By Darryl Riser
Drake gazed down upon his lovers face and marveled at the delicacy of the redheads features. There was something birdlike about the fragile bones of Seans face.
"Wings beneath his skin," the dragon mused, carefully caressing the photographers jaw with a razor-sharp nail.
How long had they been together like this? How many nights had the dragon sat quietly, reading or just studying his mates features in the darkness? 15 years?
Too many, he admitted. Precisely three years too many.
That was always the way. Drake met someone, grew to care for them and then, one day, hed realize with a start it was past his bedtime.
The ancient gold dragon had been awake now for exactly 111 years ... three years longer than his normal waking cycle. He needed desperately to hibernate for a century or so. Already he could feel himself becoming fatigued, ill-tempered and easily frustrated by the simplest of things.
But, how to explain that to Sean?
In a way, it was almost amusing. Sean had spent his entire life in the closet, worried what people would think if they knew he was gay. He and Drake had gone to painstaking extremes to avoid the breath of scandal such revelations would bring.
There was a time and place for honesty, Sean believed, but his sexual bent just wasnt it. Drake wanted to explain to the photographer just how precious life could be, just how much of a waste it was to live it for someone elses expectations and prejudices.
Then he would picture the horror which would surely fill Seans soul if he were to awake one night and find Drake in his natural form, feeding on some hapless herd of animals ... or humans.
No, Drake thought, honesty isnt always the best policy. Sometimes, the ends do justify the means.
But, what result could he hope for now?
Drake had been overjoyed when Sean had taken the assignment to shoot photos of Tibetan monasteries. With its snow-covered mountains and uncharted valleys, Tibet had always been a favorite bedroom community for dragons. Even the violence of the Chinese war machine couldnt penetrate the stillness of that vast white wilderness. At some point while Sean was snapping pictures of monks, Drake had planned to simply slip away into the depths of the snow and never return.
At least, that had been the plan.
Now, watching Sean dream in the darkness of the ancient monastery, Drake realized why he was still fighting sleep. He didnt want to sneak off into the darkness. He didnt want his companion to feel hed been abandoned.
Rising from the bed, Drake snorted, allowing a small tongue of flame to escape his nostrils as he padded to the window. The transformation completed as he powered himself through the opening and rocketed into the night.
Below, peaks and valleys spread to the horizons, a blank white canvas, dotted here and there by trees and game. Every living thing below him stood out in stark contrast to the snow, blazing red points of heat that pulsed before his eyes.
This silent hunt was what dragons lived for, the white noise of wind hissing past his ears, the cool feel of the night wrapping the length of his body in its velvet caress, the thump of his heart quickening as prey came into sight and the adrenaline rush kicked in.
Spotting a large ram, Drake folded his wings tight and plummeted straight for the beast, smashing into its body so hard he could feel the bones shattering beneath his weight even before the massive jaws snapped shut. The ram was digested before it knew it had been killed.
Drake snacked on half a dozen more such rams before he spotted the convoy of military vehicles moving through the night. Soaring above them, the dragon began to follow the column. In other lives, Drake had ridden with Atilla and Genghis Kahn. Hed swept across the steppes of Russia with the Scythians, spreading carnage as he howled his rage into the night. Hed made war against humanity by taking human form and helping them destroy their own kind.
Centuries of carnage had taught him there are only two reasons armies moved at night. They are either trying to elude a predator ... or they are the predator.
A few hours later, it had become obvious the soldiers were heading for the monastery Sean was photographing. Drake calculated that gave the photographer another two days to get his pictures before the monastery and its monks ceased to exist.
Wheeling through the sky, Drake turned back toward the monastery, silently making a note to rush Sean in getting his shots so they could move out before the carnage began.
"I still dont quite understand exactly what you hope to accomplish by staying another week," Drake argued. "Weve got everything we need for the story right now."
"You might have enough words," Sean snorted, "but I dont have enough pictures. Im still looking for that one shot that will sum it all up."
"So get the rest today and well leave in the morning," the dragon pressed.
"Just like that? Just get the rest of the shots?"
"Sure," Drake grinned at their running joke. "It only takes 125th of a second to take a picture. Use a whole minute and get 7,500."
