Once upon a time, there was a young dragon. It was small and would hide in the woods, in the high grass, between craggy mountains and in dark caves. The dragon was hungry, and so it would eat humans every now and then. But this was a tricky prospect. Humans were clever and there were many of them; and only one dragon. So the dragon was careful and chose the weakest targets, the ones that could not hurt it. It would eat the frail, the very young and the isolated. It was eat the sick and diseased, even though they made it ill as well. And for a while its hunger was sated, but it never lasted. The dragon would be hungry again, and it would search for something else to eat. Luckily there were always more humans.
There were always more humans, and their numbers kept increasing. Instead of huddling in small groups they built large cities. The dragon had grown with the humans. It had grown big and strong. No longer did it need to hide. But it was still hungry, and so the dragon came to the cities, where the humans so very thoughtfully had gathered together so that it didn't need to track them down individually. The dragon ate well, and it kept growing.
And then something curious happened. The humans started to interact with the dragon. Before, they had only run away and screamed and been eaten. But now warriors came to fight the dragon. Alchemists created strange concoctions and threw them at the dragon to banish it. Wise men thought of riddles and games to which they challenged the dragon – for their life, the life of their family or for their town. Others sought to poison the dragon, to hide from it, to flee far away, to outrun it or otherwise overcome up.
The dragon was delighted at this change in its routine. It had become bored over the many years, and hunger no longer seemed such a pressing issue. True, it was always hungry, but there were just so many humans around that it could always find one to eat. Being well-fed was no longer a challenge. And so, to have something to do, it indulged the requests and accepted the challenges humans would come up with.
It had grown strong over its long lifetime, fed by so many humans, and so won the combat challenges. It incinerated what arrows were fired at it, and tore apart knights.
It had grown clever, out of necessity to match its prey, and so solved the riddles and won the games. It had simply had too much time to think of things and seen too much for these wise men to outwit it.
It had grown resilient, after eating the sick and diseased for so long, and so was unaffected by poison.
It had grown to know humans better than they knew themselves, hunting them for so long, so it always found those that hid and surprised those that thought themselves safe and far enough away.
The dragon was having the time of its life.
Eventually, the novelty faded. Humans had to learn everything from scratch over and over because those who already knew things had been eaten by the dragon. And thus they were slow to come up with new things. But every now and then there was a new surprise, something to keep up the dragon's interest. For these moments it kept humoring the challengers.
And then one day, a young girl came before the dragon. It studied her curiously. Usually humans would spend years training or studying before attempting to challenge it. But sometimes they were impatient and rash.
“You are a bit young to challenge me, are you not?”
“That is not why I am here.”
The dragon paused. It looked around the hill where it had laid to rest for the afternoon. There was nothing interesting nearby that it could see. Nothing the girl might want. But maybe there was something new humans had discovered that it didn't know about. They were terribly clever, after all.
“Tell me, then, why you are here.”
The girl fidgeted with her hands, not quite meeting the dragon's eye.
“I didn't quite catch that.”
“I said: I wonder what it's like to be eaten.”
The dragon paused once more. This was strange and new. Novelty yet again! Ah, what a day. While it reveled in the feeling of witnessing something surprising, the girl went on, desperately trying to explain herself.
“I mean, everybody gets eaten, right? But nobody knows what it feels like. Nobody even really talks about it. They just say that their brother was eaten or that they will stop you from eating their lover. But I think it's fascinating. Maybe especially because you can only know once, and you can't really describe it. Or at least nobody has tried so far. Too busy with screaming and begging to be left alive, I guess. But don't you think it's beautiful? That there is something we can never know until we experience it for ourselves? I suppose that technically hold for everything new, but being eaten by you isn't new, is it? For everything else there are stories and accounts, tales and legends. But not for this. You can get told what it's like to watch, what you feel when somebody else gets eaten. Even the day leading up to it, preparing yourself to face off in a final battle... but never are you told what it's like to be eaten because people aren't around to tell you about it once it happens. Isn't that amazing? Something that happens to everybody and yet we must wait to experience it for ourselves?”
The dragon nodded thoughtfully. The girl was rambling a bit, but there was a core to her argument that it found intriguing.
“And I will never know at all. I know so much; I have never found a thing I could not learn. But now, this, the feeling of being eaten by me, is not something I will every experience. Indeed, it is fascinating.”
“I never considered that! But of course, you will never be able to know that it is like to be eaten by... well, you.”
She sat down, and looked up at the sky. The dragon followed her gaze, and saw clouds drifting by. They looked strange, from down here. It was used to flying through and above them. The dragon rarely looked up, it looked down. Because that was where its prey was.
