They called it The Egg because of its shape: round, oblong, and slightly pointed at the top. It was the most perfectly formed piece of natural geology anyone had ever seen, plopped at the back of Echo Cave, "Fresh from the stone chicken's butt!" Sam would say.
"Yeah right," Arthur said this time, as they clambered around the uneven surface. "There is no such thing as a stone chicken!"
"Oh yeah?" Sam retorted, pushing the sweaty fringe of his deep-blond mop. "What else could have left this here?"
Arthur sighed, leaning back to let the nylon climbing rope take his weight to ease the soreness in his back. "Nothing left it, you dork," he scoffed. "It's just a rock, shaped like an egg." He stomped on it with his hiking boot. The two friends rappelled down to the ground and started packing up their gear.
"Hey," Sam suggested, "wanna meet for drinks later?"
Arthur shook his head. "Nah; Mom will probably have plenty to keep me busy when I get home."
Sam snorted. "So? You are a grown man, Artie! Just because people tell you what to do doesn't mean you can't have your own ideas!"
Arthur shrugged. He didn't say it, but more often than not he felt it was just easier to be told what to do, than make his own choices.
"See you around, Sam."
Arthur climbed into his dad's old beat-up Chevy, turned the key, pumped the gas, and the truck choked and roared to life. His mom had been telling him the truck should have died when his dad did, but Artie was bound and determined to keep driving it till it did. He wheezed and coughed the old rust-bucket all the way back home.
His mother, a stern, wrinkled, formidable woman by the name of Esther, waited on the porch when he pulled up.
"Bout time you got back!" She barked, hands on her broad hips as she glared at him over the bib of her soiled apron. "What you been doing all day? I've been working my tail off since sun-up, washing clothes, cleaning the house, weeding the garden," she snorted, "pitiful as it is. Well, boy?" She folded her arms. "Have you made yourself useful today?"
Arthur sighed; he'd wandered into town, helped a schoolteacher herd a bunch of rowdy kids, assisted a perfect stranger with enough groceries for both of them to carry.
"Found a job yet?"
He'd wandered into a few establishments, but they'd immediately asked for some kind of credentials, and Arthur hadn't quite managed to fully navigate the educational field yet.
Esther shook her head and waddled back into the tumbledown shack they called home.
"What am I going to do with you?" She mourned.
Arthur felt his heart turn to lead as he saw the mound of bills and debts they owed, piling up as Esther fought and scrimped for every plug nickel. Mother and son sat at the table, staring at a dinner consisting of two old frankfurters and a single potato.
Esther huffed. "I'm getting paid tomorrow; I'll go shopping right off and get us enough food to last till the next payday."
Arthur chewed the tasteless beef gloomily. "Isn't there some way else we can make money, so we don't have to keep running out of food the day before payday?"
Esther glared at him. "You could go out and get a job," she grumbled.
"I'm trying," said Arthur. "But my people skills are better than my practical ones, and the people in charge of hiring don't often get to see that before they turn me down." He sighed. "Besides, even if I did get a job, would that be enough?" He gestured to the rickety table piled with red-stamped envelopes.
Esther picked at her potato and sighed. "No," she said softly. "I guess the only other option—"
Arthur knew what was coming and he tensed. "No, ma," he begged, "Don't say it."
"—Is to sell the truck."
"No!" Arthur protested hotly. "That truck is the last thing of Dad's that I still have! It's my only link to ever even finding a good job!"
"Well then," Esther fired back, "why ain't you got one yet? No, Artie; you're selling that rust-bucket first thing in the morning, and you make a profit out of it—and don't even think about showing up back here until you do!" She slammed a calloused palm on the table, and that was final.
Arthur lay on his cot to sleep, but he remained wide awake. He knew the truck wouldn't be worth much to anyone else in the world, but compared to the thought of never having that truck again, no price was good enough.
But what choice did they have?
"Ye tha'un sellin' that-thar truck, m'lad?"
