The pain was intense, and the dragon roared in fury over having been hurt. But already its body was reforming, undoing any damage it had taken. The dragon called out over the land, demanding that the King come to meet it. Then it settled back and poked the metal thing that had hurt it so with a claw. It was difficult to say what it had once been, as it had melted and twisted.
A few hours later the King arrived. With a shaky voice, he told the story of how the humans had discovered a way to pierce the dragon's scales. How they had built a rocket and fired it at the dragon, seeking to kill it.
The dragon laughed. Humans! They were so clever, and somehow still so stupid. Perhaps it was their short lives, they did not have time to gather proper experience. And it had been a very long time since somebody had tried to kill it. The lessons learned back then had probably been forgotten.
“There was an alchemist once, who tried something very similar. She managed to get some of my scales, and spent her entire life developing a potion that could eat its way through that scale. Then she came to me to kill me, and found out that she had made a mistake. The same one you did.”
The dragon paused for effect.
“I grow. I become stronger and greater. What would have killed me when you started is no longer enough when you use it. Well, you are of course welcome to try again, as long as you are aware of the consequences. I think... yes, triple the tribute for a year. That should be lenient enough. It will be worse next time. Oh, and you, of course. As King you must personally take responsibility and I shall eat you.”
And so it was. For a few years after that, the dragon paid attention to the world. There was so much that had happened while it had dozed off! The metal snake was a train. There were cars, and planes. Telephones and computers. A power grid now spanned the world, allowing for machines that worked with minimal supervision. A theory of how the world worked, and how to find out more. The dragon offered people a short respite when they came to be eaten if they told it something new and interesting. And so it continued catching up with the world.
But in time there was not much else to tell. There would be a breakthrough here or there, but they could be months or years between. And so the dragon grew bored once more. And slowly it slipped back into its pensive state.
Once again an indeterminate amount of time passed. And once again it was a great roar that woke the dragon. It looked around, and there was indeed a streak of light through the sky. But this time it was not headed for the dragon, but towards the heavens. Up and up it went, while the sound had already passed. As it got further and further away, the light grew smaller and dimmer. The dragon tracked it until it lost sight of the small dot of light. Another rocket, then. But where was it going? Just up towards the heavens? Humanity hadn't tried anything since their first failed attempt, but the dragon was somewhat uneasy. It had been closer, far closer than they truly knew. By the time the King had arrived its regeneration had been done, so it had looked like it was barely scratched.
So perhaps this was a test for another rocket. Perhaps it should call the King again and demand answers. Though that could be seen as a sign of weakness as well...
The dragon sighed, and lay down again. It would be too much effort to look into this. And if they succeeded the next time, well... perhaps that would not be too bad. At least its worries would be gone. It would be something new to experience. Much like getting eaten by a dragon, getting killed by a rocket was something you could only do once, after all.
And so the dragon rested, and waited. More rockets flew towards the heaven, and later some even returned. But none ever headed towards the dragon, and in time it got used to the great roars that came every now and then.
The world around the dragon kept changing. It was used to that and barely noticed it any more. It was what humans did, change the world around them to their own desires. That was as it had ever been. Just as the dragon itself was a constant, ever hungry, and always eating humans. It watched cities continue to grow. It watched planes fly ever faster through the skies. It watched the trains that delivered people to it become larger and more elaborate, before they were replaced with strange tubes out of which people poured. It watched the rockets become ever more numerous, before they slowly ceased and became replaced with silent threads that stretched towards the heavens. And it watched the sky slowly light up more and more. Little pinpricks of light, like stars but moving so much faster. Some were brighter than stars, too. Some moved together in patterns, while others were alone.
The dragon saw all of this as if through a dream. Time had long ago stopped flowing normally for it as it mediative state grew deeper and deeper, and...
