2. Dragon tale

Uhh, where should I start?.. My friend, Sai, is lost. She’s an amazing person who saved me many times. Heh, on our first meeting, she was protecting me from the raid of hunters. Sai defeated the whole group of attackers alone. It was amazing! That is how I became fond of her. I was really green and admired every display of her strength and wisdom. Sai is the best dragon I’ve ever met. After that event, she cured my wounds and started taking care of me, teaching stuff about magic, fighting…

One day, I was seriously injured again, almost at death’s door – I’d been fighting with strange mages and considerably misjudged their power. Apparently, they just left me without finishing me off. I’m sure that Sai found me, brought me home and went to gather some herbs. She’s a brilliant alchemist! When I woke up, my wounds were treated, but I was alone in the cave. I kept waiting for her, but she didn’t come. And the same on the next day. And after the next day. And so on…

I started searching. Sadly, the weather was horrible. The rain was so heavy that I couldn’t fly to check where Sai could be. So, I decided to check a human village nearby - it’s pretty close to our cave. Luckily, they hadn’t known about us yet. Maybe I would know something about the recent conflict with a dragon. I was frightened to hear bad news, you know, dragons’ lives usually end by a human sword nowadays…

But in the village, I didn’t hear any news about clashes with dragons. Instead, I heard an interesting rumor about “Dragon Finder,” a mysterious artifact that can guide the owner to nearby dragons. I had no idea how to find my friend another way, so I followed the rumor.

After a drainingly long travel, it took me to the ruins of an abandoned sanctuary from a bygone era. It looked like a typical place with some treasures. And traps. Unfortunately, the weather was getting worse and worse - a thunderstorm was too close. The nearby thunder scared the hell out of me, so I had no other choice than to go inside.

The sanctuary mainly looked undestroyed. No water inside, thick walls dampening all noises… As if there had been some adventurers, but not many. The first floor was totally looted and empty. The lower floors seemed more interesting - some traps were still working. It took me a while to pass all of them. Some pitfalls had been hidden so well, so they managed to surprise me. After several floors, I felt that something was wrong. The traps were way more deadly than they should be in human buildings. Way stronger… Now I understand that they were made primarily for dragons - designed so you can’t avoid it even if you can fly. The whole place had been prepared as a big trap for me. I should have understood it from the start! But it was too late…

When I got seriously hit by a trap and felt, several figures split from the shadow and enclosed me. Dragon hunters! Awful sneaky humans who live for hunting our kind. Uhhh, I hate them like the plague! It would be much better if they fought fairly. But they wouldn’t! Using traps, poisons, and clashing with other creatures only for making us weaker. Binding during sleep. And many more ways to ruin any dragon defense.

Phew, sorry, I can’t stand them… Anyway, the hunters showed up and surrounded me, cutting off the way back to the surface. And I, ugh… I made another mistake and fought back immediately, without thinking. It was what they were waiting for. Using their advantage in numbers, knowledge of trap placement and secret doors, they guided me from one trap to another, hitting me with spells and arrows, while I was trying to reach at least someone. They used my impulsive nature against me…

Crap, I still feel ashamed of how easily they managed to provoke me. And predicted all my actions! After that excruciating cat-and-mouse, I got totally lost in the maze of lower floors. My wounds became dangerous, and I had no other choice than to try to run away from them. Honestly, I don’t remember well what happened next - I’d lost plenty of blood already… I somehow managed to reach the last floor, and it seemed to be a dead end. The strange stone construction in the middle looked like a big enchantment circle. I suppose it was a portal? Apparently, a spell from the hunters running for me pushed me right into it. After that hit, I lost the rest of my consciousness.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to wake up after all that. Even if dragon hunters hadn’t killed me instantly, my fate would have been really sorrowful, I’m sure.

I don’t know how long I had been unconscious. A scatter of rain woke me up, and I found myself in a forest. The air was filled with a lot of unfamiliar smells and sounds. I was so confused and scared. Being hunted without any opportunity to fight back… But I had no choice and decided to walk as far as possible from that place. I didn’t know how exactly the portal worked, and hunters could appear anytime.

After walking, I found a road at the edge of the forest. It’s going up the hill, and I thought it would be a better view from its top. As soon as I reached the peak, a weird monster hit me with a terrible roar at incredible speed. I fell down, but right after, another one hit me again, almost from nowhere. They’d moved so fast that I hadn’t even understood what was happening! Their lights were blinding me completely. In a panic, I ran away. All I wanted was a place to hide from that horror. Anywhere! Accidentally, I met a house without lights with an open window to the basement. I didn’t even think about hunters anymore. I was so scared…

The further the story moves, the more Red lowers her head. In the end, she draws her legs up, hugs them, and entirely withdraws into herself. Poor girl… It’s unbelievable how many struggles she’s got through. Her story sounds so impressive, I don’t know why, but I almost see those hunters and feel her pain: the arrows, the lights of the cars…

She shudders slightly and looks blankly at me when I touch her head. Her hair feels so warm and soft. I keep petting her head, and after a few moments, she finally notices me and returns from her thoughts.

