Varkodia: The Blessing of a Curse
Chapter 1: The worst quest ever
There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Then again, a lot of things weren't always as they were at that point. For starters, I didn't always have frog hands. Every morning, I would wake to disappointment and see a set of glimmering, slimy, green fingers precariously plopped onto the edge of my damp palms. It was hard to look, but I had to be sure they weren't just something I'd dreamt up. They were not.
I was normal once though - well, as normal as a human boy can be. That was until a few weeks ago when I foolishly tried to pickpocket a warlock at the North Gate markets. I didn't know who he was until it was too late, and he'd caught me red handed. I suppose Zakel thought it would be a well-suited punishment to ironically turn my 'sticky fingers' into literal sticky fingers. He was a creative warlock, I had to give him that.
The sun pierced through the tops of my gloves as I followed the others down the narrow path which descended into the valley. I winced as I caught a glimpse of my green skinned hands, before readjusting my gloves and tucking in the sleeves of my shirt to fully cover them.
"Hurry up," Kaelo moaned impatiently from directly in front of me. Her sharp green ears had become raised, the way they did when she was irritated, which was often. "You're slowing us down. Move your fa-"
"Buzz off, I'm going as fast as I can," Buckley snapped from up front. I'm not sure why we had let Buckley take the lead, he was struggling to climb over a lot of the obstacles, but I suppose being over a hundred years old meant he knew a thing or two about quests, and he was still surprisingly nimble for a centenarian dwarf.
From what I had gathered, Kaelo and Buckley were old friends, although they certainly didn’t act like it. They were here for similar reasons as me, or at least Kaelo was anyway. She was human once, but she'd been caught breaking into Zakel's home a few days before I crossed his path, and I suppose he had done to her what he had done to me. I don't quite understand why he chose a goblin of all creatures, but Kaelo was a goblin nevertheless, and to be honest, it kind of suited her wicked demeanour.
I’d only managed to piece together small parts of what had happened, but I’d heard mutterings of Buckley's ill wife, and Kaelo’s ‘foolish’ plan to steal a cure from Zakel. That clearly hadn’t worked out so well. For some reason, Zakel never transformed Buckley into anything though – he had always been a dwarf. Perhaps he took pity on him, or perhaps it was because he wasn’t the one who had smashed one of the windows trying to get into Zakel's house.
But as cruel as Zakel could be, he was fair. He had promised to return us both to our true forms and provide a cure for Buckley’s wife if we repaid him with a small favour. A favour we had since learned was not so small after all, but it's not like we had a choice. I couldn't live with frog hands forever, although for a moment I considered it. Even if I could have though, Buckley and Kaelo certainly wouldn't have given up so easily. So, we took the offer and ended up here, in Star Horn Valley, looking for dragons because the warlock had decided he wanted their scales for lord knows what. He was quite adamant that no harm would come to them since they shed their scales so frequently, and that we could simply collect previously shed scales from a lair. I don't think it had occurred to him that we were more worried about being burned alive than hurting the dragons. Still, it was nice to know he cared about something at least, even if it wasn't us.
Kaelo let out a frustrated sigh, "I suppose it's not your fault you've got such stumpy little legs." Buckley ignored the dig and continued trudging on, pushing foliage out of the way with his sheathed sword, and leading us further into the Valley. It was funny hearing Kaelo mock Buckley's height given that she was even shorter than he was, but I suppose she hadn't quite come to terms with her new form. "You know, Buckley, they say dwarves are only so short because their mothers like doing the nasty while pregnant and it flattens the babies."
"Oh shut up, Kaelo, ya great twat!" Buckley snapped as he turned to swing his sheathed sword at Kaelo's head, but Kaelo dodged out of the way effortlessly. The two shared a moment of silent glares. Buckley flared his nostrils furiously before turning back to the narrow path. It was quite entertaining watching them stir each other up. Still, even though they were both only a fraction of my height, I wouldn’t want to get on either of their bad sides. So, I kept quiet and just watched the show from a few feet behind, while trying to keep up the pace.
