‘73… 74… and…’
I’m so excited! I’ve never reached this point!
I begin to place plate number 75 atop the stack. I hold it, stare at it, trying to convince it with my non-existing mental powers that everything will be fine, that it can peacefully lie on top of plate number 74. Then I feel the draught… I follow the stack with my eyes as it begins to bend, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until it crashes on the ground with a deafening clangour. I still hold plate 75, just above where plate 74 once was; I close my eyes and sigh. Bug has arrived.
‘Hellooo!’ he says. ‘Am I interrupt---oh, what a mess!’
‘Yes, thank you, Bug! I could beat the record, but no, can’t, because you had to fly in like that!’
Bug smiles. He smiles! ‘Oh, come on. It’s not the first time, is it?’ he says, as he opens his arm in a circular motion to show the rest of the cavern with the other fifty-five or fifty-six (fifty-seven, maybe?) heaps of plates.
‘No, but this spot was better! I saw it, I could feel it, it was the right one!’
‘A-ha. Sure.’ He pats my shoulder with his claws. ‘Have you tried the coins? Or the crowns?’
No, actually. I’ve never tried to stack anything but the silver plates for the last eighty years. I look around at my spectacular heap of gold and silver. I’ve had it for centuries.
‘You know what, Roach? Perhaps you could get rid of all this stuff? You know… donate it? Surely there are less fortunate dragons who need a twinkle in their eyes.’
‘What? Donate?? They’d hate you for that! Dragons don’t accept gifts, you know it.’
‘Yeah yeah, you’re right. But this monster of a treasure has distracted you for too long. When was the last time you hunted humans? It’s no good for you, mate. I miss the days when we flew together to burn a village or five!’
Yes, it’s been a while. I stopped plundering and pillaging some… I don’t know… four hundred years ago? It had got boring. Same about hunting humans: why waste energy when they come so willingly to my cavern? Their burning desire for gold makes it so easy to obtain food. Sometimes Bug comes to my cavern and we chat and play, otherwise I’m alone all the time. Alone with my treasure, that is.
We began playing with it shortly after I chose to live secluded from the rest of the world. We’d scratch circles of different sizes on the cavern walls and throw gold at them: the small targets were worth more than the large ones. Then, after a century of that, we introduced another game: we’d place some candlesticks on the ground to form a triangle, and then we’d try to knock them over by throwing a crown or tiara at them. All that time I could see that Bug didn’t enjoy playing these games, but he’d always indulged me: a good friend, Bug.
When I got bored of those games, I started stacking silver plates. Bug was relieved, as he didn’t have to play anymore. He’s never stopped visiting me, though.
Suddenly, a noise. ‘Bug! Did you hear that?’
‘Yes,’ Bug whispered. ‘Some new hero hunting for riches?’
‘Maybe. Quick, hide!’
We are big, but nimble. We dodge the metal plates scattered about and hide behind my mountain of gold and silver. The uninvited guests approach. Their noise gets louder, and we make out the steps of eight humans. Why are they always so noisy? You get a chance at killing dragons if you sneak up on them, not if you herald your arrival like this. Idiots.
Then they appear, eight humans in full body armour, armed to the teeth with swords, crossbows, halberds, and shields. As soon as they’re all in the open, Bug and I jump out and roar.
‘I’m Roachster Hellfire Madness!’
‘I’m Brutal Undying Grandblaze!’
The humans step back and scream ‘Woah!’ and ‘Aaaaah!’ and ‘Damn!’ As soon as they recoil from the surprise, the biggest of those idiots says, ‘I’m Sir Rudolph of Gehen! I claim this treasure! It is now the property of Dr Stonewall!’
Bug and I look at each other. Then he whispers to me, ‘Roach, another damn doctor? Why are doctors in command out there?’
‘I don’t know. Let’s ask him.’ I turn to the big guy and ask, ‘Why---’
I can’t finish. Someone’s too jittery and shoots with his crossbow and hits Bug in the leg; Bug’s instinct kicks in, and he breathes fire on the hapless party.
As our chance at getting an answer is burnt, I realise that at least we can have dinner.
‘Too hot, Bug!’ I shout. We like our meat rare, so Bug regulates his breath to cook the humans just right. He then takes the bolt out of his leg: just a bruise, though an expensive one.
‘There you go, Roach. Sorry for the reflex, though… I wish we got an answer to our burning question.’
‘That’s alright, Bug; there will surely be more chances. Besides, we have dinner now!’
I peel the armours off the barbecued knights, and we enjoy the meal together. It’s happened many times that some so-called heroes have come to claim our treasure on behalf of this or that doctor. We’ve always thought that doctors just cure the ill, but in some communities they are also the leaders. Go figure.
After we’ve picked all the bones clean, Bug has an idea.
‘Hey! A new game! This one needs your treasure, but also takes you out of your cavern. Oooh, it’s brilliant! Listen up.’
