Unending River

Dragon's Breath

A few hundred years ago, there toiled an old magician. His had been a long life of spectacular magics and earth-shaking wonders, but with his mortality drawing near, he struggled to leave his mark on the world from which he'd taken so much. Bent and feeble from the weight of years and with his powers dwindling, he sought the end of death.

Every spell and alchemy failed – he could not force the feat. He spent precious months scouring the world for tomes of forgotten lore, convinced time after time that the next hidden cache of books would yield truth to him. He consulted with mages, spirits, ghosts, demons, and fae, all to no avail.

His life-extending spells failing, he found the Dragon Venerable, an ancient wyrm who'd seen the world born and was said to know the secrets to life and death. Bowing humbly before the beast (as the time for pride was past), he begged humbly for answers. Regarding him with huge reptilian eyes, it responded.

"Yours is a fool's quest," the dragon rumbled. You seek what cannot be found. You'd sooner find the eight corners of the sky or the mother of the West."

The magician almost despaired, but realized that the dragon waited still. It was unlike such a creature to waste time waiting for a lesser being. There must be something it wants to say, he thought. I must find the right question. "For what, then, should I search?"

"For wisdom," it boomed. Were its eyes interested? Amused?

"Please, Sage of the World, I beg you to teach me. I am old and deaf and ailing, but I will be your most fervent disciple." The old mage supplicated himself as deeply as he could, his brow touching the floor.

Long moments passed. The dragon's breathing was the only sound in the lair. Its rhythms were hypnotic, and the floor of the cave seemed to pulse with them. The student found himself struggling to stay awake. In his half-sleep, he dreamt that the floor was himself, that the contact of his forehead was only one of many connections. His consciousness swelled to fill the cavern, for wasn't the floor also the cavern? Wasn't it – he – all one edifice?

He felt his awareness swell again, this time perceiving that the canyon through which he traveled to reach the cave/himself was also connected, and therefore one. In fact, this entire region was a single cave system, and a single vast landscape. His dreaming mind raced, growing with each realization. I am the land of this region, he thought. This mountain, these hills, these plains and this delta... but the water running through it?

He wasn't sure. It flowed over him, but by now he was so large he could not inhabit the streams and waterfalls that moved over his skin. He looked more closely, allowing his attention to focus on small parts of himself while still maintaining the largeness of his awareness. He looked down to a single river, past the rocks to the sand of the bank and silt of the bed. He saw how the tiny grains of himself interacted with the river, eddies and ripples tickling him. Ever more closely, he saw the sand shape the path of the water even as the water pushed the sand into new paths.

Perceiving this symmetry, his awareness suddenly shifted. I am more than rock and dust, he thought. I am an ocean of blue water, flowing over myself in streams and swamps and lakes, my tributaries spread throughout myself like veins to bring life back to my center. He glimpsed something true then, but it was quickly lost in the rush of water from icecaps to deltas, the sun drying his beaches and sending him-as-water into the air.

He flew on the winds, learning not to tell himself apart from them. By the time he was a low cloud over the plains, he was miles away in all directions, letting himself become gusts and drafts and warm summer breezes. I am the sky, he thought. From earth to sky, I am everything.

But something nagged at him. Having no notion of time, he could not guess how long it took him to realize it was the forests. The trees and bushes grip me-as-earth and absorb me-as-water and transpire me-as-air, but they are not me. So too do the beasts of the woods eat and drink and breathe me, but I am not them.

At first, this was good. The vegetables and animals die, and he wanted no part of that – he was satisfied with the beauty and motion of the winter storms and summer flashfires and the shifting skin of the earth. But he watched the creatures reproduce and the vines bear fruit, and he knew that however his elemental self might change and move, he could never grow, for that was the purview of life. I am dead, he thought. I have failed.

His grief gave him clarity, however, for in his mourning he saw that his understanding was not complete. He had believed that life only interacted with the elements, the giving and taking of them a transaction between a being and a thing. But, he thought, am I not the cavern? Am I not the sky and the rains? Am I not, also, a man?

He could feel the living things of the world straining and growing as though they were streams of water, some torrents and some trickles, but all tributaries of the vast river of land and sea and sky. They fed the world, and were fed by it. And then, as before, they were one. All is one, he thought. I am alive because there is nothing else to be.

In all his arcane workings, he had never conceived of reality as this roiling, self-renewing torrent of life. It amazed him and brought him peace. He was rocked softly by tidal rhythms of himself-as-everything, and when he realized that it was the same rhythm as the dragon's breathing, he lifted his head and smiled serenely.

The scene was the same as before his vision, but he could now perceive that the wyrm was one with him, as with the cavern floor and the space between them. The dragon's breathing signified the life of everything in the Unending River, and the now-ageless man had learned that significance well. He thanked his host – though he no longer spoke aloud, knowing its thoughts as they were his own – and after an hour of mutual contemplation, he disappeared.

Venerable cracked a smirk. "This will make for interesting times."

What is this?

Unending River started in summer of 2008 as an attempt at wandering fantasy with a mythic Asiatic theme. I wanted an easy dice mechanic and characters so powerful relative to their world that it might alleviate the gamist pressure to improve I noticed in traditional level-by-level fantasy. It quickly became a Taoist, wire-fu Dogs in the Vineyard. It's original mechanic has mostly survived, and it looks like it's here to stay.