A deep sigh emanated from a few feet behind me, and I jumped, only to realise it was Leung. He was the fourth and final member of our squad; a massive eight-foot tall yeren, covered head to toe in matted brown fur. For a moment, I’d forgotten he was with us. It wasn't exactly clear what his deal was. He didn't talk much, but he seemed to work for Zakel. I suppose he was made to come along to ensure we didn't get into any more trouble. Entrusting two thieves and a thief's accomplice with an important task probably isn't the wisest decision, but I suppose supervision from a giant man-ape was enough to appeal to Zakel. The added bonus was that Leung was so big, he was able to carry just about all the supplies we needed for the trip with very little effort, so the rest of us barely had anything to carry at all. Unfortunately, the lighter journey also meant that Kaelo had extra energy to put towards being a menace while we walked single file down the narrow path.
"Why are we even out here anyway?" Kaelo continued as though nothing had happened. "That old warlock was probably full of absolute centaur shit. I could smell the moonshine on his breath before he’d even said a word about any dragons, you know?" No one answered. "And what makes him so sure there are even any dragons out here anyway? No one's seen any in a couple of centuries. They all flew south after the Astomi Uprising from what I heard..." Still, no one answered, and the only response to Kaelo's rapid-fire questions was the sound of crunching dirt beneath our feet. I almost felt bad for her but she was quite irritating. Perhaps it was a symptom of the goblin transformation, as they're renowned for being devious creatures. "It just doesn't make any sense..."
"Well," I chimed in, finally giving in to Kaelo's persistence, "Maybe they came back? The astomi aren't really a threat anymore, right?"
"Ah I don't know about that, frog hands. Rumour has it, there's still small troops roaming the outskirts of Varkodia, killing and dismembering any unlucky travellers who get in their way - and not in that order," Kaelo said ominously. There was a small pause for a moment as Kaelo pondered, before she continued with her talking, "You know you and the astomi aren't so different, Leung,” she said, turning her head back so Leung could hear. “Neither of you ever talk and you both scare the absolute crap out of me."
I could hear Buckley chuckle up ahead, "Only difference is that the astomi don't speak because their mouths are permanently sealed shut, and Leung doesn't speak because he won't waste his breath conversing with morons like you, Kaelo"
"And he strikes back!" Kaelo exclaimed in an excited tone as though she flourished on the banter.
"It is untrue that I do not speak," Leung boomed from close behind me. His voice was always much deeper than I expected, but it had a comforting tone to it and a strange hint of sophistication as well. "Although I concur that Kaelo does exhibit certain... Vexatious attributes."
"Ouch," Kaelo muttered from up ahead, "Burned by the walking thesaurus..."
I couldn't help but smile while listening to the conversation. "What do you think the worst quest anyone has ever been on is?" Kaelo piped up again. It was as though she couldn't tolerate silence for more than a few seconds at a time, which was frustrating because I quite liked listening to the sounds of the forest. The gentle breeze stroking through the leaves and the occasional bird song were truly serene. I managed to hold off on my response this time, partly because I didn't know the answer, and partly because we'd been walking for a few hours and I was starting to tire.
After a few seconds of silence, Leung's deep voice boomed from just a few feet behind me again, "I believe that would be when Sir Llew Blackstone and his men became lost in the Blood Plains. As the story goes, a pack of wendigos attacked in the night and tore them to pieces, however, some of the men were kept alive for almost three days while the wendigos cons-"
"Ok, no, I meant like, the worst quest ever that doesn't involve a horrifically gruesome death."
"Perhaps the Legend of the Aloroi Brothers, then? It is said that four young elven warriors once sought the service of Kamiyoko the Witch in search of eternal life. However, she deceived them, and instead consumed their souls. As a result, they were imprisoned in this world for all of eternity, unable to ever pass on to the next life. Surely this is the worst quest ever of which you speak?"
"Nope, definitely not. Never mind, that's enough from you Mr. I-take-everything-so-seriously-that-it-makes-everyone-uncomfortable. Did you trade your sense of humour for extra height or something? Lighten up buddy, jeez."
