She called herself Urdaren, the City of Men, and no one contested it. Clad in cool marbles and shimmering mosaics, bejewelled with tinkling minarets and the glinting light of mirrored windows, redolent of rich orchards, spice markets and temple musk, she pillowed on plump foothills, guarded by sapphire mountains under a canopy sky. The rulers of Ur knew her wealth, and the power of her navy against those who might think to take her by force.
The sailors of the great fleets knew her better. They knew the narrow channel through serpent-fanged reefs, the furious currents hidden from the untutored. They knew the ways of the harbour, draped with banners and pennants that billowed, languorous as petticoats in a breeze. They knew that she was beautiful, and rich, indifferent to the delight that men took in her company, except to use it for her own ends. They knew that she was cruel to those less wealthy than she, and they knew that, like many of her kind, she aged poorly, Oh, no, her beauty did not, could not, fade but her soul withered, her indifference became ennui, then decadence. Her cruelty became her pleasure: she became corrupt.
Her painted walls no longer reflected the insouciance of youth, but the face of encroaching Death. In her streets, children begged, and stole the purses of flabby merchants distracted by this or that procession, piping and clanging past. Her gems wielded rapiers of light against the eyes of the covetous. In her brothels, slaves from one hundred lands bartered thick powder and brittle smiles for enough coin to cloak their despair. Iron armies marred her bright avenues, exotic animals screeched their rage in private bestiaries, esoteric cults seeped like sweat from the cobblestones, prophets cried doom in temples and in the marketplaces, and her perfume and gardens tainted the air with the sicksweet effluvium of rot.
But, day dawned after day, brazen as copper or leaden-skied, and the hungry simply bloated and died, or were mutilated for their petty crimes to amuse a gathered crowd. Laws and armies multiplied, as did courtesans and executioners. New gates were crafted into the walls to ensure enough room to display the corpses of criminals and enemies, and their stench joined the scent of jasmine, the odours of sweat and terror, on the sea-stirred air.
Thus it was that no one at first noticed the little cloud that gathered on the southern horizon, no more than a charcoal smudge against the seamless meeting of sea and sky. Even as it flowered, reaching gently to east and west, as if gathering infants before a summer squall, only a few thought to connect it to the restlessness of the big cats in their golden cages, the twitching silence of songbirds in glittering aviaries, the sullen heat that settled out of the air until even the tile floors radiated like kilns beneath sensitive feet.
He came then. Rising from the engulfing storm like a phoenix of night, his wings encompassing the sky, the Black Dragon fell on the City of Men. He made no cry, but the rush of his flight shrieked through the lunatic air, uprooting trees and driving them through muralled walls like swords through paper, exploding towers in jangles of crystal and stone, flinging down palaces with a force that slung shards in a marble rain across squares and parks, driving the sea before it in an unbroken wall, taller than the tallest fortifications that crumbled to sand beneath its fist.
His shadow touched the land and, where it fell, fires were smothered, shattered jewels did not gleam. He fell upon the city in a blackness so complete no sun reflected from his scales, the light from the city, the hills, the shimmering peaks shivered and blinked out, drawn into the smooth void that was the Black Dragon. His talons raked the bellies of clouds and tore the soul out of the disembowelled city. His tail lashed the earth, and it roared the agony of tortured rock, belching black lava over the gibbering ruins, suffocating the earth beneath a slithering blanket of boiling stone.
Only the Dragon's eyes held light, the sinuous light of dancing skies reflected on ice, the dancing light of the Rainbow that guards the end of the world. Passing over the City, he saw a child, swaddled in the tattered luxuries of a brothel, a child that knew too little to flinch from his glance, but crowed and flailed pallid arms in enchantment. wheeling across continents, he swooped low above the stricken coast. Delicate as cirrus, he plucked the infant from the seething earth as it closed beneath her.
He rose like a memory over the sea, dispersing with the clouds into a fine mist across a watercolour sky.
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