“There are so many things about you I've wondered. People talk as if they know you, but their stories often contradict themselves. Worse, they often fail to ask themselves why you do things, concerning themselves just with what you do. In general people don't ask Why nearly as often as they should. But now that you're here, and I could just ask... I somehow fail to find the right words.”
The dragon hummed, moving its gaze down from the sky to the girl in front of it.
“I wonder why that is.”
The girl snapped her head around to stare at the dragon, and slowly a smile started to bloom on her lips.
“Exactly! You're actually catching on! You have no idea how good that feels. Instead of just repeating my point to people who say they understand and then fail to actually act on it, thereby proving that they didn't understand at all. As for why I can't find the right words... I don't know. But I have some ideas. I think there's a difference between having a question about someone and posing a question to someone. Even if it's the same question. There is all this... extra baggage, or something, where you have to worry about social conventions and subtext and context and body language that come into it when actually asking somebody. As opposed to a much cleaner and less messy question that just is in your mind. But that also makes it less real, you know? Because reality is messy, and you can't take the clear perfect thoughts in your head and jam them into reality without bending and smudging them. Or maybe it's just the immediacy of an interaction. When you think of a question by yourself, you can go over variations, tweak it, repeat it over and over with minor variations until you're satisfied with how it sounds. You don't have that time, that flexibility, when talking in person. Oh! Or maybe the problem is that I'm wary of actually getting answers. There is some anxiety tied to the thought of getting a definitive answer that will throw out most of my theories as to the matter at hand. Perhaps I just don't know where to start. You know, like when you have a choice it's actually more difficult than when you just have one option. Or...”
The dragon settled in to listen, and offered its own opinions on possible causes. From there, the conversation drifted, much like the clouds above them. They talked about the latest challenges the dragon had gotten, discussed the meaning of life, wondered why grass was green and whether that greenness was subjective, especially with regards to its position on a different side. And on and on. It didn't really seem to matter what the subject was, the girl's enthusiasm in understanding and dissecting it was infectious.
Eventually the dragon grew hungry, and excused itself before flying off to find some humans to eat.
It was only while it was devouring a village that the dragon came to a startling realisation. There had been a human right in front of it while it was hungry, and it had not eaten her.
The realization shook the beast. It had not eaten a human that stood right before it. But... it was the Dragon. It ate people. That was what it was, the core of its being. It hadn't let a human right in front of it go since... well, never, really. The dragon shivered. Had it, finally, lost a challenge? No, no, that couldn't be the case. There had been no challenge. The girl hadn't challenged it at all. So it couldn't have lost.
But the terrible doubt and confusing thoughts would not leave, as the dragon struggled to patch the cracks in its identity. The worst thing was that there was nobody to talk to about this. There were no other dragons. Humans gave it some banter before or during their challenges at most.
And so the dragon was distracted by its own thoughts. It absentmindedly ate humans when it got hungry. It ended the challenges far more quickly than before, seeking quick victory so that it could return to its quiet musing.
It was a week later when it met the girl again. The dragon was lounging on a cliffside, gazing out at the ocean below. Especially a ship that was there, driving dangerously close to some reefs. If they did crash, they'd make for a nice easy snack.
The dragon flinched. It hadn't heard anybody coming up to it. Turning its head, it saw the girl sitting beside it, dangling her legs over the cliff. It drew itself up to its impressive height, and glared ominously at the girl.
“I will eat you.”
The dragon wasn't quite sure whether it was trying to inform her or reassure itself. But that was the conclusion it had come to, after thinking carefully. It didn't matter if the girl had shaken its self-confidence, as long as it ate her in the end.
“I know. You eat everybody in the end.”
That was not the correct response. It took the dragon a moment of thought to figure out why it was the wrong response – it was different from the way everybody else responded.
“You are not afraid of me. Everybody is afraid, or overly confident that they can beat me. But you do not intend to fight me, yet still do not cower in fear.”
The girl tilted her head, and studied the dragon for a few moments. It shifted under her gaze, before stopping itself. There was no reason that being watched should affect it! This whole encounter was not going the way it had in its head, where it would just eat the girl and that would be that.
“What good would fear accomplish? Like I said, people forget to ask Why. They do not question why they are afraid of you. Fear can be... useful. It tells us what to avoid, and that keeps us safe. It gives us extra strength and speed in dangerous situations. But it is not always useful, and less and less so as we create new situations and think of new concepts that our fear does not know how to evaluate.”
“I am hardly a new situation.”
