March 11, 2005

Hic Sunt Dracones

Yes, I know I went awhile without laying out a story again. I got distracted with various things, and then there was this one entry that I wanted to get done and it didn't get done, and between one thing and another . . . Well, here it is.

Anyway, during the Fall semester of my Sophomore year here at LeTourneau I took an Honors class which had a profound impact on my worldview by bringing a number of things into focus and giving direction to a number of latent interests. This class was Only Inklings taught by Drs. Woodring and Olson of the Bible and English departments respectively.

This story has only one thing to do with that class: It was an assignment. At one point we had to write a short faerie story or fantasy of some kind after learning about Tolkien's and Lewis's principles of mythopoeic subcreation and whatnot. I wrote the story that appears below the fold.

And that's really all you need to know, but for one thing that I'd like to mention. If the story (in particular the expository portion) seems a bit rushed or condensed . . . it is. I had an upper limit which I was not allowed to exceed, so that portion of the story in particular sounds more like the synopsis of a novel than anything else. That's just the way it goes. Enjoy.

Hic Sunt Dracones

With a loud snapping and cracking of the underbrush he finally broke through the tree line and gazed, a bit disgustedly, at the view spread out in front of him. The land was desolate as far as the eye could see, flat and charred. He kicked experimentally at the fine, gray ash and it rose in a thick cloud which dissipated immediately. He stepped back and sat on a fallen log which jutted out from the edge of the forest and gave a weary sigh. Next, he extracted an inkwell and a quill pen, the tools of his trade, from a leather pouch at his side, and selected a single, rolled-up parchment out of the several protruding from his rucksack.

The Cartographer unrolled his half-formed map across his knee and carefully added to it the latest information gleaned from his travels. He sprinkled a handful of sand across his work and then carefully poured the sand back into the small container it had come from and put it away. The map he rolled up again, gently returning it to his backpack before he put everything else away.

Rising to his feet again, he looked out across the waste ahead and wrinkled his nose with distaste. He was sorely tempted to leave this portion of the map blank and simply turn around and plunge back into the forest in search of another region to explore. As he debated this in his mind, he spotted an anomaly on the featureless plain somewhere off to the right and almost out of sight beyond the horizon. It was much too far away to make out any detail whatsoever, but his interest was piqued and his feet were already moving in that direction before he had consciously commanded them to do so. If there truly was anything of interest out here, it was his solemn duty to investigate it and record the results.

It was nearing twilight before he could get significantly closer, and he could tell by now that his destination was farther even than it had looked when he first started out. Now, with the sun about to set at his back, he knew it wouldn’t be long before he wouldn’t even be able to see which direction he was supposed to go. Cursing his earlier enthusiasm, he picked up his pace a notch or two. After nearly another hour of brisk walking, the objective seemed as far away as it had before, and he was beginning to despair. The prospect of a night spent here in the midst of this ash-covered expanse of open country did not appeal to him in the slightest, but he did not see how he could avoid it.

These were the thoughts that were running through his mind when a sudden bellowing roar erupted to his left. He whirled to face the source of the noise and his jaw went slack. Streaking towards him was a creature straight out of the myth-shrouded past. It was a great winged dragon, longer than a sailing ship and redder than a blacksmith’s furnace in full blaze. Smoke billowed from its huge nostrils and fire streamed forth from its open mouth, both of them cascading back behind it as immense leathery wings brought the monster shooting towards him with incredible speed. In the time it took for him to absorb these few details, the thing was practically on top of him. He was just beginning to realize that he was about to be incinerated, or devoured, or both, when something just as unexpected as the dragon’s sudden appearance happened instead.

A bolt of crackling blue electricity from the clear blue sky struck the dragon’s wings and a shockwave of energy came rumbling swiftly in from the creature’s left like an invisible fist, catching the huge behemoth across the side of the head and sending it spinning and tumbling wildly through the air for a brief second before it hit the ground with a reverberating thud that seemed to shake the earth. The dragon grunted in pain, stunned for the moment, but already attempting to struggle to its feet. A massive waterspout erupted directly onto the large, scaly body, and the dragon thrashed about wildly for a few seconds before collapsing into a heap with a last drawn-out groan.

