* * *
I felt a slight insanity listening the rattle of the wheels, the blur of the trees as the train to Miskolc carried me east.
I couldn't believe that guy lived there. Somebody who apparently liked caves, giving me a map to a seemingly unknown one in the heart of the natural reserve where we were supposed to meet. Not even just at the entrance, but as he described, inside!
Was I a fool to fall in for that? For some kind of trap of a weirdo? In other circumstances, likely. In those I received this strange invitation, it was something just too out of place, something beyond merely odd.
Animal spirits, totems, kinks for furry and scaly things, and of all those quirky wretches there weren't more than two of us who would dare to venture a mere mile past the boundary of civilization by their own feet. Stumbling upon a third such person was something out of ordinary. The place he set was clearly quite far in unless he had access to the forestry roads.
He didn't post a lot, a few digital paintings and some mostly dragon fiction I thought nice, but without much reception. Maybe for they didn't involve gulping down things wriggling alive, neither voluptuous descriptions relating bodily fluids and other orifices. He just appeared to be a sane, probably shy or maybe just not all that much interested guy from some English region, preferring to do it his way no matter the public's interests.
However, he seemed to like science fiction and various dragon anatomy bits, and felt quite intelligent on the matter. We exchanged notes on each others work, sometimes even arguing on one or another thing, occasionally returning only after months. Then, after some debate drifting a bit out of control, it happened.
He invited me. He reassured me he wasn't any angry, just saw I lived near, and wished to meet me in real.
It would be one stupid way to die by being bludgeoned to death in a remote cave for an argument over wyvern anatomy. I couldn't help but chuckle about the thought.
* * *
The city was still fresh in my memories for my time in university, I didn't take more than a few minutes until I got on the tram, then half an hour later, on the bus to Omassa. I wished to take the narrow gauge train, which terminated where I had to get off anyway, but there just wasn't time for that. It was a long trek through the mountains.
It was even beyond the regions I usually traveled, the many springs, creeks and small caves I knew, except for the Huba where I could pick up some fresh natural water. After a modest stretch, the instructions diverted me onto an unmarked forestry road not far from the ski resorts of Bankut.
I liked walking, especially those remote areas of which I knew many nearer to the city. The dirt road was pleasant, only slightly wet but nothing to frown at with some decent boots. Beeches and oaks arched over, their tangled shrouds giving a gentle shade.
A mile later I found the spot where I was to look for the cave. He gave me coordinates which I just marked on an old map I had and used in the past, not having, neither preferring a smartphone. It shouldn't be difficult to find, I reasoned.
I was wrong.
The region was a gentle hillside with exposed boulders, the kind I recognized as a very good sign to offer at least some small cave, yet there wasn't any, and the foliage was truly detaining. Thorn bushes everywhere. I tried to find footprints, first checking back at the road, but there just wasn't any.
It pissed me off, such a screw up. Still, I was determined to find it, scratching myself in the shrubbery as I pushed through boar tracks hoping to find something. Neither anybody responded to the few "hullo"s I exclaimed, almost as if I totally missed the spot.
More than an hour passed before I found something.
A low, wide arch, the highest point just below my chest, hidden deep in tangled growth, roots hanging from its ceiling as it opened from a slope. It surprised me as it wasn't like how normally cave entrances looked like, yet as I checked it with my torch, it indeed continued.
The immediate area however seemed to be empty, without a trace of any visitor. I threw down my packsack to change into my weathered volunteering clothes to give it a brief exploration.
A gently sloped irregular rocky chute led down a short way, almost so high I could stand, until reaching a small chamber. It seemed like a good place to set up a base, with some convenient large boulders to leave unnecessary gear on protected from rain or possible trickling water, but it was empty.
Just where the hell he was?!
I suddenly heard a deep ominous rumble picking up.
* * *
Earthquake! I lost a few valuable moments until I realized, until I broke out of my stupor to make a decision. I rushed to ascend the chute, but it was too late! Horrified, I saw the outside light vanishing as the entrance collapsed. Just then, as if it solely wanted to trap me, all the sound ceased.
Where the opening was now was a mess of small rocks tangled up with roots. There wasn't even a little hole remaining, flicking off my torch, complete darkness engulfed me.
I didn't panic. Fear, sure, but not panic. Reason. A hint of fear was always within me, what if, what if a cave just collapsed upon me. I still lived, had light, backup light and batteries, food and water. I saw it wasn't a lot separating me from the outside, but it seemed very dangerous. I felt I could probably get it loose, probably needing nothing more than a small tug, but certainly it would all roll down the chute crushing everything in the way. I needed to devise a tool to dislodge it remotely. I wished if I had some rope.
