Author’s note: I wrote this piece for a writing contest. We had to write the first chapter of a fantasy story. It could be about whatever we wanted, but the only requirement was that it had to start with the line ‘There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.’ What you’re about to read is the world I created from that one line.
This is different from the other pieces I’ve written for DAY in that it’s not directly inspired by real-life events. It’s purely a fantasy story that allowed my imagination and creativity to run wild. Being able to write a story with all-Asian characters without explicitly saying they’re Asian was liberating. Middle-school me would have loved to read something like this. And who knows? Maybe this could turn into a full-fledged novel one day. Until then, thank you for taking the time to give this piece a chance. Happy reading! :)
There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Back in the day, as Grandpa liked to start his stories, dragons were almost hunted to extinction by humans who thought they were superior. The Crystalguard were a group of humans working together with the remaining dragons. I couldn’t remember where the “crystal” part came from, but it still made them sound really cool. Since then, dragons and humans have lived together in harmony here in Garusha Valley.
We lived by rules and agreements set by our ancestors who walked amongst the dragons to avoid the sins of our past. Any humans who break those rules are banished from the village. While it was never confirmed, many of us believed that banishment was a euphemism for being offered to the dragons. The thought alone was enough to keep everyone in line. Our rules kept us safe, and safety kept us alive.
Although, if there was one person I would love to feed to a dragon, it was Basho.
Basho the Boar, as I liked to call him. He was the village bully who thought it was his dragon-given duty to torment the other kids. At seventeen, he was the oldest teenager in the village… and the meanest. He and his two minions, Faraj and Minho, would rough up boys who accidentally bumped into him. Basho would flirt with girls who repeatedly rejected him, which only motivated him to keep at it.
I tried telling my parents, but they dismissed it as “boys being boys.” I’m a boy, and even I knew that was a terrible excuse. I even went to Basho’s parents directly, thinking they would be outraged at their son acting so terribly. But they assured me that their beloved Basho would never commit such terrible acts. Of course, the brute found out and gave me a black eye. And when I told people how I got it, no one believed me.
If my brains were brawn, I would have stripped him of his self-proclaimed title of King of Garusha. Alas, I was as skinny as a twig with the muscles of a newborn. I couldn’t do much except patch up the kids who had been on the receiving end of his fists. My mom taught me what herbs to crush into a poultice that could be used to dress wounds and the best way to wrap bandages to stop bleeding. Those skills helped, but I still felt powerless. Having power meant making the first move, not cleaning up the mess afterward.
An unsolicited pearl of wisdom my mother had once shared echoed in my mind. Yuri, there is great strength in choosing not to fight.
The sun hung high in the sky, bathing the village in light and warmth. Twice a week, after lunch, I stood in line at the butcher’s shop to purchase meat for dinner. My mom wanted lamb for tonight. As the line shuffled forward, I listened to the sounds of the village. Other vendors hawked their wares, competing to be heard over another. Children wove between the legs of villagers, their laughter accompanied by shouts from their parents. Some of the adults and older teenagers chopped wood into logs for kindling. The noises were a rhythmic cacophony I had grown used to. The smells of salt from the sea and freshly baked goods from the bakery only added to the place I called home.
To the right of the butcher shop was a vendor that sold his own dishes if you didn’t feel like making your own. Various meats and fishes sizzled over open flames, each seasoned with certain herbs and spices. I picked out notes of garlic, ginger, and peppers that blended together in a symphony of scents. My mouth watered at the beef skewers, egg rolls, and ramen bowls. It was all I could do to not jump out of line and buy all the dishes being sold.
The line moved forward. An elderly woman was at the front. Basho was the customer after her. He did his best to keep his face neutral among the other villagers, but I could see the familiar scowl itching to come out. He clearly wanted to be anywhere else but here. Faraj and Minho were nowhere to be seen, which was strange. Maybe they were on a break from being Basho’s sheep.
The woman in front of him purchased her goods and continued chatting with the vendor. That wasn’t uncommon. Everyone knew everyone, so there was always something to talk about. Gossip was exchanged just as often as coin in our little village.
Basho’s shoulders heaved. His foot tapped restlessly against the ground. The placid façade he wore melted into annoyance.
His body went rigid. He clenched his fists. He shoved the woman aside, knocking her against a wooden post. The fruits and vegetables tumbled out of the basket she was holding. The people in line gasped. He might as well have committed murder. The first thing you learn growing up is to always respect your elders. No exceptions. Ever.
There may not have been any dragons nearby, but I could spew my own kind of fire.
