There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Their numbers having boomed, from practically extinct to thriving, in the past five years. When the pythoness Mabegold had risen to High Witch she had banned the slaughter of dragons and other such creatures, on penalty of death. What was a popular decision at the time, was now a source of contention for her subjects as they negotiated a new lifestyle among predators. As I stood on the precipice of the valley entrance and looked down, I had to agree that life was getting dangerous.
The valley of Irazu stretched before me. The only way to reach the planet Vulcans capital, Opala City, was to go through this steaming green death trap. I touched the package I was carrying, a message and an important artefact, that I had not actually laid eyes on myself. I had been entrusted by the warlock Thabe with the quest to deliver this parcel to the capital and instructed on its import and urgency, but not its content. I fought my doubts about the wisdom of giving this task to a Terran. I didn’t have any magic. I wasn’t even from this world. I was a twenty-year-old girl who had lived her whole life on a farm on the other side of the planet, and I was about to die in the thick acrid air of Irazu.
Pushing my fears down into the pit of my gut, I took in the surrounds. On the left side sheer cliffs rose from the valley floor, smooth and straight and untraversable. On the right side the largest of the planets many volcanos sat, aptly named Valak, it was perfectly peaked and steaming quietly. The crater was deep, bubbling magma lay within. Valak was always threatening to erupt, sometimes spewing ash and fire into the azure sky. Through the gap between these two obstacles was the incredibly rich and diverse Irazu. Monstrous plants with broad stretching leaves like green umbrellas, and feathered fern arms, formed a dense undergrowth and battled for light. The lush rainforest edged with trees fifty metres tall, straight sentinel’s guarding the valley, home to more species of organism than had yet been documented, it teemed with life.
Home to dragons. This was the perfect breeding ground for dragons. They used the liquid magma to keep their internal fires burning, allowing them to breathe short blasts of fire from a special gizzard. The heat also kept their eggs warm and allowed the thriving smorgasbord of available food to char grill. I could see a flight of Aak lazily drifting in circles above the volcano, riding the hot air. They were the most common dragons, their body a bit bigger than the average man but with the addition of a three-metre wingspan.
The Aak had a hide something like bat skin, not scaly but thick rubbery and fireproof, one of the reasons they had been hunted so extensively. Their body, including the tail, resembled a thick set hairless dog, black on the top and red gold underneath, with the membranous wings set low on the shoulders. Four legs, each with a nice razor-sharp set of talons, the head of a fruit bat with over extended pricked ears, two rows of barbed teeth that could regenerate like a shark, they were not to be trifled with. They ran on all fours with their wings folded and could climb a tree just as efficiently as they could fly. The Aak grouped together in flights, herds, they were the only dragons that did that. If one spied you, you soon had the problem of a whole pack of them.
Fortunately, they didn’t really like the taste of Terran, they only killed us if provoked. What they did like however was Gilded Equinox. Guess what I was riding?
Seeing the Aak, Sarita, my Equinox, craned her long swan neck around to look back at me. Her heavy lidded eyes, the irises like faceted amethysts, appealed to me with an “Are you kidding me” expression. I stroked her long silky royal purple mane. “Don’t worry Sarita, this is the very reason you can teleport”. She snorted loudly and twitched under me, clearly disapproving of my plan to cross the Irazu. She extended and retracted her gold gilded side fins, and spun her tail blades, flapping in silent protest.
I continued to study the Valley. What I was really looking for was signs of Balut. Given that Aak were formidable predators and bred clutches of eggs every two years, there had to be something to control their numbers, right? Well that something was the Balut. Solitary, enormous dragons, up to six metres long tip to tail, their favorite snack was Aak. The Balut had mirrored scales that reflected the forest around them, making them very well camouflaged on the ground. When they were in the air, they could control the angle of the scales with sheer precision and reflect the sky. They had clear feathered wings that sliced silently through the air, and a light rangy body type making them very agile. The Balut were long and low, imagine a snake with eagle legs and wings, even the head was reptilian, lizard like but with the same rows of shark teeth on a larger scale. They rarely bothered using fire. They didn’t need to. They were practically invisible.
Unfortunately, their second favorite snack was Terran.
The only way to see a Balut coming was because they gave off a weird kind of light shimmer. Difficult to see, like looking at a mirage from a distance. It was this I was scanning the forest for. Sarita stamped her padded paws, and dug at the ground with her claws, she was getting nervous.
I couldn’t see anything.
“Come on then, the only way to get to Opala City is through that.” I leaned forward encouraging Sarita on. “Let’s go quickly shall we?”.
