He was going down under the mountains, down to find the roots of the earth from which the stone peaks grew. Down where it was said fiery dragons dwelt, gnawing on the roots of the mountains, stealing away precious metals and gems to hoard and hide in cavernous galleries.
The old women told of a world his people had lived upon before they lived here, where the dragons had gnawed away the mountains and the earth had crumbled into the sky, leaving endless clouds and winds, with not even a rock to stand upon or a pebble to throw. They called the lost world Iapater. Some said if the dragons gnawed upon the mountain roots long enough, this world too would crumble apart and fall into the sky.
Of course, these were all stories: dragons, the stony roots of mountains, the earth collapsing into the sky. All of it was unproven fable because no one went where he was going, for everyone feared the dragons. They were deadly – it was said – hungry for the warm flesh that might stumble down into their forgotten caverns, where the world was made and where it grew from out of starry, unknown abysses that lay days of travel downwards, ever downwards through broken cracks both narrow and vast in the floor of the world.
This was the journey he undertook, and in the earthy caverns of the vast-yet-narrow underworld, by the cool, almost-blue glow of his heatless glowstone — one of the many trinkets created by the wizards who hermited themselves away in the old places — he saw rock formations both strange and beautiful and things no man before had lain eyes upon to tell. He found spiraling stalagmites that rose into the darkness, inverted forests of stalactites that seemed to sway strangely in the light, unaccountably smooth pillars of frozen stone that looked as though they flowed before his very eyes but were solid to the touch, and vast and seemingly-bottomless depths of blackness that echoed his sounds faintly back to him and seemed to stretch out forever under the world. He thought to himself this was where the night hid itself during the day.
There were pools of water here and there, too, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, populated by blind, white fish-like things that flit sightlessly through the clear, dark waters. Some cast a weird, pale phosphorescence complimentary to that of his glowstone, like twins long separated. The water was cool and refreshing, and helped him maintain the supplies he had carried with him, and the fish-things made him wonder about other strange creatures he might find down here among the bones of the world. They made him wonder about the dragons.
Many times he wondered how far down the caverns stretched. He wondered if they truly reached the roots of the world, or stopped short to deny men access with a fickle taunt. He wondered what the roots of stone would look like that anchored the mountains in the depths of the world, and if he would recognize them the same way he recognized roots of a tree. He wondered if he could grow new mountains from them the way his father could grow trees from root cuttings. Were they winding down through the stone around him even now, just out of sight, lurking beyond the uneven gray-and-black shaded walls?
After endless, countless days without the sun to tell him how long he had strode the underworld, where he ate and slept to a soundless, mindless rhythm that seemed to guide him, the temperature rose, inexplicably. The steady, cool embrace of the enfolding earth began to draw sweat that did not come from the exertion of walking and climbing and crawling through the uncharted, inconsistent mazes of stone.
But it was not for some time he realized he had come into the depths, and it was not until he saw the very roots of the mountains that he knew he had come into the places where dragons were said to dwell. There, he did immediately recognize the roots for what they were, buried in the depths of the world’s birthplace, drinking up the stone around them to feed the towering earth above, threaded amidst vast pools and streaming rivers of molten fire.
For some time he wandered along random paths picked out in the bizarre world, staring slack-jawed, noticing glimmering gem and crystal flashing high in rock above and the glint and spark of metal veins woven through it. Then, down a dark, circular passage that exited near a dark, low-ceilinged chamber which glowed with the weirdly tenebrous smoky orange light of the molten fires, he saw large lizards scurrying around a column of rock, biting and licking at the stone, carrying jewels on their backs. The length of his forearms, they hissed in warning and fled at his approach.
Closer, he saw the stone they gnawed was upon the root of a mountain. He had found his dragons and was both amused and intrigued at the tiny, fearful creatures and so plunged deeper into the smoky, fire-lit caverns and their black shadows to explore the world they lived in and chase them to their bejeweled lairs.
And there in a great nest of glittering stone and metal cupped in a dark, cool chamber was a creature out of nightmare, all scales and horns, rough-edged and gimlet-eyed, like a thorn-crowned flower made of rocky plates and set with a serpent’s eyes, towering and vast, as great in size as the legends claimed. The lizards scampered over and around the behemoth as it hissed and rose above him, great lips parted around a bristling forest of yellowed-ivory fangs. Here was dragon, the serpent that would murder mountains.