I entered the mouth of the cave, turning the knob on my gas lamp to allow myself some light. I stopped for just a moment inside, casting a glance back over my shoulder and down the slopes of the mountain at the hazy lights of the city below, only barely able to see them in the dark valley below. Somewhere in the middle of those big shadows and blurred lights was my home, although it was only a home in the barest sense of the term. True, the Saint Alamarck Orphanage was where my bed was, and where I ate. However, the nuns who took care of us children couldn't hope to deal with all our problems, and the other kids never paid me much mind, either. For these reasons, it had actually been quite easy to slip out unnoticed, and to climb the side of Mount Ilenor.
Had anyone been able to see me now, they'd probably have thought I was totally nuts. For a little kid, sneaking out at night with only the most basic of provisions to climb a mountain was pretty stupid, but this wasn't just any mountain, either. Long ago, Mount Ilenor had spewed fire and brim...- brimstone, was the word they'd used, right? - all across the lands, breathed out by an old and powerful dragon who lived really deep down inside. At least, that was what the stories said. They also said that this dragon was in possession of the crown of an ancient king, in which was set a jewel that could make one wish come true for anybody who touched it. And, as I steeled myself and began the descent into the caves below, I knew that I would be the one to find that legendary crown. I'd wish on it and become a powerful magician, and then I'd use my magic to... to... Well, to be honest, I hadn't actually thought that far ahead. But once I was a magician, there'd be no more of this skulking around in dark places, waiting for people to wait on me. For once, I'd be able to do something of my own and make something of myself. I'd be famous. I'd be a hero. That might have seemed like a stupid dream to anyone else, but to a kid who had nothing, who had been nothing all his life, that seemed like heaven.
Still, this mountain was pretty disappointing for a legendary volcano. As I nervously made my way through the tunnel, I was expecting at any moment to see streams of lava bubbling before my eyes. And yet, there was nothing of the sort, although I did see a few interesting red rocks. I remembered one of the Sisters at the orphanage telling us that those were formed from lava, so I decided that, as the next best thing, they would serve as an obstacle on my heroic quest. Grinning to myself, I carefully jumped from stone to stone amidst the crisscrossing veins of red that pockmarked the floor, painstakingly avoiding stepping in the “lava.”
I wasn't really keeping track of where I was going, but that hardly mattered, since all I really cared about was the fact that I was going somewhere. So long as I kept looking, I was sure to find the crown sooner or later. Of course, I was also certain to encounter the dragon at some point or another. Now that I thought about it, that was going to be problematic. I didn't know the first thing about how to beat a dragon, and I didn't exactly have any weapons on hand. I supposed I'd just have to outsmart it somehow. That was how most dragons were beaten in stories, anyway.
After a very long search, I stumbled across what I was looking for. Of course, I mean that literally. Some rocks slipped under my feet, sending me skidding straight down a rather steep ledge and into the tunnel in question. Rubbing the dust off my backside, I rose, grumbling to myself as I recovered my lamp and started looking around, trying to get my bearings. To my surprise, though, there was actually a rather large stone archway right beside me. My dismay turned to delight in an instant. I'd finally found it: the door to the treasure room! The dragon was surely waiting inside, and with it, the crown! This was it. Turning down my lantern, I crept slowly inside.
Looking furtively about, I found to my surprise that the room – a gigantic, roughly circular chamber carved out of stone – was already lighted, with an open ceiling that allowed the light of the full moon to shine inside. Wait, really? I thought I'd gone much further into the mountain than that. Had I gotten turned around and started going up instead? Well, that didn't matter. I was here now, and that was what counted. Following the path downward from the door, I cast my eyes around. This was obviously the place I'd been looking for, but I didn't see anything. Not a dragon, or a crown. Had I been deceived? Frustrated, I turned the knob on my lantern as far as it would go, casting light as far into the darkness as I could.
“Excuse me? Mr. Dragon? Is anybody home?” I called nervously, hoping my stories hadn't gotten my hopes up for nothing. The dragon must have gone away at some point, I supposed. Yes, that had to be why it wasn't here. To my surprise, though, a voice answered me almost immediately.
