Section the First, in which Our Protagonist is
Decessed most passive-aggressively from a Town, into
Snowy Mountains, where There Be Dragons.
Well, it had been a deadly winter, after all, and it wasn’t as if the local villagers had the resources to keep him around any longer. Even the fullest extent of their politeness could not magically generate the food and alcohol he so continually craved.
The “he” was a drifter named Ian McEwan: a human rascal in a world full of human rascals, or so he saw it. To his own comfortable recollection, he had come into the town of Arcombe early in January, eaten everything the main inn had to offer, failed to pay (or to provide any real assurance that granting him a tab would be a good idea—which, of course, it would not have been), and had gotten tossed out into the night. Then he had gone to the pub at the other end of the street, where he did the very same thing again—only to get thrown out after word got around, which took about an hour.
For the next several weeks he repeated this general pattern in a dance of numerous movements and variations: pilfering, schmoozing, skimming, “bargaining,” and outright stealing his way to a meager yet lackadaisical living—moving from one neighborhood to the next, and then to the outlying hamlets. And, with this way of life, he supposed he could not have been happier! For this was Ian McEwan, who had no family anyway, not besides his childhood friends and the occasional mentor or guardian—who had all already died in various riots and famines anyway, and no crying or complaining had ever restored them.
It was a rough life. With this in mind, Ian had determined to soften it in every way possible.
Because of his ongoing behavior in the area, there had eventually come a morning—this very morning, in fact—when, with many “sad” farewells (and more numerous private good-riddances) some local elders, guards, and several other able-bodied men told Ian, “Get lost. Go out into the snow and die. You are worthless to us, and you smell funny.”
Not that they had said it in so many words—but Ian knew better than to trust the smiles of men over the age of forty. Men over the age of forty simply had nothing left to smile about, he figured, except perhaps their private joys at removing a pest from their midst.
Ian had a good twelve years left before he would get to that point and hoped to be dead before then—but not without a fight, and not without having left a few children in various places. As yet, he didn’t consider his goal met, as he had no knowledge of any pregnancies or births that could be attributed to his antics (of which there had been several), nor of any great mentorings or adoptions that he had been part of that could somehow be construed (by his desire to reproduce) as “passing on a bit of himself to posterity.” No, Ian had nothing much to leave behind yet, and it bothered him—troubled him greatly, but on no account did he want to go about leaving it in the same way as every other stuffy, stupid person he had met. Of that he felt certain.
He tried rather hard not to dwell on how awful this all sounded, and walking through the bitterness of the snow (while fearing the prospect of ending up hungry and without shelter out in it) made that easy enough. He had a series of tasks before him: find new sources of food. Take the food to a safe place. Eat. Enjoy. Revel a little. Get drunk if alcohol were available. Feel sad and cheated if alcohol were not available. With this checklist at hand, he could go for at least twelve solid hours without having to examine the darkness within, and that was good enough for him.
Plus, he wasn’t altogether without supplies, and having a starting kit encouraged him. He had gone out into the snow wearing an (admittedly, stolen) coat of furs and wielding his (admittedly, stolen) pickaxe and carrying an (admittedly, stolen) bottle of heavy liquor in his backpack (bought ages ago legitimately, believe it or not). The pack also contained some jerky from the inn, some fruit and crackers, and a fresh canteen of water, so he figured on being able to make it for a few days at least. With clean snow all around, there was always that chilly option for getting a drink.
And, finally, he had his trusty magical cloak—something which he reasoned every drifter ought to have—which could create fire on demand without ever, itself, burning. A handy toy, that—one which he had stolen from a museum in the best-orchestrated caper of his life. All he needed to trigger its enchantment was a pair of flints, which he also kept in his pack at all times.
So that was that. He had simply to find a nice place to stay for a while. He planned to hike through the valleys among the nearby mountains and look for a cave—where he could keep his tender flesh a bit more removed from the volatile cold and flash snowstorms the area’s winters were known for. Food—well, an ongoing source of food was something he would have to figure out as he went along.
He walked up into the mountains.
For several hours he did this until he happened upon the inevitable dragon’s lair. It had a yawning, carport-sized cavern entrance—if only carports had been invented yet, which they had not—and, anyway, the whole place looked very foreboding. Not the sort of place a sane and non-desperate individual would hang around.
Due to his more-than-occasional need to use caverns as a hideout, Ian had long since become familiar with many types of animal markings that could be found in such places, and he correctly concluded that only the entrance to a dragon’s lair would bear claw marks of such a size as he now saw here: dozens of scratchings and slashings that left deep gashes in the rock. Apparently, the ownership of the cave had been fiercely contested at some point in the past. Dragons were nothing if not territorial, but they also tended to be sleepy, very sleepy, around this time of year, and this would not be the first time Ian had hidden out safely in the lair of one. He simply needed to make sure the beast was already inside and asleep before he got too carried away.