The Cartographer could not immediately tear his eyes away from the smoldering body stretched out on the ground before him less than a hundred yards away. It was easily fifty feet long from snout to tail, and only now could he make out the wicked claws and teeth which until then had been eclipsed by the beast’s fire and smoke. Suddenly, a bit of movement at the corner of his eye broke the spell and caused him to wheel around, on the edge of panic once again, to face the new threat. Only it wasn’t a threat at all.

Four perfectly ordinary people dressed in simple clothes . . . he shook his head in disbelief and looked again. Four beings were approaching him, hovering several feet off the ground. They were each held aloft by four bright, clear, rapidly-fluttering wings, each with a span of about seven feet. They slowly dropped towards the ground, alighting a few feet away. Each landed on one foot, the other rapidly stepping forward into a brisk walk which slowed after a few short steps until they came to a stop just in front of him. Even as they came to a halt, their wings were folding in on themselves until suddenly they disappeared, leaving no sign that the four had ever had any.

There was a brief silence as they examined the Cartographer. It was a very diverse group. An elderly woman stood at the forefront of the group and seemed to be more-or-less in charge. Flanking her stood a man and a woman; the former looked to be in his fifties, the latter in her thirties. A young man, barely out of his teen years, if that, stood quietly behind the rest of them. The old woman’s hair was a brilliant white without a hint of color in it. Now that she was on the ground, she stooped just slightly and the Cartographer was surprised to notice she had a shawl around her shoulders and carried a cane to help her stand. Her green eyes were sharp and knowing, and they narrowed slightly as she gazed piercingly at him as if she were unsuccessfully trying to fathom the significance of his presence among them.

After a brief second she spoke to the others, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on his. “Get the creature back to the Vorpal Gate and find out where he got out.”

Apparently no further instructions were necessary for, with a curt nod from the other woman, the three spun about and moved towards the huge body. As they stepped away their wings were already unfolding and before they were ten feet away they had stepped up rather than forward and were aloft. This the Cartographer noticed on the edges of his vision as he found himself quite unable to tear his gaze away from the woman in front of him.

Then she too turned around and began to take off from the ground, gesturing slightly with her hands as she moved. A sudden, firm nudge at the back of the Cartographer’s knees shoved him into a sitting position on top of something solid and before he knew what had happened he was several feet off the ground himself, coasting along beside his escort. He couldn’t contain a yelp of surprise when he discovered that he wasn’t actually sitting on anything . . . at least, nothing he could see. If he closed his eyes, which he quickly proceeded to do as nausea tugged uncomfortably at his stomach, he could almost have imagined that he was sitting in a rather comfortable armchair if it hadn’t been for the breeze in his face and the unmistakable sensation of speed.

After a few seconds he managed to relocate his center of gravity and he ventured to open his eyes. He risked a quick glance back over his shoulder and gave a gasp of surprise. There was no sign of the other three people, and he could only just make out the enormous form of the dragon twisting and turning in the midst of a maelstrom of blowing sand. The entire churning mass was moving off, he couldn’t tell where, and picking up speed as it moved. The woman at his side gave no indication that she realized he was still there, and she certainly didn’t turn around to see what was happening behind them.

They had been picking up speed as well, and when he finally turned back around he spotted their destination just ahead. It was obviously the strange feature that he had been unable to identify when he first set out from the edge of the forest. Now, of course, he saw immediately that it was a small, simple village . . . an apparently insignificant grouping of thatched huts with a few larger buildings scattered here and there amidst the rest. Everything within the boundaries of the village clashed vividly with the surrounding waste. The walls of each hut were whitewashed neatly and each of them had doors and shutters painted in bright greens, blues, yellows and reds. Several of the huts boasted flower gardens, most had vegetable gardens, and all of them had a well-kept patch of grass somewhere at the very least.

There were trees here and there, none of them overly large, but all in full leaf and a few even in bloom. As they began to fly over the outermost edges of the town, he noticed that the ground sloped down at a slight angle and that the village was actually nestled into a hollow crater that appeared to be as low as thirty feet below the surrounding flatlands in some places. At one end of the village he could make out a natural spring of decent size bubbling merrily and a gaggle of various types of fowl, and at the other there was a small, lush meadow with a flock of sheep grazing peacefully.

