Coin Keeper awoke to a piercing wail. The complete darkness of the night confused and disoriented the dragon, mind heavy with an extended sleep. A glance outside of his cave raised more confusion; it was snowing heavily. He should have still been deep in hibernation, conserving his energy. As he struggled to understand why he was awake, another shrill cry rang out.
The creature tilted his head one way, then another, angling his small, tufted ears so as to try and catch the sound again through the wailing winter winds. And again, a mournful, organic sound reached him.
Something in the surrounding forest was in great distress.
At first, the dragon tried to ignore the cries. But Coin Keeper had never had a strong stomach for the suffering of other beings, and before long, he left the neutral warmth of his cavern to venture into the snowstorm. He did so reluctantly, anticipating that he would either find the noisemaker dead or - worse yet - would be forced to end the unfortunate's suffering.
Soft snow crunched beneath his weight as he approached an odd lump on the forest floor maybe a mile from his cave. Hearing the dragon nearing, the lump suddenly let out a squawk nearly identical to the ones Coin Keeper had been hearing. The few following it were much weaker, however; whatever kind of creature this was, it was not faring well exposed to the elements.
But what was it? Coin Keeper did not recognize the sound the creature made; this was not something of the forest. As he cautiously drew near the lump, he couldn't see any fur, or scales...
...instead, it was wrapped in cloth, a type of horror coursing through him at the realization.
This was a human.
Humankind was responsible for much of the torment the natural world faced: other dragons had been slain for their hoards, the earth itself leeched upon with an insatiable gluttony, and less hardy animal populations had been decimated to meet the species' demands. Coin Keeper nearly turned away from the lump then and there, fully entertaining the idea of leaving the abomination to its fate in the winter wilderness.
Before the dragon could, though, the cloth-clad lump let out another, weaker sound; one that struck the dragon deep in his heart. Human or not, it was suffering in the snow. And truth be told, he was only assuming it was a human then; he had yet to remove the cloth and lay eyes on the bundle.
Slowly, he reached out with a clawed forelimb, intending to pull the cloth away to make sure this really was what he thought it was. He was only able to look at the tiny bundle for a moment, however, before something else made itself known. Something ancient. Something hungry.
"Mine," stated the new arrival possessively. The meaning was understood; this lump left in the snow was to be its meal. A sacrifice.
It would have been easy to leave the lump to the Ancient. The bundle was in fact a human child, offered up as sacrifice to the Ancient in return for the protection of the rest of the village for the next year. Coin Keeper had no claim to the offering. Yet, as he thought of what would happen to the child if left to the Ancient, the dragon found himself unable to knowingly allow the child to be sent to its death.
"Would you make a deal?" Coin Keeper asked. He watched the thoughtful thinking of the Ancient intently, wondering what the creature would say...
Years passed. Coin Keeper became accustomed to his charge. Enamored, even, to the point that he lovingly referred to the growing child as his true treasure - high honors coming from a hoarding dragon. Her name was Ruby, and she was a bright, kind child who looked after abandoned and injured animals. Still, the time came when Coin Keeper sent her off to school with other children, as he wanted her to have a mostly normal life.
Ruby knew she had a different kind of upbringing than the other children. When others spoke of their human parents, Ruby stared back confused. All she had ever known was Coin Keeper, and she loved him as dearly as he did she. But she also knew that she couldn't reveal that she was a dragon's daughter. She'd likely be termed mad and kept locked away in a human dungeon. Even if she were believed, it would only serve as trouble for Coin Keeper; dragons were not well tolerated in proximity of the village.
When she returned from school one day soon after beginning classes, Ruby greeted Coin Keeper as usual. Upon laying eyes on him, however, she frowned. Something was off.
"Hello, Ruby! Welcome home, my dear treasure!" called Coin Keeper enthusiastically, though the dragon looked and sounded worn. More notably, Ruby thought he looked much smaller than he had been when she'd left for school that morning.
"You look... different," Ruby admitted slowly, "and your hoard looks smaller too."
The dragon chuckled in response.