Of course, Ian didn’t particularly mind a little risk. His curiosity always got the better of him (which did much to explain how his ill-gotten incomes usually disappeared within a few days once he found the nearest casino), but he liked to think his curiosity was more skilled at its job than most people’s.
Because of all of this, he wasted little time for sightseeing or hesitation upon his arrival. He sauntered directly down toward the lowest point of the cave, keeping his cool, hoping for the best. The excitement felt deadly and real, much less boring than anything that happened in those stuffy old farm villages anyway. Stuffy, stuffy, stuffy.
To Ian’s inward relief, it did not take much time of spinning his wheel of fortune in this way before he reached the cavern’s bottom, and, there, found what he was looking for, and a little more besides.
The cavern’s owner was a dragon of some three meters in length—not terribly large, but big enough to look imposing—and was as sound asleep as a bar patron who had just been slipped a glass of wine blended with a strong sedative. In the near-pitch-darkness of the cavern he couldn’t make out any features of the dragon besides that. The bulk of the creature and the tremendous, deep-and-regular sounds of breathing were all he needed to tell him what he wanted to know. He thanked his well-honed night vision for letting him see even that much.
There was also, however, a nest with a massive egg in it, which, peculiarly, was not being incubated at the moment by the mother. At least, he presumed this dragon must be the egg-layer, since unattended males would normally chomp an unborn dragon egg without remorse, adding to the rarity of their species.
Smoothly and nonchalantly, he knelt beside the egg, strained slightly, and lifted it up, his legs providing the force. The egg was an enormous, ovlongular thing—the length of most of his torso, and bigger around than his belly had ever been. Gently, but firmly, he carried it in his gloved hands, fascinated by what it must feel like, but knowing he had better move along before he screwed something up by getting distracted.
Dinner, he thought to himself as he walked back up through the tunnel he had followed. Dinner and maybe breakfast too!
He giggled within. It had all happened so quickly and effortlessly. Quicker, indeed, than his brooding soul would have liked—because soon he might end up with nothing better to do than reflect on his life again—but his more eminent practicality would never complain about getting things done in a hurry. A meal and a shelter—those were good things to have. Good things! And, as he neared the cavern’s exit, he was already contemplating how best to cook his foraged find.
Section the Second, in which an Egg is Cooked, and
Ian Attempts to Display his Culinary Prowess
After some deliberation, he decided on putting the whole, unbroken egg directly into the cloak’s fire and hoping for the best, because that was pretty much the only thing he could do with the tools he had available. Given the egg’s size, he merely hoped he could somehow get the thing to cook evenly enough that at least some of it would get cooked acceptably—neither too raw, nor burned, which he anticipated most of the egg would end up as. With his pair of pocketknives and a small packet of pilfered carpentry nails he had previously forgotten about in the bottom of his bag, he did have enough pieces of metal to create a kind of makeshift egg-turning system, but he had no doubt this was still going to be overly complicated and tricky. But then, who had ever heard of the great Ian McEwan making a habit of carrying full-sized tools? Tools were heavy and too often easily recognized by their makers or friends of their makers. Besides, he hadn’t yet had a convenient chance to grab any since all of his old set got confiscated during an unfortunate port customs incident a few months prior.
Grumbling to himself, he cracked his flints together and watched the enchanted cloak (which he had lain out flat and neatly like a tablecloth on the cavern floor near the exit) erupt into a steady, hearth-like flame. Indeed, the fire looked just like what one got from burning a large log, except it came from no visible source of fuel and did not wax or wane much in size as its burning progressed. Even placing the egg onto the flame only momentarily quelled its enthusiasm—and Ian wasted no time in placing it there because, truth be told, he was very hungry. The alcohol he had consumed to excess during his most recent stay had filled his belly but left the flesh between his ribs ill-sustained.
Something about the egg called to him, and he craved it more and more as the moments passed.
“Dinner’s” surface was a rough, craggy thing: a brown, almost sandy-looking shell with such a jagged texture that it might have been mistaken for part of the cave itself, had it been looked-at among a cluster of rocks or stalagmites. Strange indeed—and for a time Ian wondered how he would ever crack the little treasure open even if he did manage to get it to cook. His mouth watered, but his soul felt frustrated—until a firm press onto the egg’s surface revealed to him (quite surprisingly) that the shell was already slightly elastic. The rocky outer surface, whatever it was composed of, was apparently not thick at all, as he found bits of it cracking off from the strain when he pushed down on the egg harder. Whether this was an innate quality of the egg or something resulting from his having applied fire to it directly, he could not say—his knowledge of dragon biology only went so far—but he trusted this to be a good omen for his efforts at converting the egg into a meal.
