The Bones of Fire Valley
Chapter 1: The Dragon of Death
“There weren't always dragons in the Valley.” The expert paused and scanned the group with his eyes.
“Thanatosdrakon amaru, the Death Dragon, has been dated to the Late Cretaceous, the last of the three geological periods of the Mesozoic era. These beasts probably perished as a result of the asteroid impact on the Yucatán Peninsula, but until then they were the rulers of the skies here in the Cuyo region. The largest pterosaurs ever discovered in South America, and one of the biggest species discovered in the world.”
Ana looked up at the reconstruction of the beaked monster, three meters tall and with a wingspan of ten meters. It didn’t look like a dragon, at least not the kind she had seen in her storybooks as a kid.
This one looked more like a blood-thirsty pelican. Maybe it was the small eyes or the wide beak. Maybe it was the lack of feathers over the wings that made it look so sinister. Whatever it was, Ana thanked her lucky stars for being born in the modern times, when the biggest dangers she faced were other people. At least they weren’t three meters tall.
“Can you move?” Fede pushed her from the back. “I need a better angle."
Ana turned to the photographer and stuck out her tongue in protest, but gave in and backed away from the group of journalists gathered behind them. Fede could be blunt to the point of being annoying, but she still preferred him to many of the other guys she worked with. At least he was ambitious, always doing his best. And unlike others, had never propositioned her when she was working.
Besides, the presentation of the new species was over and the air was getting heavy in the room, anyway. She needed space, to step away from the crowd to organize her thoughts for the story. It wasn’t exactly her cup of tea, but she’d had to fill in when their science journalist needed to make an urgent trip. Maca owed her for this one, Ana thought as she moved to the back of the room.
This Death Dragon was an amazing discovery, sure. But she was a woman of words, and natural sciences weren’t her thing. There were so many intricacies to a story like this, concepts she could mess up and accidentally set the newspaper's comment section on fire. And setting herself up for failure when the story was about a creature that had been dead for millions of years? No, thank you. She’d never had any fondness for bones, couldn’t understand why these people chose to spend their lives in the desert digging up dirt.
Just for this, Ana thought as she examined a piece of bone placed on a glass-covered display. How could anyone think there was something interesting about rocks and bones?
“We keep the real ones in the back, these are just reconstructions.” Ana turned to see the expert that had given them the presentation, and nodded. He was tall, probably around 35 years old. Shirt and jacket about one to two sizes too big and slightly wrinkled, probably hadn’t been used in a while. A scientist, for sure. She couldn't come up with his name.
“I see. Were you the one who discovered this creature?”
“No, I wasn’t even here in Mendoza at the time. I came in to work with the team that named and reconstructed the animal in the lab.”
“It’s amazing.” Ana looked back at the tall beast, standing in the middle of the room with its wings unfolded.
“Isn’t it? And when you see the bones, the real ones, it’s even more exciting. Just thinking about how long it took for us to find these creatures, the millions of years they’ve been waiting for us. How much more there is to find.” The man’s eyes rounded as he explained, in clear excitement for his work. Then he glanced at Ana and caught her stifling a yawn. “Oh, I see you’re a true fan."
“I’m sorry, it was a long drive and an early morning. I haven't had the chance to get my coffee fill yet."
The man laughed, showing a row of perfect, white teeth. He glanced at his wristwatch.
“I don’t believe you for a second. But I do have something that might interest you. A fresh pot of coffee, I kid you not. I programmed the coffee maker to start brewing about ten minutes ago, so it should be ready by now."
Caffeine was the secret key to a journalist’s heart. “You got me.”
Ana followed the man to a door in the back of the room, where he turned around and put his index finger over his lips as if shushing her. “Don’t tell anybody about this, now, or they’ll all want in on it."
“I won’t. Promise.”
“I’m Javier, by the way.”
“Ah yes, I had it somewhere in my notes. I’m Ana.”
Ana followed the man through a narrow hallway to a warehouse with several high working tables, with computers and microscopes on top. There were large pieces of rocks, some with bones sticking out of them.
Javier walked straight to one of the tables in the back and returned with two large mugs of coffee, handing one of them to Ana.