“Oh, you… I…” She looks perplexed and ashamed.

“I’m sorry I’ve made you go through that again.” I don’t know what else I could say. It’s getting embarrassing… I try to take away my hand, but she gently grabs it.

“No, don’t worry, it’s fine. I feel relieved after telling you about it.” With warmth in her eyes, she holds my hand for a bit. Then, after a deep breath, she releases me and continues the story with a melancholic expression.

“The rest is obvious. After some sleep, my wounds had regenerated a bit, so I could walk normally. But, I was too terrified to leave the house, and I was ravenously hungry. So I tried to find anything to eat inside the house. I found that cold box and had been eating your food for a few days. And then, you finally found me.” She smiles at me with a hint of sadness. “And, I still have no idea where I am and how to find my friend. I don’t even know how to get back…”

“I’m not sure, but at least we can try to find someone who knows anything about your world and all this stuff.” I suppose

“Really? Will you help me?” She stares intently at me with hope. How can I say “no” to these eyes?

It’s just a thought, and I need more information, but it looks like there’s a possibility of traveling between worlds, from what she said. And it leads us to the idea that someone else could do that before, accidentally or not. Though, I’ve never heard about such things before. But a scaly humanoid creature is sitting right in front of my eyes. So, either I’m getting crazy, or another world exists. And, I definitely need to deal with it.

But how?.. I’ve promised to help her, but where to start? Hmm, Red said something about mages, but I’ve never heard anything credible about magic. I can’t just start believing that some stories about miracles and other mystical things are true. Or, perhaps, the magic is something different from what I think it is?

“Hmm, Red, please, tell me more about magic. How can I recognize a mage? Our world is different - we don’t have any mages or dragons here. At least, in public…”

She looks at me with hesitation.

“Ehm, I don’t think that I can teach you. From what I know, a person who doesn’t have any magic talent can’t feel magic at all. Though, you have me! As a dragon, the strongest and greatest magical creature, I can feel any sort of sorcery around.” Red smiles proudly for a moment but, with another thought, sorrows back immediately. “But finding mages doesn’t sound like a good idea. Any of them wants to hunt me…”

Huh. So, the only person who can help her is herself? But Red can’t use the portal without some knowledge.

“Hey, is it that bad? You say that all mages are actually so evil, but it can’t be true, right?” I’m sure there should be some good mages. We have a lot of fairy tales of them, after all.

“I don’t know! All my encounters with mages had ended up with me being wounded. I want to go back, but I don’t want to get hurt again…” Red covers her face and lets out a muffled roar. No doubt, her powerlessness bothers her a lot.

“Frankly, I can’t imagine any other way than finding help. Do we have any choice?”

“Other choices than begging mages who can easily kill me now? I’d love to know!” She stands up and raises her voice, hitting the table with her claws. In a split second, it creaks and falls, broken into parts. All of the dropped dishes break into small pieces with a loud clatter. What the heck!? I jump up, shocked.

Okay, calm down. Soothe her first, then anything else. Red looks confused too, so I hope there will be no more outbreaks.

“Don’t worry! You’re scared and confused, I understand. We can think about it later, maybe something will come to your mind.”

Yeah, you’re just a dragon, so don’t worry that you keep destroying my house! What about measuring power at all?! But I need to calm her down, otherwise, she’ll ruin everything else here. Man, keeping her in secret doesn’t look like a good idea for me anymore.

Red settles her mind and glances at me as if trying to apologize. “A-ah, I…”

Hey, don’t look so pitifully at me, I haven’t said anything wrong about you. Do I look so angry now that even the dragon can see it?

She raises and lowers her hand and shifts her weight from one foot to the other. It seems she’s really sorry and wants to apologize but can’t find the right words. Why did I even become so angry? It wasn’t like me. Yes, she broke my table. But she didn’t intend to do it. She’s in a really tough situation - totally alone, in an unknown world, without any way to go back or ask for help.

“I… I promise I’ll control myself next time.” Red is muttering excuses.

A couple of deep breaths… And my sudden anger is gone without a trace.

“Can you help me to clean this mess up at least?”

“Oh, of course!”

While we’re cleaning the mess, I have a chance to glance at her more. It’s impressive how she uses her long tail to maintain balance and move items. The scales on her hands protect her from cuts while she’s picking up the pieces of the dishes. The reptile skin ends at her elbows with several spikes. Hmm, reptile…

“But what about other dragons? We can try to find them. Or any other magic creature who knows about portals.” Even after the incident with Red, I’d like to see more of them.

“Dragons don’t like each other. We are loners and individualists and, usually, can’t stand any others on our territory.” She shakes her head.

