Steve grunts out as he swings the diamond pickaxe overhead and into the stone before him, making it crumble away to reveal diorite behind it. He lets out a long breath, wiping his forehead as he places a torch on the wall beside him. He has to be close––judging by the clock he forgot to leave behind, he's spent a few hours tunneling through the mountain.
He inhales, readying his pick and bringing it down onto the diorite. It falls apart and lands around his feet, making dull echoes in the snug two-by-one tunnel. He swings again and reveals more diorite when he hears the growl of a zombie very close, as if it were in front of him. His eyes widen. He has to be close.
His exhausted pace quickens as he advances forward, honing his hearing. Now he hears the rattle of a skeleton and the hiss of a spider. The white diorite turns back into gray stone, until with one final swing, the block he has been seeking stands before him: stone brick, the mark of a structure among the natural terrain.
He allows himself a grin as he tears down the wall, revealing the innards of a stronghold.
Only one zombie approaches him as he steps in, and it easily falls into a puff of ash with two slashes of his diamond sword. He takes out a torch and raises it above him. The torchlight wavers and flickers about the hallway, showing no other mobs and a single iron door toward the end. The skeleton and spider must be in a separate room.
With no other choice, he presses the door's button and slips past it before it closes. The next room only consists of a turn to the left––such a structure would normally not be significant, but instead of the continuous darkness he expects, tendrils of light not from his torch peek out from the corner. He quirks an eyebrow as he walks forward, slightly in disbelief. Surely it isn't...?
The bubbling of lava is the final affirmation he needs as he rounds the corner to see his ultimate goal in coming here: the portal room, containing the End portal. He lets out a chuckle as he puts his torch up. Apparently, there would be no need to search through the stronghold this day.
Quickly, before any silverfish can spring from the spawner, he goes up the stairs, pulling out his eyes of ender––
His hand stills as he stares at the portal. Twelve eyes gaze back at him as stars swirl about in the inky portal.
He goes down a step, blinking, still fixated on the portal. He has... never seen the End portal already activated like the one before him. Sometimes, a frame or two would hold an eye, left behind to witness the sprawl of time. But all of them?
A sharp bite straight into his ankle sends him back into reality. He winces as he looks down at the silverfish at his foot, hissing as it bites again. One swift kick is all it takes to send it flying into a wall. He brings out his pick and destroys the spawner, sending metal bits clinking down the stairs.
His eyes return to the portal. Extradimensional celestial bodies swim across a dark blue cosmos, ones that have left him wondering in the past just where and what exactly the End is. Is it far below the world, a floating fragment of land just above the Void? Or does it go above everything, even above the Sun and Moon until no light can reach it? Or can it even be described in relation to the world?
A faint, distant roar calls out from the portal, bringing him out of his thoughts. She awaits you, the pull calls out. It's time yet again.
He exhales slowly, closing his eyes. He doesn't know what the significance of the already filled portal is, but he came here for one reason, and one reason alone: it is time to see her again.
Taking out his bow, he spreads his arms and steps off the platform into the known unknown.
Like all his other visits to the End, there is a moment of weightlessness combined with breathlessness, as if he is simply not material. But it ends quickly as his feet land on ground and his knees buckle under the newfound weight. He blinks. The obsidian platform rests on the edge of the main island, letting Steve jump and land safely on the island without hassle. Already, he hears the warbled murmurs of the enderfolk.
Casting his gaze down, he climbs up the hill he is at the bottom of, nocking an arrow. First, he'll have to take down the end crystals, and then he can properly face her.
It is only at the final step up that he realizes that he doesn't hear the usual flap of her wings. He peers up, intending to look up toward the sky, but his gaze gets caught at the bedrock structure.
Instead of flying above the island, the Ender Dragon is perched at the dry fountain––and her purple eyes are fixed right on Steve.
He stands still, keeping the arrow pulled back in his bow. Even from afar, he can see her eyes narrow. Are you just going to stand there? she speaks in his mind.
He waits another moment. She remains in her spot. Finally, his feet begin to move forward as he slowly takes the arrow out of the bow. Someone would probably ridicule him for making himself more vulnerable as he goes straight toward a lifelong rival... but a part of him feels that she won't attack him (not yet, at least).
He stops in front of her, canting his head up to see her fully. Violet eyes with black pupil slits stare back down. Suddenly, her jaw moves.
"These are new... circumstances," she says aloud, dragging each word slowly, as if each held gravitas.
Steve exhales shakily, breaking the eye contact and looking down. Of course, he has heard people talk––he has heard the villagers hum in their own speech, and he sometimes talks aloud to himself. But it has been ages since he has heard someone else talk and he could understand the words. It's overwhelming.
Still, he has faced her before. He isn't going to back down.
He cants his gaze back up. "Y-Yes," he stutters out, his voice a croak because of disuse. He struggles to think of the words. "The portal? D-Did you...?"
"No." She tilts her head slightly. "The world decided it was time for us to talk."
He frowns, confused. "The world...?"
"The ground you step on, the air you breathe, the water you drink––the world. It decided you were worthy enough to know more."
He blinks. "You're talking like it's alive."
"How else would you describe it?"
He opens his mouth and closes it. He doesn't have a rebuttal.
She cranes her neck and looks about the End island. Finally, her attention returns to him. "Do you remember what happened before?"
The question stumps him for a moment before he realizes what she means. "It's faint, but... ships in the air... fire..." He gazes down at the yellow stone. "Waking up... alone."
