant vines cloaking the city, a chill spreading outward from his stomach. “If there were enough of them, and they were here since the city fell to ruin, they might encompass nearly all the green we see around us.”
They stood in silence for a long moment as that thought disquieted them each in their own way.
“A trap.” Captain Tunadar looked around as he stroked his long, red beard. “A trap grown to the size of a city.”
“We stay on the main path.” Junari raised her voice as she started walking again. “And we avoid any plants with vines. We will return for the body and offer Juraus a proper burial for his family and friends.”
“We should go back now, Mother Shepherd,” Jupterus said. Junari glared at her guard as a response. He took her meaning after a moment and looked away to scan the nooks and shadows of the avenue for potential threats.
They kept their eyes in motion, looking around for any possible danger, conversation reserved for moments that brought into question their safety — an unexplained movement in a rubbled building, a plant swaying a little too much in the breeze, a stretch of vines reaching into the path, a bird calling from somewhere unseen. Anything that threatened them, which they now realized could be everything. They adopted a different formation, with Bon-Tao in the lead, the captains and pilgrims in a tight circle around Junari, and Kantula and Jupterus at her side. Raedalus and Tanagaal walked behind Junari in the middle of the men.
Their slow pace gave Raedalus what he considered an unnecessary amount of time to ruminate on his place in the group and his usefulness. He had worried throughout their dangerous voyage at his ability to contribute to the success of the pilgrimage and what came once they were in the Forbidden Realm. His primary role had always been as a trusted adviser to the Mother Shepherd. Though he had done his best to provide thoughtful counsel while aboard the ship, what advice of any use could he offer in their current circumstances? His knowledge and expertise were useless in the middle of a city overrun by deadly flammable plants. He had only held a sword once, and it did not suit him. He did not like the feel of it in his hands, nor the ease with which it allowed him to take a life. He knew part of his worry found its root in his reaction to the man at the front of the expedition party — a man who wielded a sword as an extension of his very being. A man of action rather than contemplation. How could the Mother Shepherd, Junari, not find such a man attractive? He noticed the way she looked at Bon-Tao even now, her gaze lingering on the back of his tanned neck and broad shoulders. Who would not prefer to possess a polished sword instead of a box of books when exploring an ancient city fallen to ruins and filled with unknown dangers?
He mentally reprimanded himself for his distracting bout of self-pity. He would help the Mother Shepherd realize this phase of the Goddess’s great plan, even if he needed to learn new skills and master new knowledge to do so. As he looked up, his mind and face filled with a new determination, the party followed the curve of the avenue into an expansive plaza five spans in width. While weeds struck up between the cracks of the wide paving stones, little vegetation encroached on the plaza, making the bulky structure in the center look even larger.
The temple of the ancient city, so similar in features to the ruins that until recently had inhabited their dreams for so many months, stretched nearly two hundred paces across, its three squat, rounded levels, each narrower than the last, stacked up at least thirty paces into the sky. The final level ended in a spacious, curved dome with a great, jagged fissure marring its appearance.
The party came to a halt in unison at the edge of the plaza, each silently gaping at the sight before them. The walls of the temple gave way in many places, especially around the rounded entryways and the circular windows. The structure looked like a more colossal version of every building they had passed along the spiral avenue to reach it — an alien construction with its sensuous lines of composition crumbling in certain spots and preserved in all their elegance in others.
“At least there are no vines upon it.” Tanagaal walked to the forefront of the group. “And it appears relatively intact.”
“Yes, it does.” Junari stepped forward as well, Kantula and Jupterus close beside her.
“It is beautiful.” An undefined emotion overwhelmed Raedalus for a moment, and he blinked his eyes in the glare of the bright sun. It suddenly felt as though he had stood in front of this magnificent temple before, in a long-forgotten age, and now stepped toward it once more, all clear memories of it erased by eons of passing time and only vague impressions of its glory leaving imprints upon his heart.
What did this feeling mean? Did his mind trick him due to the emotion of finally seeing the object of so many months of struggle and sacrifice born from now absent dreams? And why had the Goddess brought them here? Why this temple? Who were the people who built it and where had they gone? And why had they abandoned it?
A better question came to the fore of his mind among the multitude that churned there — why did the Goddess want them to rebuild these ancient ruins, and what would happen when they did? “Let us see what is inside.” Junari strode past Bon-Tao toward the temple, her voice strong and her strides long. “So that we may discover the work that lies ahead of us to realize the Goddess’s desires.”