Silence, blackness. I settled on a safe boulder of the chamber, out of the way if the plug happened to dislodge on its own, trying to think it over. This cave couldn't have been completely unknown. Previous explorers might have left some gear somewhere which I could use. Maybe I wasn't even alone...
A faint, muffled scraping. Somewhere deep there was someone, maybe him. Another noise. I saw no light, everything remained pitch black. For a moment, I thought to flick up my torch.
Fear. Rock slid on rock. Whatever it was, it approached. A dislodged stone bounced away. I felt it getting closer as the scraping noises intensified, and I knew it was something huge, inhuman!
I fell behind the boulder, shivering. I didn't dare to make light despite knowing whatever it was, it didn't need any to sense my presence. My thumb bounced over the button. Slow breaths, it was almost in the room. The sliding, scraping noises ceased. I felt a faint breeze. I threw the switch.
* * *
A huge dark reptilian face hovered over my shaken being, I kicked myself back flat against the rock, expecting the pain, the teeth sinking in my flesh in a flash. The torch fell and suddenly went out. Then...
Slow breaths. I was glad I visited a bush before descending. The beast didn't rip me apart outright. I couldn't believe it. Silence. I hoped it wasn't one of those stupid vore stories. Think... Think, damn it...
Deep, rumbling voice interrupted me.
"Glad you pieced it together..." I felt a gust of warmth. "Without pissing yourself."
Suddenly something dawned upon me.
"Bloody hell! Was this all necessary?! Damn. Make some light here."
Animatronics. Sure it was some elaborate mess. This crap might be crawling up onto Youtube in minutes. He didn't give shit, I poked around in the darkness to find that blasted torch. Light.
The reptilian head having two gently curved horns sat on a long, massive neck sprouting from a huge barrel of chest, besides which the forelegs rested, their proportions and form hidden by expansive folds of loose skin which I took to be webs of wings. Scales shimmered, dark scales with some formations of reddish patches, appearing very much real. It was a ginormous wyvern crammed in the confines of the small chamber, the rear of which probably extended into the tunnel behind.
It was awkward. The thing seemingly posed, arching its neck, raising horns and spikes, looking at me sideways by a red eye, oddly with round pupil unlike reptiles.
"Okay, okay! You are f'king beautiful, but please..."
I couldn't finish it. The beast raised on its feet, hovering its head and its wide toothy jaw unnervingly close to my face while crawling wholly into the room, grabbing boulders on the walls by its wing claws, making me back up until I realized I was in the middle of its coil, the long tail curling in and wrapping around while I was pushed against its belly.
A soft belly under the rubbery thick scales, feeling very real just as the ominous toothy grin.
An uneasy tingle ran down my spine, hinting it just wasn't any animatronic. He began with a faint deep tone, flicking tongue just shy of licking me.
"Secretly watching those, aren't you? A juicy touch... warm gulps... a pleasant rest deep, very very deep..." He suddenly raised the head, as if searching for a thought, before quickly he almost spat, "I don't think there was a way out", then returned with a warm, blowing exhale and an almost too very mellow voice "Sounds enticing, eh?"
* * *
I almost fainted. For a moment I maybe wished if I fainted. It just couldn't be, it was someone else's blithering imbecilic fantasy. It couldn't be real!
"Sorry, I am sorry!" I cried out. "Spare me, please, damn it, please stop!"
The huge jaws retracted as I slid to collapse, leaning against the soft underside of the beast. His voice rumbled again.
"Will you behave then?"
"I will, I swear I will... Please forgive..."
I still didn't want to believe I got stranded in a cave with a creature which wasn't supposed to actually exist, but my senses defied my thoughts.
"Forgiven." The tension slackened, I felt lighter as he neither returned to that unnerving proximity. "I understand you need a while to process this, my physical presence. This cave is vast, and I have a lot more convenient residence for a pleasant discourse if you came along. A bit of fresh air will only do good for the soul."
He shifted, pulling his massive body forth, to get his fore facing the tunnel leading further down while I took my belongings. There wasn't any point in even thinking about the collapsed entrance anymore, even if it wasn't his doing, I was sure he could easily remove the rubble. At least I hoped so, that I was meant to get outside eventually, not someplace where it would absolutely cease to be of any concern.
"I also hope I can conceive you that I have a few rather reasonable points on dragon anatomy." With that, he began, pushing into the tunnel where I could only follow him behind for his chest and wings almost completely filled it.
