~ a short story
Between this pair, what began as a story of time became one of space.
Amongst weathering and crumbled precipices of a mist-shrouded horizon, the earth rose to meet the sky. Seen from far and wide as the fingers of a deity reaching up to infinity, the rocky coast drew out earthly gods to its shores. Bleeding always with sunlit rays into an interior that was never warmed by anything other than its fiery form and the gainful booties it has gathered from lives long past, the mountain harbored a tyrant.
A ferocious and wise beast named Draconis, this dragon residing within the mountain was a beast of some renown. To the folk who dream of nightmares of such beings as this, the Hellmount carried Draco within its bosom since the stars exploded the nine realms into existence. All their stories birthed from this relation, for the relationship between mountains and dragons, dragons and mountains, is as old as time itself.
By some tellings, the Hellmount did not become itself until Draco flew into its hearth. A conquering fledgling, new to life beyond the skyward roosts of its youth, fresh from a willful inferno to rout humanity’s last stand in ages forgotten from such being’s extinctive fires, Draco found a home in the form of a small cavern. Unto refuge from light and from slayers, carrying the wealth of its slain humane citadel on its wings and in its gullet, Draco shook and vomited it all into the pits of the nascent mount’s heart. From there, from out of the strange magicks of that rich vein of Draconis’ first bloody triumph, the cave grew to a mountain. While the dragon slept upon its hoard of gold and jewels and for aeons hence, each being soaking its resource, it grew to encompass the skies. And Lo, this dragon’s chosen space became the Hellmount. Still other tellings speak of the Hellmount as a rock of eternal presence, the core of the cosmos, where earth and stars coalesced to create the All. The Hellmount, lonely in its magnificence, singular in its glory unto an unpeopled world, thereon created a life to match it. A winged mover and breather of fire, to cast out from its legendary shadow and make its own due in the world. Draconis, being the child of Hel, returned from its contesting travails in the wider world in the millennia of Men with booty in hand. Coming back to the hearth of its mother, Draconis was bound, or welcomed and eager, to live out its remaining days in the caress of the stone and shadow. Each being immortal, conjoined and companioned, the dragon and the mountain forge a lasting, mythic vision of duality, of light and shadow, chaos and order, fire and earth.
For mortals, to watch the mountain’s steady presence along the horizon for too long is to invite the specter of tyranny and fire and death into your home. Everything spiritual can be discerned as superstition, they say, save for dragons. Dragons are real and to fear them is to be human and sane. To others, to the soothsayers and the shamans, to sight the peak of Hell is to stare into the heart of the cosmos itself, enlightening and maddening just the same. Wisemen do not look upon it. And yet, wiser men still seek to march its peak and meet infinity in the flesh. There, many agemen go to take their last steps to that glory, or in reaching its utmost, their final breaths in the cold elevation of its tip. Madmen speak of the peak as a hellmouth, a portal into other worlds and other times. Most of those that make the peak never return to tell their tales; those that do, never wish to speak of it. Many returners never speak again at all. Out of fear or from an inarticulate awe of the sublime, no one knows for certain.
Naturally, the existence of Hel and Draco invites wonderment and extrapolations alike. They drip out from the songs of swordsmen. Does every mountain house a dragon inside? Monsters and mounts all lesser than the originals, but powerful still, ever dangerous. An infinitude of questions arises out of these imaginings: what is the relationship between mountains and their dragons? How does a dragon go about destroying an enemy mountain? Might two mountains merge and create a two-headed tyrant? Is every dragon preceded by its mountain, like eggs and their layers? Or does a dragon’s roost into a crater or cavern or isle enhance the mountain, like a seed and its future tree? The inquiries go unanswered, for no dragon has been seen in a millennia. No tomes speak of the content of their encounters; no artists or authors have captured their exploits from out of a first-hand. Their depictions are ever the result of fever dreams of deathly wings, teeth, fire, and devastation. No one disputes these renderings, the artmen say, because an approximate but nevertheless true vision of the tyrant as such lies within the collective dream of Man.
In the land of today, an intrepid hero hopes to provide an answer with a sword named Truth and a steed named Valor. He sets forth from a meager, unmarked settlement, a thousand strong, with a dream in mind and a heart blasting with fear and courage, courage and fear. Setting forth for the shores of Hell, their mission is to brave the interior of the mount in the hopes of finding Draconis at his slumber. Then and there, the hero and his best swords deign to slay a god, taking the gold and the glory unto themselves and their peoples back home. In doing so, their settlement and its hero will earn its name. Dragonslayer.
Riding day and night overland, through the heat and the rain and the snow, the company of brave men traverse their world undaunted. Reaching the northernmost scapes of the Hellmount’s sprawl, they dismount and embark into the winding darkness of mountainous interior. Within, braving their fears and the envisaged painful and nightmarish death many of them might face even in victory, the warriors step further and further into the darkness with hands upon blades with convicted purpose. At the purported center of the mountain, the hero from humble beginnings, raised under the banner of cooperation above all else and courage even in the face of certain doom, leads the party still a thousand strong. Weary from the climb and the shadows harboring their mares, tireless and hungry, they find their destination nevertheless.
Where Draconis presumably slept, at the core where the hoard of sparkling wealth may lay in times long past, there is a stark emptiness. Swords at the ready and battle cries ready to loose upon lips, the long travelers into the mountain dishearten at the absence of their tyrant and the grand reward on the other side of its death. Not a single coin is left. There is no easy evidence which may mark the presence of the winged tyrant’s stay from before, or where it might have escaped to, or where the riches might now be residing. However, as the men search, they do eventually find a winding path beyond the central hearth of the mount’s inner. Beyond the space of this draconic chamber, there is way forward. It leads downward, into the shadow of the unknown beneath the earth’s surface. Weary of the consequences of the continued journey from here, but driven for the glory and greed that this voided out hole stole away from their hallowed quest, the thousand and one descend.
