1000 years ago, a dragon fell from the heavens, plummeting from the stars. Caught stealing from the Dragon King and sentenced to exile, he was stripped of flight and fell to Earth, only to return once he’d repaid the price of that stolen. With his fall, the Great Mountains shattered into being, Serpent Valley between its peaks. Humanity discovered the dragon, worshiping it out of fear. Cunning, and eager to return above, he demanded an offering for his mercy. Each year, the dragon roamed the fields, collecting gold from each village he passed before returning to his home in the valley. Through his centuries-long reign of terror, the beast became known as the Imoogi. However with time, humanity grew too powerful for him, and the Imoogi retreated permanently to his cave, to become forgotten by the world. Some say the dragon still remains, his treasure waiting for any daring enough to find him.
The book snapped shut, both severing Im Da-rae’s tie to the fantasy world and marking it time to sleep. “Nooo!” she protested, flailing against the bed. “Keep going!” Mother Im gave a smile and tucked her daughter in. “Tomorrow, sweetheart.” As she rose from her chair to leave, Da-rae’s little voice peeped up. “Is it real mama? Is there an evil dragon?” She gasped. “ Is he gonna eat us?” Mama Im paused in the doorway, laughing quietly. “All legends form from truth, Da-rae. But don’t worry, it’s a story. He won’t eat us. Besides, the Imoogi hasn’t been seen for centuries. Perhaps he’s already returned home.” The answer satisfied the little girl snuggling into her covers. “Well, if he comes, I’ll protect you eomma.” “I’m sure you will.” Hastily, Mama Im closed the door and ran as fast as her tired body allowed. The moment she was outside, she exploded into a storm of coughing, a harsh barking like a dog’s dying scream. Wiping her mouth of blood, she collapsed onto the stone steps, exhausted. She hid her illness around Da-rae, but knew soon it would take its toll. She’d already made an arrangement with the doctor to look after Da-rae once she could not, but a twinge of guilt, sadness and immense fear hung in her heart. Guilt of abandoning her daughter, sadness of cutting their time together short, and fear as to if she’d be okay. Gazing up at the night, she let out a heavy sigh. She wondered which star the Imoogi fell from, in which one her spirit would rest.
Cornered between tumbling ridges rested a valley at the center of the world. While its edges were dotted with villages stretching up the mountainsides, few dared venture below. Perhaps it was the supernatural landscape, the lack of anything beyond charred rock and ancient trees, or perhaps the legend of the fallen dragon who resided there. Regardless, Serpent Valley remained uninhabited, save for the mindless animals that roamed there, and an exiled dragon. The Imoogi was familiar with the title humanity had given him. Whatever original name he had was long forgotten, buried under centuries of isolation. The Imoogi stepped into the sun, claws clasping stone, craning his neck tall scanning for intruders as he did every hour. It was a pointless ritual and he knew it. Nobody was here, and if they were there was little he could do. It was two hundred years ago that man came to overpower the gods. Pipes of fire, barrels of exploding ash. The Imoogi’s offerings of gold had evaporated once the humans learned such devices. Reminiscing, the Imoogi retreated home, gazing upon the collection he’d amassed over centuries. Stacked in piles at the back of the cave, organized to perfection, it was a gorgeous sight yet it brought a dull thought to the Imoogi's mind. One he’d tried to ignore for centuries.
When he rocketed to earth, the dragon thought his time would be short. A light punishment before he’d return to his righteous place beside the king. His task was simple enough, repaying the price of what he’d stolen. Knowing his magnificence, he set to work instantly to collect offerings from the fearful mortals. He even enjoyed his time among them, adoring the worship. Within decades, the pile had stacked high, surpassing the amount he’d stolen. Yet, nothing happened. The Imoogi remained. Perhaps he’d misremembered the amount, he thought, and so continued his work. But as decades turned to centuries, the Imoogi grew restless, growing viscous in his demands for gold, begging to return home. Yet nothing happened. Now centuries later, the memories of the mortals’ reverence faded from memory, the last vestige of joy he had. As time ticked towards his thousandth anniversary on Earth, the Imoogi collapsed, disheartened and tired. Perhaps it would never be enough.
The rest of the town had barely begun to stir when Da-rae bolted out of bed. The excitement of the new day filled her mind as it had every other day, what grand adventures were to be had. Da-rae was adored. Adored by adults for her kindness and empathy, by other children for her playfulness and laughter, by all for her innocent joy. That day, in the moments after Da-rae opened the bedroom door to wake up her mother, her joy would wither and die. Da-rae ran out of the home, screaming with a horrible mixture of sorrow and fear.