* * *
It was a long, cramped way down. I could walk, descend, just taking care of not stumbling over the irregular mess of boulders, but it was still barely wide enough for the wyvern. I followed just behind the tip of his long, slender tail showing some spiky growths, sometimes hovering, sometimes dragging along the rocks. I wondered about the origins of the place for it didn't look like natural limestone caves with its dry bare rocks and occasional roots, suggesting we still weren't much below the surface. Yet it continued, down, only down for what it seemed several dozen meters without a change.
Then, with a twist of his body, the beast disappeared, dragging away his tail revealing a dark opening, my torch soon illuminating a solid, smooth rock wall ahead. I walked forth, stunned, witnessing the proportions. The tunnel opened onto a slanted fissure between smooth cliff faces, the height of which I couldn't make out, but the more unnerving, the bottom filled with loose rock was also at least four meters below. He stood on it, advancing sideways leaning against the cliff, using his wings like arms to guide his body. Even then I was barely level with his shoulders.
I let myself slide down, realizing I might not be able to climb up myself without anything to hold on. It probably didn't matter. If he wouldn't help, I likely wouldn't ever face this obstacle anyway. I gulped down these concerns, finding my way through the rocks after him, occasionally looking up, trying to measure the gigantic fissure, but my torch couldn't reach where the cliffs probably met.
Down, ever down. I observed his motions, where he found footholds to find the most stable way, but his legs being longer than my entire height, it just wasn't all fitting for me. At least I knew which boulders wouldn't pancake me if I relied on them for my descent. I thought I wouldn't want to be below him on this path.
The cliffs finally met above, with every step the peak of the fissure coming lower until it suddenly ceased, continuing in an irregular tunnel, then with a few smooth, almost flowing patches, speleothems also made an appearance.
After a pair of tight turns, I wondered how he even tackled those, it opened up into a rather spacious slightly sloped room, with some larger formations hanging from its ceiling, the first place where seemingly he had some freedom to move. I traced the walls with my torch, observing the small flowstones and occasional draperies, absorbing their beauty. He walked forth slow and careful, not diverting from the path he seemingly used.
Still, it wasn't anything truly exceptional, a rather large, but somewhat bare room for a limestone mountain. It continued, gently descending, occasionally tightening, but nowhere so much to make him crawl, until it suddenly ended with only a smaller hole high on a wall. He pranced, grabbing its edges by his wings, and with an otherworldly nimbleness, wriggled himself in.
I struggled to follow his disappearing tail, almost falling down twice as I tried to find holds, to find myself in another narrow rocky tunnel with roots hanging from its ceiling, he already long gone. I made haste, slipped on a rock to slide down a way for it was again an odious atrocious chute.
A dragon... Or wyvern, whatever. I fumed trying to stay on my foot as I tackled the hazardous cave floor. I could have enjoyed discovering it with a sane friend, but this didn't make any sense. What the hell this beast was doing contorting itself through hundreds and hundreds meters of vile rocky passages?!
He was nowhere. I continued down, down on the steep slope searching for stable footholds, until I noticed the chute gradually changing, becoming smoother, as if covered with algae. I thought I caught a faint gust of warmth, but just then, I slipped again.
I couldn't stop, no matter that I was aware, that I managed to lay flat against the floor, my legs couldn't catch a reliable foothold as I kept sliding down in that awful chute at a frightening speed!
* * *
Faint light. I laid on a smooth, flow-like formation having an odd, greenish tint. Warmth, I realized it was unnaturally warm for a cave.
As I managed to scoop myself up to see where I was, I froze in amazement. It was still a cave, it continued forth, the smooth floor littered with what I thought stalagmites and complete columns until an arch beyond which all I saw was pure white light.
I walked forth, waiting for my eyes to adjust. There was algae, moss growing in the cave, and further ahead, even plants. Then I reached the entrance.
Grass, small bushes and colorful flowers, a meadow with a small hill in the middle, then I noticed a butterfly. Vines tangled up, reaching towards the sky, sprouting leaves, hanging like whimsical ropes tied to the nothingness. I stopped to remove my boots and socks, setting all my gear down under the arch to continue barefoot. Warmth, I felt the soothing softness of tender grass, a hint of summer. Then something hard and flat, like a pebble, I bent to pick it up to shockingly realize it was a sparkling ruby.
What was this place? Did I hit my head? Was I still alive?
I wandered in amazement, although as my eyes adjusted, I realized I was still in some sort of cave whose ceiling was miraculously illuminated, strange organic growth hanging from it, sprouting the several columns overgrown with a diverse variety of vines. I stumbled over more odd gems and coins with a yellow shine, neither of which I dared to move, to upset whatever order this wondrous place was made by.