Dreamily he sat there, his mind going to unusual places—happier ones, even—as he turned the egg over, back and forth, with careful presses from the butts of the nails and blunt ends of pocketknives. Chiefly, he imagined how it might feel going down into his stomach—the smoothest, most wonderful egg a restaurant anywhere had ever served. Then he pondered about the egg itself and what unborn dragons might look like. He hoped, briefly, that he wasn’t cooking a baby dragon that was already most of the way developed. That would be disheartening even for him to see—an aborted thing, charred in a fire.
Of course, the egg might not even be fertilized. But what if it was?
He concluded, in total sincerity, that it was better for the baby dragon this way. No confusion, just going into the stomach and system of someone else and effectively disappearing. Continuing, but gone.
He told himself he wasn’t going to cry. He, in fact, did not cry, and resumed thinking about how good a nice egg would taste right about now.
And in the flickering flames, the brown surface of the egg began to char, and even smoke a little. Bit by bit, as he checked it over, Ian decided it must be ready.
Section the Third, in Which Ian Receives His
Comeuppance. Also, Transformation.
It took all of Ian’s ingenuity to get his food and tools where he wanted them, but he got it accomplished. First, he moved the egg slowly off of the cloak, letting its blackened surface rest on the cavern floor. Then, with a pocketknife, he carefully pushed the burning cloak out of the cavern and into a pile of mountain snow—the only thing he had on hand that would make the cloak cold enough and wet enough to turn the enchanted flames back off.
With that done, and his cavern area already plenty warm for his liking thanks to the fire that had been burning there previously, he stepped back inside and beheld his cooking.
It didn’t look very good, but he hoped looks were deceiving.
Wasting no time at all, he took two pocketknives and jabbed awkwardly into the egg’s shell, eager to find out what had transpired inside. He was rewarded with firm, warm, yellowish-green egg flesh. He hoped the green didn’t mean it was rotten, but he didn’t care enough. He didn’t think. He dug in. Facefirst, then with both hands, ignoring the pain that ran through his fingers as the still-too-hot hunks of egg stung them.
Peeling more and more of the egg’s shell back as he went, he found himself desiring its flesh more and more. No baby dragon, no nothing, nothing but delightful, delightful egg. He hadn’t ever had eggs this good—or had he? He couldn’t remember, it was so wonderful—compelling him to eat and eat and eat.
He didn’t have the foggiest consideration that something might be wrong until he had already chewed his way through about two thirds of the egg’s material. A simple string of thoughts passed through his mind. Had they been verbal thoughts, they would have gone something like this: Shouldn’t I have stopped eating? I can’t hold this much, I’m going to explode. But I don’t really feel full. It’s so good. It’s so good….
By the time he had finished off all but the barest scraps of the egg, leaving only the bits of its shell and some crumbs of flesh behind, his mind was whirling and spinning in ways he couldn’t understand. A glance down at his belly revealed it bulging from the meal, his lungs laboring harder as the weight of what he had just consumed finally began to register with his senses. He didn’t know where it had all gone, how it had fit in. The thing was bigger around than him. He remembered this and jerked his head forward, feeling suddenly lightheaded.
As the moments passed, he tried to regain his sense of comfort. It did not return. The heaviness in him expanded abruptly, as if a small statue’s worth of weight had just been placed squarely within his stomach’s walls, and with each passing second he felt sicker and sicker—his strength slipping away, a great pain building in his belly and bowels, more and more and more, till he began to stagger and cry out.
“What’s … oh … AaaaghRRR!”
Before long, the sensation Ian felt could only be described as fire—not the physical kind, but an intense flaring in his bones and blood, like someone had cast some sort of malicious spell to turn all the calcium in his body into red-hot iron in an instant.
In fact, a spell of a kind had been used, but not the sort that shifted element unto element. If there was one thing the dragon was not, it was an alchemist. The dragon was, after all, something far more terrifying: a mother.
It was only because of his history as a drifter that Ian remained standing now. Can’t go down, can’t go down, if you go down you die, stay up, stay up.
His breaths began a rhythmic laboring as the fire concentrated in his face. The mucus in his head boiled and swam, running out his nose like so much mustard out of a tub. He spattered and choked, unable to comprehend the furies his body now endured—his knuckles grinding as his hands grasped futilely at the air for anything that might help to assuage this feeling.
Moisture evaporated from his skin, literally causing his body to steam and puff with vapors. The dehydrating flesh took on a coarse, tattering feel, twinging with a rippling, bizarre growth and thickness. And then the belch came.
It was more of a gagging—the kind of belch that immediately preceded vomiting in the very ill. Something in his stomach gave a miserable, awful lurch, and he dropped to his hands and knees as his mouth burst open to expel the gas, followed shortly by what he thought must be the recently-consumed contents of his stomach—
Except there was nothing there. Nothing but his own stomach acid, anyway, which burned intensely and purely as it came up and out his mouth. Where was the flesh of the egg?