Leung let out a confused sigh and then returned to his smouldering silence once more. For a while, the conversation actually ended, and we continued our march through the jagged path between the trees in silence. According to Zakel, dragons typically built their layers in rough terrain on the side of mountains, which meant trekking deep into the Valley. The path winded and curved around and was clearly not well travelled, with debris, rocks and foliage covering large sections almost entirely. After a few more minutes of walking in blissful silence, Buckley came to a stark halt, and Kaelo and I almost ran straight into him.
"Hey, watch it," Buckley snapped, turning back to glare at Kaelo.
"Well it's not my fault you suddenly stopped with no warning. What are you - ohhhh," Kaelo said as she stared down into the giant canyon. It must have been at least a hundred feet to the other side, and in between the cliffs, it dropped down to such a distance that it was difficult to see what was at the bottom. Dots of green trees surrounded a tiny stream far below the edge of the cliffs which was probably, in reality, rather large but merely dwarfed by the distance.
"But there's supposed to be a bridge here," Buckley said in confusion, fumbling with the map that Zakel had given us.
"Perhaps we have ventured off course?" Leung reasoned.
"No. I've been following this map exactly. It's supposed to be here."
"Well I have a feeling that if there was supposed to be a bridge here, then it'd be here. They don't just up and disappear," Kaelo said sarcastically.
"Aha! But that's where you're wrong!" a voice chirped from up above us.
We all turned in unison towards the source of the sound. A few metres above us on a large boulder, perched like a posing supermodel on a wooden throne, was the most peculiar looking bridge fairy I'd ever seen. She had long blonde hair that was wrapped around her seemingly unevenly shaped head in what looked like a poor attempt to replicate a decent hairstyle. She was dressed in a bright purple gown made of sequins that made her glimmer in the sunlight. But despite the effort she'd clearly put into looking glamorous, her skin was a murky grey colour, and was plagued with lumps. She had a strange look about her that was hard to describe. It was as though she was attempting to look much younger than she was, and it clearly was not working very well. She couldn't have been more than two feet tall, although it was hard to tell from down below where we stood.
"I am Bridgette, Guardian of the Bridge, and Master of Riddles,” the bridge fairy chuffed.
"Wait, so, you're telling me, your name is Bridgette and you guard… the bridge... Was that like, an intentional pun or...?" Kaelo asked, a smile teasing at her lips.
For a split second, the bridge fairy’s expression became grim, as though she were offended but in an entirely unsurprised manner, but she quickly redeemed her superficial smile and continued with her grand introduction, ignoring Kaelo’s comment entirely, "Fear not, weary travellers, the bridge you seek is not lost, but merely hidden. In order to unveil it, you must complete one simple task."
"I'll take that as a no then," Kaelo muttered under her breath.
"I will present you with three riddles. If you can answer at least one correctly within the twenty second time limit, I shall grant you passage."
"And if we fail to answer any of them correctly?" I asked curiously.
"Then you all die," the bridge fairy responded flatly. For a moment, we all exchanged shocked expressions, and Kaelo let out a small gasp, but before any of us could properly process what had been said, Bridgette burst out laughing. "I'm joking, I'm joking! You must simply return again tomorrow and try again." All four of us let out an irritated moan as the bridge fairy smiled blankly from up on her rock. "Do you wish to proceed?"
We all glanced each other over and it was immediately apparent we knew what had to be done. We were all exhausted from the walk, but there was no way we were getting to where we needed to be without using that bridge. I turned back to the bridge fairy and nodded.
"Fantastic! Riddle number one: what has four legs but never walks, is loved at parties, but never talks?"
There was a pause for a moment while we all thought, and then Kaelo's voice suddenly boomed from beside me, "Oh, oh, I know! It's Buckley's mum, she loses her voice all the time and loves a good party but she's a right lazy cow - never gets off her a-"
Buckley clubbed Kaelo in the arm with the butt of his sword to stop her talking, but before she could even react, the bridge fairy interjected.
"Incorrect! The correct answer was... A chair!"
"For Lord's sake, Kaelo," Buckley scorned. "Keep your mouth shut for once so we can get across this damned bridge."