It was the afternoon by the time Da-rae’s weeping lessened enough for the doctor to speak with her. “Mother Im is alive,” he assured Da-rae, holding her as she wiped her tears. The doctor, known as Seonsaengnim Yun to the town, had known this moment would come for years, but it was never one he’d ever be prepared for. He decided today to tell the truth. She deserved it. “Your mother’s very sick and isn't waking up. You might want to get ready to say goodbye.” Da-rae remained calm, almost unfazed. Perhaps the terror that woke the entire village that morning had tired her out. She gazed up at Yun with pleading eyes. “Please, can you help eomma?” The look she gave broke Yun’s heart. He would’ve given anything to be able to say everything was okay, that there’d be a happy ending. But the only road that could lead there was barred by gilded gates. “I’m sorry Da-rae. We’ve tried to get her medicine, healers, but” The girl listened, holding onto any shred of hope in his words. “It’s impossible. It’s too expensive for the entire village to afford. I’m truly sorry.” Da-rae stared a moment, before giving a weak smile. “Thank you, Seonsaengnim. Could you leave? I want to be alone.” Yun smiled back as he left. “Of course. Take your time.” Hearing the door creak shut, a million thoughts ran through Da-rae’s mind. The doctor said they needed money, a lot of money. Very soon. An idea struck her. She took one last look at her mother, sleeping unnaturally still. “I’ll be back soon, eomma. I promise.” With a deep breath, Da-rae crawled out the bedroom window and ran into the forest, towards Serpent Valley.
Bones aching from centuries of decay, the Imoogi struggled to rise from his slumber. It was a sensation that after 1000 years the Imoogi never got used to: growing old. In the heavens, one didn’t age. Flying between stars, among spirits and gods, immortal. But now, he had not only lost flight but gained mortality in its place. The need to sleep, to drink. Sensations of hunger, of suffering. Perhaps it was a test of patience from those above, and while irritating, he’d initially thought it simply inconvenient. He continued to control the mountains, collecting tribute for eight hundred years on. But with time came change, in him and humanity.
A fire formed in the people’s hearts, a fire that only grew with time. 200 years in, the fire roared into motion, an uprising by one of the villages attempting to end the Imoogi’s rule. Their blades and arrows met scale armor, and they were quickly eradicated. The fire was subdued, but not gone, still festering. The defeat did not stop the loathing aura whenever he visited. 600 years later, the fire erupted. When the Imoogi approached, the valley stood armed to meet him. He never forgot that sensation, the first time he truly felt pain. The burn of shrapnel carving flesh, the crack of scale as cannon-fire flew. When he realized he could die. Though he successfully fled, those wounds never truly healed. It was then he began to notice it: his weakening pace, shallow breathing, fading vision. Perhaps by running that day he’d only delayed the inevitable. Whether by gunshot or time, he knew one day he would die here, to return to the heavens a ghost. The Imoogi collapsed, resigning to fatigue. It didn’t matter anymore if they found him. They could take their gold back, they could take his soul if they desired. His only wish was that his afterlife would be next to him. The truest friend the Imoogi ever had.
It was night by the time Da-rae cleared the forest. Jagged rock dug into her skin as she collapsed onto them, but she hardly noticed. Her mind was only on the dragon. She lay there a while, the first rest she had since she started. She had run the entire way down, only pausing to catch her breath or eat a snack. She’d charged past walls of trees, past creatures and gorgeous landscapes, and now had arrived. After her breathing calmed, Da-rae rose and looked around. The bottom of the valley was barren of all but stone, and a massive cave, the sound of heavy breathing and growls emanating from within. A sound deeper and darker than the cave itself. The snoring of a dragon. It would’ve terrified her, but she had no time for fear. She strode forward, walking into darkness.
The sight at the end was indescribable. The towering rock walls of the vast cavern polished to a fine marble. Vibrant flames lit every corner, casting a magnificent splendor on the stacks of gold. More money than every town in the valley. Jewelry, mountains of coins. Just a handful, anything would be enough. The cave was so glamorous it was almost easy to miss the serpentine figure at its center. Unraveled, it easily stretched over half the room, lines of feathers riding across its spine tapering into an unkempt tail. Rusted scales armored its body, battered from time but that once shone brilliant jade. Four bony legs, each with four wicked claws. And looming before Da-rae, rising and falling with each breath was a face, wrinkled and old. Crooked tree-like antlers sprouted from the top. A muddy beard trailed from its jaw, beneath sharpened fangs. And just above, the resting eyes of a giant. The full figure of the Imoogi, in all its terrifying majesty. Da-rae stood there, lost in the sights. After a minute of gawking, she forced herself to focus, springing into action. She knelt down, gathering as much gold as she could fit into her pockets, creating a clattering as she sifted through the pile. However, though asleep and slowed from age, the beast’s hearing hadn’t yet weakened. The faint racket of coins spilling, the panicked breathing, had begun to stir him. Da-rae was far too distracted to notice until it was too late. Golden eyes opening wide, serpentine body rising high, the Imoogi stood before the human girl. The first he had seen in 200 years.