She exhales through her nostrils. "You remember only the ships? Not of why they came?"
He nods his head. Something of a scowl comes across her face.
"I won't tell you everything," she says, her eyes narrowed. "But I will tell you that the ships were built for a war of greed. They wanted everything, so they destroyed everything." She spits the word out like her corrosive breath.
He takes a step back without meaning to, his eyes widening at her abrupt anger. "Who were 'they?'" he asks.
Her pupils focus on him, and he suddenly feels even smaller in her presence. "The players," she answers, venom still in her voice. "Your kind. Back when they littered the world."
He really doesn't recall it. He has the faint knowledge that there used to be more of him before, but he has no memories of anyone particular from that time. ...Perhaps that is for the best.
"They––they didn't destroy everything," Steve says, "right?"
She huffs. "Technically," she says. "The world didn't take its destruction lightly... It brought them all down before they could burn it entirely." She raises a claw. "But you saw what it was like when you first awoke."
A vivid memory strikes Steve then. He had opened his eyes to see nothing but a flat plain of dirt, with only the beginning spurts of grass atop it. All he could do was dig into it, feeling the cool soil as panic began to set in.
He shakes himself from the memory, not wanting to go through those same feelings again. "There was b-basically nothing..."
"Correct. You––" she stops. "The players damaged the world until it only had the dirt to hold itself together."
"But..." He spreads his arms, indicating himself. "...I'm still here. And so are you."
The dragon is silent for a moment, her tail curling as she cants her head down. "There used to be other dragons, sworn as defenders of the world. But then the ships came..."
Her nostrils flare as her pupils thin, her claws cutting into the endstone. "And they mounted my sister's heads on their ships like prizes to gawk at."
"I was the last survivor when the world decided enough was enough," she continues, her pupils returning to normal size. "The world felt sympathy toward me, and it thought the tribulations I had gone through made me worthy enough to be its last defender."
She remains silent. "I do not know," she finally answers. "I don't know the reasonings behind all the world's actions... Frankly, you mystify me."
Steve's eyes widen. "I'm––me? How so?"
"The world is clearly still angry," she responds. "It sends its mobs to harm you and impede your progress... and yet you are still here. If the world truly wanted you gone, you would be."
Steve casts a downward glance around him. The enderfolk hum and whisper in echoing tones among themselves. He dares not look them in the eyes unless he wants to make them hostile, a fact that took him long to figure out.
It feels like the entire world is against him, much of the time. The mobs who wouldn't go after the villagers would charge at him, information is incredibly scarce and he is simply alone––yet he perseveres. But for what purpose?
He chuckles, turning his attention back to her. "You've told me so much, but... I still feel like I don't know anything."
She is quiet for a moment. "You know," she begins, "when I first saw you, I hated you deeply. I wanted you to die."
He flinches at the unexpected comment.
"But..." She points her snout downward, humming. "Watching you, hearing the world speak of what you do... Fighting off a siege of zombies from a defenseless village, leaving food for the hungry animals you pass, not taking more than what you need... You are not like the players I knew. You... care." She cants her snout upward, her eyes narrowed as she leans her head closer to Steve. "Consider yourself tentatively respected by me, player."
A smile grows on his face. "Consider yourself respected by me, Ender Dragon."
She huffs, bringing her head back. "That is what I am, but it is not my name."
"Player isn't my name, either." He places a hand on his chest. "I'm Steve."
She stares at him, a strange rumble in her throat. Finally, she answers, "Jean."
Jean then raises on her legs. "That is all I am willing to share this world... Steve. Save for one other detail."
Slight disappointment mixes with interest as he raises his eyebrows at Jean.
"There was a new addition to the world, one that you and I have not met yet." A serious look passes through her eyes. "She awaits you in the nearby village."
His eyes widen. "Who is 'she?'"
"You will see." Jean flares her wings out, the enderfolk already forming a ring around the duo in aniticipation of the fight to come. "Are you ready to prove yourself worthy once more?"
His eyes steel as he pulls out an arrow and readies it in his bow. He nods, taking a step back. "I'm ready."
Chicken clucks gently in his arms as he makes the walk to the village, bearing some new scratches and bruises, but nothing a good meal couldn't heal up. He strokes Chicken's head, trying to get rid of his nervous energy. He has a feeling he knows what to expect at the village, but he also doesn't want to raise his hopes too high, lest they fall...
A few villagers nod their heads at Steve as the grass turns into gravel and houses begin to pepper the landscape. Strangely, instead of being dispersed throughout the village, the denizens congregate around a specific spot, their backs turned to Steve. He lets out a final, shaky breath as he maneuvers through the villagers, until he finally breaks through to the front.
A villager sits next to a person of similar stature to Steve on the logs of the farm plot. A shock of orange hair ends in a braid over their shoulder, and they have fitted on a loose green shirt, brown pants and a pair of long gray boots. They take another bite from their bread, presumably given to them by the villager, when they look up.
Steve blinks back, as does Chicken.
The newcomer stands, some relief in her eyes as she approaches Steve. "Heya. Do you understand me?"
"Y-Yes," he says, just like when he first spoke to Jean.
She smiles. "Thank goodness. These strange fellahs are nice, but I can't understand a lick of what they're sayin'." She raises her free hand. "My name's Alex, by the way."
Chicken stretches its neck, tilting its head as it examines the hand. Steve, trying to keep the myriad of emotions he feels from seeping out into tears, grabs onto the hand.
"Steve," he says, a wide smile on his face as Alex beams back. "I'm Steve."