Kaelo actually looked surprisingly remorseful as she looked up at Buckley, rubbing her arm and glancing over towards Leung and I apologetically. "Sorry, my bad."
"Wait," I said, calling out to the bridge fairy, desperately trying to reason with her, "That wasn't our answer.”
"Too bad! Only one answer per riddle! If you're wrong, you're wrong.” I rolled my eyes and let out a frustrated sigh, but Bridgette paid no notice, she seemingly couldn’t have cared less. “Moving on...Riddle number two: I disappear as soon as you say my name. What am I?"
We all turned away from the bridge fairy this time and formed a small circle to stop her from listening. There was a short silence for a few seconds as we all thought, and then Leung spoke quietly to the three of us so that Bridgette couldn't hear, "Perhaps a Kobold? They are renowned for being shy creatures that vanish whenever approached."
"Ten seconds remaining," the bridge fairy chuffed. She was clearly enjoying herself.
"It doesn't sound right, but it's all we've got, right?" I asked in a hushed whisper. The others all nodded in agreement. I turned to the bridge fairy and yelled with a verbal lack of certainty, "A Kobold!"
"Your answer is... Incorrect!" the bridge fairy boasted. "The correct answer was... Silence! You have one riddle remaining. Fail to answer this correctly and YOU SHALL NOT PASS!"
"How original of you," Kaelo said sarcastically, rolling her eyes.
"Riddle number three: how many years in a century have three hundred and sixty-five days?"
The four of us quickly returned to our huddle. This was our last chance to cross the bridge and the panic was creeping in.
"Well," Leung said calmly, "There are three hundred and sixty-six days in a leap year, which occur every four years. However, you would need to know when the first leap year in the century occurred in order to know how many of them were in an entire century. It appears we're missing something..."
"Ten seconds remaining," the bridge fairy chuffed.
"Let's just go with twenty-five then: one hundred divided by four is twenty-five, right?" Buckley reasoned.
"Sounds good to me," Kaelo said in agreement. It was unusual for her to actually agree with Buckley, but I suppose the pressure and the possibility that we wouldn't be crossing the bridge was finally getting to her as well. Leung remained silent but nodded his head slowly.
After taking a deep, frustrated breath, Buckley turned to the bridge fairy and spoke up, "The answer is-"
"Wait!" I shouted, as I suddenly realised what we'd been missing. "I know the answer." The others all turned to me in confusion. "It's all one hundred of them. A leap year has three hundred and sixty-six days. So technically, every year has three hundred and sixty-five days, leap years just have one extra."
"Ohhh," Buckley and Kaelo said in unison.
"I concur. That is the most likely answer," Leung added.
I nodded and turned to the bridge fairy, repeating my answer to make sure she'd heard, "It's one hundred. All of the years have three hundred and sixty-five days."
Bridgette rolled her eyes and let out an audible sigh. "Yes, yes, I heard you the first time," she said bitterly before suddenly forcing an upbeat voice, "Your answer is... Correct! Well done travellers. You've just won yourself one million silver."
We all frowned doubtfully, but Kaelo piped up in excitement, "Really?!"
"I hate silver. But you did win yourself free passage over the bridge." The bridge fairy lunged into a dance as she swung her body chaotically around the top of her rock, while waving her arms in the direction of the canyon. It was hard not to laugh at her eccentricity. A shimmering light emanated from the canyon a few metres ahead, and when the light finally settled, a massive stone bridge had appeared.
The others didn’t hesitate to start crossing the canyon. Bridgette had clearly used up what little patience they had left. As I began to cautiously follow, I turned back to catch a glance at Bridgette, but she was already gone. When I turned back, the others had already made it to the other side of the canyon, with Kaelo in the lead this time. I suppose she’d become too impatient to get stuck behind Buckley again. Quickening my pace, I swiftly crossed the bridge, doing my best not to peer over the edge of the terrifyingly short wall which separated me from certain death, and we continued our journey.
After venturing even further into the valley for what felt like hours, Kaelo came to a stop and began twitching her stumpy nose.
