The First Winter, Chapter 3: The Nighttime Dragon

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On the first day of Spring, Ailin woke with the dawn and the loud cracking sound of the ice in the river breaking apart, followed by the rushing noise as the water began rushing to make up for the time lost while it was frozen. She rushed outside, seeing that nearly all of the snow had melted, and that the first shoots of the brave flowers were poking up through the last of the winter's white.

When Auntie Nem finally woke, somewhat later than that, she found that the table was already set for breakfast, and that Ailin had not only decorated the house with fresh flowers, but also prepared their morning porridge. Surprised and pleased, she asked the young girl, “To what do I owe this wonderful surprise, Ailin? It is not like you to rise early and do work without being asked!”

Giggling, the girl eagerly lead her grandmother to her place at the table and then plopped herself down on her chair. “I want you to finissh the story of the First Winter! The snow and the ice are going, and you promised if I was good you would tell me!”

Auntie Nem laughed and then nodded, beginning the tale between spoonfuls of porridge.

“The Great Hero had faced a terrible trial just to get where he was, but that was nothing compared to his meeting with the Nighttime Dragon itself...

When Arnd finally came to the great Palace of Endings, the eternal home of the Nighttime Dragon, he had been walking for so long that his memories of the earth below were as faded and colorless as a half-remembered dream. His eyes ached from the endless darkness and his skin was burning and raw from the constant frigid wind. He knew from the legends of the nomadic Ice-dwellers of the Southern Wastes that the Nighttime Dragon had long ago made a compact with the Prince of Winds, who had promised his bitterest arctic gales in the defense of his palace. Knowing that the wind was not subtle in its howling and biting cold, he pulled his cloak tight around his shoulders and his hood down low and pressed on into the heart of the storm.

His persistence was rewarded at long last when he clambered to the top of a mountainous, razor-edged wave and finally saw the lair of the Dragon itself. Built of some dark, seamless stone from a long-forgotten age of the world, it jutted from the ice like an immense fang. It had no windows and no doors, and when his gaze had followed the arc of its walls to where the cruel peak pierced the sky, his tormented eyes were blinded by the searing white light of the thousands of captured bolts of lightning which swirled endlessly around it. Squeezing his eyes shut against the harsh beauty of it, he wept at the pain in his head and his heart that the vision brought to him. He knew that he would never again see anything so terribly beautiful and that even the brightest gem would seem dull in comparison to even the faded memory of this place.

After a time, he drew a deep, deep breath and took his hammer from his belt. Raising it high above his head, he bellowed out the words he had cajoled from the blind witch Baba-Yaga, who never lied but never told the truth. "Lord of the Endless Nights and the Spaces Beyond, I invoke the Right of Audience. I am oath-bound to the Dragon of the Land and in his name I demand that you allow me into your sanctum to negotiate on behalf of all living things which are threatened by your actions!" Aas the distorted echoes of his words reflected back to him, he stuck the ice before him with a sound like a thunderclap.

The wave on which he stood trembled and then began to roll once more, reaching higher and higher until he could no longer keep his footing and he slipped, sliding helplessly down its steep slope, the polished wall of the tower looming far above him. His speed was so great as he approached the wall that even he, the greatest mortal hero of the past, present, and future, cried out for fear of the bone-crushing blow he expected to come when he struck it. His cry became a gasp of shock as he slid smoothly through the stone as if it were nothing but fog. He slowed to a stop, lying on his back before the great Onyx Throne of the Nighttime Dragon.

The throne room was lit with soft, white light, almost like the moon-light that had been stolen from the world below. Above him, impossibly far above, he could see a massive block of ice hanging from the ceiling, held there with chains whose links were forged from the same stone as the tower itself. Trapped in its center was an immense silver carp, his eyes half-closed in sorrow and his brilliant diamond tears frozen to his cheeks. Arnd knew that he had at last found the lost Lord of the Celestial Schools, Tentei Mure, and his heart broke to see how he had been bound. Swarming around their master and trapped in the same block of ice were the throngs of his subjects, the silver motes of the Celestial Host.

The Nighttime Dragon unfurled its wings, their membranes like the finest black silk. Its scales drank all of the light that touched them, leaving a dark void that made Arnd's heart freeze in fear. Its voice was like the hissing of the air as it rushed across the ice and its breath drained the color and warmth from all it touched.

Speak quickly, mortal. My hunger is immense and my patience short. I can taste the life and the  heat in your body, and even my brother below can only hold me back for a few endless moments.