“Here. So, this is our lab. And here,” he said, showing her one of the tables, “are the bones we collected from Thanathosdrakon that you just saw reconstructed out there.”
“That’s it?” Ana said, sipping on the piping hot coffee.”It doesn’t seem like an awful lot. Are you sure you’ve even built the right beast?”
He laughed. “Well, we do have a team of professionals with PhDs here who have spent their entire lives learning how to read fossils. They’re used to not finding a lot when it comes to pterosaurs simply because these bones are hollow and thin. They’ve usually broken up into smaller pieces and disappeared long before they get the chance to fossilize.”
Ana nodded. “So, are these still so fragile? Why not show these to people? I mean, isn’t a fossil essentially a rock?”
Javier nodded. “Fossilized bone is tough, true, but it can also be extremely brittle. When it’s exposed to the air and the sunlight, it can get damaged over time. Not to mention if people touch it. That’s why most dinosaurs and pterosaurs you see in museums are replicas. Others are covered in a type of glue that maintains them in good condition.”
“Why not cover these?”
“Because we’re not finished with our research on them yet. For years, we’ll study microscopic fragments of these bones, calculating their density and structure, looking for well-preserved cells or bits of DNA that might give us more insights into them.”
“Such as the color of this pterosaur or how fast it flew, for instance. Right now, some of these things are guesswork, but we’ll find out more about the Thanatosdrakon as we finish our calculations."
Someone opened the door of the warehouse and called Javier.
“Wait here, I’ll be right back.” Before he disappeared, he turned back to look at her. “And don’t touch anything, of course.”
“I would never disobey an order,” Ana smiled and sipped her coffee. It was a lie, she was a political journalist. Snooping around where she shouldn't was her passion.
The door closed behind Javier, and Ana turned back to the pile of bones. Maybe he’d been right, there was something about these fossils. Something enticing.
She wanted to fulfill Javier’s wishes, but the bones were drawing her in like a magnet. Was it just the fact that he’d told her to not touch them that made her fingers itch like this?
Casually sipping on her coffee, Ana extended her hand and placed it on the fossilized remains of the Dragon of Death.
- - -
This was a golden opportunity, and probably her last.
The lush green forest hid so many different creatures, but the dragons were rarely here. They’d only pass by on their way up to the mountains in the summer, and they always used a different route.
Ayna squinted to see better in the distance, but the thick vegetation blocked much of the view. She suspected the movement she’d followed here to the west side of Fire Valley had been a big herd.
The only remaining dragon would be the guard, the largest and most ferocious female that took care of the lair, down in the most inhospitable corner of the jungle. The guard always stayed back and followed the rest of the herd at a safe distance, to ensure a surprise attack if a predator was stalking this year’s offspring.
It was probably her last chance to get on. Next year, she’d be far away from the Valley, back in the city and the real world, and she’d never again have the opportunity to ride one. That was the fate of the young people of Fire Valley these days. They chose to forget, and many of them never came back. She didn't trust herself not to do the same.
This was her last chance at true freedom.
Riding one of the dragons had always been her dream. She only knew of one person who’d been able to do it, and it wasn’t the kind of story parents told their kids to encourage them. It was a cautionary tale.
Nico had been her age when he’d disappeared and never come back. They’d never even have known what had happened to him had it not been for some hunters who had been held back by a mudslide in the mountains. Normally, everyone knew to stay away from the dragons’ path in the first days of the summer, but that year the hunters had gotten stranded and were forced to risk it.
They’d been about to enter the jungle when they’d seen Nico, flying away to the mountains on top of a huge, black dragon, hanging on for dear life.
He’d been like a big brother to Ayna, but that wasn’t the reason why she was so determined to get on a dragon herself. She didn’t maintain any hope about saving him, didn't hang on to the delusion that Nico would be found alive if he'd made it up the mountain to the rest of the herd. These were terrible, carnivorous beasts.
The vegetation moved ahead of her, indicating there was at least one more giant coming through the jungle. She braced herself. It was time.
