The world burned.
Until that day, the dragon had only eaten a few humans, comparatively. But now it feasted unrestrained. Villages were destroyed by the dragon, cities fell before its boundless appetite and countries collapsed. People fled the urban centers, terrified of being caught packed together like sardines. The ran out to the country, and with that the delicate structure of human society crumbled. The cities ceased production of tools, of entertainment. Trade collapsed. Public works like roads were no longer maintained. And with all of this, with the lack of tools, the lack of proper organization and the utter lack of hope, came starvation. Fields lay fallow or were wrecked. Food-stores destroyed as people searched for any remaining food. And then, after they had run away from civilization, after they had hidden themselves and starved, the dragon would find them and eat them.
There were attempts at resistance. Grand armies raised, though they too found problems with supplies. But they were united in purpose and fear. Because nobody had seen the dragon like this before. It had always been there, in the background. In the stories, and more personally. Everybody knew somebody who'd been eaten by the dragon, and knew that they would eventually be eaten as well. But it was always a far off thing, nothing to think about in the moment. Yet now there was an immediacy, because the dragon wasn't stopping. It wasn't just picking off people here and there, it was devastating everything and eating everybody. It was only a matter of time until nobody would be left. And so the armies marched, driven by terror and the raw need for survival.
They sought the dragon, but it was beyond playing fairly. The dragon simply flew away to feast somewhere else, and let the armies scramble to get food and wallow in disease. And after they were crushed by their inability catch their target, starving and sick, the dragon would return and eat them all.
The dragon watched all of this. The hot rage that had fueled it initially had cooled to a simmering hatred. But it was thinking more clearly again, and it grudgingly had to admit that this was not sustainable. It was still angry at humanity and would have loved to eat them all, but what then? If it ate everybody, it would starve. And that was not an experience it wanted to go through again. So when a group of humans asked for parley, it reluctantly agreed.
They had tried to gather impressive and official looking clothes, but there was just not enough of that left. The ruined state of the world was reflected in the tattered garments they had managed to scrounge together. Their eyes were wide with fear, but still they forced themselves to walk up to the dragon on shaky legs. An old woman stepped forward, looking at the dragon with resignation. She expected to be eaten, the dragon realized, and was tempted to fulfill her expectation.
“We come before you, Great Wyrm, to offer the unconditional surrender of humanity.”
The dragon laughed. What audacity! Now they were willing to give it whatever it wanted, after they had taken from it the only thing it actually wanted. How easy it would be to squish them for their hubris... ah, but the hunger loomed in the future that lay down that path. So the dragon stayed its claw.
“Do you truly speak for all of humanity?”
The group shared some uneasy glances between themselves.
“Ah, mostly. We speak for the remaining countries with something resembling communications, and so far anybody we have asked agreed that this surrender is necessary for our survival. People may not like it, but at this point everybody probably knows that there really isn't any choice.”
“Very well, then. In return for stopping this conflict, I demand from you a tribute. Ten thousand people, delivered to... the foot of that mountain over there, every evening. They shall sate my hunger and for that I will spare the rest of you.”
There were worried murmurs among the group, which the dragon ignored. Yes, its demands were steep, but they were doable, and as they had themselves said – there wasn't really any choice. And so it was agreed that the humans would bear the burden of the great tribute. They asked for a year to arrange the full tribute, citing that there currently just wasn't a way to contact enough people and move them to the mountain. The dragon gave them six months.
The dragon went to perch on top of the mountain. From there is had a great view of the surrounding lands. It could study the grand daily processions of people walking towards it to be eaten. At first, there were only small groups. But as humanity got organized, the trickle of people became a stream and then a flood, all marching to their final destination as the dragon's meal.
How strange, that the prey it had once struggled so hard to catch was now coming to it. Yet the dragon felt no joy at this. Its burning hate had cooled down to resentment. The dragon mostly just felt hollow. Some part of it was missing, a part that it had never known it needed before. Even its unrestrained feasting on the entirety of humanity had not filled that void.
And so it went. Humans would come to the mountain to be eaten, while the dragon sat perched on top of the mountain and tried to think of happier times.
It was four years after the surrender that problems began to crop up. The steady stream of people flagged, and the dragon grew hungry. It considered abandoning the deal and going back to devastating the world... but there was no longer the same rage that had driven it back then. So instead it sent some of the people back to fetch the leaders who had surrendered to it back then. They would have some explaining to do.
