At first, I didn’t like the boots. I felt too clunky. Like some kind of cheap, party clown.
Now I’m used to them. And I’m grateful for them. Without the boots, I’d have lava stuck to my soles.
I’ve never had lava on me before, but I imagine it’d be ridiculously painful. Most people’s skin doesn’t recover.
So, the boots are actually nice.
After all, lava dragons aren’t called ‘lava dragons’ for no reason.
And I would know.
“This one is a particularly sensitive dragon, that’s why we’re sending her in alone,” my boss states.
Kyle looks particularly putout by that. As if the dragon has, somehow, offended him personally.
Which is stupid.
Kyle hasn’t met the dragon my boss is speaking about. In fact, none of them have met him.
Because, for some reason, he’ll only talk to me.
And, being the last of his kind, he’s got to talk to someone.
Hence the lava boots.
And the helicopter.
And me being dropped into a volcano via ladder.
I’ll admit, the first time they sent me, I was apprehensive. At the time, I was just an intern, and all I knew was that this dragon threatened anyone who came into his volcano. Usually, he’d give them a time limit, and if they weren’t out by then, he claimed he’d barbecue them.
Of course, now that I know him, I know better.
He’d never barbecue anyone.
Not that I’d tell the others that.
For his reputation’s sake (and reputation is everything to a dragon) I let him threaten. Pretend that it ought to be taken seriously. Pretend that he’s vicious and scary and angry.
To a certain extent, I’m not wrong. He can spit fire, and he can roar so your eardrums pop, and he’s genuinely grumpy almost always.
But that doesn’t make him a danger.
My boss seems to think otherwise.
Which is why I’m here, standing on lava, in my protective gear, walking across molten earth to reach the entrance of his cave.
Honestly, it’s rather tiresome.
But, I do it anyway.
I’m not really sure.
Partly because it’s my job, but also because…
Well, he’s alone, isn’t he? And no one should have to be alone.
Not even a grumpy dragon.
Before I can delve into my thoughts any deeper than that, I’m swept off my feet.
Something has me around the waist. Is pulling me, lifting me through the air.
“Cacus, this is completely unnecessary,” I say, as if he cares.
“You’re slow,” a voice rumbles, low and carrying, causing the lava to stir.
I cross my arms, a faux pout as I’m lifted to the dragon’s lair.
When I reach the threshold, I’m released. Gently, of course. Cacus knows humans are more delicate than dragons.
Once I’m released, the tail retracts. Zips away, disappearing just as quickly as it appeared. It retracts into a large, dark shadow.
And then that, too, disappears. Collapsing like a giant paper mache monster.
The dragon emerges.
No longer a dragon.
“Your legs are short,” he says as his scales continue to flip and fold, forming skin instead.
He stands taller than me. Not taller than most men, mind you, that’d make him stand out.
And that’s the point of his human form, isn’t it? To blend in.
Even though that’s the logic I—and he, and other dragons, for that matter—follow, I still find it strange.
His muscles are so well-tuned.
He looks like he could pick up the mountain and hold it to the sky.
But, if there’s one thing you should know about dragons, it’s this:
Never question their form. Ever.
They get angry.
“My legs are of normal height, actually. You just wouldn’t know because you’re a recluse.”
He scoffs. “You’re ridiculous.”
“And yet, you put up with me and my short legs.”
Without asking permission, I walk past his snarky grin and enter his den.
As far as dragon dens go, his is quite nice. It’s littered with gold and jewels and cushions.
Honestly, it’s the cushions that make it so nice.
Most dragons only have gold to sit on.
A dragon’s lair us usually quite uncomfortable. But not Cacus’s.
I take a seat on my favorite cushion.
“You act like you own this place,” Cacus remarks, looking only slightly irritated.
As I shrug, he quits protesting and gives in, plopping down on the cushion next to me. His weight causes us to bounce a bit, but I don’t mind.
“So, what have you been up to Cacus? Anything interesting?”
He shrugs. “Caught a deer yesterday.”
“Did you let it go?”
“No. How else would I get food?”
“From the store, like normal people.”
“I’m not a people, I’m a dragon.”
And I think that’s really Cacus’s problem:
He’s too proud.
Too proud to say that he’s lonely. Too proud to say that he enjoys my company. Too proud to admit he’s concerned about me when he picks me up out of the lava. Too proud to just go to the grocery store, like other dragons would, and buy some food.
Cacus the fierce. Cacus the fiery. Cacus the king of lava.
That’s what they call him. Which really equates to:
Cacus the proud dragon.
So proud, he’s got nothing left but pride.
Well, nothing but pride, and me.
And I only come every other day.
My boss won’t allow me more than that. After all, there are other dragons to tend to, that need treatment and assessments and company. Cacus is the last lava dragon, so the boss allows me to visit with him more frequently. But still, there are other dragons I have to tend to.
Every day can’t be about Cacus.
It just… can’t.
I spend what time I can with Cacus. We talk about a lot of different things. Sometimes we talk about music, sometimes we talk about gems and jewels and metals. Sometimes we talk about nothing at all. Sometimes, we just don’t talk.
Cacus likes that, I can tell.
How there’s no need for noise with me. I don’t require conversation. We just sit and chill, the presence of one soothing the other—and vice versa.
In all honesty, Cacus is one of my favorite people.
Despite him claiming not to be one.
But, like everything else, there’s a limit here. My job—and the rest of my life—require my attention as well.
Eventually, my watch goes off, and we both know I have to leave.
When I get up, he stays put a moment. Just watching me with scrutiny in his eyes. Glaring, almost.
It’s like he doesn’t believe I’ll leave.
But I will.
I have to.
So I exit on my own. Not an unusual thing. Cacus’s pride won’t let him see me to the door. Won’t allow him to watch me leave.
That’s usually how it goes.
But, for whatever reason, today is different.
Before I step out onto the lava, I find myself grabbed again. Not by a tail this time.
But by a hand.
When I turn, he isn’t looking at me. Instead, he’s looking down at the ground. Glaring at it, really. Because he’s bare-chested—he always is—I can see that his stomach muscles are tight, clenched.
Honestly, it looks like he’s going to be sick.
“Cacus? What’s wrong?” I ask, the concern evident in my voice.
That seems to trigger something in him.
He stops looking at the ground. Stops looking like he’s going to be sick. He stops and looks at me, straightens up. Throws his shoulders back—ever so slightly. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed if he wasn’t half-naked.
And then he says something he shouldn’t have been able to say. Something so devoid of self, it’s mesmerizing. Haunting, even.
I didn’t know, but the reason he looked like he was going to be sick?
He had shattered his own pride.
Swallowed every bit of the bile substance. Swallowed it, so he could free his lungs. Swallowed it to say this one thing:
That was the day.
The day the dragon swallowed his own fire.