As for actual human residents, the streets were not crowded with them, but neither were they deserted. A few isolated groups of children ran laughing here and there, and the sheep and poultry were obviously tended by a few older people. At this point the resemblance to a normal, quaint, self-sufficient village ceased to exist. No one older than adolescence was to be seen . . . on the ground, that is. There were quite a number of them flitting about over the village, going about what otherwise appeared to be fairly ordinary and everyday business.

The shadows were growing long indeed by this time, and it was obvious that everyone was on their way home. Women guided baskets full of produce through thin air, while men were flying in with their axes laid across their shoulders and small bundles of chopped wood bobbing merrily along behind with little or no visible means of support. The few who actually seemed to notice the Cartographer did little more than give him a strange look and fly on with a backward glance at the old woman. She gave no sign that she noticed them at all, but continued purposefully towards the opposite end of the village. At last they appeared to be descending. The Cartographer found that he was moving forward slightly, and landed just ahead of his companion.

“You’d best stand up,” she said briskly, but not unkindly, from behind him. “Your support won’t be there much longer.”

He was already climbing to his feet as she spoke and he felt a small puff of air ruffle his clothing. He gingerly took a short step backward and felt nothing there. Whatever he had been sitting on was gone.

“Hmmm . . . well, well,” this from the old woman. “What have we here?”

He felt her reach swiftly into his pack and extract one of the precious scrolls and he turned quickly to face her, intending to protest. The slightly amused expression on her face stopped him and he simply watched as she unrolled the parchment and glanced over it rapidly.

“I see,” she paused and looked up at him. “Been in the trade long?”

“M-my whole adult life,” he managed to stammer. The question had been unexpected, although he had no time to consider the full oddity of discussing his career choices with this person after the events which had just transpired. It was far too ordinary, and ordinary had ceased to happen well over two hours ago.
“Well known then, I suppose?”

“N-not really; No one pays attention to who drew the map, after all.”

“Very true, but do people buy them?”

“Oh, yes! The publisher is always very anxious to receive them whenever I come back from one of my expeditions. I fancy that I draw them well enough, but I expect it’s the embellishment he likes best.”

Her lips quirked slightly as she looked down at the map again, “Yes, I can see how he might. The drawings are quite good. Have you actually encountered everything you have pictured here?”

“Oh, heaven’s no! Why, look at some of those creatures! One might just as well claim that one had run into a dra” He cut off rather abruptly as he remembered the obvious.

At this she laughed and rolled up the parchment, stepping past him as she handed it back. “I wonder now . . . People have a tendency to believe that which is placed before them.” She trailed off, “Well, let’s not stand on the doorstep all day. Come inside; I’ll feed you a hot meal and we can talk this over.”

The Cartographer followed her inside and found her to be quite true to her word. The food was excellent, especially as he hadn’t tasted a properly prepared meal in quite some time. The talk, which didn’t truly begin until the meal had been finished and the table cleared, lasted for rather a long time indeed.

For hours the Cartographer sat, mesmerized, as the old woman told him a story which had begun decades earlier, when she herself had been very young. The first parts were entirely second-hand, a sweeping epic of two opposing forces (she called them Light and Darkness, at first) doing battle in a place utterly outside of our own. Darkness was being beaten rather badly, and had actually been routed utterly by the Light, until the merest chance discovery turned the tide.

Darkness found a portal into this world, a portal which was located just a few short miles from the village, and this became the rallying point. It was discovered that Darkness took on a form even more powerful in our world than in it had in its own. It became something very much like what we would recognize as dragons of immense strength and ferocity. Darkness also determined that it could draw energy from our world, carry it back through the portal into theirs and use it against Light.

Suddenly, Light was fighting for its very survival again. Meanwhile, the effect of Darkness drawing energy from our world was manifested by the ever-growing blight of ashy waste around the Vorpal Gate (as it came to be known). It wasn’t long before the villagers noticed this during their frequent trips into the forest around their homes. It soon seemed that the village would be swallowed whole by the destruction, and the villagers made ready to leave if it should become necessary. The dragons had not yet discovered the presence of any other beings within the world they were invading, but it was only a matter of time.