The group that arrived before the dragon was not the same cowering people who had surrendered to it. They carried themselves much more self-assured, their clothes were in order. And their attention to a large degree rested on each other. There were power games there.
It had seen these things before. Rulers drunk on their own power had attempted to bribe the dragon, asking it to spare them. Gold, slaves, exotic spices, palaces... yet the dragon had few desires, and what it wanted it could just take. Thus it had always rejected offers. Others went in a different direction. Requests and manipulation to get the dragon to eat a rival, somebody in line for the throne or just somebody they didn't like. The dragon tended to respond to that by eating target as requested before also eaten the one who had asked for the favor. And the one who had manipulated them into asking. Most of the time, though, it wasn't involved. But just by existing around humans for long enough it had seen countries and empires fall time and again due to infighting. It wasn't the only cause, but it tended to happen when power and the pursuit of it became more important than what you did with the power.
But it had always been something humans did on their own. It hadn't really affected the dragon before now. But now the food deliveries were tied to these inane squabbles. Unless it wanted to move from its comfortable mountaintop, it would need to interfere.
The dragon listened to the group argue over who had violated which quota and how the others should have covered and it was all so useless.
That one word was enough to silence them and turn apprehensively towards the dragon. Yes, they were no longer literally shaking with it, but the same fear was still there. These were people who viscerally remembered the time when the dragon was unrestrained.
“If these division between you cause problems with my tribute, they cannot remain. And since you seem unable to work things out on your own, then I shall have to do so for you. You, there.”
The dragon extended a claw towards the old woman who had spoken to it on behalf of the rest at the last meeting.
“I dub thee King of the entire world, on my authority. If anybody seeks to dispute this right, they may take it up with me. I charge you and your descendants with responsibility for the timely delivery of my tribute.”
There were complaints, of course, but what could they truly do? They all remembered the rampage the dragon had gone on, and did not wish to a repeat performance. The dragon did not argue, it simply waited until they all grudgingly agreed. And then they left, and the dragon went back to staring at the landscape and remembering the past.
The deliveries of people stabilized, and for a few years everything was fine. But then hunger once more roused the dragon from its daze. It called the for the King. There was a new one; the old King must have been in one of the many shipments of people the dragon had eaten over the past years. No matter, that was what hereditary positions were for.
“Great Dragon, I humbly come before you.”
“King, I charged your line with overseeing the delivery of people so that they may be eaten by me. Why have you failed me?”
“I did not. Every day, the required ten thousand people are being delivered to your mountain.”
The dragon stared at the King, but to its surprise found no deception there. What then? Had the King's underlings deceived her? Or maybe... the dragon looked at itself, and found that it had grown.
“And yet I find myself hungry once more. King, are there more humans than there used to be?”
“Ah, yes, Great Dragon.”
The dragon nodded. If there was one thing to rely on it was that there were always more humans.
“Then you can afford to give more of them to me to sate my increased hunger. I raise the tribute to twelve thousand humans. Otherwise...”
The dragon left unsaid what the alternative was. The King paled, and quickly agreed. Then she left just as quickly.
A few years later, the dragon grew hungry once more, and increased the tribute further. And yet again a few years after that. And then... well, humans had always been clever. They figured out how much the dragon's appetite grew, and increased the tribute themselves, so that it would not have to ask.
And with that, the dragon drifted off, barely even noticing the world anymore. It did not need to, as food was literally brought to it, it just needed to eat and that hardly took any thought. It looked at the world, but did not truly see, lost in thoughts as it was. Eventually there wasn't even really any substance to its thoughts anymore, caught in infinite loops without any external inputs.
One thing the dragon did notice was a large metal snake that the humans somehow built and propelled in its direction at speed. The dragon eyed the contraption, wondering whether it would have to fight once more. And whether it would have to get up to do so, or if spitting fire and acid at the thing would be enough. But the metal snake stopped, and humans started to come out. Ah, then it was just a method of transport. Which made sense, since the roads to the mountain had gotten quite crowded. Still... the ability to build a giant metal snake that moved on its own was quite something. But then again, humans had always been clever. Content that it had solved the mystery, the dragon drifted off again.
And then one day, there was a great roar. The dragon looked up, and saw a brilliant light in the sky, arching towards it. For a moment the dragon was caught by the beauty of the sight before it. Then it realized that maybe it should move out of the way, but the light was coming in fast, too fast, and then there was only pain.