Eden? A pair of disturbed swallowtails swirled around until they found a more distant bush, elderberry by the scent and its white blossoms. A faint trickle of water gave a direction. I thought I wouldn't be surprised if I came across the trees of Knowledge and Life somewhere.
The trickle however led me through a thicket of butterbur with leaves wider than my torso to a small lake hidden by a couple of tangled up short trees, where I found the wyvern.
"You could use a bath, don't you think?"
With a huge stretch, he emerged from the water, some pondweeds slid off of his shimmering dark skin as he shook his body, before padding away by a trail which he seemingly used. He left me alone at this serene little place which I was rather grateful for.
I soaked myself to wash off the stains of caving. It was nice. He allowed me privacy, something I certainly wasn't in the position to request if it didn't fit his whims.
I retained myself from spending more than necessary in the lake, lest I should test his patience. When I was done, I followed the trail, then with a little wandering, and admittedly some gazing in wonderment about the miraculous place, I found him.
There was another, larger arch on the far end of the meadow, opening into a wide cavern with the same stalagmite and column formations like I saw where I made my rather graceless entry. The most impressive feature was, however, a massive pile of sparkling gems and golden coins on the top of which he laid sprawled out.
I hesitated, unsure whether it was right to approach him onto what clearly was his hoard.
"Come", flowed his mellow deep voice.
* * *
Warily, I climbed up to settle beside him. As I made my sitting, I swept a few coins aside, one bounced away, another I involuntarily picked up. It was old, somewhat worn, a creature resembling a bull on one side, on another, the face of an emperor.
"That's from the ancient Roman empire, depicting August. Who you referred as Gargouille later had most of these in his hoard."
With a jerk as if I touched fire, I dropped it. That very coin alone probably worth more than several days' if not weeks' salary if it was true! I watched as it bounced and rolled, down on the side of the vast mound of frighteningly similar coins.
"How... How this could be?"
His tail curled in, sweeping, disturbing the riches as if they weren't anything more than the sand on a beach. He leaned on his side, loosely coiling around me. He dug a wing-paw in the pile just beside me, raising, letting the coins flow free between the thick, clawed fingers.
"Heritage... Let's just say it's heritage, from quite a few dragons, indeed."
"Mind if I ask, what happened to them?"
"Those times, those wicked evil times... Choking on a toothpick was a rather common hazard back then, so good it seemingly worked, leaving only humble myself behind, eh?"
"No... That's stupid... I don't think anybody would even dare to approach you with a single sword and maybe the companionship of a horse... I still hardly believe what I see. If you are here, just how, how it could happen?"
"Those dragons never died, they left about a millennium ago."
"It just doesn't make sense, and all these riches, they just left it behind?"
I scared, I thought I pressed it too much. He jolted, snapped his jaws, spitting out the word "Trinkets", before returning to continue.
"Yes... The glimmer... Gold, diamonds, rubies... They sparkle, sparkle in our eyes, they divert, they mesmerize!" His claws sunk in the heaps of coins, throwing a good gust of them against his chest. "Yes... Load makes it difficult to navigate these caves... Especially on the way out... But..."
"But we can part it... They weren't evil. In Bulgaria, they still faintly remember them as Zmejs. But once they left it was easy to corrupt the memories. It was easy to pretend to slay the beast who had his needs, to gain the admiration of the people. Just to tax them blind, boasting on the ridicule lest they should dream of his return!"
"It is sad. We wished to let you free, to see what you can achieve yourself. To see what are you. We still stand by it. Time heals, old corrupted legends melt away, but many more grave concerns raise instead. I am the last, an observer to oversee what happens in your world for our people."
"You mean there are... Just where all those dragons went?"
"Yes, we exist. We are waiting for you since a while. We are here, very near, on planets of the stars you call Alpha Centauri."
* * *
It made my head swim. I stared bleakly, down the sparkling mound beneath, the opening, the miraculous garden.
"How?... Hell, why? How this can be..." My voice trailed off meekly.
"Calm. I see it's still a lot for you to grasp". He slowly heaved himself onto his arms, then feet, his tail gently sliding away. "But for who in your world it wouldn't be... Come."
Coins, sparkling gems tumbled and rolled as he descended from his massive hoard without even looking back to see if I obeyed. I felt a radiance of otherworldly confidence, he just didn't need to, I felt he would sense, he would know if I did anything against his will, and it was indeed difficult to navigate those caves! I followed him just a little back, beside his tail, silently listening as he continued.
"Gods, mysterious beautiful places of your mythologies, they all had roots. This what you see here is merely a shadow of what once was. Your world still carries marks of our people, the massive caverns of Indonesia are maybe which retained the most of their former glory. There were a few who saw these places in their heyday, the dragons who created and lived it, and returned to tell."