I burp smoke, then listen carefully as Bug describes his new game: ‘We make some big heaps of gold and silver around the country---let’s say ten. We place them so that you can fly from heap to heap and eventually end up back here---a sort of ring. Then we race!’
I think about it for a minute, then say, ‘Hmm, sounds interesting…’
‘Wait, there’s more. Gold out in the open? You know what that means, don’t you?’
‘I’m sure humans will rush to get it.’
‘Exactly! So, instead of just flying by the heaps, we have to stop, eat a human, keep the skull as proof, and fly on. We start in opposite directions: the first one to arrive back here with the ten skulls wins.’
I smile, grin, and finally laugh. I would play with my gold, but also get out of my cavern, fly, and hunt, as Bug desires. Even better: it’s Bug who suggested the game!
‘Ha ha ha brilliant! Bug, you’re a genius.’
‘What are we waiting for?? Let’s set this up!’
It takes some time, but we manage to place the ten heaps of gold in a circle. Each leg of the race is about twenty kilometres.
‘Shall we begin now?’ I ask.
‘No. Let’s give the humans time to smell the gold.’
Reasonable enough. We wait in silence for a while, sitting by the lake and forest next to my cavern. This is something we’ve never done before. And I wonder… WHY?! It’s so exciting! Over a thousand years in this world and we’ve never played with gold and humans simultaneously. We plunder cities and destroy kingdoms to hoard ludicrous amounts of gold, such that we can… what? Keep it in a damp cavern and stare at it?
I’m so thrilled and euphoric that… that… I want to tell a joke!
‘Hey, Bug, do you know why I’ll win this race?’
‘No, because you won’t.’
‘Because you can only Bugger off! Ha ha ha!’
Bug stares at me, catatonic. He’s not smiling. I stop laughing. He recovers, and then says, ‘You have… told a joke?’
I understand him. Dragons are good at destroying, hoarding, flying, cooking, and a few other things, but indeed they are bad comedians.
And yet… Bug begins to smile; then he gets the giggles, which make me chuckle; then Bug erupts in laughter, and I lose it---I accidentally snort fire on the nearby forest. It scares the sheen out of our eyes: we rush to root up the blazing trees and cast them into the lake. The misadventure immediately sobers us. Bug sits down again while I begin to drink from the lake.
Then he decides that it’s his turn.
‘Hey, Roach, do you know why I’m faster than you?’
‘Oh, don’t be silly. You’re not---’
‘Because you cannot Roach me! Ha ha ha!’
I can’t control myself. It’s a stupid joke, but it sets me ablaze. Literally.
I laugh while drinking, and my laughter is pure fire, as hot as it can be, and half the lake evaporates in the blink of an eye. The tips of my claws and wings begin to smoke just as I stagger from the surprise and fall into what’s left of the lake. This douses me, thankfully…
I hear Bug shout, ‘Roach!’
‘Bug, mate… no more jokes. Too dangerous.’ I come out of the lake, shake the water off me, and we both sit down. After a minute of silence we chuckle again, this time without remodelling the landscape.
Then we remember why we’re here.
‘Roach, it’s time!’
‘Yeah! Let’s recap the rules: I fly this way, you fly that way; at each heap of gold, we eat a human and keep the skull. The first one to reach this lake wins!’
‘Deal! Ready, set, GO!’
And off we fly. Adrenaline rush! The air lifts me, caresses my wings, welcomes me back. Twenty kilometres are nothing in this rapture. As I approach the first heap, I see some humans picking up gold. They scamper as they see me, and flee in all directions. Fools: where do they think they’re going? I grab one, eat it raw for the sake of speed, and throw away all the bones except the skull, which I impale on the spines of my back just before I’m off to the next heap. There again, same story. It’s so easy, yet brutally satisfying! I wonder at which pile I’ll cross paths with Bug…
Third heap, fourth heap, fifth heap---all already overrun with greedy humans. I don’t even have to aim: I swing my arm and I have two or three humans in my claws.
I meet Bug at heap number six. I’ve flown faster than him! I see him, but he’s not doing anything… he’s just standing there, facing the heap…
‘Oi! Bug!’ I shout as I approach him. There are corpses all around. Only one human is still alive---a man, standing in front of Bug. What’s going on? They’re not fighting. They notice me, and stare at me as I land next to Bug.
‘Roach… this is a doctor.’
‘Oh!’ A million questions pop up in my brain. ‘A doctor… he doesn’t seem scared, does he?’
The human looks at me and smirks. Then he says, ‘No, I don’t fear you.’
I’m puzzled, as is Bug.
‘I’m Dr Bridgewell, and I claim this treasure!’
I look at Bug, who looks at me. We don’t care about the treasure, but we do care about answers. So I ask, ‘Why are you a doctor? What do you do? Why are doctors in command? Why do you send us free meals?’
