- Sci-fi comic about ancient things people find in melting icebergs
A NIGHT WITH A DRAGON
I am a dragon, not an ancient one, though, but a modern one. I burn no cities, steal no maidens, hoard no gold. I am a good citizen who does his job, pays his taxes, and stays in his human form unless his supervisor says otherwise. That bracelet on my wrist is not a fancy trinket, no, it's my ball and chain: a restrictive seal infused with powerful magic to ensure I don't break the rules by turning into a dangerous, flying, fire-breathing creature without permission. It feels amazing, in case you wanted to know; being yourself feels amazing... I am rarely allowed to take my bracelet off but when it happens, life feels worth living again. This is why I joined the "Wishmasters", a company that fulfils rich people's wishes some of which occasionally may include a dragon.
Wishes. Not all of them require using magic. In fact, they rarely do. It's just kindness in some cases and creativity in the other. That's why most of my co-workers are ordinary humans. That's why I do most of my assignments in my human form as well. To tell the truth, even with the "Wishmasters", being given a permission to be myself again for a day is so rare that it feels like winning a lottery. But I do win the lottery once in a while.
It was January, 3 of the year 12020 (twelve-o-twenty) when my boss called me and asked me to pop into her office. That meant she wanted to have a private conversation for some reason. Your boss's wanting to talk to you like this could mean two things: either you had screwed up and needed a special beating or there is an offer that you - a vampire, a werewolf, or, say, a dragon - can't refuse.
I came to my boss's office hoping for the latter, my inner child jumping up and down with anticipation. I brought coffee and biscuits with me in case I was wrong, of course. My boss loves them so much that we, her humble miracle workers, often shamelessly use her favourite treats to soften her anger.
So there I was, with coffee, biscuits, and a racing heart, seated at Elaine's - my boss's - table.
"Eugene, dear," she said, leaning forward, her glasses blinking, "I have a client for you and a permission to take your bracelet off for one day and one night!" Elaine raised her hand before I could happily jump at the opportunity. "Halt! Details first!"
My boss handed me a thin file containing the client's photo and wish. I read it and turned as red as a ripe tomato.
"I'm not a whore," that was all I could say.
"Halt!" Elaine cut me short again before I could hastily refuse. "I know you're not, Eugene! Who do you think I am? A pimp? And don't you think that girl would rather go to a whorehouse if she needed a man for that kind of fun? They even have their own dragons, I heard."
I didn't want to know how she came to know that. No, I didn't...
"That girl is dying, Eugene. She is giving us everything she has to fulfil her last wish: a night with a dragon."
"But why a night?" I asked, carefully. "Why not a day?"
"Oh she's paid for the day as well," Elaine smiled, "she just wants you to have it all for yourself."
"She wants you to have fun in your true form, all by yourself, without a single worry in your heart. This is the first half of her wish."
"Yes. Well, the other half of her wish is to spend some time with you. Let her fly on your back, show you how you breathe fire, etc. In other words, entertain the young lady. That's all."
"I'm in!" I jumped to my feet.
"That's my boy!" Elaine clapped her wrinkled hands. "Visit me tomorrow morning and I'll take your bracelet off."
I took the client's file home with me that day. It's nothing unusual, we often do that to prepare for the job better. The girl's name was Dana. She looked kind, naive, and sweet in the photo but you wouldn't call her beautiful. It seemed that she embraced her simple appearance as is, for there was no shyness in her smile and no make-up on her face. The file said nothing about her life or her illness. There was just that strange wish.
During my time with "Wishmasters", I saw many strange wishes, but this one seemed especially puzzling in its generous simplicity. Who was that girl? Did I meet her before? What did she really want? And the final concern: could it be some elaborate prank?
By the time I had arrived at Elaine's office, the permission papers were ready. On top of them laid a disposable magical key enchanted for lifting the spell from my bracelet for one day and one night. There was that familiar jealous glint in my boss's eyes. I knew what she was thinking... Elaine was a non-human herself, a banshee, to be precise, but, unlike dragons, her kind rarely got a chance to be themselves. Sometimes I wonder what she would do for such a chance, given an opportunity...
I signed the papers and pressed the key against my bracelet. The forbidding spell lifted, the invisible burden gone, I felt free, light, and young again. I grinned. I yelled. I made a little dance. Just couldn't help it.
"Have fun, Eugene!" said Elaine, waving me goodbye. "But don't forget about your duty. Exercise those fire-breathing and flying of yours, prepare for the night."
"Thanks, boss! I will!"
I did have a lot of fun. My wish - to be free - had come true again! For one short day, I wasn't just allowed to be a dragon, I had all the time for myself, unrestrained by anyone's wishes. I flew, my golden wings spread wide, catching both wind and magic to keep me afloat. I breathed fire. I hunted, diving on my prey - a herd of deer - from above and ate them raw. I didn't just feel happy: I shone.