For a few paces he remained silent as we ascended the grassy hill, disturbing a variety of butterflies and grasshoppers in our way, their sudden glimmer reflecting the occasional sparkle of scattered gems hidden in the growth.
"The people of the past, simple, frail beings fearing the power of Nature unable to understand her devices looked upon us like gods, mighty creators who devised the world and could bring cultivating rain or devastating flood."
He settled down near the top, letting his wings slightly sprawl out, his faintly shimmering red eyes suddenly meeting mine.
"You, however matured, the fruit of knowledge ripened. Today, you could grasp what we are made of, and you fear coming possession of this knowledge." He diverted, speaking out into the void.
"This old bag of flesh and bone wrapped in sparkling shiny scales is nothing magical. You could drive a stake through my chest, and I would die just as any of you. What sets us apart are how we think and live, if you fancy to call it so, our technology."
He turned towards me again. "But first, on the matter of this bag of flesh and bones..."
Suddenly, with a frighteningly swift motion he pranced, snapping out his expansive wings and tailfins. He was huge, ginormous, his head several times my height above, towering on his long robust neck almost sickening to look at against the brilliance of the ceiling! I realized what he meant maybe apart from giving me a scare. For most part, the body matched my expectations, however those wings were short and broad with a leathery skin like those of bats, much like how dragons were commonly portrayed rather than what I thought fitting for efficient flight.
"Surprised, eh?" He came down with a single fluid motion, furling up the webs neatly just as his clawed paws met the ground.
"I admit you had some decent reasoning with those, and indeed true, my wings aren't fit for any great distance. We need some fairly strong breeze against a hillside to have some fun soaring, but that's fine with us." He again lay beside me, letting his tail gently curl around.
"Those old myths had some sense in them. We aren't beings of the air, merely using our capability of flight to enrich our possibilities on the ground, and as such, we have wings for agility, short enough to not get in the way. Also, there never was a dragon with both arms and wings. We saw a lot in our long history, but never came across such a creature."
"Many of the old depicted us rather well, but our fluid and swift motions fooled several others to see things which weren't, then in the past millennium, those all mixed up."
"I was surprised you figured it out we had tailfins, quite essential even for our short flights." Then, leaning on his side, he lifted his entire long tail, with the fins folded tight, revealing only as spikes until it thinned out to still continue for probably twice my height.
"Don't you miss anything?" I was dumbfounded over what I should be missing. Then with a sudden swiftness, with a deafening boom sending butterflies fleeing, he whipped in the air!
"Some depicted our fins as a sharp edged spade or mace which then persisted, not believing that this bare tail of ours could be just that lethal if used right, without us having to worry it getting stuck." He gently let it rest, again curling around limply, shy of any indication of such a frightful power he just demonstrated. He snapped his jaws. "Eh, those are but old tales today. I believe you are the more interested in what makes this place be."
* * *
I was, for sure, lost speechless in awe as this mythical beast continued to reveal his world where fairy tales suddenly became reality. He closed up, his muzzle maybe a bit too near for my convenience, speaking in a low, almost whispering tone. "I believe you will recognize one of these..."
The huge jaws opened, his tongue pushed against the roof revealing two openings above each other, one of which I took to be a glottis. Before I could realize anything, a needle thrust out of the other, its lethal looking sharp tip hovering mere inches from my nose.
I pulled back in frightful shock, faltering before regaining my consciousness. What the hell did he mean with it? But he already returned normal finishing with just a small lick on his chops. Then it dawned upon me.
"Holy cow!... You are really doing that?!"
"Yes!" He snapped in exclamation, "That's indeed another thing you deducted fairly well!"
It all pieced together. A lush, wildly diverse organic environment within a cave, a place where it shouldn't be existing, a miraculous craftsmanship of some otherworldly power! Something I thought was only possible in fiction, my very elaborate science fiction of genetic manipulation, and it turned out to happen for real!
He had a needle to inject agents, probably viruses into creations of Nature to shape them by his whims, and by that he crafted this very place!
"Damn you..." Tears ran down my cheeks. "Damn you, all the time, you were here... I so wish to know, to understand you!" I stumbled, fell towards him, embracing his neck, unable to quench my stirred emotions. He lay still, accepting, only the faint buzz of insects breaking the silence.
Minutes passed. I grabbed, stroked the smooth surface, feeling the texture of his scales, a creature almost stepping out of my very dreams. Calmness. I only wished to just be there, grooming this massive being for his delight, to leave the world above with all its mundane hostility. He laid leaning on his side, his upper wing resting on his body mostly exposing his belly. My hands involuntarily traced towards there still lost in my thoughts. What if... Just what if...