Arthur glanced up and appraised the speaker: he was a vagrant, as evidenced by his motley assortment of clothes, and the dirty, leathery look to his skin. His eyes, though; those eyes drew Arthur in, compelled him to see past the grungy exterior, to the wise man beneath.
"Yes," he answered the man's inquiry.
The strange man tilted his head to one side. "Ye don't sound too pleased with there merchandise."
Arthur shook his head. "Oh no, I'm pleased, all right. It's just..." He sighed, as his despondence detected a willing ear and an open demeanor in the stranger. "I would rather not, but I don't have a choice. I—we need the money."
"Aye," the man nodded. "I den't ha' much o' the moanies mesel', but I kin halps the folk who need it. Ye say ye den't ha' the choosin', but I kin make ye'n offer what gives another way."
Arthur squinted at the strange, glinting eyes. "How do you mean?"
"How would ye like a job, instead o' sellin' tha truck?"
Arthur bounded to his feet. "You would give me a job? What kind of job?"
The man chuckled and leaned against the cab of the truck. "Ever seen a dragon, lad?"
Arthur snorted. "No; dragons don't exist."
The man waggled his eyebrows. "But they might; I be searchin' fer one mesel'. Been searchin' everywhere I can, tryin' ta find one. Legend says they once roamed the world; now all that's left is pieces of their hoard." The man reached under some flap of cloth and pulled out a jingling leather bag. "And that's how I mean to find it."
The tale had just about taken root in Arthur's mind. Suddenly, the idea of a dragon wasn't so far-fetched, even if it was just a theory. "How do you use the hoard to find a dragon?" He asked.
The man dug into the bag with grimy fingers and pulled out a solid-gold coin. "A dragon's hoard isn't just money that it stole; when a dragon takes, it purifies the gold, melting it with its breath and fashioning it into its own coins." He flipped the coin into the air between them, and Arthur caught it. The coin certainly felt otherworldly, and the miniature dragon etched into its surface more ornate than anything Arthur had ever seen.
"The hoard is always trying to get back to the dragon, y'see," the man continued. "And so a dragon-hunter can search for the dragon by spreading these coins around, holding onto them. In the presence of a dragon, the coins will melt, seeping back into the dragon's scales, where they came from." He poured a handful into Arthur's dumbfounded palm. "Weel ya hilp me?"
Unfortunately, this last petition was one step too far for the man. Arthur felt the weight of the coins, but he also saw the fool's errand he would trade the truck for, and he pushed the man away.
"No!" Staggering blindly, he made for the cab of the truck. "You can't have it!"
The man poked his head through the passenger side window. He waved something rectangular and yellow at Arthur. "But wait, lad—"
Arthur turned the key and cranked the gas pedal, sending the truck bounding forward, forcing the man to pull out or be dragged under the jouncing wheels.
Arthur steeled his mind against protests as he pulled onto the main thoroughfare, the one that would take him to Echo Cave.
Tears stung his eyes, as remorse clogged his throat with a heart stony lump. Of all the interested parties for his beloved truck, the one offer he got had to be the kook with the melting coins! Arthur saw the looming form of the cave before him, and the truck sputtered to a stop without him having to apply the brake. He sat in the cab, gasping and grunting as the tears refused to come when his body so badly wanted to cry. Clenching a fist, he pounded against the door with his arm—
And heard something clank on the floor. Arthur glanced at his hand.
He still clutched two of the dragon-coins. One had dropped to the floor of his truck, and further inspection revealed one more fallen on the seat beside him and one somehow tucked into his pocket. Five coins in all; whether it was good gold or not, Arthur couldn't tell. His mother was superstitious, and suspicious to boot; if he came back with even one coin she would refuse to touch it, let alone spend it. A yellowed cover caught his eye; Arthur picked up the thing the man had dropped in his window: a small book, more like a pamphlet, really. He read the title: "On the Care and Feeding of Dragons and Their Eggs." On a whim, he opened it and read a few pages:
"No. 1: For best results, store the dragon egg in a cool, dry place, with plenty of room to grow. The larger it can grow before hatching, the better-behaved your dragon will be. Also, the more remote the location, the less chance of disturbance, which will only serve to exacerbate the incubation period.