The Imoogi glared at the peasant girl. A minuscule child, black hair in a bun, wearing a plain hanbok dress. Her mouse-like face gazed, terrified. The Imoogi’s mind was split, a feeling of rage at the intruder, yet a hint of comfort. This all seemed so familiar. He began to circle, clawed feet thudding against the hard floor as he examined her. Da-rae fell to her knees, the money she collected spilling to the floor. She screamed, desperately praying to somehow be heard. The Imoogi sighed. The anger had quickly subsided. She was harmless, lost, afraid. “Calm yourself, I have no intention of harming you.” The dragon thudded back, lounging once more on the stone floor. “You simply reminded me of an old friend.” “A friend?” Da-rae whimpered. He nodded. “Very long ago.”
It’d been raining that day, a fact the Imoogi loathed. It felt like a mockery from above, using their powers over the sky to send a reminder of what had been stripped from him. That day was collection day, and the idea of carrying chests of gold down muddy slopes seemed infuriating. Yet he went anyway, wandering to a village at the woods’ edge. The people performed their ritual, bowing as he approached, pouring gold into the chest he carried on his back, marking his hundredth year in their world. That was when he appeared. A boy, breaking from the crowd to admire the Imoogi. The crowd murmured in fear, whispering between themselves. As the dragon stared back, he detected no fear in the child’s eyes. Only fascination and wonder. From that first moment the Imoogi knew there was something special about him. A week later, the boy appeared again, this time within the Imoogi’s cave. Followed his snoring, the boy said. They began to talk, the boy admiring and playing in the treasure, fascinated with every scale of the dragon’s splendor. The dragon didn’t have the heart or humility to make him leave. With time, they became friends. As each year passed, the Imoogi awaited his visit to that village, to see the boy or for the boy to visit him, the first true friend he had here or in the heavens. But as years turned to decades, the boy grew older. In the blink of an eye, he was no more. When the dragon came the next year he discovered his friend had passed. Grief overtook the dragon, sparked him to a fury that eventually pushed the people to rebellion.
The Imoogi finished his tale. He gazed down at the girl, who had stopped to listen the entire time. He didn’t know why he shared this with her. He should’ve killed her for daring to touch his treasure. But yet, he didn’t. He couldn’t. “Go,” the dragon commanded, turning his back to her. But as he stomped away, he felt a tug at his tail, arms wrapped around tight. “I’m sorry,” the girl sniffled, “I’m about to lose someone too. You didn’t have enough time. We don’t have enough money.” The Imoogi sighed as he turned to comfort her. “I’m sorry as well.”
“What’s his name?”
“Eun-woo. Im Eun-woo.”
“Woah. I'm Im Da-rae!”
The Imoogi froze. She was special, indeed. He looked back at his treasure, reminiscing on his time. An idea sprung to mind. This was his chance, he realized. To repay his friend for his kindness. Perhaps to repay the people, recompense for centuries of pain. “Can I have your help, little one?” Da-rae smiled wide. “Yeah!”
As the months passed, hordes of people flooded into the cave, taking as much gold as they could to bring home. It would not make up for centuries of suffering, but it was a start. The faces of the people, overjoyed at their wealth when they exited was enough for the Imoogi. The branches parted, Da-rae guiding more travelers down to the caves as he watched from the trees. Mama Im joined the group, back on her feet again, smiling. For the first time since Eun-woo’s death, the Imoogi smiled. If he was to die, he was glad it could end like this. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Generosity. Joy.” The Imoogi jumped, nearly tumbling over the bushes and trees, gaping in shock at the sight of the sky-blue serpent that had appeared beside him. Even after centuries, he recognized that sly, lazy voice. The Imoogi bowed, craning his head to the floor. “My king.” The Dragon King smiled. “You may rise.”
“You’ve done well. Took you a while but you got there.”
The Imoogi paused, a realization.
“Does that mean-”
“No. Your service is not over yet.”
The Imoogi sighed, a relief that puzzled the Dragon King.
“Thank you. I still have much to make up for.”
The king began to laugh, a pure relaxed laugh.
“You really have changed. Indeed, you have many crimes to repay for. And I believe you’ll have an easier time with the powers above than here.”
The Imoogi stood shocked. He’d forgotten what it felt like to fly, and he longed to again. Part of him did not want to leave this place, only now finally feeling like home. But he agreed. In his state he could not do much except strike fear. He pondered for a moment. “May I say goodbye first?”
Once the people exited the cave, preparing for their trek back home Da-rae slipped into the shadows to see her friend one last time. The Imoogi bowed before the girl. “Thank you, Da-rae. I am forever in your debt.” Somehow, she seemed to instantly understand. “You’re welcome! Thank you again for my eomma. I’ll miss you.” As she ran in for a hug, there was a moment of silence, of peace, of warmth. “Will I ever see you again?” The dragon smiled. “One day, child. Now go, your people await.” And as Da-rae ran off to her own path, so did the Imoogi his. “Shall we go?” the Dragon King asked, returned to the Imoogi’s side. “After you.” And so together they flew, coils of jade and blue rocketing to the stars, centuries of wear and decay washing off as they ascended.
The Imoogi landed on the starscape of his old home, taking in the sights. It was beautiful, the light fuzz of starlight. It was home. From the scattered light before him emerged a boy, a spirit, an old man. They smiled together, a warmth of familiarity. “Long time no see, old friend.”