Virgins

“They used to send virgins. Little dainty things full of hope, innocence, and fear. Sticky sweet, mildly nauseating, but still a proper sacrifice of flesh from those who wished to appease or curry favor.” The creature purred, its eyes gleaming as it flexed one long purple claw in my direction. “But you are most definitely not a virgin. Or a sacrifice. So, why are you here?”

“Maybe they finally figured out that we like a little variety? I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.” I turned my head towards the guttural voice coming from the corner; doing my best not to look frightened as a gaunt giant reeking of decay came into view, “This one smells like she’ll actually taste good. Salty, sour, maybe just a hint of bitterness to liven things up.”

“I’m here to interview you.” I clutched my microphone holding it out in front of me like a talisman doing my best to keep breathing normally as I said, “You’re the last of your kind. Before you fade from existence I thought I, well we, really, I write for Truth magazine. I thought we could get the facts right from the source.”

“What makes you think we’re going to fade?” A thick slab of thought wedged itself into my head the pool of water behind me rippling as a heavy tentacle slithered across my foot; the tip of it wrapping around my ankle and squeezing gently before it moved away. Fortunately I’d chosen to wear steel toed combat boots instead of the sensible flats my editor recommended when he called to offer me the assignment, “We were here when your kind was still figuring out fire.”

“The end comes for all species eventually.” I shrugged, doing my best to look nonchalant “Wouldn’t you rather clear the air before extinction? The dinosaurs didn’t have that chance and we’re still trying to clear up the idea that they were little more than rampaging beasts.”

“Why should we trust a human with our stories?” The first creature leaned towards me, her face alight with some emotion I couldn’t identify, “A bargain must flow in both directions and you have nothing to trade.”
I cursed myself mentally for not thinking of payment. “What would you like?”

She stared at me contemplatively, the metallic sheen of her feathers almost hypnotic in the dim light as she spread and closed her wings repeatedly, “What do you have?”
I dug in my backpack, pulling out my lunch and the first aid kit that I’d stuffed next to my recording equipment. I didn’t need to hold up my peanut butter sandwich to know that it wouldn’t satisfy my new companions. I fumbled for my wallet, only to discover that I’d left it below in the skimmer I’d used to make my way up the mountain. Frustrated and embarrassed, I let my eyes wander only to realize that the veins of raw gold embedded in the walls were probably worth more than everything I owned.

A delighted laugh slipped past her lips when she saw the realization of my predicament cross my face, “You actually came here empty-handed? I took you for brave…not foolish.”

“I’ll do anything, well…anything within reason to make this happen. No human sacrifices or anything, but I…” I stammered, catching myself before I said anything they could twist to trap me “I can get you whatever else you would like with just a couple of phone calls. Books, valuables, whatever you want from the outside world can be delivered in a few hours.”

“We have no use for human trinkets. So, what do we do with you?” She turned her head slowly from side to side, apparently getting some sign of consensus before she added, “One hidden truth for each of our stories. Nothing easy. No sweet little childhood tales about hidden toys. We want the good bits, the juicy things that have never seen the light of day.”

“Fair enough. Secret for secret. Who wants to go first?” I held up my head, curving my lips into the closest thing I could muster as a smile, “You talk, I’ll listen and if I have any questions I’ll ask them when you’re done. Then I’ll share a secret.”

There was some shuffling and rustling and then complete silence. I had a brief flashback to my days of substitute teaching. Before I could muster up my best encouraging voice, the one that made even the shyest children stand up and share the creature in front of me flexed her wings and sighed, “I’ll do it. Sit yourself down little girl and I’ll tell you all about harpies.”

I glanced around for a comfortable spot away from the tentacles and still close enough to record her voice. Seeing nothing suitable I laid my microphone aside, pulled off my jacket, and tossed it at the largest of a pile of stones, only to see it fall short. I stepped forward, picking it up and throwing it again only to discover that my aim was off a second time. Confused, I started forward again only to hear “Stop playing silly games with her. It’s my turn.”

One of the highest stones in the pile twisted to form a set of lips, “She should at least ask before she tries to sit on my knee.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that you were…a you.” I bent to pick up my jacket and the stone slid toward me.

“Humans have completely forgotten about us. Not romantic enough or something.” A rumbling sound that could have been a laugh came from the pile, “Go ahead and sit down. I don’t bite. I don’t do much of anything now.”