“Oh, no, and I didn't mean that. But in addition to new situation, fear also isn't too useful when it comes to inevitabilities. And getting eaten by you is inevitable. Being afraid won't change that.”
“So what, you expect me to believe that you just... choose not to be afraid? I know humans, and your emotions do not work that way.”
“Hah. Yeah. No, you're right. It's more that I have trouble feeling emotions in the first place? Something like that. I haven't been able to convince enough people to talk about it with me so I'm not really sure. But I think my mind is somewhat detached from the world. I could probably convincingly fake being afraid, but I don't think I could conjure up genuine fear.”
“Unfortunately I don't think I can help you figure out how to convince people to talk. Unless you mean screaming, begging, pleading or grand speeches about how they will defeat you.”
And yet again the dragon was caught up in conversation. Hours passed, and the dragon grew hungry and left to find something to eat. Once more it was only after the fact that it realized that it had let a human live.
The dragon didn't end up eating the girl on their next meeting five days later. Nor on the one three days after that. And soon enough, they were meeting daily, and things reached a new normal. They talked about anything that crossed their minds. When the sun shone, the basked together in its warmth. When it rained, the dragon used its wings to shield the girl from the downpour. Sometimes it would take her flying, showing her sights that no human had seen before.
And then one day, while they were discussing the relative merits of various leaf shapes, a knight approached.
“Foul Beast, head my words! I am here to challenge you to- oh, I'm terribly sorry.”
He bowed towards the girl with a flourish.
“I did not see you there, fair lady. I shall let you complete your challenge before posing my own. My deepest apologies.”
“No need for that. I'm not here for a challenge, so you can go right ahead. I'll just... wait over there, okay?”
The knight frowned, looking between the dragon and the girl. Understanding slowly dawned in his eyes.
“Ah, it seems that I arrived just in the nick of time to save you from the Terrible Wyrm. You may count yourself fortuitous that I came to stop it from eating you.”
“No... again, you seem to misread the situation. We were just talking.”
The knight opened his mouths, but couldn't seem to find any words. The dragon did find this amusing, but it really wanted to get back to elaborating on the finer points of capillary structure of leaves.
“Foolish Mortal, you who came before me to challenge the undefeated. Do you still wish to go through with this?”
The adherence to proper protocol snapped the knight out of his fugue. He brandished the sword at the dragon, and called for a duel in which he promised to end the dragon so that it would no longer plague the world. He fought valiantly and then was eaten, like so many others before him.
The girl walked over, looking at the remains of the armor that the dragon had spit back out.
“I never expected it to be so... anticlimactic. There are all these great tales about epic final battles against you. But this was just sad.”
The dragon looked away, slightly guilty.
“I suppose I was a bit annoyed that he interrupted us. Usually I'd play along for a while longer, with proper dramatic acting.”
The girl squatted down and poked the armor. She frowned and looked back up at the dragon.
“Why haven't you eaten me?”
The dragon drew a claw through the earth, trying to distract itself. It had been avoiding that question for a while now. Pushing it into the back of its mind. But being asked directly, such avoidance was no longer quite possible.
“I don't... I... I don't want to. Do you... do you still... want to be eaten?”
“I am still curious what it feels like.”
The girl hummed to herself, and the dragon felt a dread in itself unlike any other it had felt before. What if she asked to be eaten? Could the dragon resist that? It ate humans, after all. That was the core of its being, what it had done forever, what defined its relation with humans and the world in general. But...
... but then it wouldn't have anybody to talk with.
“But here's the thing. If you eat me, that's it. I won't get to experience anything else. When I first me you, that was okay. There was too much pain in my world. If it all just ended I would have been happy. So why not embark on a last great adventure, to experience something new and exiting? That was then. But now I have something to look forward to. These meetings give meaning to my life. As long as I have that, the price of indulging my curiosity would be too great.”
“Then as long as you do not ask me to, I shall never eat you.”
Time passed, as it is wont to do. And people started to notice that there was this girl hanging out with the dragon. It was a slow process, because people who went to confront the dragon rarely came back, and spectators often were eaten along with challengers. But occasionally word got back, and so rumors started to spread.
And so people with new motives started to arrive. They weren't there to fight, outsmart or otherwise defeat the dragon, they came to complain about its association with the girl. There were accusation. There were insults. There were questions that weren't really questions but rather accusations.
“You should not talk to the dragon.”
“Don't you realize that the dragon is a monster?”
“You're a traitor to humanity.”
“The dragon ate my father, how can you associate with it?”
“Do you approve of what the dragon does?”
“I wish the dragon would just eat you. You make me sick.”