“Basho, what is your deal?” I shouted at him. “I know you have the intelligence of dragon dung, but you must be a new breed of stupid if you think it’s okay to hurt the elderly.”
The bully turned around. His long, unkempt hair covered one eye. He thought it looked stylish, when it actually resembled a wet rat that had been flung onto his head. There was a glazed look in his eyes. His body stiffened again, like a jolt of lightning had passed through him. He relaxed just as quickly, and awareness returned to his gaze.
Basho blinked. He stared at the woman, at me, at the people who were glaring at him.
“How dare you hurt her!” someone yelled.
“You should be ashamed!”
“I just want to get my beef.”
“What? I… I didn’t…” The words wouldn’t come out. He looked on with helplessness and confusion, but no one showed him any sympathy. Basho turned and ran.
I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding. Basho preferred fight to flight. That was low, even for him. Whatever. I needed to buy the lamb and get back home.
I crouched down next to the woman. A few strands of silver hair had fallen out of place from her bun. A villager helped me lift her up back onto her feet, as a few other people gathered her fallen produce. “Are you alright, Auntie?” She wasn’t really my aunt, but that was what we called the older women. The village was like one big family, and I took pride in that.
She dusted herself off. I couldn’t see any visible injuries. “I’ll be fine, dearie. My bones may be old, but they’re still resilient. Maybe now people will see how much of a brute that Basho is.” She flashed a smirk.
I let out a small noise of surprise. She was the first adult who had acknowledged Basho’s reign of terror. She did have a point, though. Basho usually messed with the other kids when the adults weren’t watching. He had never done anything so public before.
“Thank you for standing up to him,” the woman said. “Will you walk me home?”
My parents would wonder where I was, but they would also understand. They would rather me show up without the meat than refuse to help another villager. I could get the lamb on my way back. “Of course, Auntie.”
I took the basket with her produce and meat. She directed me to where she lived, and we strolled through the village. The woman would comment on certain buildings. There was the bakery that stopped selling her favorite scones. The bookstore owner secretly supplied her with the steamiest romance novels. And she actively avoided Uncle Shu’s house because he supposedly only bathed once a week. In our few minutes together, she was more interesting than most of the other adults in the village. Aside from the landmarks, she also shared that she was a widow who lived by herself. The other villagers avoided her because of her radical choice to not have any children. I’m sure my parents had something to say about that, as well.
Her house was at the edge of the village. I didn’t remember anyone living this far out, but I also rarely came this way. Ivy grew along the gray stone walls. Some shingles were missing from the otherwise intact roof. A raven perched at the top studied me with its ink-filled eyes.
“Thank you for helping me, sweetie,” she said, a warm smile filling her face. “Your parents raised you well.”
“Happy to help. Is there anything else you need before I go?” I really needed to get back to the meat vendor before the lamb ran out, but my manners had a mind of their own.
“Actually, there is one thing. Are you familiar with the cave inside the Burning Forest?”
Everyone in the village knew about that cave. The hills surrounding the valley were dotted with caves where the dragons made their nests. The humans lived peacefully with the dragons mostly because both species stayed a respectable distance from each other. However, there was one cave in the Burning Forest that supposedly not even the dragons entered. If the swirling rumors of the village were to be believed, it housed a cursed dragon. No one could verify it because no one dared to find out. The Garushans were a superstitious bunch. The strange noises and lights that emanated from the cave were seen as bad omens. The leader of our village forbade anyone from venturing into it. We all obeyed her; even Basho and his male ego never went.
All the rumors only made me more curious about the cave, though. But as much as I wanted to investigate, I could never work up the courage to, lest I invoke the wrath of my parents if they ever caught me.
I shuddered. “The one no one is allowed to enter?”
“Yes!” she said with enthusiasm. “I go up there to meditate.”
She said it so casually, I almost missed it. “Wait, you’ve been inside the cave? The one with the cursed dragon?”
She dismissed my words with a wave of her hand. “Child, there is no cursed dragon. In fact, there’s nothing in there at all. Just rocks and bugs. It’s precisely because no one else goes up there that it’s the perfect place to fortify the mind.”
It made sense, but the fact that someone had been going to the cave still unnerved me. Our village prospered because everyone followed the rules. Although, that never stopped me from wondering what secrets hid in plain sight in the valley, and that included the cave. And it was because my curiosity was stronger than my comfort that I asked my next question.
“What do you need from me?”
“I’m leaving for some business tonight. I forgot a jewel in the cave. It’s a family heirloom that has been passed down for generations. It reminds me where I came from, so you can understand the sentimentality I have for it. I would fetch it myself, but I have to tie up some loose ends before I go, and venturing to the cave will take up too much time.”
