It was… a dream of freedom.
The knight loved to fly. If you were to ask why, it was because he could fly both up and down, apparently.
Was it simply that he liked the choice of having as many directions as possible to fly?
It was not worth mincing words. In any case, the knight was free. Although born as the prince of England, he had tossed aside all things which he considered nuisances, such as the matter of inheriting the throne. One would imagine that the impression he gave to others would be of an insufferable upstart. And yet, perhaps due to his inborn good nature, all seemed to like him.
From the moment he was born, nobody could resent him. Everybody became friendly with him. He was naive, perhaps… or foolish, or reckless. He was not a wise knight.
But he coveted nothing. Valuables seized from his enemies would be unceremoniously gifted to others.
He despaired at nothing. When he became transformed into a myrtle tree by the fearsome witch Alcina, he waited cheerily, nonchalantly, until someone came along to return him to normal.
In his foolishness, he would fail. In facing a great foe, he would sometimes lose… and sometimes win. He was only average in terms of strength. However, the sorts of adventures he had overcome, and the sheer number of them, was beyond extraordinary compared to ordinary knights.
He was weak, but he was brave. As many times as he had been knocked down, not once could he be kept down.
Even his death was without fanfare. At the battle of Roncevaux Pass, despite being caught unawares by treason, the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne fought valiantly. However, they were still greatly outnumbered, four hundred thousand against twenty thousand. Continually pressed by twenty against one, not even a great warrior could hold for long.
Those battle-hardened braves fell, one by one, and they were soon joined by the knight. Letting out a sigh, his hand reached out toward the void – but with a laugh, he stopped it. His contented smile showed no hint of regret. Even as he laid covered with his own seeping blood, and tormented by the pain of approaching death, the knight appeared completely at peace.
If there was one wish remaining in him as he faced death…
“Yeah… I want to see that place again.”
It was likely the knight’s most treasured memory, visiting that boundless world said to contain all things which did not exist on this earth – the alien world that no one had seen before, in the great beyond.
Those were mere murmurs, uttered in the haze of his death. But it was a wish in its own right, a desire that ought to be granted. So, as his Master, I wanted to grant it for Astolfo. No matter how high and noble the wishes of the others were…
Suddenly, the world became distorted. My mind leapt beyond the safety and security of dreams and the subconscious, torn away by the grasp of a dreadful power.
I felt hot, as though my skin had been set on fire – and cold, as though my body was being frozen from the inside out.
Yes, it was obvious what was before me.
There was no point in averting my eyes, in taking up arms to fight. I knew what this monster was.
I knew that I would have to face it eventually. I knew its true form.
It was the most famous episode among the legends of the great hero Siegfried… the slaying of the dragon. With the phantasmal sword Balmung in hand, he stood against the evil dragon Fafnir. What could be more fitting a tale for a hero such as him?
I swallowed. The cavern seemed to expand forever, yet at the same time, it felt painfully claustrophobic.
Firstly, it was because of the treasures that took up over half the space, a mountain so bountiful that a single handful seemed enough to guarantee wealth for life.
And the second was the black mass that laid on top of the wealth, hiding it. Despite its form melting into the darkness, it conveyed a monstrously overwhelming sense of presence. The crushing sensation fueled one’s imagination, becoming visions of black scales, a flaming tongue, snake-like eyes, a poisonous breath – and the colossal creature containing all of it.
It was strangely terrifying that my will had not yet broken… or perhaps it had already been so utterly shattered that I could no longer register it at all.
This was a space which allowed only one existence – the Dreadwyrm. All other living things would find their deaths here.
The fact of it existing before me was horror enough. I could not run even if I wanted to, as though my feet had been pinned to the ground. It seemed almost natural, logical, that if I were to move – if I even looked at it – death would follow.
The dragon opened its maw.
It was a living being, after all – and that was the most frightening thing of all. A creature that had reached such a plane of existence no longer needed food to sustain itself. But this was an evil that devoured for pleasure. As a cat would torment a mouse, or a snake would slowly digest a frog – this predator tortured its prey.
The fear that scorched my body became hotter and hotter.
Isn’t this a dream? Can’t I wake up?
…Is this a dream?