My pride and splendour restored, I was ready to fulfil Dana's wish. But, man, I had never been that nervous about my job before.
I landed before her house and puffed smoke as I spoke, wrestling with human speech while wearing my true image. It took me a while to say hello.
"Hello..." Dana echoed my words, her hands clasped against her chest where her heart raced, refusing to calm down.
I bowed my head to her. I assumed that she would like to touch my golden horns and emerald scales. She did, very gingerly, with a trembling hand. And then her emotions took over and she embraced me, embraced me the way a child embraces her dream come true so it wouldn't disappear or run away.
I returned the embrace, carefully, not to hurt Dana. Cradling the girl in my arms, I spread my wings and took off.
We flew in wide circles above the twinkling city and the calm, moonlit sea. The weather was windless, warm, dreamlike, with puffy clouds clinging to the earth here and there. Wherever a cloud rested on the city blocks, a spire or two stuck out of it like an ancient mage tower.
I was holding Dana against my chest where my fire lived. I only wanted to keep her warm; the side effect was me feeling her every emotion, hearing her every heartbeat. I learned that she was afraid of heights but also excited about flying; that she was both sad, her every day overshadowed with the impending doom of death, and happy living in the moment. And that she felt safe with me.
All that... all that sea of emotions locked in one fragile human being, all her silent story told by her racing heart alone, it crushed me, threw me off balance. The job didn't feel like a job anymore. It felt like a date. A fairy-tale date that just couldn't exist in the world of science, skyscrapers, space flights, and restrictive bracelets.
The sun was getting redder and redder. My time was almost up. It was time to take the maiden I had stolen to my lair where she could catch her breath and have a cup of coffee.
I dived in the air (Dana gasped) and made a sharp turn, heading home. Like many "magicals", I lived far from the city, close to the elements my kind fancied in the past. There was a real mountain ridge behind my house, unmaimed by mines, uncut by roads, unspoiled by tourists. I wonder if Dana imagined that a proper lair would be there. I couldn't tell. All I felt from her was a mixture of fear and wonder. All that mattered to me in the world was the sound of her little racing heart.
I made a graceful landing in front of my house and carefully put Dana on the ground.
For the second time, our eyes met. Here it was again: the sweet, lovely face bearing a mark of impending doom. Only now Dana's cheeks were rosy and she was smiling.
She broke my heart. There and then she broke my dragon heart...
I took my human form and said hello in my human voice without puffs and smoke and thunder rolling in every syllable.
"My name is Eugene," I continued, "and this is my lair... err... home."
I waved my hand at the little house at the foot of the mountain. There was a tiny garden nearby, a rusty swing left from the time when this place belonged to a family with a child, and an old car.
"Would you like a cup of coffee and a cupcake after the journey, Dana? Or maybe some ice cream?"
"Sure!" she grinned happily.
I had never had guests in my house before but I did my best to be a good host. Soon, we sat by the fireplace, cradling mismatched coffee cups in our hands, eating sweets, chatting and laughing. It all felt like home. Like home I hadn't known I had.
The question about Dana's choice of the last wish danced at the tip of my tongue but I couldn't bring myself to ask it, afraid of breaking the magic of that morning. Same with the question about Dana's illness. Dragons are curious, morbidly curious sometimes, but it was neither the time nor the place for such questions. The way Dana was steering the conversation, it seemed that she probably had some uncomfortable questions she wanted to ask as well.
"Eugene," she said and I felt her tone change all of a sudden. She was looking at the restrictive bracelet that had rematerialized on my wrists. "I'm so sorry..."
"About this?" I chuckled, not very convincingly, I'm afraid. "Ah, it's okay, I'm used to it."
"I wish I could do something more, more than buying you twenty-four hours of freedom. What would it take to remove your bracelet forever?"
"Oh..." I hesitated. That was the question I had never asked myself, the possibility that was so beyond my grasp that I had never looked into it. "I guess it could be the government offering me a job that requires my dragon form would do the trick (if only such a job existed!). Or an extremely generous - billionaire level generous - donation to the ‘Wishmasters'. What else... a special law, some breakthrough in the magicals' rights. Pretty much impossible, all of it."
"And do you wish to be free, Eugene? Would it make you happy?"
"Yes." I didn't hesitate even a moment.
Dana smiled, sipped her coffee, and changed the topic of our conversation. For the rest of the night, we talked about all kinds of funny things and laughed a lot. By the time the horizon turned pink, she fell asleep in my armchair. I covered her with a blanket to keep the morning chill away and sat by the dying fire. I must have dozed off, I don't know. When I snapped back into reality, the world was dark and cold, and a chill of horror was spreading under my heart.
Then I heard a wailing cry, blood-curdling, paralyzing, absolutely terrifying. The cry of the banshee.