Down here, the dragons didn’t travel as fast as they did on the open skies. They didn’t fly, but stayed in the shadows, using both their legs and folded arms to move across the jungle on all fours. Only once they were out of the jungle, on the foothills of the Andes, did they spread their wings and take flight. That was their safe place, once they were far from the human villages of the valley.
That would be her time to get off.
What if it wasn’t a dragon? What if the thick forest canopy was moving for some other reason? What if she landed on top of an elephant, or right in front of a tiger? It was a gamble.
The motion on the ground was approaching, faster. She needed to make her decision. Get on, or forever admit defeat.
Ayna took a deep breath and jumped.
She slid through the air at speed, the plants cutting into her skin and slapping her face. She struggled to keep her eyes open to avoid being impaled by branches or the spikes on the dragon’s back, but it was impossible.
Finally, at the end of a drop that felt like an eternity, Ayna landed on the dragon’s back. She stumbled, not able to stabilize herself on the strange galloping rhythm of the animal. Ayna began sliding down the back, the hard bumps on its body tearing open the skin on her legs. It was a matter of a fraction of a second until she’d fall.
And then, her hand grabbed something.
It was one of the spikes on the tail. The dragon didn’t react, the tail was so heavily armored and covered with bony protrusions that it must not have had much feeling. A dragon’s tail was a weapon, not an adornment.
She lifted her other hand and managed to grab onto another spike. Then, she began climbing up the creature’s back, supporting her feet on the protrusions on the tail, aiming to grab a spike higher and higher up.
It was tough, but she had trained for this for years. Learning the jungle, getting to know the Valley, climbing trees faster than any of the hunters.
Ayna reached the middle of the back and managed to sit down, holding on to the spikes on the spine with both hands. She raised her head to see, to feel the power of traveling on top of the most terrible beast of the jungle. Possibly the same one that had killed Nico.
There she was, riding the dragon as it ran across the jungle. She had done it.
There was light ahead, and the terrain was growing plain. The edge of the jungle was close. Now, now was the time to jump. Ayna let go of the dragon’s back, closed her eyes and let herself go. It would hurt, but not as much as her first landing on the beast.
But the impact didn’t come. Her feet didn’t touch the ground.
Her shirt was stuck on one of the spíkes.
It was too late.
The dragon spread its wings and, with two swift flaps, took flight in direction of the mountains, unaware of its human stowaway.
- - -
“What are you doing? I told you not to touch them.” Ana snapped out of the vision to find Javier’s stern eyes in front of her and let go of the fossil, flustered. A bit of coffee splashed from her mug and onto the table, narrowly averting the bones.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” She stopped explaining when she identified a twitch in the corner of his mount.
“It’s fine. But seriously, you shouldn’t touch these. If one of them breaks, you’ll be responsible for destroying our national biological heritage.”
“No biggie,” she smiled, struggling to catch her breath.
“No, absolutely not. Maybe a fine for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, or some jail time. You’ll be fine.”
“I get it, I crossed a line. Ha. Sorry. Won’t happen again,” Ana said. “Here’s your mug. I need to get going. That story needs writing. Thanks for the refreshment, though.” What the hell just happened?
“That’s fine, I’ll show you out,” Javier led her back down the hallway. They were almost at the door when he turned to face her. “Where should I send the invoice for… You know, coffee and possible reparations?”
“Um, the Mendoza Times. Ana Farias.”
“Is there an email, or perhaps a direct phone number to contact ?”
“Oh.” Smooth move from a man who spent his days looking into a microscope. “Sure”.
After exchanging contact information, Ana walked back to the van with Fede, half-heartedly chatting with him about the presentation and trying to make up excuses about where she’d gone. Sharing the truth with Fede would only get him, and others, to make jokes about her. Such was the life of a female journalist, or female anything.
It wasn’t exactly professional to give her number to Javier, but she couldn’t stop herself. She wanted to visit the museum again, touch one of those bones.
What was that vision? How had it happened? Did it have something to do with the Death Dragon?
Her fingertips itched. She needed to do it again.
About the author
Finnish by birth, porteña at heart. Recovering political ghostwriter. Fiction, relationships, politics, bad puns, popular and unpopular opinions. Occasional dinosaurs, because dinosaurs are the best.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Original narrative & well developed characters