Sean snorted and turned back to checking his equipment. "We can leave as soon as I get my defining shot," he said. "This is important."
Drake would never understand how important, the photographer mused. Even after a decade and a half of living and working together, Drake didnt see the big picture. Irish Nationalists, Palestinians, Basques, Gypsies, Native Americans ... theyd covered them all. Theyd interviewed and photographed hundreds of displaced people, men and women hunted and hated simply for being who they were, for wanting to live in peace among their own kind.
Drake was never moved by any of it. He said it was simply the way things happen. Newcomers constantly replace the natives and the natives gradually disappear. Hed point to myths and legends for proof, insisting that even those cultures now being hunted to extinction had their tales of the people they displaced.
One night in the mountains of Peru, mildly drunk on Cognac, Drake pointed to the medieval practice of printing "here be dragons" in the blank spaces of maps.
Spreading an atlas near the fire, he shouted, "Look at it, damn it. Where are the uncharted lands? Where are the blank spaces? Where are the dragons? Wheres their culture? And not one of these groups youre so taken with saving lifted a finger for them? Most of them helped in their destruction."
It would have been funny if it hadnt been for the unconcealed hatred in Drakes eyes as he roared forth his indictment. Drake could be spooky like that at times. It was one of the things Sean loved about him.
"What about homosexuals?" Sean had countered. "Even dragons would have hated them. Its a universal prejudice. When was the last time you heard of a gay dragon."
The joke had sent Drake into a spasm of laughter, diffusing the situation. Afterwards, he suggested that, being reptilian by nature, taking a human lover would be such a huge perversion for a dragon that it wouldnt much matter what sex the human was. Dragons, he joked, would probably just take whatever human form their lover preferred.
"The point is," Drake pointed out, "there comes a time when one survives ... and even flourishes ... by taking on the dress and customs of those he wishes to live among. Sometimes, you have to decide between adapting your culture to your surroundings or becoming extinct along with it."
Well, Sean sighed, thats certainly what the Tibetans were faced with. At the rate the Chinese were "assimilating" their culture, there wouldnt be a monk left in another 10 years. Since it was fairly obvious the monks werent going to adapt to communism, that left it up to others to alert the world at large to what was going on.
"And people like me can either document their last days or find that one perfect image that will galvanize people into doing something save them," Sean thought.
Rising from his reverie, Sean watched Drake stomping through the snow on his way back to the monastery. Chuckling, Sean had to admit the grim-faced writer was kind of cute when he was pissed off.
"What if I were to tell you a column of Chinese soldiers is headed this way," Drake asked the lama. Rubbing his temples, he waited for the inevitable answer.
"Then we will greet them with love and attempt to turn their hearts," the ancient monk said.
"They will kill you," Drake said simply. "They will dig a pit, pile your bodies in it and torch them with flame throwers. If youre lucky, theyll make sure youre really dead before they push you in the pit."
The monk spread his hands helplessly.
"It is our way," he said simply.
"My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not yours," Drake murmured, bringing a broad smile to the monks face.
"You understand," the old man said simply.
"Were dealing with the Chinese military, not Vlad the Impaler," Drake argued unsuccessfully. "Youre not going to get shots of crucified monks lining a highway. Theyll bury the bodies and burn the monastery and a week later the snow will have done such a thorough job of covering things up that no one will ever find the site again. Not much of a photo op."
"Im not expecting to get shots like that," Sean said. "Although, that would be exactly what it would take to make the UN or the U.S. government get involved. I just want a picture that shows how special all this is, something to make people understand why it has to be preserved."
Drake sat on the bed, his face buried in his hands, feeling the tension spread through his neck and shoulders. Arguing with Sean hadnt done anything to rid his head of the heavy, pained feeling of sleep deprivation. Dragons might be immortal and able to survive massive wounds that would kill humans, but they still didnt like pain.
"Are you all right?" Sean asked.
"Im just tired," Drake said. "Its a little past my bedtime."
"Its only 7 p.m." Sean said, concern creeping into his voice. "Youve been acting strangely for the last couple of months, come to think of it. Are you sure nothing is wrong?"