“Well, there isn't a Mr. Dragon here, but if you're looking for me, then here I am.”
I jumped, nearly dropping my lantern as I spun to face the speaker, and found myself face to face with...
...A girl in a white dress? What was going on here?
I stared, dismayed. There really was someone here... but she wasn't a dragon.
She was taller than me by at least a good foot, and looked a few years older. Unlike my own patchwork tunic and trousers, soiled with dirt and grime from my earlier wanderings, her gown was as pristine as the moonlight streaming into the chamber. Her hair was blonde, so pale in hue as to be almost silver, matching the whitish-pink hue of her skin. Her emerald eyes gazed back at me, almost seeming to glow with their own internal light.
She was pretty. Like some kind of princess, or priestess, or goddess, or something, as though she'd walked straight out of one of my storybooks. But she wasn't a dragon.
She took a step forward, and something shiny caught my eye on top of her head. Reflecting the silver light from above were four large ivory horns, protruding from her scalp and curling upwards like the branches of a tree. Indistinguishable from these prongs was a band of white gold, running across her forehead, as though it was growing out of the topmost of these spines. At its center was inlaid a brilliant diamond that caught my eyes at once. I stared, captivated. She had horns. She wore a crown. But still...
“You're not a dragon!” I blurted out in a tone of mingled disappointment and confusion.
“What makes you say that?” The girl asked, cocking her head to the side. She pointed to her horns. “I'm clearly not human, see?”
“You're still not a dragon,” I said insistently. “Dragons are big and scaly, with huge wings that go wo~oosh when they flap them. You're small and...and... and not scaly... and your hair looks fluffy.” The girl gave a shrill, gentle laugh, but this sound suddenly began to change. It echoed off the walls, growing ever louder and deeper. For an instant, her form seemed to blur and expand, becoming a towering shadow that loomed over me, her eyes and the diamond in her crown gleaming like stars amidst the dark. White fire spilled forth from her lips, blackening the ground and sending me stumbling backward. In my panic, I tripped, falling on my back. “AAAH! You're a dragon!” I screamed, admitting to my mistake as I shut my eyes in fright. In an instant, the roar faded into nothing, and the moonlight was shining down upon me once again. I cracked my eyelids open again to find myself face to face once more with the girl in white, who extended a small, dainty hand to help me to my feet. I stared at it, and then crawled a few more feet backward. She cocked her head to the side inquisitively. “Are you afraid of me?” She asked.
“Of course I am! If I let you grab me, you're going to eat me!” I shot back, as though it was obvious.
“I already ate, though,” She murmured.
“Liar! You're just trying to trick me. Well I won't be fooled by a dragon – not even a pretty one!” For whatever reason, the girl laughed once again. She had a nice laugh.
“Well, I also don't eat tiny things,” she tried. “You probably wouldn't taste very good, and even if I was hungry, you wouldn't fill me up.”
“I bet you're lying,” I said again, a little less firmly this time. “I probably taste delicious!” I though about what I'd said for a moment, and then looked away, admitting to my loss in this particular argument. “Bleh,” I muttered, sticking out my tongue spitefully. “Fine, maybe I don't taste good.” I glanced back out of the corner of my eye, trying not to show my shame at being wrong. The girl offered me her hand again, and I reluctantly took it. She pulled me to my feet, then released me, stepping back with a look that said “I told you so.”
“So...” I murmured, not sure how to converse with a Dragon. In the heat of the moment, it slipped my mind why I'd come. “If you're a Dragon, then where's your treasure? Aren't you supposed to have piles of gold and jewels and stuff?”
“What use could I have for those things?” Asked the dragon-girl-in-white.
“Well, I dunno. They're shiny?”
“Are shiny things really that useful?” She seemed confused. I faltered for a moment, not really sure what to say. My eyes wandered up from her face to the crown adorning her head, and I remembered what I'd been looking for.
