Chantri watched the sun set over the temple and surrounding forest. Tonight he would prove himself. He had the goat tied near his campsite, ready to be slaughtered, wood ready to be lit, and blankets arranged in a nest. It had taken him almost a year of searching to find the dragon's cave, and three weeks to map his way into its depths. He started down the crawl way as the light slipped into darkness, the soil cool and damp under his hands and knees. The lamp he had tied around his neck swung to and fro, casting shadows that danced and twitched and spun. By the time the cave opened to the point where he could stand, his fingers were aching with cold and felt scrapped raw while his throat felt burned by the small flame in the lamp. He climbed and slid and shimmied through the darkness, between rocky outcrops, under roots reaching down through the hard earth for an eternity. At last the cave sides opened into darkness. The darkness of the night sky from which the moon and stars had fallen. The air was heavy with the smell of fire and rain, as if this is where both came to rest.
Chantri pulled candles out of his small pack. He placed them on the floor and lite them as he walked, creating a path of stars in the darkness. As he added more light, it started to reflect off the cavern’s surfaces. Great scaled coils and legs and gleaming eyes appeared to move on the walls and columns around him. Scales worn by dripping water, eyes rimmed in white from water evaporation. Stone given life by flickering flames. His steps slowed as he crossed to the center of the chamber as if his heart and feet feared the end of this quest, feared what lay in the recess of the low, spreading mound ahead of him. He knew this place from all the drawings in the temple, all the books, the stories, the memories passed down from generation to generation. This was the place where kings were created, empires born; lost to the past in a time drenched in blood. Confusion flooded his brain as he peeked over the edge of the mound into the cradle of dragons to see only greyness; a gentle slop of grey that streched out and a way, until it blended with the darkness of the cave like the meeting of the sky and sea. His snarled "NO" was swallowed as if it had never been. He brought his fist down on the curved surface in anger only to be thrown off balance as it gave way and billowed up in a silent puff of dust and ash. He tumbled face first into the soft material and thrashed about trying to right himself. His hands and feet scrambled across the shifting dust and hard lumps hidden beneath it until he was able to shove himself against the side of the cradle and drag himself upright, sending more dust into the air as he coughed and spat. After the worst of the shaking and coughing had subsided and he could breathe again, he reached down into the softness and felt around until his hand touched a rounded smooth surface. His fingers felt around for purchase until they encountered a jagged line and gripping that, he lifted the object clear. It was a sphere about the size of his head with a hole the size of a fist smashed into it. It was hard as stone and in the twilight of the cave he could barely make out the swirls on its surface, the colors lost in the darkness.
He dug through the ash and dust for hours until the candles began to dwindle and die one by one. He snuffed some out to save for later and dug in the silent dark. Every shell he found he placed on the edge of the cradle with reverence. He was so exhausted that he nearly dropped the egg when he found it. It was heavier than the others, its surface unbroken.
Chantri knelt in the dust, wrapped in cold darkness, running his fingers over the its surface. "I am here," he whispered to the egg he held in his arms.
The journey out of darkness lasted a thousand times longer as the trip in and as he emerged into the light of day, his hands and knees were ribbons of raw flesh and blood, the egg cradled in a sling against his stomach. He staggered to his camp and laid the egg in the nest. The sun light warmed the green and brown surface for the first time in thousands of years.
Chantri managed to light the wood before collapsing beside the egg. He dreamt of a storm with thunder that shook the earth and lightning that stole all sight and when he woke to cried out, afraid he was still in the dragon's cave, trapped in the dark silence. But the light of the stars and moon above shone bright and the dying fire crackled, giving back his sight and hearing. As his heart thudded in his chest, his hand sought out the egg only to find it broken beside him. He jerked upright dragging the rough shell to his chest. His voice died in his throat and his sight dimmed as if he had never left that chamber. He came back to himself when something warm and wet hit his leg. His eyes slid over to the mass. It looked like a partly eaten goat’s leg. As he turned toward where the goat had been a figure rose from the shadows and stepped into the dying light of the fire. It was a woman with long dark hair and equally dark eyes. The fire and moon light reflected off of her bare skin and the blood that dripped down her chin from her mouth, onto her bare chest. Her arms were dark with blood up to the elbows.
“Who are you?” His voice sounded small and far away in his ears.
“I am Fire.”
Somewhere in the corner of his mind he heard an old warning about playing with fire just before her tongue and fiery breath snaked into his mouth. And he burned.