The Inner Dragon
They say that everyone has a dragon inside, waiting to be born. In most people that dragon lies dormant, stirring slightly for only the most emotional moments of a lifetime. In one person out of a million that inner dragon emerges completely, takes over. That person - lucky, holy, fated, or cursed- becomes a dragon, to wander the earth and guard it for eternity. Or so they say. But those are just old wives tales told by mothers to frighten their children, just yarns bards sing in the Great Halls to entertain their lords and ladies, just the confused mutterings of a crazed prophet sitting on a gilded throne. No one really believes them, or so they say. Every word of it is true. I am that one.
Shelia hated fire, had always hated fire, would always hate fire. The way it burned – fiercely, voraciously, passionately – jarred something deep inside her. She hated it for the memories it tore, screaming, from the back of her mind. Memories of loved ones, treasured things, a safe home, rose from the flame and were endlessly consumed by it again in her dreams. But even before – before The Fire – she had hated it. Maybe she had known, even then, what torture it would bring her. Maybe she had sensed its inherent evil and shied away from it. Or maybe, her treacherous mind whispered, maybe you feared it because you felt such kinship with it and knew the power you had over it.
"No," she whimpered, "no, please no." Her captors smiled grimly, hoping that this girl's fragile courage would break when faced with the reality of the threat. If she relented now and told them the information, they had promised not to burn her. In oily tones they had assured her that they didn't really want to burn her, but they had to because she was being a Bad Little Girl in refusing to tell them the secret. They were really Very Nice People, they assured her, and couldn't help it if it was their job to messily dismember people, to stretch them on the rack, to break their bones and pull out their nails, to defile their bodies…
She wouldn't tell them, no matter what. The pain was beyond belief, burning across her nerves and leaving flaming afterimages before her eyes. It was almost all she could think about now - that and wishing she were dead. And her prayers had been answered. She would be dead very, very soon.
Sheila was bound tightly to a wooden pole in the middle of the Fire Temple's courtyard. What remained of her hands were tied behind her back, so tightly that she couldn't even feel the blood that must be dripping down them. Surrounding her was wood – oak, mahogany, teak, maple, cherry, birch, beech, redwood, hornbeam, and even more exotic and expensive trees that she couldn't even name. Gathered and preserved lovingly by the Fire dedicates over the ages, the woods were the pride and glory of the temple. When they had first taken her in, a scared little girl orphaned by The Fire, she had been too awed and intimidated to speak. Smiling, the kindly head priest Albert had allowed her to run freely through the temple, even showing her the sacred room containing sacred fuel reserved for the fire. Sheila had been fascinated to discover so many different kinds of wood, and had forgotten her fear to ask him how there could be so many trees in the whole world.
Now, almost five years later, the holy woods lay scattered around her feet, soaked in oil. They would complete their purpose, still, and feed the fire – but now, that fire would feed on her. Frustrated that no one would answer their queries, the bastards had been careless in their torturing, and killed all the Temple dedicates. Now only she remained, and not for long. They would burn her alive at the stake if she held silent, and she had no intention of ever telling. The dedicates had given her the gift of life and hope when she'd thought she had none; now, she would repay their kindness by giving her life for their secret.
"Last chance, li'l missy," drawled the tall shaggy man. He smiled laconically and held out the stone trough, in which the Fire dedicates had kept the holy fire ever-burning. It smoldered now, down to its last embers without the calm, patient attendance of Carl, the priest who fed it wood. At the time he would have rekindled it, gentle Carl was being held under water by this tall shaggy man; he had later died from knife wounds inflicted by another barbarian soldier. "What is the secret? How do you make fire?" shaggy man demanded. Sheila said nothing, and the tall shaggy man stepped forward and poured the glowing embers onto the oiled wood at her feet. Unbidden, a dry sob escaped her lips.
She did not cry out because of the pain – she was long past the point where pain mattered. No, all that mattered now was a deeper fear, the fear of betraying those kind priests and priestesses she had come to love. She was a sinner and a traitor of the worst kind – nothing that could be burned away in a death by sacred fire fed by holy wood. It was far worse than that. She felt the fire calling to her. She had never told anyone, but she could speak to it. She was a Fire-Talker, and one not recognized at birth. As such, it was far too late for her immortal soul; not brought up in the order of the Fire, her conversations with the holy element were utter blaspheme condemning her soul to the coldest depths of the Darklands.