“That’s okay. I can stand.” I shifted from foot to foot nervously.

“It’s not every day that you get an offer to be dandled on a stone giant’s knee.” The harpy bared her teeth, “I do not wish the pains of your feet to distract you from your work. Waste no more time on silly protests and sit down.”

“Go ahead. I’ll even shape it so that your protuberances are comfortable” True to his word, the stone’s shape altered into something like a chair complete with a place to rest my arms.

Arguing with a harpy and living rock struck me as a singularly bad idea so I said “Thank you” and took a seat. She paced back and forth in front of me, her claws clicking loudly on the rock.

Finally she spat out “You humans made up these stories painting my race as little more than screeching servants to some god’s whimsy. But we were so much more than that, so much more than you could ever imagine.”

She fell silent again and I leaned forward, debating whether I should press her for more details or simply wait her out. I had just made up my mind to take the risk of asking a question when she said quietly, “Our cities were beautiful. Homes with roofs that brushed the sky and marketplaces filled with the most beautiful art. And puzzles. That was our joy. To solve things, to use our minds to their greatest potential in all aspects of life. We’d map fake routes through the trees, dizzying paths designed to confuse any approaching enemies. Roads leading in all directions with secret shortcuts that only we knew so that we could send them into a trap and be home in time for supper.”

She stopped pacing, turning to face me as she raised her head. Her eyes burned into mine as she spoke, “When my mother was young there was a war. It culminated in a massive attack, but our science was unparalleled and our warriors were so fierce, so well prepared that the fighting amounted to little more than a series of skirmishes on our end. My mother wore the mantle of Leader for many years and she insisted that we maintain the false routes and regularly practice our fighting skills. But nothing ever happened, after a few years there weren’t even any more skirmishes. Our enemies seemed to have faded completely from the world.”

Her eyelids swept shut, and tears rolled down her cheeks to collect in the thin layer of translucent feathers that covered her body from throat to ankle “Eventually she succumbed to the peace of the ages, and I was left to govern in her stead. Our enemies hadn’t returned in so long that my people grew complacent, fat and slow, content to spend their time on puzzles and other idle amusements. Only the necessary routes for supplies and trade remained clear. Because I was content to laze around with them. Those were happy times. So happy, that my people lived like children without a care in the world.”

Rage seeped into her voice, sending a shiver down my spine. I tensed nervously when she stalked toward me, “I had a name, a place in the world, respect, and responsibility. I squandered it all. We were a people in our own right. Not monsters, spirits of the wind, or even willing servants. The ones you call gods…they knew us for tacticians who could beat them with a smile on our face and a song in our hearts. So they waited. Watched us for signs of weakness and then they pounced.”

“They came stealing among us with cages and collars, destroying those that they deemed useless and imprisoning the rest with magics that we could not hope to fight.”

She wrapped herself in her wings, hiding her face from me as she sobbed out, “My mates and I were taken. Our children held hostage to bind us to the petty whims of mad men. One by one we starved, or went mad, or were torn apart in one of their stupid wars. They didn’t fight for homes or love, they fought over land that they didn’t live on. Land they didn’t even want, and once only a few of us were left…they tossed us aside and went on playing at that war with brand new tools. What did they care about my people when they had new ones to enslave and destroy?”

“What was your name?” I cringed backwards in my seat at the awful sound she made, a grinding screech that made my hands fly up to cover my ears in self defense, “I’m sorry, I thought you were done. Please forgive me.”

She spread her wings to their full expanse, “I have no name. I lost that when I let my people be destroyed. It is your turn now. Tell me human, what is the worst thing you have ever done?”

“Don’t answer that question.” A deep voice commented dryly from somewhere above me; I looked up to see a massive reptilian head covered in black scales descending sinuously down the closest wall.

“I have to answer it.” Sitting up straight I met the harpy’s eye as I spoke, “We made a deal.”

“A human that keeps promises.” Amusement crept into his voice as the tips of what appeared to be wings came into view, “Keep it right now and she’ll kill you.”

I glanced at the harpy, seeing the truth of the dragon’s words in the tautness of her lips and her clenched fists. She flapped her wings restlessly, her gaze skidding away from my face to meet his opalescent stare as she snarled “You have no right to interfere.”

“I have every right to do as I wish in my own home.” He stared at her contemplatively, “And I know you would regret it later.”

She launched herself into the air to hover between us, “You said you wanted no part of this game.”

