THE CHALLENGER IN THE VALE OF DRAGOS by Jesse Zimmerman

Part Two

While venturing on through a maze of mountains, the flying ship our heroes rode went crashing into an elevated plateau of some kind. Flora, with her perfect memory due to the blue slug in her head, saw and remembered the bones of a great dragon on the other side of this mountain wall. Here on this green plateau, our story plateaus as well…

I wake up a little sore, confused more than anything. 

I rest on a cosy pillow in a small bed that looks like it was made for someone my size. A furry blanket is over me, covering my toes up to my chin. I feel content and warm, my feet particularly toasty and I’m fairly sure that my hosts are not captors, or lest they make a comfortable prison. Calming sunlight streams in from a window behind the bed.

The room is as warm, the walls of light wood. There’s only a small desk and chair across from me and a big closed door to the left. 

I see a figure. I lean myself up and wipe both eyes. 

“Fauna!” I cry when my sister comes into focus. I’m feeling a rush of joy!

Her arm wrapped in a cloth sling, she stands at the foot of the bed, the sun lighting up her red outfit and cap. She begins slowly laughing. I expect the Challenger to barge in the door next and for the three of us to have a big happy scene, but he doesn’t and I ask where he is.

“Are your limbs working?” Fauna asks.

My legs ache a bit, but I am okay to walk. As I get up Fauna tells me she jumped from the stern of the ship as it crashed, landing on her right arm, but was quickly found and brought here.

“Is it broken?” I ask.

“The ship? Yes. If you meant my arm, only a little,” she says with a smile.

“Where are we?” I ask as we leave the cosy room and enter a long hallway with reddish walls. There are doors every few paces on both sides, small torches hung and burning between them. We head to a bigger door at the end of the hallway.  

“Well, I’ve slept most of the time just like you,” she tells me. “I was told I was out for two days.”

“Really?” I gasp, realizing that there are some things that my blue brain slug cannot determine; time and space become warped when one is wounded and asleep. I also realize I am not wearing my spectacles. “Are the people here friendly?” 

“They tended to us, didn’t they?” Fauna says as she pushes the door to reveal a chamber three times the size of the room we were just in. Warm air hits me as we enter. It feels like a summer marsh. There is glistening white fog everywhere, but I can make out the four walls, the furthest of which has a few small windows. The daylight makes rainbows in the steam.

I hear a man’s voice singing.

Before us is a big porcelain tub in the centre of the room. Our ranger friend is taking a steaming hot bath in bubbly water.

He splashes as he turns around and I can make out a smile on his face. He shouts happily: “I was wondering when you’d wake up!”

I smile. “And how are you?”  

The Challenger stands, sending water over the sides of the tub, and I can barely see him in the rainbow steam and with my bad eyes, but I can make out that his body is about as hairy as his face. Fauna finds a towel and throws it to him. He jumps out, splashing, landing perfectly on the marble floor like a cat, snatching the towel mid-air.

He wraps it about his waist and I see red and brown marks over his muscled torso, and I ask him if he is hurt. 

“Nothing the good healers couldn’t handle,” he says, winking, still wearing his eyepatch. “For once we end up somewhere friendly!”

“Healers?” I ask.  

“Healers!” a defiant voice interjects from behind and I turn, only seeing a slender figure in white stepping over from the left wall. I can see that she stands slightly taller than me and her hair is a deep green shade of which I can only see a little of under the white shawl that is wrapped about her head. I can’t make out her face aside that her eyes are big and also green.

“Hello,” I say, finding her presence both calming and intimidating. 

“Greetings to you, Miss Flora,” says she, her tone softer. She approaches, smelling flowery, and presents to me a pair of spectacles, wide-rimmed and circular like my old ones. I take them and put them on my nose.

I can see her now. She is maybe in her early thirties (an older young person) with small features with a bit of a longish nose, though only slightly and it totally works on her! She too wears spectacles, big ones that rest on the end of it and make her eyes bigger, like me, also resembling an owl with them.    

“New lenses,” she tells me. 

I look her over and can see better than ever. “Thank you!”

She smiles, showing dimples and I feel warm in my face. She then pulls out a tiny feather quill and a small scroll that she rests on her palm for support. “Do you feel any pains in your head or inside your body?”

“No,” I tell her truthfully. “Maybe a bit tired. Fauna came and got me.” I look at my white gown and my face turns hot. “I guess you took my clothes.”

“The clothes were dirty, ripped. We cleaned them, sewed them. And we have all your items,” she said and smiled again as she looked over at my sister and the Challenger. “You guys have quite the interesting stash! I am guessing that you’re adventurers?”

“How did you guess?” asks the Challenger with a chuckle, wiping his wet hair with his dripping hand. 

She laughs before she turns to me. “I imagine you have questions?” 

I nod eagerly. “Many!” I say and ask: “What is this place?”

“You’ve never heard of it? Few outsiders have, I imagine. We once called ourselves New Northsphere because most of our people were from there.”

“Oh yeah,” Fauna says and looks at me. “We literally just saved Old Northsphere.”

“Yeah, I’m from there originally,” adds the Challenger.