"Have you forgotten, my treasure? Today is your birthday! You've simply grown bigger and I - and my hoard - simply look smaller because of that!"
Ruby was skeptical at first, but Coin Keeper had never had reason to lie to her before. Convinced that he was telling the truth, the conversation soon ebbed away into the next.
The next year, the same thing happened; when Ruby returned home from school, Coin Keeper and his hoard both looked smaller. Again, the dragon assured her it was just how much she grew on her birthday that made him seem smaller.
This continued on until the day Ruby turned 17. This time, when she came home from a short trip to the market and Coin Keeper was now smaller than the tea kettle and his hoard now just one coin, she insisted that he tell her the truth. With a sigh, the small dragon nodded and complied.
He told her of how he'd found her in the snow late one winter night when she was a toddler. That an Ancient had claimed her as his next meal; a sacrifice for the wellbeing of a nearby town. But instead of leaving her to her fate at the whims of the Ancient, Coin Keeper had made a bargain.
That first night, he had agreed to give the Ancient gold for the child. The promise made to the town who sacrificed Ruby would be upheld, but the child would go with Coin Keeper.
However, the dragon was surprised to see the Ancient in his cave the next year, demanding twice the gold for another year. And so it continued each year that the cost to keep Ruby doubled. With the shrinking of his hoard came a physical shrinking of him as well; dragon size and hoard size were intricately linked. With his one small coin left, he was now able to fit in the palm of Ruby's hand!
Quickly, Ruby realized a problem; next year, Coin Keeper would be unlikely to pay the Ancient the demanded gold. How cruel it would be her 18th, so close to adulthood.
Ruby, however, was a clever girl. Dragons had many mysterious powers, and she hatched a plan to get Coin Keeper much of his hoard - and size - back with it. Something even the Ancient, so ageless it had seen countless schemes, wouldn't be expecting.
She shared her plan with Coin Keeper, nervously anticipating what her beloved guardian would think. If he would agree.
At first, he didn't. However, lack of any other means to get so much gold within a year eventually forced him to concede to the plan. He even shared tales he'd never told her before about the customs of Ancients, hoping they might help them plan better.
On the day of her 18th birthday, unlike every year prior, Ruby stayed home. She waited with Coin Keeper until, at the expected hour, the Ancient appeared. It did so suddenly, with a violent vortex coming forth from the ground.
Ancients come in many forms. This one was humanoid in appearance, resembling something like an elf or oversized faerie. Large pointed ears, large head, slim build, dressed in simple, yet nice clothes. Overall, not bad to lay eyes on. But, like dragons, Ancients had mysterious abilities; this was likely not the truest form of the Ancient, but rather a rouse.
"Mine," it said, pointing at Coin Keeper's hoard; now 5 coins. The tone it used was unpleasantly harsh; angry. It was never a good idea to make an Ancient angry. They held vast power over those in the natural world.
"I have given you gold for 15 years, since Ruby was a toddler. I can give you no more; I have no more," Coin Keeper admitted, defeat heavy on his tongue. At this, the Ancient screeched a horrible, threatening sound.
Ruby ran forward, hands over her ears, to shout, "Instead of gold, will you still take me as sacrifice?!" This got the Ancient's attention. It fell quiet and seemed to regard Ruby, waiting for her to say more.
"Will you take me? Uphold your promise you've kept all these years, leave Coin Keeper and his hoard alone, and take me - as your wife." Ruby demanded of the Ancient. The creature inspected Ruby again, and she couldn't tell if it even understood what she'd said.
"Deal," drawled the Ancient slowly, "Keep promise... Dragon free... You, mine. Come."
"Wait, please!" Ruby exclaimed, "Can I stay one more night with Coin Keeper? To say goodbye?" She knew this would be the big gamble.
"...I allow. Tomorrow, mine."
Ruby breathed a sigh of relief as the Ancient disappeared back into a vortex in the ground. Turning to Coin Keeper, she smiled.
"So far, it's going to plan," she stated.
"Are you sure this is the only way?" inquired Coin Keeper again; he had asked over and over the year through. Ruby nodded.
