Mark was out of the house's front door before dawn broke across the horizon. He followed the steadily brightening light of the rising sun to the east, carrying only the clothes on his back and the small sack in which he had packed food and water for a single night and a small flashlight.
The boy, barely sixteen years old, had once lived a happy life with his family. His mother and father, for the first fourteen years of his life, had raised and cared for him as any loving parents should. But then tragedy struck as war started up again in the Middle East. Both of his parents were called into the fray, donning the camouflage of the American Military and flying overseas.
The teenager had lived with his aunt and uncle for about a year, continually receiving letters from his parents wishing him well and telling him how well the war was going. But then, one day, the letters stopped.
A military officer arrived a few days later, regretfully informing the stunned boy that his parents had both fallen to enemy land mines. The funeral held empty caskets and heavy hearts; but the tears Mark shed that day were far from the last of his worries.
His aunt and uncle realized they could no longer care for him and, as his only relatives; he had nowhere else to turn save for the adoption agency. He spent another year among the other orphans, keeping to himself for the most part.
But then one day a wealthy man appeared, looking to adopt one of the unfortunate children. Many of the orphans were called back to speak with him but, when his eyes fell on Mark, he seemed to immediately single him out. They talked for only a short amount of time before, beaming, the man asked for the adoption papers.
It was the happiest day the teenager had seen in a long time. He was being accepted into an esteemed family, a place where life would be enjoyable again!
But he would only spend one night in the rich man's home. Early in the morning a maid roused him from his bed, taking him down to the limousine where he rode with his new foster father well over one hundred miles to the south.
The pair traveled from North Caroline down into Alabama. As soon as they crossed into the state the humidity seemed to melt into the vehicle, the air conditioners having to work desperately to keep the encroaching heat at bay.
Finally the car stopped what seemed to be a dozen miles away from civilization. Mark and his foster parent emerged in front of what appeared to be an old, oversized shack. From the torn screen-front door emerged a dirty man in overalls, cigarette smoke clinging to him like some sort of second skin.
The man's horrible grammar made the youth unable to understand him at first but, with the help of the few words he could make out, he seemed to be thanking the rich man who (surprisingly) was his brother. It was then that Mark's new father turned to him, informing him that he would be living with his uncle for awhile. With that he returned to the car alone and drove away.
It was immediately clear that the boy's great opportunity was fast turning into a nightmare. From what he gathered through the haze of "dun"s and "ain't"s he figured out that the shack's owner owned a small farm, run by only his family. The other eight filthy children were the hillbilly's spawn but, as it turned out, his wife was unable to produce any more children. Needing another hand to help work the land, the farmer had turned to his brother for help.
Mark soon found that he was to be worked like a slave, doing nearly half again the time under the brutal sun as his "cousins." He knew that his foster father was breaking a number of laws concerning his adoption but, when he tried to report such acts to the authority, he found that his new family had no working phone.
He spent months in misery as early autumn changed to winter. As the ground became too hard to work he was sent out into the cold to wash and care for the animals while the other children played around in the filth of their home, causing more destruction and work for their newest relative than they helped.
Finally Mark had started to plan his escape. He waited for the last of the southern heat to die away then, under the cover of early dawn, stole away from the hellhole that had become his home.
Having no working computer with which to acquire a map, Mark could only work on the basis that the nearest town was to the east. Hopefully there he could report his wretched "uncle" to the authorities and thus escape his prison.
But his hopes began to dwindle away as he walked for miles upon miles, finding no signs of a road or that civilization even existed in the woodland region. He stopped as the sun reached its halfway point in the sky, tearing into the meager rations he had brought with him.
Just as he was beginning to close his eyes to rest a faint sound reached his ears. He sat quietly for a moment, taking in the noises around him. Then he heard it again, ever so faintly in the distance: a dog's bark.
The redneck farmer was coming after him! He recognized the bark as the deep call of one of the many dogs that moved throughout the property; if he was caught he would never have the chance to escape again!
He took off at a mad dash through the woods, hardly registering which way he turned. He hoped he had continued on an eastern path but, truly, all he cared about was evading the blood-thirsty hounds nipping at his heels.
He was forced to stop and rest after a short amount of time. As he panted he realized that he had only put off the inevitable, since the dogs were still gaining on him. The beasts seemed to be tireless!
Mark started to run again, to try and hope for some stroke of luck. That luck came to him before he took another step as his eyes turned to a hill next to him.
A small opening in a pile of rocks, a crack just large enough for him to squeeze through, presented itself before him. Not wasting a moment with his pursuers so close he ducked into the opening, forcing his body between the stones until he emerged in a dark chamber beyond.
He fumbled about in his bag, grabbing his flashlight and flicking it on. He decided not to explore the large cavern her found himself in immediately, instead filling up the crack with small stones in an attempt to throw off the dogs. After several minutes his task was complete, and he sat back to rest against the cool stone for a moment.
As his body cooled down he began to realize that the cave was slightly colder than the air outside, which was already rather cold for the southeast. He shivered slightly in his shorts and t-shirt as he flashed the yellow beam of light about the cave, scanning his surroundings with mild interest.
The cavern was enormous, stretching out several hundred yards beneath the leaf-strewn forest floor. In his schooling before being traded to the hillbilly family, of course he had learned about limestone caves in the region, though he had never imagined they could be this massive!
He took several steps into the cave, shining the small beam about as he admired the subterranean realm. He eventually found his way to the far wall and lay down against it, switching off his flashlight as he closed his eyes and lay down to rest.
Several yards to his right, the cave's other occupant stirred at the smell of the new presence.
* * * * *
What little light that filtered through the hidden crack in the rocks had disappeared by the time the weary youth awoke. Mark massaged his eyes with his hands, wiping the sleep from them.