Along this winding path down, the Men adjust. Far and away from the sun’s light upon the shrouded mount’s peak so as could be seen above, the swordsmen rest and expend their rations, first to small firelights and then to nothing at all. The sameness and consistency of the path becomes a comfort. In the tasking, hunched walk always sloping forth, their height becomes a nuisance. The cold gusts from underworld crevices chill them into a physical disciplining. Where the light once lay within their eyes, a sheening specter takes hold. As their eyes gloom unto blindness, their faces grow flowing brush to fend the cold and their backs bend lower to aperture the winding, sloping, hole they follow. The lower these creatures go, the more they alter. They head towards a light though they hardly take notice. What they feel is the heat. There is a source of ever-expanding warmth below them, at their destination. Eased by the changes, they descend faster.
The nameless hero, no longer so distinct or glamorous amongst his thousand, gets the rush of the fiery air first. He delights in it initially. But soon, as the party grows closer and closer to seeming end of their millions of steps below Hel, the hero grows restless. For the first time in these unacknowledged seasons, he understands something like the truth, his truth, concerning the quest, the thousand warriors, the legacy of this mountain. And the awaiting home he abandoned for all of it. He couldn’t remember the name of his homeland, or if it ever had one at all. Might it have a future with all of them so long absent, presumed dead and gone forever? His restlessness grew, unstoppable and enervating.
At an end of the steps in this nigh endless undermountain, this man reflects on the possibilities of his quest from before. Had their invasion been successful, the fabled tyrant Draconis faced and battled unto death, the victory and the promised wealth achieved, what then? Carry the endless hoard back home, crossing the world over again with its impossible weight in tow? No, they were to make the mount their new home, to colonize it and live from its bounty. They’d live with the gold, in a constant and tireless guardianship over the gold. And if the dragon was missing and the hoard intact, no battle and no loss of life necessary? A worse fate, perhaps. Then, in a restless fearing only to end in madness, they’d await the return of the beast to its home, to the thieves of its livelihood with vengeance and hate in its fire. Inevitably, no matter how many seasons or generations it took, they’d be destroyed in that tyrannical return, the thousandfold boon of their collective lives there overshadowed all along the way in anticipation of those wings arriving one promised day to take it all away. No matter to the outcome they’d expected, it was folly.
In conquering the mountain, the Man and his people would be enslaving themselves. The hero who could no longer be called one considering the fate of their quest now, at the core of the world, blind, and still burnished with an unfounded desire for fortune and glory, glory and fortune.
Here at these timely realizations, the man, lesser and unrecognized as their prior leader, goes before the others, speaking his mind as they stare unseeing into the roiling elemental flames below. While he speaks, one man’s beard begins to burn from an especially violent updraft, but none notice, least of all the burner.
He tells tale of his heart, of a dragon that grew tired of its self-imposed exile and imprisonment within the guileless and dead mountain that it holds no special connection to outside of a hazy familiarity from a disparate segment of its immortal passage in the material, hiding away its body and its ill-gotten wealth and its whole damned life there. He reveals the truth of its absence from their arrival in all that elevation from before they were what they are now. The dragon named Draconis lived here once within the mountain we call Hellmount, but it left, destroying all its accumulated wealth by sending it far, far below, to the center of the earth, into the ever-burning core that destroys all things, where no Man or beast should ever go. Draconis, never to return, his legend discarded and his past erased by the purifying flames of a cosmic force far beyond his own means. This dragon, the man said sincerely, with tears forging themselves within his tired, useless and damnable eyes, is gone but not dead. Never dead. It is alive and elsewhere. It lives its life in the light of the sun, in the freedom of the skies, unshackled from its greed and with a smile of unchanging benevolence on its maw. No hellfire reigns down from its flights onto the material world of man and beast. No mountain can satisfy its hoard any longer — for it comprises the whole of the skyward heavens above, where it can always go at anytime.
At this peace being spoken, moved to a new course by his own words, the reborn hero begins to wade through his brethren, leading them up and out.
The others, confused, shaken, and ultimately angered by the words he has spoken, horde around him. They grasp at him, ripping his ruinous armors and his thickened, steadfast beard. Raising him overhead with fierce grips of murderous intention, they take him to the edge of the undermountain’s very last steps. There, they toss him into the open, burning space of below the below. The man makes no sound as he descends. As the flames engulf and his skin begins to melt away from his tired bones, the hero beckons a new dream, borne of the futility of their quest and the betrayal of his Men and out of a newfound, righteous, purifying rage boiling within his heart.
The hero comes apart in the searing elementia below. Then, holding a strange and transformative space for the first traveler bound for its eternal hold, the man comes together again. Out of the licking tongues of flame, the thousand dwarves ‘watch’ their deed with a sanguine repose, awaiting the promised rich reward from their sacrifice. They hear it but do not see it. Then, they feel it but do not remember it.
From out of roaring fires below, two towering and tyrannical wings unfurl, crimson orbs open with hatred forever envisaging violent consummation, a hellmaw unhinges itself out of that roar for a purifying beam of flames shot all the way through to the overland peak above. Following it through, the red beast rides its way to that promised world. Along its flight up and out, all thousand on the wayward path perish in a moment, burned unto void.
The first dragon, nameless as of now, blasts out of the peak of the Hellmount, immortal and all-powerful, ready to begin its reign within a world soon to be unbound from its myths concerning the true nature of ruin, destruction, and death. ~