Dr Bridgewell is relaxed. He replies, ‘We were born into this. Now we cure the ill, prepare medicines, and treat wounds. We’re necessary; we know it, so we are paid well. The richer we get, the more influential we become; at that point, all we have to do to become leaders is ask for it. And we like it that way.’
‘Sure,’ I say, ‘but why do you want our gold, then? Don’t you already---wait, what does it mean “we’re born into this”?’
The doctor smirks again, but doesn’t reply.
‘Screw this,’ Bug interjects, ‘let’s cook him. Roach, ready?’
‘Don’t be foolish, pups,’ the doctor grunts. His eyes shine red for a second, then revert to their usual brown. We both notice it. That’s not normal.
‘Are you… a sorcerer?’ I ask, awed.
‘No. I’m a doctor… but you know, that’s not all that Dr stands for…’
I think for a second, then suggest, ‘So… druid?’
Bug pitches in, ‘Drab?’
‘It stands for DRAGON, you idiots!’ and his eyes flash red again, and his nostrils and mouth let out filaments of black smoke. Say whaaaaaaat!?
My jaw drops. ‘Dragons! Doctors are dragons! But how? You’re humans too!’
‘We were,’ the Dr says, ‘a long time ago. We hoarded gold, just like you. And we got bored, just like you.’ He points at the heap of gold. ‘There isn’t much a dragon can do with gold. But humans---they have more sources of pleasure than dragons, and they have this odd custom of exchanging services for gold. Indeed, they use gold to buy pleasure! Dragons can eat only meat, but humans can eat almost everything---and oh, the flavours! The options!’
Bug and I are stunned. What this Dr is saying is unbelievable, yet we know that it’s true: we’ve seen other humans do what he describes. We listen on.
‘Humans buy sex with gold, and they do it because, I assure you, it’s a much more enjoyable experience as a human than as a dragon. And most importantly, gold buys power… and once you have both, all humans are at your feet. You’re at the top of the pyramid. That’s why we are in command.’
He ends his speech. Finally we have the answer to our burning question.
‘How did you become human, though? We don’t have magic,’ I ask.
‘No magic, no. It was desire. When you want something so bad, when you have nothing but that in your mind---it affects you; it changes you. It took me thousands of years, but I eventually morphed into this. A monster to every dragon, but a god to all humans. And I like it that way.’
As I, too, am bored of being a dragon, I kind of understand him. But a life amongst humans…
Bug interrupts my thoughts and asks, ‘Thousands of years… Are there also humans that have turned into dragons?’
‘No. They all prefer to be humans. Even those who have neither gold nor power: they all yearn for them---some more, some less, but they all do. That’s enough to keep them human.’
‘Is the change permanent?’
‘No. We can reverse the process, but it would take either a prolonged, ardent desire for it, or an open, unequivocal manifestation of our original nature.’
A moment of silence. Bug and I eye each other. A glance is all it takes.
I turn to the Dr and say, ‘Well then. You’re happy in your position, and we respect that. However, we’re currently racing, Bug and I, and in theory we both need your skull to win this race.’
‘Can’t you just get one of the tens scattered around?’ he asked, showing the expanse of corpses around us.
‘From a dead body? No way! We have to earn our prizes. That these idiots murdered each other for the gold would be a gift to us, and we cannot accept it. I’m sorry, Dr, but we need your head.’
Bug and I breathe at the same time. The Dr clearly expects it: he leaps and rolls away from the line of fire.
‘Oh, look at that!’ Bug shouts.
‘He’s agile!’ I add, and breathe again. The Dr rolls again, then runs behind the heap of gold. What’s he thinking? He has no weapons and no place to hide. All he has available is his past.
Bug takes off and hovers above the Dr. He breathes down, and at the same time I breathe next to the Dr, who now has gold on one side and fire everywhere else. The flames engulf him. They’re hot enough to melt part of the gold. After a few seconds we end the barbecue, and get what we wanted.
The Dr is still there. His clothes are gone, but he’s still standing, his eyes like flickering embers. Next comes a brutal growl from the Dr as his skin begins to crack and drop; his body, now red, expands and grows, higher than the pile of gold and higher still, until two gigantic wings appear. The transformation ends, and he’s now three times my size.
‘RAAAAAAAAAAWR!’ is the deafening roar we hear as a firestorm hits us. Dr breathes on both of us, but we’re all dragons, immune to fire.
As the blast furnace cools down, the Dr’s voice thunders: ‘See what you’ve done! You damn idiots! Half my lifetime to reach perfection, and you two have destroyed everything! EVERYTHING!’
Bug and I are elated, but we keep our cool. The heap of gold is now a small lake. I point at it and say, ‘This waypoint is gone, as are all the humans. Should we cancel the race?’
‘I guess so,’ replies Bug. He sighs, then turns to the Dr: ‘Hey there. First of all, welcome back. Then, as an expert of human habits, do you know a game---’