The dragon jerked awake, and looked around. The mountain it had been resting on was... gone. There was some rubble beneath it, though. Had the humans moved it? No matter, something had spoken... the dragon focus on the ground in front of it to see... something tiny. It squinted, and the thing did definitely look human-shaped. Had they always been that small? Or maybe it had just grown again. That did tend to happen, and humans had become comparatively smaller and smaller as time went by – it just usually happened while the dragon was paying attention and so wasn't as jarring.
“Hello, tiny one.”
The human waved in response.
“Thank you for answering. I have so many questions. Let's start with something basic... what's your name?”
The dragon pondered this question. It had been a while since it had needed a name, because there hadn't been anybody talking to it. But before its apathy there had been a lot of different ones.
“I've been called many things. Dragon. Beast. Fiend. The Devourer. The Destroyer of Worlds. The Everhungry. The Shadow that Stalks in the Night. Widowmaker. Great Wyrm. Bringer of the Final Peace. The Undefeated. And...”
... and the one name that actually mattered. Because it had been used by the one person who mattered. The dragon had once been called Friend.
“... I suppose Dragon will suffice.”
“Dragon, then. This is amazing. I can't believe you're actually sapient. Did you truly fight knights, armies, wise men and thieves in long ago?”
“That I did. Things were different, back then. I was so... eager. So active. Now I doubt it would seem worth the effort. Not that a knight could hurt me these days. Maybe an army if they had a lot of these... rockets, they were called. That did hurt, though I guess I'm too big even for that now. Whatever happened with those? After you fired one at me, you shot a bunch at the sky for no reason? What did the sky do to you?”
“Oh, nothing. We put people on those rockets, and sent them off to space. What you are calling the sky. There is a lot of room up there, it turns out. Much more than down here. And so we...”
“Wait, wait, wait. You put... people... on the things that were designed to kill me? How did that seem like a good idea?”
The human shrugged.
“We didn't have any good alternatives back then if we wanted to get to space. And to be fair a lot of things sound crazy when you look at them without context. We put ourselves in metal carriages that move at inhumanly fast speeds. We build flying machines that can outpace birds. We eat substances grown and mixed in labs. Anyway, rockets did become quite reliable eventually. There were a lot of regrettable mistakes to get there, but get there we did.”
The dragon frowned. There was something strange about this. Not about the content of the conversation, so much as the context... something hauntingly familiar...
“You are not afraid of me. Why is that?”
“Why would I be afraid of you?”
“I will eat you. Eventually, if not now.”
“Oh, you already have. Three times, so far.”
The dragon paused. The statement was so ridiculous that it wasn't sure how to take it. Maybe this was just a crazy person?
“I hope you have a good explanation for how that would be possible. Otherwise...”
It left the threat hanging in the air.
“Right, you wouldn't know. Okay, so, after the punishment for the rocket, there was a lot of argument about what to do. A fair number of people wanted to build a second rocket, but there was worry about what the punishment would be for that. So a lot of people just thought that just giving up was fine; humanity had lived that way for generations already, after all. And then there were some who decided to think outside the box. What other ways were there to solve the problem? Lock you away forever? Hide humanity somewhere – maybe even though we couldn't kill you we could build walls impenetrable to you? Or perhaps flee to space, where hopefully you wouldn't be able to follow. Or we could change ourselves... to like being eaten, for instance. Or make new people to feed you, while others would be able to live.
“That last one sparked a huge debate on its own. There were rules for selecting who got chosen to be eaten, and they ensured that no human would grow too old. But it wasn't possible to determine how much of that was just tradition and how much was dictated by you. Going against tradition would have been fine, but going against you wishes was what humanity was trying to avoid for fear of retribution. Out of curiosity... which one was it?”
These were things far back in the past, and the dragon took a few moments to remember.
“I do not think I ever stated those rules. But they do sound like adaptations of rules I made for myself. Back when I was much younger and more vulnerable it seemed like a good idea to not let humans grow too old, so that they couldn't learn enough to become a true threat to me.”
