The Traveler flexed her fingers, clenching into tight fists before slowly relaxing. Her fingers felt raw and hot despite the chill cutting through the worn leather of her gloves. The climb up this twisted mountain had already taken the better part of the day, and the frosty path was hardly better than a game trail (not that anything truly lived in this odd world of ash and snow). More than once she was forced to scale the mountain face itself, but now that she was close to the highest peak, and the part of her primordial mind that shivered with anticipation told her she was on the right path. Only a little further, now, a thin voice clothed in aurora silk seemed to whisper in her ear.
Still, she yawned and wondered if it was better to rest for the night and begin again when she felt stronger? This far north the twilight skies seemed brighter, and the days stretched on for longer than she thought possible – did such ancient terms like ‘day and night’ truly mean anything more than an excuse that her body clung to while it screamed for rest? But her mind was abuzz and heady, and she was filled with a desire to continue the climb.
There would be time to rest once she found the Last Dragon.
In this northern miasma, beyond the carmine seas where the Sun met its end, a solitary range of mountains shaped like a copse of twisted trees, curled such that they look like a withered fist, is said to be the home of an ancient secret. Although there are no settlements, towns, or people with any remaining memory of that distant place, stories of the region are carried by the wind and the churning sea, becoming myths and excitedly whispered stories to entertain those youthful spirits too frivolous to join the Order of the Gray but too enamored with travel to be of any use in society. Inevitably, these strange tales draw in foolish adventurers who seek glory and riches in equal measure, despite there being no use for either in an age with no history.
One such tale, told in some form or another, is the story of the Last Dragon: the pale-scaled, many-eyed primordial serpent who was said to have slithered out of the Deep itself during the Fall to feast upon the immortal stars. Monstrous and beautiful, the starry heavens it swallowed up over a lifetime eventually imbued it with such illumination that it became self-aware, and with that awareness came the regret that comes when facing a starless sky. Penitent and ashamed, the serpent condemned itself to the glittering caverns of a mountain of gleaming iron in the utmost north of the world, where the glimmering iridescence of its many-colored scales reflect off the mirror-like surfaces of the iron-rich stone to fill the sky with phantom stars.
In some versions, the end of the story claims that the dragon lies there yet, slowly coiling around itself in the gentle throes of an eternal slumber, emitting ghostly rays of ancient starlight to illuminate the heavens.
Of course, since there are hardly any stars any more, a more common ending to the story is that the dragon’s immortality only extended to its body and after its consciousness perished, the divine light of heaven’s stars now remain trapped in its never-rotting corpse, buried under the mountain’s iron form.
Cruelly, other endings to the story claim that the bitterness of the dragon eventually overwhelmed its shame, and the dragon consumed the Sun before finally burying itself in the ruins of its former dungeon, a fitting hoard to illuminate its self-loathing.
No matter the retelling, no matter its final version, the lingering thought remains the same, embedded like a seed in the soft minds of the excitable child – is the dragon still there, in that iron mountain in the utmost north of the world?
Eventually, most who listen to this story forget their idle dreamy thoughts and the seed dies as it lived – words on wind. For others, the dream is never truly forgotten, and that’s what becomes of unhappy people who sigh as they work and glance to the north, hearing the siren’s song but not truly understanding it. As for the most rare – no more than one in a hundred thousand, it would seem – there is a child who abandons all duties but those starlit dreams blooming from that strange seed and pursues the myth itself.
This child – the Traveler now, properly – paused to take another short rest, willing her hot blood to fill her frozen extremities. A harsh wind has kicked up the ashy snow, and in this maelstrom no living being could survive exposed to the harsh elements of an abandoned world – hiding, here, in the mouth of a steep stone overhang, was only a touch better.
The Traveler was not concerned about death – the excitement that made her limbs quiver did not leave her with enough conscious thought for that – but she was concerned by the delay. If her intuition was right – and so far it had led her life beautifully – then she was only a short hike from where she truly belonged.
How odd to feel so intimate about a place that she never witnessed, but the voice in her mind and the tingling excitement that warmed her frozen fingertips told her this was true. Everything she had done in her life was meant to come to this purpose: from the friendships she formed and spent to put her on this path of life, the specific and tortuous methods she used to strengthen her body and mind for long travel across a maddened world, even to the meagre wealth she accrued as a relic hunter to hire a foolhardy captain to deliver her to this strange land. Fate surely wouldn’t allow her to be turned away by something so natural as a storm.
Wrapping her scarf around her head and pulling the thick cap down, she ventured into the storm. At once, even under so many protective layers, her skin felt like it was being stripped away by the ash and wind, but her legs refused to stop the forward motion. Blinded, she still followed the path that seemed to be illuminated Deep in her unconscious mind, a ghostly trail that permeated through the gray. While it felt like days, weeks, and years, she abruptly found herself in a dark cavern, the gale winds behind her echoing like a long scream in the void.
Unwrapping her bloody scarf with ruined fingers, the Traveler looked around, limping forward into the Deep darkness of the cavern, waiting for her scarred eyes to adjust to the sudden loss of light. Was this the entryway to the iron mountain’s dungeon, where its lone inhabitant, prisoner and warden, slumbered for an eternity to give the world false stars? Was this the home she was promised, when she heard fanciful tales of a beautiful many-eyed serpent who devoured the stars above, so sad and so remorseful that she felt like she had fallen in love? That tiny seed, so small and insignificant, had blossomed into a dream as bright as the sun, and dominated her so thoroughly, that to be denied purpose after so long would truly leave her a charred and crumbling husk.
No, she had found her way. She had found the Last Dragon.
In the hollow depths of the palm of that twisted mountain-hand lies the many-eyed serpent whose scales glisten wetly and shimmer with an ancient light dying. As the Traveler approaches with blind tears streaking her face, the Last Dragon stirs only long enough to devour her, her starlit dreams sufficing as a morsel for a world where all other stars have fallen, long dead. It sleeps, and its gentle slumbering breath is stained with faint starlight which drifts up from the mountain and mingles with ash and snow to become whispered myths, delicate stories, and strange tales that may, once in a hundred thousand, bloom brightly in the mind of a child too frivolous and too enamored with travel to be anything but starlight themselves.