Three figures huddled against the greedy shadows. The rock beneath their sandals was rough, but coated in a thick layer of soot that spilled up among their toes. They drew heavy woollen robes tighter and scurried into the network of passages.
The air was hot and thick, bathed by dozens of spot fires that cast an eerie orange light. The lead man navigated according to a series of instructions he’d long-since committed to memory, while the two others hauled between them the case secreting their cargo. Avarice glimmered sinister in each man’s eyes.
They came to a larger chamber, almost the shape of a misshapen sphere. The walls were bare stone, rough-hewn, and like the rest of this underground maze it was illuminated by casual blazes flickering in nooks and crannies. A squat limestone plinth stood in the centre of the room, unremarkable in appearance save for dozens of intricate runes smothering every face of it. Raw, blistering heat poured from it, an unnatural torrent of warmth that left eyelids fluttering against dry eyeballs and skin tinged angry red.
They were not alone for long. A pyroclastic torrent of smoke and ash charged from the opening opposite to burst against the central plinth, billowing smoke writhing into rapturous forms that danced in the unsteady light. What followed this display was even more spectacular.
She stood exactly six feet tall, with delicate porcelain skin that bore the searing heat unblemished. Lightly curled locks of white-grey hair tumbled almost to her waist, framing sharp green eyes and a regal – almost angular – face. She simply exuded mastery, a supreme unadulterated confidence that commanded the chamber with ease.
Even men as unsavoury as those she greeted felt compelled to offer some half-hearted courtesy, a meagre but nonetheless deferential bow from the lead man and something altogether more awkward from the others - burdened as they were.
She nodded at the plinth, every movement subtle and refined. Tentative against the searing heat, the second and third man hauled the box between them onto the fierce stone, hurriedly setting it down. The container was carved of some inexpensive wood, taller than it was wide, almost an upright cuboid in shape. Its edges immediately began to char, blackened mahogany falling away in loose slivers.
All at once the tortured wood ignited, flames scrambling up its sides to leap proudly from atop it. They consumed the case with ravenous hunger to at last reveal the treasure secreted within.
It was an egg.
No ordinary egg, naturally. Quite how special this particular egg was did not make itself apparent, but it could certainly be identified as something extraordinary even by those who weren’t familiar with its nature. It was about the size of a human head, inky black save for a dapple of warm orange that seemed to shift across its surface like a fiery aurora.
The proceeds from a single Gryphon egg could keep the three men living raucous and comfortable for more than a month. They had been promised more than six times that for this particular specimen.
There was momentary silence, the final slivers devoured by the hungry flames. The egg sat unremarkable for some time, four pairs of eyes gazing intently at it. Then something remarkable happened.
It began to hatch.
The process started with a single crack, a zigzagging split in the shell that at once shattered its mesmerizing beauty. They four figures didn’t get a lot of time to observe the crack, however. Almost as soon as it appeared incandescent flame roared from around the egg, thunderous and infernal. It was like the shell itself had suddenly switched from an impossibly heatproof casing to the most extraordinary accelerant.
The inferno billowed and mushroomed; cataclysmic, savage. Every inch of the chamber was devoured by hungering fire, every thread of fabric destroyed in the rampaging conflagration. The three men were barbecued where they stood, with scant enough time to scream. Their charred corpses would feed the chick for weeks.
The woman fared slightly better. Porcelain skin now ashen and sooty, she strode from the chamber. If anyone had been there to witness it, the sly smile she allowed herself might have seemed malicious. As it was, she gave it only a moment. She had many other plans to attend to, and it would not do to betray the events she had set in motion.