"I see what you are thinking." His voice was mild. "You could say it... But then you said it to a dragon. I wouldn't like you for it. You still have things to do outside."
He rolled onto his side, gently pulling me onto his wing just beside his chest, pushing me down until I laid on my stomach, to rest my head on my crossed elbows on his arm as if it was a pillow. His webs, the rubbery smooth surfaces, faint twitches and warmth of life completely engulfed me as I listened the soothing sounds of Nature mixed up with his shifts and the gentle rhythmic thumps of heartbeat.
"You like it there, don't you?"
"Yes... Very pleasant. You are... Wonderful. Wish I could just... forget, to cease, to just be with you."
"Don't tempt it or it shall find fulfillment... It is sad you created a world of which so many wishes to escape... Even if that escape was this lonely old dragon's belly."
"How old are you, anyway?"
"Let's just say I lived through all your history our kind witnessed. But before you would ask, yes, that part of your fiction also holds truth."
"Holy... You mean... You are immortal?!"
"Just as you described."
* * *
Wild revelations, amazing surprises after surprises kept storming my feeble weak mind as I talked with him with long pauses, enjoying his pleasant warmth, the tingling sensation of live flesh engulfing me as I laid between the folds of his wings.
He told about his immortality, how they maintained themselves, the exchange of genome among them, how his own genes were held in stasis embedded in this very cave for his prolonged solitary survival. It was scary, scary how this place was his prison which he voluntarily chose to observe with as little interference as was reasonably possible.
He furnished it well with the help of the knowledge of his kind, a complete self-sustaining little pocket running almost entirely on geothermal energy in which a complete cycle was maintained.
We awoke for a walk, him showing the features, the important devices of this seemingly whimsical place without any sane order, which in truth had every nook and cranny rather meticulously devised.
He had synthetic food, a yellowish viscous substance pooling in a small limestone basin, having a faint scent of honey mixed with elderberry. By my puzzled look, he offered I could taste it. Would I sprout wings, I asked with some worry, yet he reassured it was just a finely devised mixture of necessary nutriments for dragons. Then I gave it a try, but didn't find any appeal in it, having a very faint gust of sugar drowned in a much stronger flavor of lard. The poor beast!
For the other end, he also showed me a secluded alcove overgrown and covered with tangled trees, bushes and vines, with a slimy hole serving as a squat toilet. Whatever went down there would be dissolved and broken down by the vegetation to eventually reform and return possibly into the food basin. Gross, I thought. I probably wouldn't have dared to sample it if I saw this before.
Finally, we returned to the hoard room, where he approached a strange irregular glassy section of the cave wall, which soon came to life. It was some kind of holographic device, slowly clearing until it showed the crisp outlines of a frame, in which to my utmost surprise, a Linux kernel started to boot up.
He settled down on the scattered coins and gems making the edge of his hoard mound, and seeing my confusion, he explained.
"You see, our ways are rather different. We don't have the kind of computers you developed, but to understand you, we had to adapt. That what you see there is our organic neural networks struggling to emulate a nine years old machine of yours although with recent software."
The booting process slowly chugged along, progressing onto the window manager, which I recognized, one which was quite basic, but very light on resources.
"These are admirable, complex inventions, it is a pity you don't share their details even among yourselves, furiously clinging onto them like a dragon onto his hoard. Nevertheless, I regularly send open source software home along with details by which my people can devise the proper hardware to run them."
A little while, and the system seemingly settled, he with means unknown to me started to interact with it. A terminal window popped up, characters rolled in, a file manager started, the cursor skimming fast over the heaps of files and directories. Then, from somewhere I heard music picking up.
I recognized it.
It was Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.
* * *
"Beautiful... Your culture can be so beautiful...". He laid on the pinnacle of his hoard, enjoying, engulfed by the soothing melodies, the gentle touch of violins on the ears as the progressing concertos filled the room. Fullness, by his arms, I felt like there was indeed an orchestra performing for us, it had such a fine acoustic.
He invited me, again laying on his side, letting me rest on his wing, to feel him, to be engulfed by his live flesh. I pushed myself against his chest, the softness of his belly caressing my legs, the slow breaths. The music, his very being guided me onto the land of dreams.
A gentle push awakened me, the tip of his muzzle. It was dark, only a faint light seeped in through the arch, leaving the room in an otherworldly twilight speckled with the myriad of sparks of coins and gems. He let me scramble off so he could rise with a stretch, sending a glimmering spray of riches down the mound before he walked off, indicating me to follow.