Her implication was clear. “You want me to go to the cave to get this… jewel?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
I bit my lip. Going to the cave was forbidden, but that just made me want to see it even more. If this woman was going up there to meditate, then it had to be clear of any danger. And it would be disrespectful to not help her…
“No trouble at all,” I said, ignoring all the trouble my mind was imagining I would be in. If anyone from the village found out, the news would spread like wildfire. My parents would confine me to the house until I died if the village leader didn’t exile me first. What if they ate a buffet of food in front of me and left me nothing but scraps? The thought chilled me and almost made me reconsider. I just needed to be back before dark. The only thing more ferocious than the dragons were my parents when I was late for dinner.
The woman clapped her hands. “Wonderful! The jewel is in the shape of a teardrop. It’s the color of a blazing sunset. You can’t miss it.”
The description made me even more excited to see the cave. I pushed down the nerves bubbling to the surface. I would be in and out, and no one would know. “I’ll go right now and bring it back here.”
“That would be much appreciated.” She clasped my hands in gratitude and gave me another smile. In the light, her dark eyes almost looked violet. “You’re a reliable person, Yuri. You must bring great pride to your parents.”
“You’re going to bring so much dishonor to your parents,” said my cousin, Jinda, “and to your cow!”
I poked my head out from behind a tree, searching for any dragons. Their eyesight and sense of smell were far better than ours—they would find us before we found them. The only living things I saw in the forest were a family of robins and a squirrel running up a tree, its cheeks packed with nuts. Well, them and Jin, who, similarly to the squirrel, was stuffing her face with almonds like she was stocking up for winter.
“We don’t have a cow.”
“Well, if you did, it would be ashamed of you for breaking the rules,” she said between bites. “I still think this is a terrible idea.” She adjusted the strap on her bag that contained enough snacks and medical supplies for an entire army. A roar in the distance drew out a startled squeak from her.
“I told you not to come.” I glanced back at her. Where my short hair curled into wisps of shadows, hers was tied in a braid and fell down her back like spilled ink. Jin’s eyes were the color of rich soil flecked with gold, a trait that was prevalent in our entire family. Her skin was a slightly lighter shade of brown than mine. People used to confuse us for siblings, given our similarly rounded cheeks and small lips, and how much time we spent together.
She kept looking over her shoulder. Jin may have been fourteen years old, but she had the anxiety levels of a farmer whose crops hadn’t grown all summer. “And I told you that you would rush into danger headfirst and get yourself injured and probably die.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sixteen years old, Jin; I’m basically an adult.”
She snorted. “A real adult would remember to pack food, but I suppose that’s what brilliant cousins are for.” She tossed an almond in the air and caught it in her mouth. Other family traits we shared were a quick wit and a healthy appetite. “And what did you tell your parents you were doing? Not the truth, I imagine.”
I dashed to another tree. Even if there wasn’t a cursed dragon, I could still pretend there was and act like I was sneaking up on it.
“I told them I was hanging out with you. It’s not a lie.”
“It was a lie when I caught you sneaking off by yourself.”
“And then you threatened to tell my parents if I didn’t let you come with me.” She was bold, that much was certain.
We made our way through the trees and up the hill. The Burning Forest was, in fact, not actually burning. It got its name from the leaves on the trees. Instead of the typical green, they were the color of fire—deep reds, bright oranges, and vibrant yellows. A traveling merchant once told us this was the only place he had seen leaves this color outside of autumn. No one in the village could explain it. We thought it was normal, but the merchant’s observation made it sound like the fiery hues were another part of the cave and the cursed dragon. Regardless, the vision of embers caught in the branches was stunning to behold.
A lark flew nearby, and I traced its path. It flew across the valley, gliding on a soft spring breeze. I went to the edge of the hill and gasped at what I saw.
“Jin, come look at this!”
She muttered something about pushing me off but stopped when she reached me. Garusha Valley was spread out before us. The hill we were on wasn’t too high up from the village, but the perspective was still breathtaking. The homes of the village were arranged in two lines down the wide path that had been carved out by our ancestors. Smoke rose from vendor stalls as they cooked their specialties. The villagers milled about like the toy figurines I used to play with. The rice fields north of the village took up a large part of the land. The grain was a huge staple to our way of living, so we made sure we had enough. The golden stalks swayed in the wind. To the east, the Zonlei River snaked through the ground and into the Halgongu Sea.