“Hmmm... that makes sense. Anyway, in the end, we figured out a way to grow new bodies and transfer our minds there. The old bodies would then be sent to be eaten by you as usual. Which when you think about it changed very little on one hand. But on the other hand, getting eaten by you was no longer final, you could go on afterwards. And so it lost its horror. We became used to the idea. Now, in the beginning, we could only transfer our minds before beginning the journey here, in large and expensive facilities. But the technology improved, and eventually we could transfer a mind while it was being eaten by you. So you could even get that experience, rather than just knowing that it had happened to your body.”
The dragon shook its massive head. The one thing it had once talked about so long ago as something you could never experience... getting eaten by the dragon... and now all of humanity was able to experience it at will. Humans really were clever.
“Some people get a bit addicted, though... it's a thrill thing, and not like there is any real danger. But still, it takes resources, so we've limited people to being eaten by you once a week. Or something like that. To be honest, I haven't looked at those laws for a few decades, they may have changed.”
Or maybe Humans were just crazy in a way that sometimes looked like they were clever. But there was still an aspect of the story that didn't make sense...
“Yet despite this, I would have expected that humans would want to kill me just for revenge for all the people I have eaten.”
The dragon knew that desire for revenge, after all. In the end, it didn't really help, but that hadn't stopped it from acting on it.
“Sure, there were people like that, but the risk was deemed too great. And after a while we were very glad not to have killed you – as it turns out, you produce very useful materials. Scales drop from you are made from incredibly hard materials. And the bile that drips from your mouth consists of some of the most reactive chemicals we know of. We can reproduce these feats and even surpass them, but it is very costly. Getting them from you is extremely cheap by comparison. So you have become the lynchpin of the entire solar system's economy due to the materials you inexpensively provide.”
The dragon blinked. That was not something it had expected. It had been feared, it had been fought, and yes, once it had been liked... but never before had it been useful.
“That is indirectly why I came here to talk to you today. We are finally ready to start a colony in another star system, which I am to lead. But it would be severely hampered by the lack of... well, you. Even in our solar system, the other planets are disadvantaged since you are on earth. But sending bodies from another star here to be eaten and then the materials gathered from you all the way back? That is too much of a cost.”
“Is that why you came here, then? To entice me to come with you to this far-off place?”
“Ah... no, though the thought of stealing you away seems amusing at first, the consequences would be less so. The industry of the entire solar system would crumble and only slowly recover. Trillions would suffer. No, there is another solution we have come up with. We would like to create a new dragon. Basically by growing a new one inside your body. Sort of like a pregnancy, but we'd need to create a womb inside your body first, which apparently means 'attacking' your body in precise ways to that it forms one as a defense measure... there are a lot of complicated technical details that, I pretty much just skimmed things. And, well... since somebody pointed out that you might be sapient according to ancient legends that were never tested, it was deemed prudent to check whether you actually are. Since this would be an... awkward... procedure to perform on a sapient being without their consent.”
A child! Another dragon! It was something the dragon had given up on so long ago. Once, it had searched the world, looking for others of its kind. Once, it had looked on happy families, on younglings all over the world, and contemplated what it would be like to have offspring of its own. Teaching them to hunt humans, protecting them until they were strong enough to protect themselves... just having another dragon to talk to would have been amazing. Repeated disappointment had robbed the luster of the idea, and the dragon had eventually given up trying. It was the only one. But now... maybe it didn't need to be.
“I would very much like to have a child.”
Even if it had to be sent far away to this other... star system, or whatever it was called. They could still talk. And humans, too. Their relationship, with one notable exception, had always been antagonistic. But since humans had found a way around that, because being eaten was no longer the end for them... then the dragon could talk to them, too. It looked up at the sky, and the strange patterns of light that had appeared. It thought of the rockets that apparently had brought humans to the heavens. A lot had happened for it to learn about. It was time to once again take an interest in the world, now that it no longer needed to be alone.