Impossible though it seems, it was worse than that. Not only could she talk with it, she could command it. This was unheard of. How could anyone have power over fire, the ultimate equalizer, always fair in its complete destruction and rebirth? Sheila shuddered. That was why she so hated fire, and feared it. She felt its call so strongly, relished its strength, needed its power. And though every bit of her being resisted, she knew it was useless. Now, in her dying moments, she lacked even the comfort of an afterlife in the Warmlands. A single bitter tear trailed down her cheek, mingling with the blood there. Slowly, it dripped off her chin, to sizzle by her feet.
The fire was truly started now. Slowly at first, the wood had flamed and burned around the contents of the brazier. Moving fast, it zoomed around the base of the post and licked at her toes. Then, quick as lightning, it tasted the oil on her clothes and shot across her skin. Engulfed in flame, Shelia felt its call through every hair, every pore, every dancing color before her eyes. She closed them, knowing that this was it, waiting in tense equilibrium for her death.
It didn't come. She opened her eyes, surprised. The fire was still there, around her; by rights she should be screaming in pain right now, if she even had the lungs to scream with. Instead, she didn't feel any pain. Maybe this was death? In confusion, she turned to the only friend she had, the flame. What is this? Shelia asked it.
She felt the smile in the voice, the dry amusement at the folly of flesh-and-blood mortals as it replied, It is the dance - the Fire dance, the burning, that which you mortals worship. It is a celebration of life and death, strength and weakness, dark and light, it flickered in reply. They, actually, for she realized now that the fire was not just one mind, as she had always though, but millions of tiny minds weaving their thought together, singing with one voice. I/We/You are justice, a balancer, the great equalizer. Come with us/me, join with us/me, dance the dance in joy and sorrow. Please, sister, we need you.
Shelia shook her head at all of it, quivering with uncertainty – until the last. Sister. They/It/He/She called me sister! Her heart burned and boiled, smoldered and simmered with delight. It was true. They were her family, ever since the burning of her mortal family in that forest fire. She felt at home here. Finally, at last, she was accepted, and by the one thing that knew her damning secret. She threw herself open, reached for the fire, and let it in. It danced around her, with her, through her, showing her the world.
Outside her pillar of flame, the killers were gathered around, staring in wonder and fear. They knew little about fire, but they knew enough to wonder why the Fire witch hadn't screamed in pain as she burned up. They were confused by how quickly the fire had shot up, and surprised by how large it had gotten. A few were starting to wonder if it had really been wise to sack a temple, kill the priests, defile the priestesses. Tiny strings of doubt nagged that it might not be wise to antagonize a god, no matter how foreign it might be. One or two, retaining some of their wits, backed away from the fire. They were too late.
Shelia roared, sending a fireball into the mass of torturers in the courtyard. Spreading leathery wings and bending powerful scaly haunches, she launched herself into the air above the Temple. The fire below her called out in dismay, but she reassured it by annihilating the rest of the courtyard in a bigger fireball. The fire was inside her now; it would never leave. She circled the Temple, banking with her left wing, feeling the air call our to her as it passed. Bending her sinuous neck, she sent ropes of fire coiling through the air onto the roofs of all the Fire Temple buildings. Satisfied, she swooped and watched it burn. It was, after all, a Fire Temple – what better revenge and fitting end then the ultimate dominance of its element, its God?
Shelia looked long and hard at the remains of second home she had burned to the ground. Shaking fiery tears from her lidless golden eyes, she remembered the kindness of the Temple dedicates who had cared for the lone survivor of a devastating fire, and wondered if they had known. What could be more fitting in the Realm of Fire than what she was, no sinner after all but the symbol of truth and justice among those of the calling? Surprised at this thought, she let out a small puff of flame that turned into a triumphant roar.
Somewhere in the west another dragon answered. There on the horizon lay the sun, home of the Warmlands and birthplace of The Fire. Its flame was calling her home, fiery as her life and death and birth. Sheila looped a lithe circle through a cloud and turned towards the setting sun to join her family.
They say that no dragon has been seen in mortal lands for hundreds of years. The Flame-Kindred are still worshipped, though, for is said that dragons come only when there is great need. They are great destroyers, but like fire they heal and protect as well. The dragons watch and care for their human cousins; the people believe in us, and so we are eternal. I will guard the secret of fire forever.