“Oh … please … no …” he whimpered, his tears flowing out of his withering eyes just as rapidly as the fluids were coming out of everywhere else.
His body lurched again, and his neck stretched forward, the fire filling him more and more everywhere. He thought he was going to gag again—vomit—maybe get the awful egg out. But that was not happening—could not, would not happen now. Another awful belch, and then his body began to rumble.
The fire pushed outward, growing within him. Where the fire replaced his bones, it grew larger and larger—first in his face, causing it to distend and lengthen—then down his neck, which stretched tighter and tighter, further and further.
“Nuuurrh. Nurrrh. Uhhhhhrrrrnn.”
Now his stomach’s fire grew as well, surging up into his chest, meeting the fire from the neck. His searing-hot flesh bulged and expanded, even his arms, all the way down to his hands, the fingers fattening and thickening, blending together in huge lumps of steaming flesh. Five, then four. Then just three—together, fat and steaming.
By this point, he could not speak any longer. There were good internal reasons for this: his vocal cords and jaws had both greatly enlarged, now more suited to bellowing roars and gripping raw meat than speaking fineries to ladies down at the pub. He felt a horrible, terrifying sensation of his life ending, a sense of total loss of power and control, swept up in something that wasn’t him, filling him and taking him over from inside. He began to forget things, a swirl of half-formed thoughts scattering apart in his brain as if his life were attempting to flash before his eyes but failing due to rapidly fragmenting wiring. He began to think of eating, and eating was what he knew—the empty, hurting stomach needing to be refilled.
For the egg’s parts had long since dispersed themselves, melding into and throughout his body—refusing to be dismissed through the purging, finding a new and warmer home in his belly and bowels, blood and sinews.
And sinews there were. Many of them, far more than he had had before. His fewer-digited hands trembled as the flesh leading from his trunk out to them thickened and knotted, bulging with more muscle than the reddest-blooded warrior of his time could dream of having—and further still. So too his legs—until now mostly unchanged by the transformation—began at last to swell and pop, the bones creaking and expanding from those of a man into ones more appropriate for a dinosaur skeleton in an academy’s museum. “Here, the bones of the Dragon,” the sign next to the exhibit might say.
Here, the bones of a man become dragon—and muscle and flesh growing all around them.
A gurgle like that of an angry dog, but darker, escaped from his now nonexistant lips. His face had lost most remnants of its humanity, lips replaced with pert green scales indistinguishable from those around them, nostrils elongated and opened wide into the two curved halves of a dragon’s nose, the whole snout as long as his forearm had once been and growing more still.
He took the changes with an increasingly deep disinterest, feeling neither pain nor sorrow, even though there was some physical sense of hurt. The hurt lacked meaning and was unstoppable, and he ignored it. He wondered where his mother was. He looked around anxiously for her as his legs expanded beneath him, forcing him up to a more appropriate stance for the dragon he was becoming, the newly clawed nails on his fingertips and toes growing and pressing outward.
Something was around him. It had ripped and torn during the … whatever was happening, now. He sniffed it—licked his tongue at it. It was a familiar smell and taste. He couldn’t place it. The material was thick, yet soft—useless to his coarse, thickening scales. There was brown material like this. There was also softer, whiter material. Rip, rip, rip—the sound echoed now in his mind, unnoticed before, his panicking and ever-changing brain trying to send him one last message about his nature that had been. The message was not comprehended. The young dragon took the cloth in his mouth and swallowed it whole—every bit—in two gulps. Something in him wanted to do it in one next time, if there was a next time.
Food. But it wasn’t food. Something about the cloth was distinctly not food. He waddled forward along the cavern floor as small wings pierced through his back and the scales and girth of his body reached a more and more appropriate thickness. He had no regard for himself or his appearance. Where was his mother?
Uncertainly, he let out a croaking little sound, high-pitched, what a human observer might have called adorable had there remained any human thoughts which might have done the observing.
He let out another sound, this one shriller, as he gazed with red, heat-oriented vision around the place.
No sign of mother.
He became very distraught, whined out, and curled up, stuffing his head under his own tail and shivering.
It took him barely any time at all to fall into an utterly spaced-out state of torpor. Not exactly like sleep, but just as effective at calming his nerves.
Some while later—whether a minute or four weeks, he could no longer fathom—a wonderful something appeared in his room.
And she leaned down to him and regurgitated half-digested meat into his mouth—it was like so many chunks of light and joy being placed on his tongue. Warm flesh, delicious—and he gave his mother accolades, chirping and rawring at her for more.
Which she gave.
And he loved it. He drank up the blood and the acid and the meat and swallowed it all, gorging on everything he gave her until his impressive dragon hatchling tummy was pooched out with fullness.
And still he wanted more. But for now he was content to live beside her, sniff of her, and coo and croon at her presence.
The little dragon was so happy he had finally found her.