"What other choice do we have? No one fights off an Ancient. Not even the best of dragons."
The next day, Ruby dressed in her very best dress. She had no idea what an Ancient's wedding day looked like, but she imagined it was very different from a human's wedding day. She wanted to look nice, but didn't see the point getting a formal wedding dress, not that getting one on such short notice would be possible.
Coin Keeper was nowhere to be found, oddly. Ruby was sad, fearing this meant he didn't trust the plan to work and had abandoned her. She began wondering if she were really about to marry an Ancient she knew nothing about all for nothing. Her anxiety rose as the hours ticked by, the expected hour drawing nearer.
The Ancient appeared in the same manner as before; suddenly and through the floor. Ruby frowned - she wasn't expecting the Ancient for several more hours.
"Mine," he stated, pointing at her. She began protesting, informing him that he was earlier than expected and Coin Keeper wasn't there to see her off. The Ancient seemed to listen, but repeated, louder, "Mine." Ruby followed her soon-husband into the vortex...
...whereupon exiting the vortex, Ruby promptly vomited from the experience. The Ancient stared blankly at her and the mess, then walked off down the tunnel they occupied.
"I'm sorry about the mess... I can clean that up-"
"Mine. You, follow," the Ancient said, pointing at Ruby and then to himself. So she followed him, discovering that the Ancient's home - her home - was a massive labyrinth of underground tunnels. Veins of luminous crystal provided dim lighting in various hues, and Ruby decided it wasn't a terrible place to look at.
The wedding ceremony was a most private affair; only Ruby and the Ancient in attendance. Another, different type of vortex was opened, this time mid-air. Chanting of some sort could be heard from the other side, and the Ancient began to nod in tempo to the repetition, encouraging Ruby to do the same. She did. And when The Ancient grabbed a vessel of an unknown liquid, gulping fully half of it before offering it to Ruby, she took it. Before she began her own consumption, the Ancient raised a hand, stopping to remind her by pointing at her and then himself, "Mine." She understood; once she drank this, the ceremony was over, and she would be his wife - for as long as he'd have her.
Taking a moment to think on the daunting thought of either a human life or extended one with this Ancient, Ruby raised the vessel to her mouth and drank. The task was unenviable - the liquid was terribly bitter and took her a long time to drink. Once finished, the Ancient smiled. Even in his presumed imposter form, the action was unnaturally creepy.
But then Ruby asked a question. The real Ruby, standing behind the Ancient.
"So, he gets half your wealth now, yes?" she asked. The Ancient spun around, then confused, looked between the two Rubys. The one he married suddenly transformed - into Coin Keeper. Shifting forms was an uncommon ability among dragons, but one Coin Keeper was capable of.
"Thief!" shouted the Ancient, pointing accusingly at Coin Keeper. The dragon lifted his wings in a careless shrug, growing larger as his mutual hoard with the Ancient provided him power.
"Wow, I don't I've ever seen you at that size! He must have quite a bit of treasure!" Ruby exclaimed.
"Had," corrected Coin Keeper, eyeing the Ancient. He had fallen into contemplative silence and the dragon didn't know what the creature was thinking. "Maybe we should send you home, my dearest treasure." At this, Ruby frowned.
"I don't want you to leave me."
"I know, I know; but you can't stay here. I'll visit when I can, hm?" reasoned the dragon. The girl - the young woman - nodded sadly. Now able to open his own vortex, he sent Ruby back to his home. She was a clever woman; she'd work something out without him until he could make a visit.
"Thief," accused the Ancient as the portal closed. Coin Keeper shrugged his wings again.
"What are you gonna do about it? We're married now, and half's mine!" With that, the dragon took up a spot in the Ancient's treasure room, curling up on the biggest hoard he'd ever seen.
The playlist for the creation of this story is here.
About the Creator
A Colorado native and secondary caregiver to her younger brother with special needs, Megan enjoys her adventures in World of Warcraft, various types of documentaries, and making homemade items for the critters and people in her life!