“Oh? Over the generations many others have been brought here from elsewhere too, so we call our home the Valley of Dragos,” our new host explains.

“Dragos?” I ask, my brain slug turning up no reference.

“We’ve been here for at least two hundred years. Let me take you on a balcony tour and then I can answer all your questions,” says the green-haired healer. She tells us to meet her in the hallway soon and tells us her name is Emera as she leaves.

“She seems nice,” I tell the others.

The Challenger nods. Fauna tells me that she has a daughter she saw earlier, a little version of Emera who is really cute. My ranger friend turns to me and mouths something, something that I can’t quite make out, but it seems to rhyme with ‘ilf’. I ignore it as a pair of attendants, a smiley boy and a girl who look younger than me and Sis, arrive with my clothes and a tray with three glasses of a juice of undecided between lemon and orange, but very refreshing. We soon get our items back as well and I go back to my lent room to change. The clean fabrics are nice and bouncy and pressed and smelling meadowy! 

Fauna and I then fetch the now clothed Challenger and Emera returns and takes us down the other way and then up a set of winding stairs that remind me of the library we were in on our last adventure. We arrive up in a big room, an atrium with a high ceiling, a golden dome with four bronze-hued beams that run out from the circular edges and conjoin in the middle into a cross (or an X depending on what angle). I can hear Fauna gasp but I am looking at Emera, who has moved on up ahead toward one of the walls where there is a big door.

“We see a lot of atriums in our adventures,” remarks the Challenger.

I follow our white-clad, green haired host out the door into sunlight, to a balcony that wraps around this tall building we are in. Fauna and the Challenger soon arrive at our sides. Emera tells us it’s the Healing House, and she seems to anticipate the next thing I want to ask her.

“There is our library,” she says, pointing an arm, moving to the stone rail. I follow and see across the way an even taller tower, about six stories, a pearl-white spire that is set among the roofs of smaller structures. It is far taller than any of the other things I see, most of which from here are just roofs of various colours. She then moves her pointing arm to the next largest building in view, a big pastel green one that is as wide as the library is tall and she tells us this is their great hall. 

I lean my upper body over the rail slightly. Spreading out from the base of the Healing House, straight down, I see first a brick road and a line of markets, typical box-like shops, some with tents over counters at their fronts. Beyond is another street and then a complex of homes, some two, others three storeys tall. I also see open spaces, like open plazas among the clustered structures, and I see too what look like wagons, tiny from here, that move through the streets and squares with no horses. There are people too, many people! And they swarm the streets, and I soon notice that many crowd at the base of this building, and yet others approach from alleys and streets.

As far as I look are more lanes and buildings, and it all expands on until I see fields and more unpaved spaces with homes further apart from one another. It eventually ends halfway from where we stand to the furthest wall of mountains, great farmland, meadows, and some clumps of woodlands with winding rivers in the distance before the wide mountain wall.

“You don’t even need a town gate,” remarks the Challenger to our host. “You know, for when barbarians and kobolds might try to raid?”

“Doesn’t happen here,” Emera says with a shrug and a shake of her head, her face bunching up a bit. 

She leads the three of us all the way around the stone balcony. It is thin, but has enough space for us to walk abreast one another. There are beautiful flowers in clay pots every ten feet or so, some flying insects buzzing about them. I don’t get a close enough look at the flowers or the bees to identify them with the help of the slug in my head as I am too busy looking out over the city. On the far side of the balcony we see that we are closer to the great wall of rock that rises from this edge of the city. At its base I see wooden shacks and lines of track. I look at my sister and the ranger, seeing all three of their eyes are wide in amazement.

“Mines,” Emera tells us. “There are rocks under these mountains, all of them, as far as we can dig. The miners,” she says, motioning her head and sighing. “They go only so far.”

“Oh?” asks Fauna and she looks at me.

I know what she will ask.

“Can we go through the mines, under the mountains and leave when we’re fully healed?” 

“Yeah, I probably just need a few more Hit Points and I’ll be good to get ranging again,” says the Challenger and winks with his one eye again. 

Emera, our host and healer who has been thus far so warm and friendly, suddenly looks sad. She bites her lower lip and speaks: “I am really sorry, but no one leaves the Vale of Dragos.”

“What?” I say and gaze at Emera, trying to recall something, anything I might know about this place, how to leave, or if I saw something as we fell that could be a way out. 

I find nothing. 

“Oh, we don’t work well as captives,” Fauna groans. 

Emera shakes her head. “No, it’s not that. It’s just—no one can leave. We are trapped until Dragos returns and bring us out. Until that day, I’m afraid you’re New Northspherians, or Dragosians, or whatever. Sorry. But it’s not a bad place to live. And we are told that Dragos will come back soon.”

“Dragos?” I ask. Even without the help of the brain slug I can tell where this is going. “Tell me about Dragos…is this a big dragon with horns and wings?”

Emera smiles again and nods and the image of the gigantic draconian skeleton I saw on the other side of the mountains as we crashed suddenly emerges in my mind.

“Ooooohhhhh.”  

CONTINUES NEXT WEEK

 

Carter Ward—Space Rat by Gregory KH Bryant.

 

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