He yawned, baring rows of serrated black teeth “Once you asked her an impossible question I changed my mind. She cannot give you what you want, and you would deprive everyone else of their chance.”

A low angry rumble started to emanate from the creatures watching the three of us and I hunched in on myself hoping to avoid getting caught in any crossfire. She darted around the room, muttering to herself while the dragon and I watched her closely. Her erratic flight path brought her close enough to the wall that her claws sliced the air next to his face. He didn’t flinch, instead exhaling a tiny puff of fire and smoke to envelop her wings as she flitted away. The heat seemed to shock her out of her reverie, sending her to a perch high on the far wall.

Her eyes roved around the room as she said wearily, “I let old griefs overtake me. I meant no offense. My question can wait.” before she launched herself into the air again, this time winging her way toward the roof of the cavern.

I sat up straight, casting a furtive glance after her and carefully keeping an eye on the approaching dragon as I said “Thank you.”

“It is time that I’ve given you, not a guarantee that you will leave this place alive.” He settled on the stone dais where I had first seen the harpy as he added “I am exercising my prerogative as host to move to the front of the line just in case your fate is unavoidable.”

“If you think I’m going to die why do you want to tell me anything?” I reached over to set up a new recording, “That seems like an odd way to pass your time.”

“It is not as though I am certain of your death. And that bit about telling the truth before we fade was very convincing.” He twitched his left ear as he said, “If nothing else I will make sure that your equipment is returned to the humans.”

I bared my teeth in what I hoped would pass for a smile, and held up the microphone where I thought he could see it. “What would you like to tell me? What secrets have the dragons been keeping?”

“I hatched in the first volcanoes of this world and I have lived a long time. Long enough to have no regrets about the approach of my final flight.” He stretched like a cat, resting his chin on his front legs as he spoke, “Your legends tend to paint us as greedy violent creatures hoarding gold and terrorizing towns. It’s close enough to the truth for my tastes in general, but there is one thing in your lore that completely misses the mark.”

Looking inquisitive while talking to a dragon is easy, but having to smell charred carrion every time they speak is not a pleasant experience. I did my best to breathe through my mouth without looking like a blow up doll. It must have been good enough because he continued, “We are born carrying the seeds of our deaths. Our nature means that we burn from the inside starting as soon as we muster our first flame. Eventually the fire destroys our internal tissues and we perish in the resulting conflagration.”

“It is a long death; one that can start centuries before we lose all sense of self and try to outrun it. Some of us opt for another way out when the pain starts to mount. We find some creature capable of puncturing our flesh for us and thus our end is quickened.”

He lashed his tail restlessly against the wall, sending several chunks crashing to the ground behind him as he said, “Years ago, after all of the other options had been exhausted one of us chose a human to speed the process along. Presumably whatever fool was selected managed to survive, and was rewarded with whatever trinkets had been accumulated over the ages. Instead of counting his lucky stars and going about his life in quiet gratitude, he told the story in a way that made him seem a hero.”

His voice hardened, sending a chill down my spine as he said “Suddenly dragon slaying was a sport for stupid humans in metal clothes. Do you know how many of you we have had to kill? How many crying virgins we had dumped on our doorsteps?”

I shook my head ruefully, my mind filling with memories of fairy tales and cartoon movies as he stared past me into the distance and spoke mournfully, “I just wanted a peaceful life, but you humans…you can romanticize any crime. So, you break into the homes of the elderly, the dying, and you force them to fight. To defend their treasures and then have to live with the rotting remains. There is no honor in killing creatures so small and weak.”

He sighed heavily, forcing a cloud of smoke to slide over me, “And those poor little crying girls they kept dragging up to our homes. Some of them drugged out of their minds and halfway to death while others were such bright little sparks with no hope left in them. Killing them wasn’t an option, but they couldn’t go back to their villages. Even when we gave them what they needed to start over elsewhere the mores of human society often meant that we might as well have killed them.”

“So, we learned to live in remote places and never gather where you could see us. Eventually we became myths instead of familiar monsters. It was a lonely life. But some of us did not mind it, and the rest were willing to make the trade off if it meant no more pointless deaths.” He laughed then, this raspy pained sound as he ground out the words “We only died when we were ready, and before that you made us murderers. Killing sentient beings has never been our way, but it was forced upon us. So that you could justify stealing from us. Romanticize that one.”

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