It took me, a magical, unforgivably long time to get up, stagger toward the door, and open it. I had known what was awaiting me even before I faced it. Dana was there, sprawled on the ground, her dead face a frozen mask of horror. Above her body, floated Elaine, barely recognizable in her true form.
"Ah, Eugene, sweetie..." she hissed, grinning, baring her pointy teeth. "Good morning."
"What... what have you done?" I muttered. By all means, I was angry enough to yell that. But when a banshee is watching, no one else can be loud but her.
"Fulfilled her wish," said the ghostly apparition that was my boss, "and mine. She wanted to die quickly rather than fade slowly from her disease. And I wanted to be myself for once. Ah... doesn't it feel good!"
Elaine spread her arms, long and twisted, with clawed fingers, and yelled again, shattering my conscience.
I woke up in an ambulance car, next to Dana's body covered with a white sheet. There was a whiff of magic and a heavy smell of meds in the air. A tired paramedic welcomed me back into the mortal world and told me to go home. Why wouldn't he? My home was right here.
So I did what I was told to do. I walked back slowly, crashed on my bed, and wept for a long time. After several hours, I got a message from Elaine. My boss wanted to see me in her office to talk to me in private...
"Eugene, look at me!" Elaine demanded. Judging by the impatience ringing in her voice, she had been trying to get my attention for a while and I just stood there, as deaf and blind as a statue.
"Yes. Sorry. I'm listening," I stuttered.
"What's wrong with you, sweetie? Are you ill?" her voice suddenly softened.
"I... I don't know."
"You didn't fall in love with the dying girl, did you?"
Elaine was drumming her fingers on her desk.
"Who was she?" I asked helplessly.
"Nobody." Elaine shrugged. "She said she saw your dragon photo in a magazine when she was little and silently followed you since. You're her childhood crush, I suppose; some people just never grow up. She wanted you to be happy. And not you alone! She fulfilled my wish to get herself a discount for yours. And that's not all. After she was dead I could legally do some digging. The girl made a lot of deals with other magicals over the years. The thread goes on and on. I don't like this, Eugene." She shook her head; her glasses blinked, obscuring her eyes for a moment. "This is why we're talking here now. Tell me, sweetie: did she mention anything about all this?"
"No. We just chatted and drank coffee." My voice was hollow. As I spoke, a revelation, something vague yet, was dawning upon me.
"So you're just another pawn in her hame. Shame." Elaine sniffed. Suddenly, she lost all interest in me. "Take a day off today and rest. I expect you to get back to work tomorrow. Dismissed."
I did get back to work the next day. And found a pile of letters from all over the world waiting for me on my desk.
I'm an ancient dragon but I don't hoard gold, I hoard money. A thousand years ago, I left my job as "Wismasters" and started answering the letters. I started my career as an actor, invested in my education first, in the stock market next. Dragons are immortal, they have all the time in the world. And if there are other magicals (each owing Dana a favour) to help a certain dragon every step of the way, nothing is impossible.
The world knows me as a businessman, the first magical billionaire, and the biggest philanthropist. I invested in science heavily. First, in genetics and medicine. Later, in various ambitious projects no one else dared to back. Like time travel.
Thanks to my wealth and influence, I was no longer bound to the restrictive bracelet. But was I truly free? Every time I spread my wings and raised in the air, I remembered the fragile human girl I had once cradled in my arms and her heartbeat that spoke volumes. This memory, painful and bittersweet, became my beacon in the routine of immortality, my northern star. Century after century, I followed it but it didn't seem any closer.
Today, things changed...
That day, the day when Elaine had killed Dana, a lot of things didn't add up. I started with wondering why the paramedic had simply sent me home without offering any help, without asking me any questions, without running any checks... and that rabbit hole turned out insanely deep.
I was very thorough in my investigation, so there could be no mistake: no one had called the ambulance that revived me and took Dana away. No one. Elaine didn't bother and my home was too far from any settlement for there to be any other witnesses. But the ambulance was there, it was real.
I visited a famous hypnotist to recall all the details of that day. The ambulance had a number that didn't exist in the city database and the paramedic's appearance didn't match anyone from the local medical staff. The guy was a total stranger. I checked every hospital, big and small, personally and paid a private detective to make sure I didn't miss anything.
The last clue - the smell of meds and magic in the ambulance car - was the hardest to figure out but I managed. The conclusion? It didn't match anything paramedics used in their practice.
It took me a while to get the message but I finally did...
"Follow these coordinates," I told the time machine operator. "If everything goes right, you'll find two unconscious people there: an unconscious man and a dead girl. Revive the man and send him home. Inject the girl with the meds and magic from the emergency kit I gave you and take her back to our time. A unit of experienced medics and mages will be awaiting her by the time portal."
And when she wakes up, healthy and well-rested, I said to myself, there will be hot coffee and chocolates waiting for her. And I will be there as well.
(June 24, 2021)
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English is not my native language.
If you see an error or a typo, please, tell me. I will fix it.