I looked up in wonderment, the ceiling which was so dazzling before now only showed an intricate web of luminous growth, some hanging down onto the vines, the whole cavern was like the void of space speckled with stars as the scattered occasional gems hidden on the meadow reflected the faint light.
We approached the pond to settle in the tranquility of the occasional croaks of frogs, him on the trail, me under a couple of large butterbur leaves, watching the dance of sparks on the gently rippling water. Night, such a strange and unusual place! I remembered those occasions when I was out in the woods indulging the otherworldly different beauty.
"I still fail to understand. This is a wonderful place, but I feel like if it was inspired by our natural beauties. You must have liked it here. How you could convince your people to leave?"
"The main reason is what I told you, yes, it took a while. We enjoyed ourselves, to explore, to see and indulge a new interesting world. But we realized something important."
His eyes sparkled as he turned towards me.
"You know your history, especially the past decades in astronomy and space exploration. Just what are you almost always seeking for?"
"That's just one thing. Origins. You are searching for your origins, to piece together how the material world formed, to understand the unknown, to rule out the hand of God. How the universe came to be, how the galaxy formed, how your Sun and planets came into existence, why can this humble little Earth can be such a pleasant sanctuary in the harshness of the cold void supporting life. How that life began, and matured."
"We are old, we drift with our Alpha Centauri since probably before the dawn of mammals in your world. We saw many things, followed suns taking shape and dying, planets forming and crumbling apart for an unfortunate orbit, and also we met quite a few intelligent beings in our unintended travel through the void. They however all were old, settled races, the spark of intelligence, the uprising of civilization from the nothingness still remaining an unfathomable miracle through all those ages."
"Then you found us."
"Yes, and we didn't realize what we were witnessing until it was a bit too late."
It took a few moments for it to sink in, silent, listening the frogs hiding in the reeds by the calm little pond. Such a simple minuscule place for the insurmountable grandeur of such a decision!
"And... What would you do once we discovered you?"
* * *
"You already did."
"Yes, you know about our presence."
"Then why, why it wasn't announced anywhere! I so wish if our world knew about you!"
"Just think it over a little bit. Your myths may be corrupted, but they were true in that we tend to have a rather dominant nature. We shape things to our liking. Your powers are screwed, unable to handle the influx of change and the numerous newly brewing problems, you are on the verge of suffocating under your own explosive advancement. Your people feel it and are very dissatisfied, their anger is boiling and tripping things over. Just what would you think happen if we, dragons, suddenly reappeared?"
"You mean you hold yourselves back to avoid stirring it further?"
"No. We do nothing on our part. Those few who know fear of us, they fear of their already dubious positions shattering if the wide public came aware. They do all they can to postpone it happening. The recession was a good excuse to cancel NASA's promising Space Interferometry Mission which might have detected our planets. They also have a long history of guiding several interstellar radio message projects to make sure no response could arrive in their lifetimes. They tread on a thin thread, but so far they managed to stay above."
"But why... Why don't you intervene? Why if you see things aren't right?"
"What's right or wrong is in your hands for the time being. We want to see what happens, and we are aware that, so you may call it, our experiment may fail if you ended up destroying yourself."
"But... What about this beautiful blue planet? Would you let her die, too?!"
"Yes. It is up to you to not let it happen. The universe is a cold, merciless place in which we drift helplessly. In two hundred thousands years, our world would get so far from yours that we wouldn't be able to cover the distance anymore. We colonized very few worlds... And it grieves us greatly to realize we can only send messages, racing through the void for countless years until they ever arrived. We know they are out there, fellow dragons whom we will never see so long our galaxy lives."
Only the croaks of frogs broke the solemn silence, the luminescent ceiling covering upon us like a true sky in its vastness, the twinkling stars many hundreds of lightyears away swimming in the cold void. What was distance? I felt so frighteningly small.
"Then... What would you do to us if it happened?"
"That's up to your people. Unless your civilization crumbled apart, we would respect you, just like those ancients we met in our long history. You are unique. We would loathe to destroy what you created, the creators, but you are in a great turmoil. If you cried out, we may come, and in need, assert our dominance to save those looking up on us from your own evils. We wouldn't want to do it. We wish if you completed this difficult path on your own."
A difficult path... I felt lost, reality so cruel and merciless. Why we keep failing? Why? If... If only finally the seals broke, somehow it got out! If people knew they lived, they walked among them! But that would mean our failure, failing to create a lasting civilization on our own, crying out for the dragons to dig ourselves out from the rubble of our own collapsing creation.