“Dunno,” I said again, shrugging. “Well... uh... what about that?” I asked, pointing to it. “It's shiny. Is it useful?”
“Well, not to me, I suppose.”
“Then can I have it?” This was my chance! I'd deceive her into giving it to me, make my wish, and escape! “It's really pretty.”
“No,” she said firmly. I pouted, looking pleadingly up at her.
“Because it's dangerous,” She insisted.
“Because it's enchanted, and very, very powerful. If a mortal touches it, it could change the very nature of their being. It could even kill you,” I didn't really pay much attention to this explanation. Any magical artifact worth its salt was dangerous, so her lecture hardly came as a surprise to me.
“That's cool. So... can I have it?”
“I said no.”
“But I wanna make a wish!” I protested.
“I said no. It's too dangerous for a child to handle.”
“Oh, whatever. So, if I was older, you'd let me have it?”
“I might consider it, I suppose,” The Dragon said absently. I huffed angrily. It seemed that this was my only option.
“Fine, then!” I resolved. “In that case, I'll just keep coming back here, each and every day, until I'm old enough for you to consider giving it to me!”
“You... what?” The girl seemed genuinely surprised this time.
“You heard me!” I crossed my arms, determined in my oath. For whatever reason, her expression changed into a broad smile, and she gave another laugh. She had a really, really nice laugh.
“Oh, alright then,” She said. “It is rather dull here. Perhaps having a friend to come visit me wouldn't be unpleasant. What is your name, boy?” She asked.
“I'm Myrion – Myrion Astelius!” I said, pointing a finger proudly at myself as I tried to introduce myself in as heroic a fashion as possible. “And I'm going to be a great magician!”
“I see. It's a pleasure to meet you, Myrion the Magician-to-be.” Those words, spoken so gently, marked the beginning of a life I'd never expected.
I tried to become a hero, but instead, I became best friends with a dragon.
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Over the course of the next several years, I followed through with my careless promise. Any time I got the chance, I'd slip away to the mountain, where the Dragon would be waiting to take me inside. There were difficulties sometimes, but I kept going, any time I could make the trip.
Foremost among these issues was that, quite simply, I didn't have a name to call her by. I tried asking her once, but the answer I got didn't seem like something that could be pronounced by a Human tongue. “Rensrarlirgiri'ehgrah?” I'd attempted for what must have been the dozenth time. When she said it, it sounded graceful and pretty, almost like a song. But when I tried to repeat it, it always just came out as nonsensical growling. Taking pity on me for my continued failures, she agreed to let me just call her “Ren” for short.
I was growing older, but even so, things didn't change much. Other kids came and went from the orphanage, but I stayed. To be honest, I'd probably have refused to go even if somebody adopted me. I didn't need a family. I had Ren. To me, that was more than enough. Around this time, Ren started taking me flying. We'd meet at the base of the mountain once night had fallen, and then she'd scoop me up like I was weightless, spread her huge, white wings like some gigantic bird, and carry me upward, higher than the tallest trees. On nights when the wind wasn't very strong, we'd sometimes soar even higher than Mount Ilenor. I found myself looking forward to these adventures more than any of our other games, although I wondered why she'd never taken me flying previously... as well as where her wings had been during our first meeting. They must have always been there, I suppose I just didn't notice them.
One day, I suggested that she try collecting treasure as a hobby, and volunteered some of my own cherished belongings as the first additions to her new “hoard.” Pretty, colorful stones, an old pocketwatch somebody had thrown away near the orphanage, and some of my favorite storybooks all found spots in her cave. I was so happy to see the way she smiled whenever I showed her something she'd never seen before. The silvery scales in her cheeks would catch the light and shine like a mosaic of diamonds woven into her face. If she was especially happy, she had a certain way of swishing her serpentine tail back and forth, almost like an excited puppy. Looking at her now, it seemed unthinkable that I'd ever doubted what she was.