In its words, Arnd saw his death a thousand, thousand times. The blood drained from his face and his knees trembled, but his will was iron and his voice steady. "Great Dragon of Endings, you have done a terrible thing. The world below is being ripped apart by tempests and frozen in ice and snow. The people shiver in their homes, their crops destroyed and their animals starving. Nothing like this has ever happened before, and I fear that soon they will perish."

I care not for the insects who crawl upon my brother's body. They are parasites, feeding off of that which was never theirs. I have done nothing that was not my right, according to the ancient compact. All of the lights of the day become mine when the sun passes into the nightly shadow, and I have suffered the thief Tentei Mure for the last time. You claimed the Right of Audience, and so I cannot devour you until you have spoken your purpose. I hunger. I demand you explain yourself so that I may consume you.

Arnd could feel the icy teeth of the Dragon tearing through his flesh a hundred times over as the chill, foul air of its breath washed over him. His hands shook, but still his conviction held firm and he spoke on. "Surely you must know that if the world below were to come to its final end, it would be your end as well? Is your greed so great that you would doom yourself to oblivion out of spite?"

The great Dragon lifted its head high, its long, sinuous neck uncoiling and its throne creaking as it stamped its feet in fury. Its mouth opened impossibly wide and it bellowed so loudly that it was heard in the world beneath, the thunderous sound cutting through the howling tempests and sending the people scurrying to hide from something they could scarcely understand.

How dare you lecture me! You are nothing! You are a flea, a mote, a speck of matter and a puff of air!

Its rage was immense, but for the first time in its endless existence it felt a seed of doubt. Arnd's words tasted of truth, and even the fury of the Nighttime Dragon could not change that.

Make your plea, then, so-called hero, though I doubt it will save you.

Any other in his place would have frozen and shattered at the tempest of the Dragon's ire, their voice quelled by terror. But Arnd was not like any other, and in the endless time that he had crosses the frozen Sea, he had considered what he might say at this moment. He raised his head and when he spoke, his voice was steady and clear.

"Great Lord of Endings, I have a solution that will allow you to have everything that is your right, and also preserve the world below for my people. I ask that you wait until the Moon is filled with lights from the day before you come to claim them. For a fortnight, allow them to gather and shine as before. When the Moon is full of these lights, then you will come to claim them. But instead of devouring them all in one great bite, savor them over the span of another fortnight. In this way, the change will be gradual and the tempests will be quelled, and you will have the pleasure of your feast far longer than before."

The Dragon paused, considering. It was true that the gnawing hunger that filled it always would be tempered by this slow feasting. Further, it did not desire oblivion, and it knew that Arnd's words were true: if it did not act, then the Day of Ending would come. At length, it lowered its head and spoke.

Your words ring with wisdom, mortal. But there is one thing neglected in your proposal: the Thief Lord, Tentei Mure, deserves punishment for his brazen theft of my rightful property. I demand that he be punished.

Arnd took a long breath, and for the first time he felt hope. The Dragon was heeding his words. "Yes, great Dragon. He will be punished twofold. First, he would be forced to gather all of the lights himself, and his toil will be endless and eternal. Second, the Celestial School will be dispersed, forever scattered, so that he will be alone as he endures his labor. In this way, the cycle will continue forever."

For a long time, the Dragon pondered his words. Arnd stood before it and waited, his heart pounding in his chest as his fear and his hope warred in the silence. At long last the dragon nodded once, raised its immense ebon head to the great icy prison, and howled. The steel-hard ice crazed, and cracked, and shattered, and Tentei Mure was at last released from his prison. He fell to the floor and gave Arnd a grateful bow before slipping out to the frozen ocean outside, to begin his eternal toil, filling the Moon with light so that the Nighttime Dragon may feast. And so, the Moon's light from that day forth would wax and then wane and then wax again, as this endless cycle spun on.

Then the Dragon stretched out his endless wings and swept them together, pressing a howling gale the likes of which had never been seen before in all of the worlds, and this gale picked up the thawing masses of the Celestial Host and it scattered them so far apart that even if they swam forever they could never draw any nearer to each other. Each one clung to a tiny mote of light. And so, when you gaze up into the blackness of the night sky, you can see them, the stars, each struggling in vain to join its brothers and find their exiled Lord.

Lastly, the Dragon raised itself up to its full height and it roared, a great and terrible cry of rage and hate at the disgrace of being forced by a mortal man to give up what it saw as its rightful property. The roar was so hot and so powerful that the entirity of the Heavenly Sea thawed in an instant, and Arnd was tossed by the waves until his battered and unconscious body washed ashore far, far away, on a sandy beach where he was met by the followers of the Cat-Goddess of the Sand-River.

But that is another story.
I know that it has been a very long time since I posted chapters 1 and 2, but I think that this last chapter is worth the wait.

Thanks for reading!
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