Huh, is there any part of dragons’ life that is easy?

“But what about Sai? You met Sai, and you said that she didn’t try to kill you at first glance.”

She stops collecting shatters and looks up thoughtfully. “Sai is a wonderful person… You’re right! Hmm, we can try to find a friendly dragon.” She smiles with relief.

After the cleaning, we decide to move into the living room since the kitchen is in ruins. I’m giggling about how Red is struggling to sit in the chair - the long tail always gets in her way. I’ve already given up on the fact that Red’s claws or thorns can damage the fabric - the sofa and the chairs are old, and I have plans to buy new ones anyway.

Eventually, she lies down on the sofa, wraps her long tail around her right leg, and stares at me with a judgmental face. I’m sorry, but I find it really amusing.

Surely, her tail is something special. It’s long, thick, spiked and ends with a massive jagged thorn. Dangerous weapon! I can imagine how she uses it to pierce shields and armors.

Anyway, back to our problem. I think about returning to the portal first, but it’s too dangerous - the dragon hunters can still be there. Given that, we need to look around in the town first. But how can Red go to the city? Her appearance stands out too much.

“Red, how did you talk with the villagers before? Your scales, claws and horns are too obvious. How did they not notice it?..”

“Ummm. How to explain… Dragons have three main forms and can shapeshift between them. I guess the easiest way is just to show you.” She exhales and closes her eyes.

For a few moments, nothing happens… But then her scales start fading out, and her horns become smaller and smaller until they disappear entirely. Her legs change their shape too, and after a minute, I see a regular human in front of me. Except for the bushy red hair, which doesn’t want to change at all. What a wonder! The real magic, amazing…

Red breathes out loudly and opens her eyes. “I really don’t like this form. I feel so weak and naked. And it takes too much concentration to shapeshift into…”

She grins at me widely. “So, what do you think? Isn’t it a perfect imitation?”

Red rolls onto her back, raising her arm and leg to show that everything looks like a human. Suddenly, I catch myself thinking that she is pretty. Eh, if she wasn’t so destructive at the same time…

“Honestly, I’m impressed.” I’ve already imagined Red wearing an oversized baggy raincoat. Though, I still have some questions about how they hide the color of their hair…

“Seems that you’ve underestimated dragons!” She chuckles.

Though, one detail catches my attention. It’s a strange stone in the middle of Red’s chest, right above the heart. At first, I thought it was a big scale, but now I clearly see a crimson crystal with rough edges. It looks like a part of her body. And it’s still there, in her ‘human form.’ Strange…

Red catches my glance, looks at her chest and makes a long face. “My heart stone, yeah… Sorry, I can’t hide it in any form. We usually try to cover it with clothes, but it is still the most effortless way to distinguish a dragon.” She touches it gently, with a bit of sadness.

Welp, the information is helpful, but we can’t just run around and check everyone’s chest trying to find a dragon.

Something’s still bothering me. While we were moving to the living room, I’ve noticed that one of Red’s horns looked different from another - it had a shiny metal ring around it. And it’s gone after her transformation.

“Your ring that was on the horn - where is it now? How does it work?”

“Uhh, can you ask something easier to explain?” She makes an acid look, then she waves her arms around, thinking about something, and, finally, continues: “You can think about it as the second layer of the skin. We can add some clothes for the shapeshifting if we wear them for a long time. So…”

Red closes her eyes again, and all her dragon attributes get back. “See! Here it is.” She points at her head with a smile. And, the ring is really there, on her right horn.

“Are we going to the town, right? So what are we waiting for?!” While I’m thinking about the next question, she returns into human form and jumps off the sofa, heading right to the front door. Wait a minute!

“Let me, at least, explain some important things.” I barely manage to catch her shoulder. Why has she suddenly become so confident about the outer world?

“I don’t want to stop when we’re finally close to finding a solution! I’m sure you can explain stuff on the way.” Red looks very excited. Why does she trust me so much?

“Okay-okay, sure. But what about your appearance?”

“What’s wrong?! It’s my favorite dress.” She gently smoothes out some folds on it. “Well, it’s a bit damaged, but it’s a gift from my dear father…”

I’m sure she just can’t go out in those clothes, which look like a couple rags wrapped around her body, resembling a dress from a southern country. To be exact, it’s composed of plainly decorated bands covering the chest and a long wide ribbon around her waist with a piece of cloth hanging attached to it, so it covers her crotch. They have some lovely metal decorations on them, but most of them look broken and dirty. Besides, she has no shoes except a pair of similar ribbons wrapping her feet. Obviously, it’s not an outfit you want to wear in an overcrowded city. Even if she is okay with it, what about other people’s reactions?! What if they call the police?

I shake my head. “Sorry, but that dress is unacceptable.”