Then came the day of my 16th birthday. At St. Alamarck's, that was the day you stopped being a child and became an adult. I'd lose my place there at the orphanage, and have to find an apprenticeship somewhere, or else become somebody's house servant. I wasn't sure what I'd do, but the point was, I was finally free. I decided to go see Ren to tell her the good news on the day before. However, she didn't show up at our usual meeting point. I waited several hours, but she still didn't appear. Unnerved, I decided to climb the mountain again, making my way through the now-familiar tunnels and into the cave at its heart. There I found her... but not as I'd last seen her.
Her wings, horns, and tail were all much more prominent than I remembered them, and the scales that had once seemed like individual jewels growing out of her skin now almost covered it completely, forming a sort of hide. Her hair – that which I'd once mocked as fluffy – now seemed like an anomalous, shaggy mane wreathing an otherwise reptilian countenance. But no matter how numerous her changes, they couldn't have hidden the fact that she was crying.
“It's been... so long, hasn't it?” She whispered, barely turning to look at me as I entered.
“Six years,” I said quietly, almost reverently, unsure what to make of the girl-turned-serpent before me.
“I never wanted this day to come,” She sobbed, wiping her eyes with distinctly clawed hands. Her voice sounded pained and hoarse, as though she was speaking only with difficulty, and from a great distance. “But there's no choice, now. What a Dragon should be, a Dragon must be. Soon, even you will only see me as a beast. A child can only stay a child for so long.”
“What are you talking about, Ren?” I asked. “It doesn't matter how old I get, or what other people say about you! You're my one and only friend. Just because I'm setting out on my own doesn't mean I'll forget all about you! Come on... This has gone far enough, right? Change back.”
“I can't.” She hung her head. My eyes went wide with shock.
“Why not? Don't joke around like that. It's not like you. Just... turn back to the way you used to be. Please, Ren, I'm begging you. You're scaring me here.”
“I can't, because deep down, a part of you has realized this isn't normal. A normal person grows up, stops dwelling in his fantasies and begins working to support himself out there, amongst his fellow Humans. Playing at wizards and dragons is fun... but it's not real. In order to live like a Human should, you have to leave all that behind.”
“Says who?!” I asked angrily. “Who says I can't remember and cherish the stories I loved just because I'm not a kid anymore?”
“It doesn't matter whether you remember or not. You can't live in two worlds.”
“Fine. Then I'll live in one,” I said, making up my mind in an instant. It was a choice between home, a warm bed, and food on my plate; or a cold cave shared only with the same companion I'd spent all my life beside. I didn't need to think about it at all. So, I stepped forward, reaching out to the crying girl on the floor. It didn't matter whether she was a pure white maiden or a fire-breathing dragon. Ren would always be Ren in my eyes, no matter how much she changed. “You said that when I was older, you'd grant my wish, right?” I asked, placing my palm upon the crown that glistened amidst her ragged hair. “Then here it is.”
I heard her gasp, felt her raise a hand to try to pry my hand from the glowing, warm diamond it had wrapped itself around. She cried out some warning, pleading me to stop before I hurt myself, but I didn't listen. I held on as though my life depended on it. If there were no risk involved... if I didn't have to fight to prevent myself from losing what was most important to me... then this story wouldn't be a tale worth telling!
“I, Myrion Astelius, do not want to be a magician! I don't even want to be a Human! I don't care about growing up, about making my way in the world, or about what other people care to believe! It wouldn't even matter if I became a hero, lauded and praised by everyone, because if I were to lose my only friend to make that happen, then all of that would be meaningless! Above all else, the only thing I desire is to stay with you until I die!”
There was a loud bang, and then silence. I opened my eyes. The girl in the white dress gazed up at me, her tear streaked face showing an expression of mixed joy and bewilderment. “You fool...” She whispered.
“Insulting me now will do you no good. I'm still not going to leave you.” I smiled, and she beamed back at me, showing that amazing, radiant smile I had grown to cherish more than anything.
“Myrion...” She laughed, embracing me for joy. I hugged her back, and then, in the silence of that cozy cavern in the heart of Mount Ilenor... I finally managed to say her name.