Zahel kept walking through the mist, seeing shadows of rocks that might have been as insubstantial as the air around him. Only the path was real, and he stayed on it, not allowing himself to be distracted by whatever phantoms lay beyond.
At last he came to a bridge, made of the same stone as the path. It had been carved out by inhuman hands, most likely the ancient gods that once ruled the mountains. Their power was greatly diminished from what it had been many generations ago, but they were still formidable in their weakened state.
As Zahel approached the bridge, he could feel the ground shake beneath him. With a deafening rumble, a shape rose from under the bridge, climbing high into the clouds before lowering its head to look down at him. The body of the creature was long and winding, coiled around the length of the bridge. Its scales shimmered like puddles left behind by the rain, shifting between all the colors of the rainbow. Yellow eyes, as wise as they were cunning, examined him. He was face to face with the Serpent of Dreams.
It flicked its tongue out, tasting the air, pondering. In less time than it would take to blink, the Serpent could strike down and tear him in half, or devour him one single bite. Instead, it lowered its head until it was almost level with his, seemingly still lost in thought.
“Human,” it said at last, in a whispering voice that seemed to emanate from everywhere. “Such a rarity nowadays. I thought your kind had forgotten about us.”
The yellow eyes, as bright as the sun and as deep as the ocean, continued to bore into him.
“Many winters have passed since your ancestors abandoned us. Why have you returned? What do you seek?”
Zahel stood motionless. He was afraid and in awe, unsure of how to address this god of olden times. His forefathers would have prostrated themselves before it, chanting its praises. He had no such urges. Instead, he stared directly into its shimmering face and spoke.
“I wish to speak with the Night Queen. To ask for her help.”
There was another deep rumbling, accompanied by a series of low hissing noises. The Serpent’s body trembled against the stones. It was laughing.
“You left us to languish in obscurity for many ages and now you expect the Queen’s help?” it asked, amused. “What makes you think you are worthy of that, child of man?”
“My worth is not determined by gods or spirits,” Zahel said, trying not to appear intimidated.
The ground shook again.
“Such arrogance,” the Serpent hissed. “It seems you’ve inherited that from your ancestors.”
Zahel tightened his grip around the dagger that hung from his belt. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it would be his only chance against the beast if it struck. His breath caught in his throat as he waited for the Serpent’s next move.
To his surprise, it loosened its coils, clearing a path across the bridge.
“Go then, child of man. Enter the realm of dreams. If your mind can endure the fantasies and nightmares you encounter within, you will be one step closer to meeting the Queen. But I have no doubt that the other gods are aware of your presence by now. Perhaps one of them will see fit to remind you of your insignificance.”
Zahel continued forward across the bridge under the Serpent’s baleful gaze. At the other end stood a cave that marked the entrance to the dream world, its mouth shimmering like the scales of the Serpent. He took a deep breath and walked through the portal, bracing himself for the trials that lay ahead.