Sarita flattened her cheetah like body and popped the golden fins, that ran from shoulder to hip, out to allow for extra speed. I pressed down against her as best I could so as not to interfere. There was a convenient gap between her neck fins and her body fins that allowed me to sit in it. We had a twenty kilometre gauntlet to run. She took off, adrenaline surged making me dizzy with anticipation, I grabbed at her neck band, which also held our precious cargo.
Equinox run in leaping bounds, covering enormous amounts of ground on soft padded feet, the fins allowing them moments where they are air borne. They flatten their long neck and can use their three tail blades like a propeller. Their sweet soft faces are similar to an antelope but as they are omnivorous they have teeth that are disconcertingly like my own Terran teeth. I do not recommend teaching them to ‘smile’.
Beautiful to watch, difficult to stick with. Their spotted fur coats come in a variety of colours, Sarita was lilac with purple peacock spots and a white belly side. I had dyed my hair lilac to match and it streamed out behind me now as I held on tightly. From experience I knew that if she decided to ‘flip’, which was like a short teleport, I would only go with her if around 50% of my body was touching hers. If there wasn’t enough contact between us, I would find myself left midair before being unceremoniously dumped on the forest floor. Scaring myself at the thought, I pressed harder against her. She tended to flip when she was nervous. She ran fast and quiet down the path. My eyes darted around searching for danger.
No visibility, just green on all sides now. One sliver of sky through the trees above. We ran on, I let her choose the course. Equinox require a fairly equal relationship with their riders, we simply make suggestions rather than demands, being impolite tends to get you flipped into a tree. Sarita was at full flight speed, we skimmed, glided, and barely touched the ground. I made the mistake of thinking to myself that we were going to make it unnoticed. Enjoying the freedom of the ride I sat up and put my arms out, that moment was of course when I heard a cry from above.
A circling Aak had seen us and was calling to the flight. I slapped back down, put both arms around Saritas neck and crouched low. Three Aak swooped through the gap in the trees above us and flew down the path in pursuit. Luck was on our side, the narrow path made it impossible for them to fly and so dropping to the ground they began to run. We were faster.
Saritas fins started to glow with golden light, like she was lit from within. I knew what this meant and sucked in a breath of air. She flipped. Boom. It was like the world was suddenly made of wet paint and someone had just swirled their brush in it and mixed all the colours in together. The world caved in on me like an implosion, all the air left my lungs. Then with a loud pop we were now, and instant later, twenty metres ahead of where we left off. The acrid thick taste of vomit bubbled up into my mouth. With a disgusted wince I swallowed it, at least I was still with her and not Aak lunch.
Sarita veered off the path and headed into the dense jungle. “Shit” I squealed, slipping to one side I grasped at her fin and pulled myself back up. The Aak balked at entering the jungle and taking back to the sky, split up, they knew they could not catch her on foot. Sarita headed back to the path, but there was now one of the Aak plunging back down ahead of us, in a clearing, two somewhere behind us.
Sarita stalled and reared on her hind legs, spinning to present her only other defence, her tail blades. She could only flip when running fast. Fear took over and in a panic I thought ‘’This is it, they’re going to eat us both’’. As Sarita spun and landed, I turned in terror, gasping, to stare into the dead black eyes of the waiting Aak, wings outstretched teeth bared to strike. I caught a glance of a shimmer to the right. The Aak suddenly exploded hot dark blood from its neck which was now broken in two. The burning blood splashed everywhere, revealing our savior, now partly visible.
“BALUT!” I screamed. As the dead Aak was magically lifted from our path, Sarita leapt forward under it and ran. She was so fast, her tail was spinning us off the ground, tears were streaming from my eyes, my heart pounding along with hers. Her fins lit up the forest and the world turned in on itself, we did the biggest flip I had ever stuck. We popped back into existence 100m down the track, my stomach however felt like it was still back there, suddenly it slingshotted to catch up and lurched straight out my mouth. With sudden violence, I projectile vomited my bloodbread and egg breakfast all over her purple spotted neck. Coming to a slow lope, she looked back at me with horror. “Sorry” I said pathetically, trying to brush the thick sticky chunder off her manicured fur.
As we emerged from the Irazu, I felt triumphant, I stroked Sarita appreciatively and tossed her a Bungara Nut, her favorite treat. Open dragon free plains lay ahead, and I realized for the first time since my journey had begun that we might yet actually make it to Opala City. I could see the distant towers, small needles on the horizon. The message and package that had been entrusted to me might yet make it to Mabegold. But I guess she already knew that.