For a time it looked as if Darkness would win on both sides of the Vorpal Gate. And finally, Light found the gate. Light also took on a different form in this world, but their power was neither enhanced nor diminished. A poorly captured likeness of one of these beings with no attention to scale would have revealed something very like the beings we call fairies, or pixies. The reality, of course, was as different as an acorn to an oak tree.

They were tall, taller than almost any human, and well-built. Where our fairies are mischievous and a bit silly, the faeries were noble and more than passing fair to look upon. Their wings, quite different from the insectile things we patch onto our own fairies, were unlike anything that has ever been seen. As wispy and ethereal as gossamer, they were at the same time more durable than steel. Each facet of each wing caught and refracted light at a thousand different angles, sending brilliant beams of color in all directions, especially when they were in flight.

The lone scout that came forth discovered the nearby humans almost immediately, and this brought yet another factor into the Light’s councils of war. It too had the ability to drain energy from this world and use it in battle against Darkness, however to do so would annul the entire original purpose of the war. Knowing, as it did, that our world was inhabited, Light could not allow the wholesale devastation to continue.

A solution was reached, and it was at this point that the old woman and her fellow villagers truly entered the story. The faeries needed to bring the destruction of our world to a halt, or at least slow it down, in order to save us and to stop the flow of energy back into their universe so they could rally successfully against Darkness once and for all. Unfortunately, this very flow of energy prevented them from freeing up any of their own considerable resources to this side of the gate, all of their energies being required to hold Darkness at bay on their own side.

One faerie (which was still one more than they could safely spare) traveled back into our world and appeared to the villagers. He explained everything and offered the answer which Light had finally put forward. The faerie would grant a portion of their powers to the humans, and in return the humans would take on the task of keeping the dragons on the proper side of the Vorpal Gate. He made a very convincing case, the villagers agreed, and the faerie spent as much time as he could teaching them the use of their newfound powers.

The first thing he instructed them in was the formation of boundaries. The Vorpal Gate was immediately sealed off, and soon after the immediate area around the village was surrounded by a protective barrier. The blockade around the gate was sturdy and well-built, but it couldn’t be perfect. The dragons assaulted it constantly, testing for weaknesses, and whenever they found one they broke forth and had to be driven back through the Gate and the opening sealed off and reinforced.

The waste continued to grow, but slowly. Updates on the state of the war were infrequent at best, but Light was slowly regaining the upper hand as the humans continued to shore up the boundary on the gate and dragons had a harder time breaking through. When they did, there were always patrols roaming about the area, just waiting to pick a fight. Dragons couldn’t be killed on this side of the portal, but enough force could stun them and bring them to the ground long enough for their fires to be temporarily quenched so they could be transported back to their own world. The duty of the villagers demanded constant vigilance, but there was a steady flow of reinforcements as the children grew up and gained the powers which came with adulthood. The young man the Cartographer had seen in action that day had been on his first patrol.

“So you see,” the old woman finally concluded, “this is our purpose for going on as we do. It is our duty and privilege to protect and serve humanity and our own future generations until such time as it is no longer necessary. This can best be accomplished if the rest of the world stays ignorant. And until now, it has been. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . at least, that is what I thought at first.” She smiled knowingly, “Perhaps your stock in trade can be of more use than your silence.”

The Cartographer’s face brightened. “You are more than welcome to any aid which I have to offer.”

“Do you understand what I am asking of you? Are you willing to do what you can?”

In answer, the Cartographer drew forth a scroll and unrolled it on the table, unpacking his equipment and setting to work on the spot. An hour later, it was finished, and the old woman inspected it with a grateful smile.

“I suspect that you have been of greater use than you know. Come now, a good night’s rest will do you no harm, and in the morning we shall return you to the edge of the forest where you appeared.”

They both stood and she showed him the spare room and bade him good night. The map still lay unrolled on the table showing the forest and the lands the Cartographer had traveled from to reach it. Beyond the borders of the forest lay the blank portion yet to be completed . . . Blank except for a drawing and three words. What the drawing consisted of I shall leave entirely up to your imagination. Under the drawing, written in a fine, flowing hand, were the words “Here Be Dragons.”

Posted by Jared at March 11, 2005 04:48 PM | TrackBack