If it devoured me here… would I really wake up?
With no such assurances, I could only fight. However, I could not possibly match it. If I at least had a sword, I could choose to end things right now…
It was then that I realized. There was a sword in my right hand, and gauntlets wrapped around my arms. It finally occurred to me that I was ‘Siegfried’.
Then, I could fight – so I told myself, as I clung on to the little hope that was all I had left. I no longer had to avert my eyes, and could see the dragon clearly.
The dragon paused, its murderous air retreating as it peered at me with something like caution. I gripped the sword tightly, throwing off what hesitation remained – and charged.
Fafnir responded instantly, moving to fight me. With a soul-crushing roar, the clash between man and dragon began.
Everything around me became engulfed by a fiery maelstrom, instantly shining light into the shadowy cavern – but this brought no comfort, for it was the flame that illuminated Hell itself.
I swung the sword feverishly, not knowing how to take on the dragon. Even blows delivered with all my strength barely felt as though I was cutting anything at all. Sensing a coldness bite at my back like so many crawling worms, I frantically rolled along the ground – and the tail of the dragon swung haphazardly over my head.
Like a human swatting at a fly… no, the difference between us was even greater than that. The slightest touch would bring certain death, surpassing anything as insignificant as luck. Shouting loudly to mask my own fear, I struck at its body and then once more at its tail.
The dragon-slayer stood much too far in the distance, while my own death was far too close at hand.
…I can’t win.
The thought passed my mind, and in truth, it was something that I had already realized. The race of dragons stood at the pinnacle atop numerous other species of phantasmal creatures. Breathing fire or ice or even poison, these monsters were sturdier than castle walls, with claws capable of easily rending steel and tails that would pulverize even diamond.
It was true that Siegfried had felled this dragon. Therefore, there was no reason that I would not be able to. Yet I could not perceive even the slightest hint of what might lead to my victory.
The dragon’s claws tore clean through the armor and into my torso. The cuirass collapsed like paper and blood burst from my chest. I could feel a sizable chunk of flesh forever ripped away from my body.
More so than the pain, I felt a fatal sense of loss. Mutilation and overflowing pain translated into a scream far shriller than I thought possible coming from my throat.
My vision clouded as Fafnir moved to deliver another critical blow. I swung the sword weakly, even as my consciousness ebbed away from the intense pain. Of course, my strike was deflected, and I was sent whirling through the air and more flames burned me. My voice was silenced and I could no longer give sound to my agony.
My body was forced to move, by survival instincts or something besides. Something spoke to me desperately, telling me that I must do so. I raised my head and faced the aberrant mass before me.
The doubt in me whispered that I could not possibly win. There were countless ways for me to lose, but only one reason for me to win.
Because, I am Siegfried now.
Even so… even Siegfried must have fought against the odds, against despair, before finding that single spot of hope and finally defeating the dragon at the end of a brutal struggle.
I could only imitate his appearance. Would I not simply lose to the dragon… as I had lost to Mordred?
I wiped the blood away even as I shook, standing up even though certain of my own defeat. The glint in the dragon’s eyes reflected no mercy or pity. Whether I intended to fight or not, it would pounce in a few seconds. I gripped the sword with both hands, and put out of my mind everything flowing from my wound. I only needed to leap forward. No amount of damage to my head or chest would interfere with that.
I knew full well that it would only be a brief resistance. So it was strange that the choice to ‘run’ never came to me.
My heart pounded wildly in sheer terror. My knees shook from the hopelessness. Anguished tears flowed unimpeded down my face, mourning the end of my life.
And still, I could not turn and run. The dragon opened its maw. I could feel my face twisting, a pathetic shout coming from my mouth. One foot stepped forward, then the other. Without really knowing where I was aiming or where I even should aim, I raised the sword high.
But it was too late, as the stream of flames raced forward and engulfed me, far faster than I could bring the sword down…
Once again, the scene faded to black.
Before I knew it, I saw up-close the worried face of Ruler.
It seemed I had managed to escape that world between dream and reality. While I sighed with relief, unease gripped my heart tightly.
The breath of fire at the end had unmistakably killed me on the other side. So, what was I doing then, on this side…?