"What is that ABYSMAL smell?!" she scorned, sniffing the air in disgust.
"It appears to be mountain troll dung," Leung answered, gesturing towards the large mounds of manure which were piled up just a few feet into the shrubbery beside us.
Buckley and I both let out a sigh of disgust as we covered our noses with our sleeves. My gloves had become loose again, and I could see the slimy green skin of my hands through the gaps at the tops of them, but this time, covering my nose from the horrific stench took priority.
The foliage in the area had been flattened and was clearly frequented often by the mountain trolls. There were small piles of wooden clubs and tools that had been left laying around, and half dug holes full of leaves that I could only guess served as beds. I peered around cautiously, checking to make sure the area truly was devoid of any mountain trolls. "Should we be concerned that they'll come back?" I asked nervously. "I mean, they can be quite territorial, can't they?"
Leung turned to answer my question, "Yes, it would be wise to move on. It is likely that they merely left to forage for the day. Mountain trolls typically return to the same area to rest every night around sundown."
I nodded, grateful that we didn't have to stick around for much longer. The sun was already sitting low in the sky, and I didn't have the energy to outrun an angry giant. The four of us began moving on, but as we stepped forward, something glimmered in the corner of my eye. Wedged in one of the piles of manure, a circular golden object shone brightly.
"Is that...?” I trailed off.
"A dragon scale," Leung said, stepping closer to the putrid pile.
"How on earth did a dragon scale get into a pile of mountain troll crap?" Kaelo whispered loudly in disgust, covering her stumpy nose with the sleeve of her shirt.
"How does anything get into mountain troll crap, Kaelo?" Buckley asked sarcastically.
Kaelo rolled her eyes, "So you're telling me some pea-brained mountain troll managed to slay a dragon and gobble it down for afternoon tea?"
"That is unlikely," Leung interrupted, "Mountain trolls are scavengers and do not tend to consume other creatures unless they are already dead. They are not predators by nature. Regardless, I doubt a mountain troll would be able to pull off such a difficult feat as slaying a dragon even if it wanted to."
"So, something else slayed the dragon first?" I asked curiously.
Leung nodded his head solemnly, "It appears so."
"Yikes," Kaelo whispered.
"But what could possibly kill a dragon? Aren't they supposed to be at the top of the food chain? And even if someone could kill a dragon, why would they want to? I heard they were supposed to be quite gentle creatures, unless provoked," I asked in shock.
Leung's face suddenly became very solemn, "Being at the top of a food chain often means not being the largest, or the fiercest of creatures, but rather, the most sinister. Beings that are willing to use and destroy others for their own material gain are, unfortunately, always the ones to rise to the top." Buckley grunted in agreement while Kaelo and I tried to process what had been said. "While this is worrying, it does present us with a rare opportunity," Leung continued. "We no longer have to risk our lives trying to find and enter a dragon's lair to obtain scales..." My stomach churned and we all stared at Leung in disgust as we realised what he was suggesting.
"No, oh no, no, no, no, no, nooooo," Kaelo stammered. "There is no way I'm doing what I think you're suggesting, big guy. Nope."
"We require, at the very least, twenty large dragon scales. There is a lot of waste in the area, but it will take some time to find enough scales, assuming that there are any more. If we all contribute, we may be able to find enough scales before the mountain trolls return at nightfall."
"Still a solid no from me thanks, carpet face."
"Oh grow up, Kaelo," Buckley snapped. "It's either this or searching the Valley for who knows how many more days. Stop being a pain in the arse and just help us out."
"Ugh, fine," Kaelo sighed, "I'll help. But you know what? I don't care what Leung has to say about those stupid elf brothers, or Sir Blackstone, I'm just gonna go ahead and say it right now - THIS, right here, is without a doubt, the worst quest ever."
I hoped Kaelo was right, and that searching through mounds of mountain troll dung would truly be the worst of it, but deep down, the feeling clawed away at me that there were far worse things to come.
About the author
I confess, I don't exactly have a specific topic or writing style, or an organised train of thought for that matter. On the plus side, that means there's probably something here everyone ;)
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Niche topic & fresh perspectives