Rodrigo gazed up at the ruins of ancient Archiphos in wonder, the sight worth the weeks of slogging through the sands. Cracked stone pillars protruded from the golden desert, the roof they had once supported long since returned to the earth. Sand obscured tile mosaics. A fountain bled dust into the breeze. Rodrigo looked back at Illata and Valea; their weathered garb fit the theme, white robes caked with sand from their journey to this legendary land, and their expressions mirrored his own amazement. He turned back ahead and began to walk deeper into the ruins. Impacts of sandals behind told him his friends were following.
As he ascended the mountain, passing through the city, the buildings grew grander. Huge theaters and temples in disrepair surrounded him, but he focused on the pinnacle of the city: the tower that marked the oldest school in the known world. He trudged up the mountainside, the sight of that sun-baked beacon drawing him in, until he stood at the entrance to the spire. The gates had fallen to time and sand, leaving him a pathway into the building. Despite his protesting legs, his spirit sang at the idea of climbing to the top of the massive structure and gazing across the ruins and the Endless Desert beyond. He wondered if they would be able to see their village from that perch, almost a month to the north, where his father had opposed the very notion of this journey, where he had plotted with his companions to get rich off the treasure in this lost city. He shook his head, clearing his mind of the notion, and retrieved the torch from his pack. His goal lay not atop the tower, but deep within the mountain. He struck a spark and lit his torch, nodded at his companions, and entered the building.
The light from his torch clawed across the patterned floor and up the columns supporting a ceiling lost to darkness. Behind him, Valea let out an amazed laugh, the quickest to joy for as long as Rodrigo could remember. A smile broke across his own lips as he proceeded through the entrance hall, head tilted back, taking in the sheer scope of the room. None back home had believed in them, yet there they walked, in the antechamber of gods. Ahead, stairs spiraled up the tower and down into the mountain. He descended, Valea still ecstatic, Illata nervous. Illata had been reluctant to come since the beginning, but Rodrigo knew what they would discover would make her laugh at her fears. Deeper into the earth they proceeded, careful of traps, though they encountered none. At last they arrived at a smooth-walled tunnel, not leading into another room but to the Heart of the Volcano itself.
“Do you hear that?” Illata whispered. Rodrigo concentrated and, below the crackle of the torch, heard a deep rumble: the rumble of a distant landslide, the rumble of a sleeping mountain. The sound sent shivers down his spine and set his teeth on edge.
Rodrigo began to creep down the hallway, torch held aloft, threatening back the dark and, he hoped, any creatures that may be left alive in this forsaken mountain. His other hand gripped the machete he barely knew how to use. He glanced back at his two companions and, seeing their frightened expressions, hardened his mouth into a flat line and continued. “Keep going,” he said. Tension hung in the air as thick as the smoke of his torch. The tunnel continued, arrow-straight, leading them into the depths of the mountain, toward the Heart of the Volcano. Even the ominous rumbling would not deter him.
A faint light permeated the darkness ahead. It strengthened as they approached, glowing like the sun come to earth. Rodrigo led his friends toward the portal, standing tall, expression uneasy. He snuffed out his torch, shielded his eyes, and traversed the doorway.
The light from liquid fires below assaulted his vision and painted the chamber the colors of Hell. He kept his eyes open and was rewarded with a glimpse of his goal, the treasure; in the center of the rocky plateau, mounted gloriously atop a pedestal carved from the stone itself, waited the Heart of the Volcano. The object stood low, like a bifurcated cube, and radiated light of the purest white and the most lustrous gold. The highest elation flooded Rodrigo before he saw what slept behind it.
Tail coiled around the pedestal, grey scales shining with the light of the fires below, form rumbling with a tremorous exhalation, a dragon slept. The size of the thing fit the scope of everything else in the abandoned city. He tore his squinting stare from the monster and faced his friends, both frozen, and raised a solitary finger to his lips. He returned to the creature before him and crept forward. His leather sandals rasped on the rock beneath him as he navigated the uneven ground, but he could barely hear over the roar of the fires. He kept his eyes on the treacherous terrain, and was surprised to find a sword glittering at his feet. He surmised with no doubt that it was all that remained of some previous treasure hunter. He picked it up anyway, holding the narrow thing before him as he advanced. He drew closer to the Heart of the Volcano and its guardian until he could feel the light of the treasure on the skin of his hand, cooling it. He had almost arrived. His arm extended to grab it.
The bliss of touching the divine object was cut short by the dragon puffing out a loud breath and opening an eye. Rodrigo recoiled as the eye, as large as his head, blinked lazily then focused on him. The dragon’s maw opened wide, wide enough to swallow Rodrigo whole, and from the depths of its throat came fire. Rodrigo ducked, but even having just awoken, the monster was quick to follow. Fire spewed across Rodrigo, dazing him, but somehow not scorching. Lacking time to figure out why he was still alive, Rodrigo lunged forward with his newly-acquired sword, impaling the thing’s forepaw still resting near the pedestal. It roared in anger, head rearing, the boom of its voice rocking Rodrigo and sending him reeling away, barely tugging free his sword. The dragon scuttled around, raising its uninjured foot and slamming it into the ground before Rodrigo. A shockwave rippled through the mountain, disrupting the rock of the ground and setting the liquid fire jumping. Rodrigo faintly heard his companions screaming as he stumbled back, turning away from the monster, scrambling toward the tunnel from which they entered. Fire blinded him again, and when the flames cleared he saw the tunnel just ahead. Illata and Valea writhed on the ground at the entrance, flailing, trying to extinguish the flames eating their flesh. Rodrigo dragged them by one hand each into the tunnel, as far as he could, the flames eating them subsiding, awkward as he kept hold of his sword. The hellish light revealed that his efforts were for naught. The charred husks of his friends lay still, and Rodrigo wept. The excitement of the encounter drained from him, leaving despair. He would drag their bodies out to be buried under the majesty of the desolate city, and make his way home to his family, but for the moment he only released an agonized wail.