On the other side of the valley, emerald trees dotted the landscape. Over a dozen cave entrances were laid out among them. The homes of the dragons. The caves were hard to see from the ground, but you could catch a glimpse if you stood in the right spot. Dragon sightings weren’t uncommon, especially since the fearsome creatures lived so close to us. The roars shook our homes. Streams of fire streaked across the sky, disappearing until they were little more than sparks blending in perfectly with the Burning Forest. Sometimes the fires were misinterpreted as falling leaves, but it was far enough away not to cause any danger.
Up here, though, there was more activity. I spotted two baby dragons wrestling with each other on the mountains in the distance. Despite being babies, they were still twice as long as I was tall. Their long bodies sparkled like water. Small antlers protruded from their heads. A face emerged from one of the caves. This dragon was the same cerulean as the babies, but three times as big. Her antlers nearly scraped the top of the cave mouth. Two long whiskers trailed from her massive jaws. When she called out to her children, I saw rows of sharp teeth gleaming in the sunlight. The baby dragons stopped their play fighting and flew into the cave. The dragon sniffed the air and flared her nostrils. She swiveled her head and stared right at me. I held my breath. We were separated by the entire valley, but I almost believed I could reach out and touch her. She held my gaze for a few seconds and then retreated back inside.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“The baby dragons?”
“No, the mother. She looked right at me.”
Jin sighed. “You climb one forbidden hill, and now you think dragons are staring at you.”
“I swear, Jin, she—”
“Yeah, yeah. If we’re late for dinner, I will do things to you that would make Basho cry. Are we going to the cave or not?”
The cave. The jewel. The woman. I had almost forgotten why we were up here in the first place. The view was mesmerizing, but the spell was broken. The sun was just about to kiss the top of the mountains. Time to get what we came here for.
Jin led the way this time, motivated by the simple fact that the sooner we got the jewel, the sooner we could go home. She pulled out freshly made pork buns from her parents. She tossed one at me, and I almost fumbled the catch. The bun still gave off steam. I blew on it, took a bite, and savored the soft dough combined with the seasoned meat. It tasted like home. I appreciated the snack and burst of energy, but I wasn’t going to tell my cousin that and give her the satisfaction.
“Wait, do you smell that?”
I took another bite. “The pork bun you just gave me?”
Jin took a large inhale through her nose. “No, it smells like… incense.”
“Incense?” I tilted my head. We only lit those when we were praying to our ancestors. And Jin’s nose never lied; it’s why we were convinced she was a dog in a past life.
We increased our pace, spurred by our curiosity. The trees cleared the closer we got to the top. Eventually, they ended in a small clearing at the top of the hill. A large cave loomed in front of us. The sunlight only reached a few feet inside. Beyond that was a thick, impenetrable darkness. I couldn’t see anything, but I could certainly smell something. The familiar scent of sweet, fragrant smoke wafted from inside the cave. Jin was right. Someone had lit incense sticks and given how strong the smell was, it was recently, too.
I should have been worried, or at the very least suspicious, but instead, I wanted to find the source. Besides, Jin was nervous for the both of us.
“Who would light incense up here?” she asked.
“It’s probably the woman. Maybe it helps her with her meditation.” But as I said the words, they didn’t feel right on my tongue.
Jin frowned. “What was her name again? I can’t think of anyone in the village who looks like the way you described her.”
I started to answer and paused. She hadn’t given me her name, now that I thought about it. But she knew mine, even though I didn’t remember telling her…
I shook myself out of my thoughts. I was overthinking it. The woman was most likely acquainted with my parents, which was how she knew my name. “Let’s just hurry up and find the jewel, and then we can go back to the village.”
“Ugh, being related to you is so stressful. Hold on.” Jin rummaged through her bag and pulled out two lanterns. They were smaller than the ones the village lit at night but much more portable. Jin struck a match, careful to avoid the trees. She lit the wicks of the candles inside the lanterns and handed one to me.
We entered the cave. Our lanterns barely pierced the blackness, but we pressed forward. Something scurried across the floor, and Jin yelped.
“If there is a dragon in here, you just cost us the element of surprise.”
“If worse comes to worst, I’ll use you as a shield and go get help while it’s feasting on your skinny bones.”
The cave was longer than I thought, but we didn’t see any diverging paths. Stalactites and stalagmites dotted the ceiling and floor like the broken teeth of a long-dead dragon. We followed the smell of incense. It reminded me of the village’s New Year’s celebrations. The scent of the sticks guided our ancestors to the world of the living, much like they were guiding us now. In addition to blessing us with health and good fortune for the next year, the spirits would partake in all of the food we offered them. My mom liked to joke that the ancestors on my dad’s side only came for the alcohol. Lighting incense in a dark cave on top of a forbidden hill seemed… lonely.