Somewhere people were rushing, laborers cramming in the subway for the night shift, office workers pushing carts through a mall in a frenzy of late shopping, a teenager blaring metal, a toilet flushed, a poor sod ramming a neighbor's door to cease drilling holes in his wall, all toiling ignorant with their petty daily matters, completely unaware of what was after tomorrow.
Ripples ran across the pond as a frog paddled towards the reeds to join the night's chorus. The dragon, cautious to avoid stomping the butterbur, laid on his side, resting, barely hovering his jaws above the ground. A small jolt, and I knew I could climb between his wings.
Serenity. I listened the faint rhythmic thumps of my otherworldly alive tent, feeling the smooth rubbery surfaces, the pleasant soothing sensations of his occasional twitches. Safety. His presence engulfed me, touching the most primal instincts, a wish for protection, a shelter against the cruelty of the world, the cold merciless vastness of the void. I belonged to him, and it felt right.
* * *
A pleasant breeze, the scent of life, a faint buzz. Daylight seeped through the entrance of my shelter, the thin gap between his arms. I didn't wake. I felt him, my head resting on his wing, I enjoyed the smoothness, the texture of scales pressing against my skin. Slowly I rolled to face his massive chest, I almost involuntarily reached out to rest my palm on it, to feel the gentleness of his long, sleeping breaths, the faint regular jolts of his heartbeat.
Alone... To be alone, confined, so far! My hand slid tracing his body, stroking, feeling... Legends, myths, ancient powers all coming together, forming, solidifying into shape, to reveal in him, an overwhelming impressive reality! I couldn't help but cuddle against him to let the thumps of his heart reverberate into me, barely noticing how I dug my feet into his soft flanks, grooming.
Suddenly he shifted, and embarrassed, I found him looking down on me as he raised his wing a little. I froze in fright, whether I did anything wrong, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he laid back, and gave me such a long wrapping embrace with his leathery webs which I shall never forget!
"You shall prepare." He rested on his side as I returned from the lake, washing my face. I knew it had to come. I had to part him, to return the surface, to continue my trudge wherever I left off as if nothing had happened.
He was a wise, sane person behind all that mighty flesh and to us almost godlike powers. I realized I didn't even consider the possibility of him turning on me to gulp me down, I trusted him, the word of a dragon. He was so different to the characters of our fantasies, yet so fitting!
My boots and packsack rested where I left them, under the arch. I was glad it was so, that there was no chance for any item from his miraculous cavern accidentally ending up within. It was his world, and it held nothing of greater value than him, his trust and companionship! I shall offer myself for his gullet than venturing to challenge this gift.
I looked up into the blackness of the chute, the long, difficult path ahead. A last glimpse. He serenely rested under the arch of light, looking after me, as if for a farewell.
Then, just as I was to begin, I heard his mellow rumbling voice. "Come. I don't want you to carry such a vile last memory of my place." He held his head low in front of me as an indication that I should ascend. The spikes of his limp crest were unnerving, but they were blunt and curved slightly downwards, so I climbed to lay on his neck, and firmly grabbed his horns.
He launched into the blackness. There was no light, and I truly needed both my hands to prevent myself falling. His head didn't wobble much, but it intensified, wildly shifting and moving by his shoulders, and I felt like a freight train was following us as he thrust himself through the narrow passages rasping and scraping the rocks occasionally sending boulders tumbling downwards. It was frightening, I had no clue where I was, only that I had his body beneath me which if I lost I felt like I would fall helplessly down into an eternal void.
Suddenly I lost my footing, almost sending me to panic, clenching on the horns, nearly yelling out my horror before I realized we reached the giant fissure where he was advancing leaning against the cliffside. If his slightly sloping neck didn't give some support, I believe I would have fallen to my doom as my hands wore sore desperately trying to avoid slipping.
The last stretch lost in swirl, the dazzling confusion of my exhaustion. A faint gloom, a chill breeze carrying the smell of cave. Silence, only broken by some distant, frail chirps.
I scooped myself up. I recognized where I was, in the small room below the rocky chute. Light seeped in from above. I was alone.
My head swam, I could barely heave myself to stand, to assess my situation.
I wasn't sure.
I looked down into the darkness of the other passage. I knew I was in no position to do any further exploration to reassure myself of the verity of whatever I remembered.
Faltering, I scrambled up the chute, onto the fresh outside air, the forest. I sat, holding my head, still spinning.
Then I felt a rumble picking up, but just as I realized it wasn't my ailing mind playing tricks on me, it ceased.
I looked back, and there was no opening to be seen.
Only the unbroken forest soil continued as far as I could see.
* * *
It took me months to understand, to get over myself, my own frailness. Some fierce arguments I regret today.
Maybe I understand today.
I only wish we all did some day.