When he blinked his eyes opened he realized that he was being watched; and what watched him was no human, not even one of the hounds that pursued him.
Two blood-red eyes glowed in the complete darkness of the cavern, each larger than Mark's head. They were reptilian, it seemed, since the pupil was a mere slit compared to the remainder of the glowing orb.
The boy tried to stagger back, to retreat from the gaze, only to find that his back was to the cave's wall already. He fumbled with the light in his hands, switching it on and shining it towards the creature.
The yellow beam fell on an enormous humanoid body covered in midnight black scales. The head of the creature was far from human; in fact, it resembled a dragon from one of the fantasy books the boy had read so many months before. A head of long red hair fell down the monster's back as it stood to its full height to regard the small human below it from well over one hundred feet in the air.
The two watched each other for a long while as Mark's heart threatened to burst from fear. He was staring down a dragon, a creature so powerful it was regarded as a legend!
"Well, well, well," a female voice said. It took the human a moment to realize the dragon had spoken to him! His eyes darted down to the dragon's chest and then to her groin, confirming what the voice implied: she was, in fact, female.
"What do we have here?" she asked, sitting down in front of the terrified boy. "You're a human. I haven't seen one of your kind in centuries
Mark didn't know what to say. He never dreamed he would be speaking to such a creature; he had no way to know how to respond.
"How old are you?" she asked after several long moments of silence. Now Mark was required to speak.
"Sixteen," he managed.
The dragon nodded. "I'm about seventeen by human standards. It just shows we have something in common." She said.
A look of confusion flitted across Mark's face. Was she being friendly towards him?
"You look a bit cold." She offered.
The human took a moment to look past his fear, to feel his body frantically shaking to warm itself. He had never imagined the southeast could get so cold, even in winter; in fact, it was the cold that had roused him from his sleep in the first place.
"I'm fine." He said as smoothly as possible, trying to hide his shivering.
"Are you sure?" the dragon asked, a malicious glint in her eye. "I could always help
Mark had no idea what the statement meant. Was she just trying to be friendly again, to offer him body heat? Or did she have something more sinister in mind?
"I'm alright." He repeated, not liking the way the cave's owner was looking at him.
"Oh, but you've had a long day of travel," she purred "and you still look exhausted. I'd hate for you to lose sleep over the cold
I can sleep next to you?" he asked hopefully.
" she said. "But it gets pretty cold when night really sets in, especially underground. Just sleeping next to me might not be enough
"What do you mean?" the teenager asked, suddenly worried. He realized that the look the dragon had been giving him was hunger! She was going to eat him!
"You could always sleep in my mouth." She offered, bending down to puff wafts of warm air from between her lips. Her breath pushed back the boy's brown hair rhythmically; though each breath also pushed away his hopes for survival.
"N-no!" he begged. "Please, don't-"
"You're right," she said with a shrug. "I like you. I would really like to talk with you for a bit, and it's so hard to talk with a full mouth."
Mark sighed in relief, only to have his calm broken a moment later as the dragon's thumb and forefinger gripped him around the collar of his shirt, bringing him up before her eyes. The blood-red orbs shined down on him for a moment before her smile widened, becoming an open mouth.
"No!" he shouted in denial, struggling as he was placed on the dragon's tongue. The wall of teeth at his back closed, sealing him in darkness.
He slumped back against the white barrier, his heart once again racing. It was warm, yes, but it was also a death trap. He was in a dragon's mouth!
He waited for the teeth to open behind him and tear him to shreds. Nothing happened after several minutes, however, and he slumped back with some level of relief. Maybe the dragon was telling the truth; maybe she would just let him sleep in her mouth.
But then Mark's world shifted as the dragon tilted her head back. He slowly slid towards the back of her throat, unable to halt his progress on the slippery, organic terrain.
He screamed in terror as his feet entered the dragon's jugular. She wasn't just eating him, she was swallowing him alive!
His entire body soon joined his feet in the ever-moving tunnel of flesh, dragging him deeper into his captor's body. His screams were drowned out as saliva poured into his throat, forcing him to endure the trip in silence.
Finally he emerged in a larger area, the flesh around him still moving regularly but not in a constriction fashion. He had reached the dragon's stomach.
"My name is Liz, by the way." A voice boomed around him.
Mark ignored it, collapsing on the floor of the stomach. He had been eaten alive; he was going to die a horrible death in the bowels of a creature that shouldn't even exist.
"Do you have a name?"
He offered no reply, closing his eyes and awaiting the inevitable.
"You know," Liz said "this isn't a very nice way to treat someone who just saved you from freezing to death."
"Leave me alone," he moaned "let me digest in peace."
A giggle surrounded him as his fleshy prison shook with the dragon's laughter.
"You're assuming you're going to be digested." Liz said.
"That's what a stomach tends to do." Mark called up, still not bothering to where he lay in the shallow liquid that surrounded him.
"You're assuming you're in my stomach."
"That's where a throat tends to lead."
"A human's throat," the dragon contradicted. "A dragon's throat splits halfway down. If I was going to digest you, you would have gone down the other path."
"What are you talking about?" Mark asked, utterly confused.
"A dragon had two stomachs." Liz explained. "One stomach is for digestion; the other is for storage. I figured I could store you out of the cold."
" he said. He sat up and grabbed the flashlight that had fallen beside him, scanning his surroundings. There was no acid in the chamber, only saliva; he wasn't in any danger!
"So, do you have a name?" Liz asked.
"Mark," he called up.
that's a delicious name." The dragon giggled.
They talked for hours until finally Mark fell asleep against the gentle massage of the moving stomach walls. Liz patted her belly affectionately before lying down as well, joining her new friend in sleep.
After that point the boy had no reason to return to civilization. He had found all he needed in Liz.