Through the earth, Drake felt the vibrations of trucks drawing near. The Chinese were early. He hadnt expected them until the next morning. The dragon stood and smiled sadly.
"Not anymore," he said, lashing out with an unbelievably quick punch. A few moments later, Seans unconscious body was hidden beneath the bed and Drake was ready to reason with the Chinese.
"Almost bedtime," he sighed, working the muscles of his neck with his hands. "There should be just about time for one last snack."
Drake was calmly reading a story about dragons in a swords and sorcery magazine when the soldier burst into his room. Taking one last bite of the apple he was eating, the dragon savored its taste as he followed the man into the courtyard where the other residents were waiting.
Several monks were lying dead in the center of the square. Apparently, they hadnt shared the lamas dedication to pacifism and had been killed resisting the roundup.
Drake was taken to the officer in charge of the operation, a dull-eyed colonel whod probably been picked for this detail because of his lack of imagination. Drake had seen far too many butchers with that look over the eons of his existence.
"You are American?" the colonel asked in heavily accented English.
Drake shook his head, drawing a look of concern from the officer.
"Where are you from?" the man persisted.
"Your worst nightmares," Drake answered in perfect Mandarin, allowing his form to shift slightly, causing slitted golden eyes to burn in the recesses of their sockets and a slender forked tongue to flick over his fangs, as he gazed deep into the colonels eyes.
The colonels body was hurled 100 feet across the courtyard, shattering like a broken toy as it hit the stone wall of the monastery. By the time the stunned soldiers and monks shifted their attention back to Drake, the transformation was complete.
Standing over 100 yards tall, the glittering golden form of the dragon stood in their midst, reptilian eyes scanning the tiny forms of the humans surrounding him until he found the lama.
"You have come to save us?" the old man whispered in awe.
Nodding, the dragon replied, "Yes, but my ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not yours."
Then all hell broke loose.
Drakes first breath exploded the massive mobile flame thrower the Chinese had brought, peppering the crowd of soldiers and priests with flame and shrapnel. Then, every living creature in the courtyard died by flame, fang and claw.
In a frenzy of bloodlust, the great dragon vented centuries of frustration. The great beast killed indiscriminately, but his dining habits were much more precise. Only soldiers served as his bedtime snack. The burned mangled bodies of the priests were left where they fell, mute testimony to the violence of the military.
Later, as Drake set the stakes in the courtyard and began impaling priest after priest, it was with great pleasure that he found the broken body of the colonel and realized he was still alive. Erasing the mans mind, he left the soldier near the remains of his own vehicle.
Stepping back to admire his handiwork, the dragon knew exactly what the public would see in Seans pictures. The Chinese had attacked the monastery, torturing and killing the priests until, somehow, the napalm-filled attack cruiser had exploded. Leaving their crippled commander behind, the soldiers had abandoned their cleanup work and deserted.
Of course, Drake thought cynically, a forest of crucified Tibetan monks wasnt going to have that emotional appeal Sean wanted for his defining picture. U.S. newspapers still tended to rate atrocities by the number of Americans involved.
Sighing, Drake looked at the last stake and thought, "Damn, thats going to hurt."
When he awoke the next day, Sean got his picture. Dozens of Tibetan priests and an American journalist impaled upon stakes in the courtyard of a burning monastery. It was the kind of thing that broke hearts ... and won Pulitzers.
It was, he had to admit, the shot hed been looking for his whole life.
The UN team buried Drake in the same mass grave they dug for the monks. The journalist had no family and had wanted to be buried in the mountains, in someplace quiet and out of the way.
Sean sat there meditating near the grave after the others had left, paying his last respects to the man hed loved for a decade and a half. Infuriating right to the end, Drakes features had shifted into a grin when they pulled his body from the stake. Sean had almost laughed at the ... Drakeness ... of the act.
Alone with his grief, Sean was surprised the world still carried on as well as it did. There should be some great upheaval at a time like this, he thought.
As if reading his mind, the mountains shook and the ground beneath Sean trembled ... almost as if deep below some great beast was stirring in its sleep.
This story was originally published by Peridot Books.
Back to Main Entrance