“Being friendly with the dragon, you are just as responsible for its actions as it is. You do not try to stop it and even encourage it. It's as if you are eating people.”
And then, after they had ranted and griped and complained, they were eaten by the dragon. But there were always more humans, and so there would be more the next day. The hatred and vitriol they brought with them lingered. It infected the mood, and it became much more common for the dragon and the girl to sit in silence with grim expressions. They had learned that trying to talk while annoyed at the humans would just lead to arguing and shouting at each other.
Yet still they kept meeting. And in time they became callous to the words of the humans who presumed to deride them for nothing more than spending time together.
And then, one day, the girl did not come to the meeting. The dragon didn't worry. Sometimes this happened. Whether she needed extra time for chores, or was held up by the people angry at her association with the dragon; she just needed time to sort it out. The dragon had offered to help, but she refused. Some days she got back injured and bruised. The dragon had lived long enough to spot the difference between accidents and deliberately inflicted wounds. On those days the dragon did not offer to help. Instead, after the meeting, it would find the people responsible and they would end up eaten.
The next day, the girl still didn't show up. A group arrived to chide it and the girl for meeting, and left in confusion when they realized that she was not there. The dragon was too worried to stop them, and so let them go.
The third day, the dragon went to find answers. There were few in the world that could hide secrets from it. It had mastered the art of reading body language, it understood humanity without the self-delusion that so often was found in humans themselves. It knew how to tell when people lied to it. Oh, and it was enormous and terrifying. Most everybody was afraid when faced with the prospect of being eaten.
And so it did not take the dragon long to track down the last people who had seen the girl and to confront them.
The mayor of the town where the girl lived huddled on the floor in the ruins of its office. He stared up at the dragon, who was too large for the room and thus had had to break down a few walls. The mayor laughed hysterically.
“You cannot find her. You will never see her again. Because, you see... you ate her.”
The dragon roared, and the mayor cowered before it.
“You eat people, and do not care who they are if they don't challenge you. We just had to dress her up as somebody else... dye her hair... you didn't notice. That's why your friendship with her would never have lasted. Because you eat humans, and she was human.”
The dragon glared at the pitiful creature before it, at this... this... morsel... that had dared to interfere with its affairs. With a few strokes of its wings the dragon found itself above the building. It unleashed its anger in a firestorm of fury, burning the entire building down until nothing but ash remained.
It did not help. There was no satisfaction in ending the man who had caused her death. The dragon turned, and flew away. But no matter how far it flew, it could not escape its own thoughts. Over and over it tried to remember the people it had eaten over the last days, tried to judge which of them had been the girl in disguise. The dragon went over everything that it could have done to make things turn out differently, while knowing that it was already too late. The past had been written and could not be erased.
After some time alone with its thoughts, the dragon grew hungry. And so it found a group of travelers along a road. Easy prey – it wouldn't be enough to sate its hunger, but it could tide the dragon over until it found a village, and... the dragon paused, each of the travelers before it replaced by a vision of the girl in a costume. The looks of fear in her eyes... the dragon turned away, still hungry but unwilling to eat.
Guilt and hunger turned over and over in its mind in an endless loop. Gnawing hunger, weakening its body and infesting its thoughts with dreams of humans. Tasty travelers, juicy knights, succulent caravans, delicious cities... but then guilt would kick in, because they were humans just like her. And it had eaten her, so how could it ever do anything like that again? If it could undo what it had done... but no, that was not possible. So instead the dragon would just leave humans alone in order to repent. But the hunger grew and grew, and so the cycle of its thoughts started over again.
The dragon was unsure how much time had passed. It had grown delirious with starvation, when a sudden sharp pain roused it. Looking through blurry eyes, it saw a knight before it. The knight's sword had bitten through the dragon's sagging scales and actually done damage. But the dragon was too big, such a small wound did not pose any true threat to it. The dragon salivated, and after a final brief internal struggle hunger overcame guilt. It was a matter of a bite to end the knight's life and eat for the first time in far too long.
The fresh taste of blood awoke something in the dragon. A boiling anger in its chest. Humans had done this to the girl. They were to blame. Rather than sparing them as it had been trying to do, they should be devoured. They did not deserve to continue to live if the girl wasn't alive.
The dragon looked up, and set off to find the nearest village. It was a slow process, because it was still appallingly weak. But there were so many humans that it didn't take too long to find a village. A ravenous dragon descended upon it, and left nothing behind. With its strength restored the dragon took to the air and went off to find and punish the rest of humanity.
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.
In which the story completely deviates from the original canon
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.