A soft glow appeared in the darkness. Jin and I shared a look. We moved faster, heading toward the light. At last, we reached the end of the cave. The glow came from a plethora of candles. Many were on the ground, while a few were carefully placed in recesses in the walls. Incense sticks stuck out from jars of dirt. In the middle of the light and smoke was a stone pedestal that came to my waist. A small object glinted on top of it.
“This is it!” I cried. I bent down to study the tear-shaped jewel. The woman wasn’t kidding. Blues and pinks and golds swirled inside, like a sunset frozen in time. There were even a few swaths of white that resembled clouds. I reached down for it—
“Stop!” shouted Jin, making me jump. “Are you crazy?”
“What? I’m taking the jewel for the woman.”
My cousin arched an eyebrow. “Okay, not crazy. Stupid. You said the woman forgot her ‘family heirloom’ here.” Jin gestured to the pedestal and the surrounding decorations. “How do you forget something that important that’s been placed in some… shrine? Altar? Yuri, something’s off about all this.”
I drew my hand back. Jin had a point. This was clearly the jewel the woman had mentioned. Did she not know about the altar?
Before I could sift through my questions, the sound of footsteps shuffled against the ground. No, not footsteps. There was a scraping sound that accompanied them.
My heart stopped.
They were claws.
“Who dares trespass on these grounds?” The deep voice echoed throughout the cave. Dust rained down from the ceiling.
“Jinda, get behind me.” I searched for an exit, but it was pointless. The cave was just one long tunnel. The wall was at our backs, and whatever had spoken came from the front. We were going to be trapped if we didn’t do something fast.
The source of the voice came into view, illuminated by the light of the candles. White scales shimmered like a rainbow across a serpentine body. An ivory horn protruded from its head. Two long whiskers flowed in an unseen breeze. Purple eyes trained their focus on us. Rows of teeth as long as my arms flashed their dagger-sharp edges.
So much for just rocks and bugs.
I gulped. I always imagined I would meet my first dragon by pulling a thorn out of its feet. Then we would become best friends, and it would let me ride on its back after dinner every night. Suffice it to say, the current circumstances were a far cry from that scenario.
The creature narrowed his eyes at us. “I thought I had imagined smelling two small children near my cave. Didn’t your leader prohibit anyone from traversing this hill?”
Jin quivered behind me. Somehow, I found my voice and managed to not soil my pants. “She-she did.”
“And yet, you still came, the first of your people since the order was made. Why?”
“Yeah, Yuri, tell him why.” Jinda had mustered up enough courage to deliver her trademark sass.
I figured lying to an apex predator was a bad move. “A woman told me she left her jewel here. The-the one on your altar.”
The dragon paused. “No one alive knows about the crystal. No one except…” He drew closer. I could smell the burnt meat of his last meal on his breath. His eyes widened. All of the scales along his body bristled. “Your eyes… They’re flecked with gold. That means you two—”
I had no idea what he was talking about, and I didn’t care enough to find out. Getting Jin out of there was my first priority. So I did the most logical thing in the face of danger.
I threw my lantern at the dragon. The glass shattered across his face, startling him more than hurting him. The few seconds it bought us were enough. I grabbed the jewel, barely registering that it and the woman were the reason I was about to be eaten. “Run!”
My cousin didn’t need to be told twice. She dashed out of there faster than a gazelle. I followed after her and her shaking lantern in the darkness.
I didn’t make it very far, though.
Something strong yet soft swept my feet out from under me. The jewel was thrown from grasp. I fell against a stalagmite, the stone cutting into my arm. Jin called out my name. I pressed my hand against the blood and looked over my shoulder. I expected to see an enraged dragon about to have a late lunch, but instead, alarm filled his eyes.
“The blood of Tung Ra…” he whispered.
I needed to get out of there. I scanned the ground for the tear. It had landed a few feet away from me. I staggered to my feet.
The dragon’s voice was almost a roar behind me. “Don’t touch the jewel!”
Ignoring him, I wrapped my fingers around the crystal, my blood staining the surface. The jewel grew warm at my touch and then turned hot, as hot as the fires back in the village. Searing pain lanced up my arm, burning me from the inside out. A scream ripped from my throat. I tried to let go of the tear, but my fingers wouldn’t release it.
My mind and body couldn’t handle the agony. I collapsed to the ground.
The last things I remember were the sound of glass shattering and the cave exploding with light.
Editors: Joyce S. Nikki J. Nadine R.