“What do you mean?… Uhh, the human culture, I forgot!” Red looks at me with visible embarrassment.

“How can you even forget about clothes? You’ve said that you’d already visited the human village before.” And what do you mean by ‘human culture’?

“Of course, I was prepared - I’d borrowed a cloak from Saia’s hoard. But this time, I just forgot. Everybody makes mistakes. I’m not used to contact with humans…” She turns away irritably.

But after a moment, she continues more calmly as if she understands my worry. “Okay, I can explain. We, dragons, don’t care much about clothes. In our main form, we’re already covered with tough scales and usually wear only jewelry. The clothes are made especially for meeting with other humans. Like some traders or others who don’t want to kill us on the spot. People seem to act strangely if they see us nude in our human forms.” Red giggles as though she’s remembering something hilarious. “So, our clothes should be something that doesn’t bother us. That’s why they may look too simple or too odd for you.”

She looks at me curiously. “Anyway, do you know how to get a new outfit for me?”

Actually, I do. One of the rooms on the second floor may have something that Red could wear. My ‘hoard’ of old items, including some old clothes. Apparently, we can find something fitting for her.

In my late teens, I had many clothes and other cool stuff related to rock music. If I remember right, some of them are oversized. I stopped being so fond of collecting those things, but the existing collection is still here. And now, I’m curious if something from it suits Red - her red hair seems to fit that style pretty well.

I open the first box of clothes… Yeah, there’s a lot of sorting to do.

And after some time, I find a set of clothes that could fit Red. A pack of loose-fitting T-shirts to cover her heart stone, some stretchy shorts, and even a pair of sneakers.

Red examines all that stuff with visible curiosity and enthusiasm. Hey, don’t look at them like it’s already a part of your treasure hoard.

“Okay, now you can try them on and choose the best ones.”

“Suuuure~” Red gets up off the box and closes her eyes. With a soft rustle, her own clothes fade out, like her dragon attributes before. Wait, let me go out first! No one has taught you decency?!

What a shameless creature! Man, so embarrassing… But, wait, she said that dragons are used to being naked in their ‘main form’? What does it even mean?!

Ehm, is it the sound of ripping fabric? Uhh, I hope at least some of the clothes will survive it.

“Ray, where are you? I was able to put on these pieces!” Red peeks out of the door. “Why have you left? I had some troubles with this…” She demonstrates to me the entirely torn shorts. As I expected, some of them haven’t fit her at all. Or these clothes just were old and fragile, I can’t tell for sure. Well, I will throw away the old stuff and finally free some space here.

I step into the room. Heh, the T-shirt she chose has a print with a dragon logo.

“Honestly, I don’t think your clothes are better than mine…” Red is constantly spinning around, inspecting her new clothes. “But I like them anyway! They feel so light, even lighter than the clothes I’m used to. Sadly, there’s no place for a tail…”

“It suits you really well.” Heh, she blushed a bit. “Maybe I can give you some accessories to complete your look.”

Hmm, where is it?.. One of the drawers contains my old collection of rock-themed jewelry. I liked to collect that stuff… Maybe I could be a good dragon in my next life. Oh, there it is!

“What is that? Ooooh!” Red stares at the drawer over my shoulder. And in no time, she hovers above the drawer in front of me. Her eyes shine while she’s looking through the collection, picking up and rotating items.

“Re-e-ed?” No reaction. I wave in front of her face. “Red!”

She blinks and looks at me, puzzled. “Mm?.. Oh. Eh?”

“What’s wrong? You’ve been examining that box for five minutes now.” Dragons in myths are known for incredibly loving gold and other precious stuff, but I expected them to be just fairy tales.

“I… I’m sorry. I can explain. Honestly, I miss playing with treasures so much. Unfortunately, when I was with Saia, she didn’t allow me to play with her treasure hoard at all. I’m really sorry…” Red looks at me pitifully. “Can I play with it for a little more? Please?”

“You can, but…” Uh? Suddenly, she gives me a firm hug.

“Thank you!” She looks so delighted. Her sincere smile… It’s so warm. Okay, I can forgive her anything for this smile.

“…But what about the town? You wanted to go out so much, didn’t you?”

Red’s face instantly switches to a confused one. Can’t decide, heh? She steps back and sorrowfully glances at the box, but after a moment, she shakes her head and confidently looks at me. “I can play with this later. So, we can go to the town now, right? Right?” Well, Red seems to go back into the “excited about the town” state.

“As soon as you’re ready. Also, please, don’t do anything reckless in the city. It’s okay that you broke the table, but it will be horrible if you break someone’s house or car.” Though, I still feel sorry for my new dinner table…

“I understand! Don’t think I don’t care about anything around. And I’ve apologized for your table. Let’s go!” The next moment, Red grabs my hand and drags me to the exit. Hey, slower!

The door creaks, and there we go. Fresh air, bright sun, the whole outer world…