Several times a year, the people of the village took a break from their backbreaking labor and gathered in the square to choose a champion who would go up the mountain to fight the dragon.
Season after season, the same thing would happen. The Champion wouldn’t return, and dragons would continue to plague the village. The people were simple farmers, and had no better ideas, so they persevered in their traditions.
The time came, and Stephen was appointed. He was handed a sharp sword and a wooden shield, and sent on his way up the winding trail to the dragon’s lair.
He picked his way cautiously through the fog that enveloped the peak. Breaking through the clouds, he was astounded to see bright sunshine, and lush, green meadows.
“I’ve gone the wrong way,” he whispered to himself. Berating himself for letting the village down, he turned around to head back into the mist.
“Wait!” he heard somebody call. The voice seemed familiar. Stephen spun to recognize Paul, the past-winter Champion.
“You’re alive!” Stephen yelled back as he ran toward his friend. “We all thought—,” he cut himself off.
“Dead,” said Paul. “I know. It’s what I expected.”
“But how did you survive?” Stephen wondered. “The dragon hasn’t been killed.”
Paul shook his head. “You’ve been chosen,” he said with a smile. “Let me show you what your new life will look like. Follow me.”
Paul took Stephen up a faint trail, around the mountaintop, and down on the other side. Stephen saw a dark cave leading down into the rock.
“That’s where the dragon lives,” said Paul.
“I’m ready,” said Stephen, brandishing his weapons.
“No, you don’t understand yet,” said Paul with a smile. “Soon. You will.”
Stephen approached the cave cautiously. Paul strode forward without fear.
Stephen began to notice that some of the large rocks were terribly white, and awfully bone-shaped.
“Are those dragon bones?” he asked.
“Old ones,” said Paul. “Just inside here, yet,” he implored, as he entered the cave.
What seemed dark from the outside was, in fact, quite warm, bright, and comfortable once the threshold was passed. The cave opened up into a vast gallery. Men and women that Stephen had known from the village milled about, laughing or talking with one another.
It took him a moment to notice that they were all Champions. The idea made him angry.
“Why didn’t you return?” he demanded. “All of you!” he shouted at the crowd. “You left us!”
“Nonsense,” said Paul with a wave of his hand. “We were sent here. Likely to die. The people down there didn’t know. And we found something else here.”
“I’m going back,” said Stephen, hiking up his shield as he spoke.
“They don’t want you down there,” said Paul. “That’s why you were chosen. You can stay with us. It’s an easy life.”
“What about the dragon?” asked Stephen, his resolve cracking just slightly.
“The first Champion sent up killed the dragon,” explained Paul. “Those are the bones, outside. Now the dragon is just a machine we’ve made to keep the villagers on their toes.”
“But if the dragon is dead, and you’re happy here, why do you need more Champions?” Stephen wondered.
“Because someday we’ll have enough Champions to return to the village and show them that we chosen-ones mean more than dragon-bait,” said Paul, with an evil gleam in his eye.