Alone, Atolla marched forward into the chamber with his hearts pounding deep within his thorax. The breathing of the great beast grew louder by the second and he could smell the foul stench of its breath. Clutching his spear tightly with two hands, he reached back with his others to shut the doors behind him. This was it. The final test. The door latched behind him, sealing shut with a thundering echo. He knew it could only be opened from the outside, and the exit from this place was past the dragon's hatching chamber. How many would whelps would he have to face? Twenty? Thirty? A hundred? Suddenly, torches sprung to life all around him and he was faced with the massive form of the dragon itself – a terrible mountain of bones.
"I killed that son of a bitch almost eighty years ago." The voice startled Atolla, who swung around with his spear instinctively. With a movement so fast that he was hardly sure it had happened at all, the spear was plucked from his hands.
"Of course," the strange old being continued, "I decided not to return and so everyone assumed I had died. I didn't, clearly. I waited here instead, waited for the next person. Offered them the choice I'll now offer you: If you do not want to be part of the Hive, if you want to live life by your own will instead of that of the Queen, you may do so. You may follow me to the land that those like me have founded."
"How... how has nobody ever reported this? How does the Queen not know?"
The man shrugged. "Maybe she does. Either way, it doesn't matter - this is a better test for her than killing a few whelps ever was. If you truly want to dedicate your life to the Queen, you can pass right through to the exit. Otherwise, there's a tunnel I'll show you. Your choice."
"So you want to know if I want to go and live with cowards, hiding in the forest?"
The man smiled. "Cowards? Well, each and every one of them walked into this chamber fully believing that they were about to face dragon whelps - the heavy breathing thing we have going here sounds pretty terrifying if you ask me. That being said, yes, I'm sure some are cowards. I daresay some who defeated the whelps and headed back to the Hive are cowards at heart - not to mention those who were faced with this choice and made their decision out of fear rather than true dedication."
Atolla sneered. What was there besides serving the queen? What would he even do with himself? Was this some sort of trick, was this part of the test? He stared up at the grinning skull of the dragon, and even stripped of flesh its gaze filled him with dread. Slowly, realization dawned on him of what he was feeling.
"I… see. I was afraid to make the wrong choice, I would have gone back to the Hive out of cowardice. Instead, I looked at the dragon... you are not a coward. You killed this beast, and you confront warriors as they enter this chamber and you challenge them knowing that they may attack you, knowing they are younger than you. You have true belief in your cause. I... I believe in the Queen. I will not tell anyone about this... if they knew the choice ahead of time it would diminish the importance of choosing.
The man nodded. "You are a fine specimen. I admit I'm sad to see you go, but what I want most of all is the freedom to make our own choices and you've done that. One more thing, however - "
Like lightning, the old man lashed out and cut Atolla across the face, the arms, the abdomen.
"There! Now you look like you had to fight through some whelps. Any scars those cuts leave are real, Atolla. They have been earned. Look at your brethren and know that those without scars from the trial are those that I felt returned to the hive out of fear. Go."
Atolla headed out of the cavern through the exit and heard the cheering of his friends; he looked out at their knowing gazes and saw a few secret nods or winks from the others that had passed the test. Only the ones with no scars looked down at their feet in shame.