No. 2: Proper hatching processes involve the use of gold and fire; gold to protect the hatchling, and fire to cure the shell for an easy emergence.
No. 3: An abandoned dragon will imprint on the first scent it detects upon hatching. Make sure to place a prized possession nearby, as the dragon will likely be as devoted to you as you were to the thing they imprint upon..."
With an angry bellow, Arthur tossed the book out the window. The charlatan had nearly had him; he had almost fallen for that whole dragon shtick. He would just have to find some other means of getting the money they needed.
Arthur sat in his truck, but the idea of that insane book still ate at him. He climbed out of the truck, and stomped on the book, grinding paper and ink into the dust and dirt. But it wasn't enough. Arthur felt the urge seize him: he needed to destroy the book, rid himself of every last shred of evidence that he had ever met the man. Digging into the glove compartment of his truck, he pulled out his dad's old lighter. He picked up the battered book and made sure all five coins were in his pocket as he made his way into Echo Cave, all the way back to the foot of The Egg. Tossing the book down, he dropped the coins on top of it, and torched the whole mess. The book burned quickly, becoming nothing but layers of blackened ash, as the coins seemed to lose substance as well, melting and pooling as if there happened to be a dragon nearby. Arthur watched the blaze.
"Artie?" He looked up as Sam's voice echoed through the cave. "You in there?"
Arthur trudged out of the cave, leaving his one act of vandalism behind. "Sam," he said, shaking his head and returning to reality, "what are you doing here?"
Sam clapped him on the back. "Heard you were selling your truck, and I just knew there would be trouble! Why didn't you tell me you were strapped?"
Arthur shrugged awkwardly as they headed back to Sam's car, parked alongside the truck. Arthur smirked; guess nobody was getting his truck now. Tow trucks weren't allowed this far outside the city limits; his dad's memory would be stranded out here till the last bolt rusted away.
Sam nodded toward it. "You wanna—"
"It's dead anyhow," Artie informed him. "What's the point?"
Sam nodded. "Well then let me give you a ride home."
Arthur winced. "Actually," he said. "I think I'd rather spend the day with you, if that's okay."
Sam wasn't rich, at least, not in the traditional sense of the word, but he had a decent pad, consistent work, enough food for two people. He shrugged.
Arthur forgot all about crackpots and dragons as he hung out with Sam, doing odd jobs to assist his friend, and trying to be as useful as he could. He sank onto the "guest mattress" on Sam's floor that night, and merely dropped off to sleep without much preamble.
Whatever his intentions, his psyche had other ideas; that night, Arthur dreamed of his little bonfire in Echo Cave, but in his dream the flames built and grew till they engulfed the entire surface of The Egg, roaring and licking over the rocky surface. Rather than burn out, the flames seemed to leave behind an oily sheen, and when they finally died, Arthur dreamed that they left behind an egg that really did look like a massive shell of glossy black stone swirled and flecked with gold. The "shell" split with a loud CRACK, and Arthur bolted awake.
Sam stood in the small corner that served as his kitchen, looking up sheepishly as he bent over the remains of an eggshell shattered on the floor.
"Sorry about the noise," he said. "I was trying to let you sleep while I got ready for work, but the shell slipped out of my hands."
Arthur placed a hand on his chest to quell his galloping heart. "It's all right," he finally managed. "I just had a really weird dream—"
Sam stood completely still, staring over Arthur's head with a strange expression on his face.
"Dude...." He spluttered.
Arthur stood and followed Sam's gaze to the window. "What are you—oh."
Sam's window afforded a decent view of the skyline—and towering over that was an enormous, scaly form, stretching its neck and flexing its wings and moving its massive head, as living animals usually did. In the early morning light, the newly-hatched dragon raised its head and roared at the sun.