There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.
Instead, the Valley used to be swimming with ghosts.
Spectres made this their abode, not even bothering to conceal themselves. If any tourists came by, few of them got back out.
But one day, a curious new creature wandered in, wide-eyed and adorable. It was a calf. A calf-shifter in beast form. He had brown and white fur and tiny horns, and his name was Ero.
Ero stumbled into the Valley on his four stubby legs. He was lost, but he was a wanderer by nature and not easily cowed — no pun intended.
The soil squelched as he made his way through, as it had rained earlier today. The sun was setting now. Its orange and lilac rays washed over the valley like a dream.
He knew that his parents would be worried and angry, because he had gotten “lost” again.
“You’ll get killed one day,” his mother told him just yesterday.
They had been staying at an abandoned barn. His mom was in her cow form and she stood in a majestic, confident way that made everyone else pale in comparison.
The calf frowned at the dank straw below him. “I’ll be fine.”
His father, a stout and dark-colored bull, shook his head. “You have no idea what will happen to you, honey, no idea.” The bull grunted and poked his snout into a trough, munching at the hay in a distracted manner.
Ero peered at his father, suspicion furrowing the calf’s brows. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
The bull’s eyes widened and he sputtered out, “No, no, nothing. I wasn’t implying anything.” His dad was quite timid for a bull-shifter, and he avoided his son’s questioning gaze.
Right now, in the Valley, the ghosts poured out and wove through the air, as the night had finally descended.
Ero appraised these wispy, translucent shapes, wondering if he should greet them. One of the spectres, a wiry-thin man with messy hair, spoke in a crackling voice, “Why aren’t you afraid, little one?”
The calf gave him a bemused look. “Should I be?”
More and more ghosts milled around the calf-shifter, turning the air into mist.
That spectre with messy hair went on, “We’ll give you one last warning. Don’t blame us for having no mercy on the young.” He glowered and his mustache quivered with agitation.
Ero blinked and glanced around at the swarm of phantoms. The calf was undaunted despite the ghosts’ chilly facial expressions. He laughed. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about. How can you hurt me? You aren’t even solid.”
The spectres flared like a sound wave at his insolence — or just at his startling naivety.
That spectre with a wiry frame and messy hair was Avery, and he boomed, “Take him away!”
Before the calf could react, a whoosh of ghastly wind swept him up several feet into the air. Ero was nervous for a second, but soon realized he wasn’t going to fall, and he enjoyed the night scenery from above.
He saw past the fog of the spectres, through to the rough vegetation of the Valley. The trails of grass and soil were crude but still beautiful.
The ghost of a middle-aged woman, Margaret, tutted, “Nothing scares him. What a shame. So young to die.”
A small ghost who had died at the age of six grunted at this. “Not funny.”
“Not trying to be,” said the dour Margaret. She tipped up her chin, and flipped her hair with a harrumph.
Ero ignored the squabbles of the ghosts, who, as far as he was concerned, were giving him a free ride in the air, even if they complained a lot.
The breeze washed over his brown and white coat, giving him a joy and relaxation that even the happy-go-lucky calf rarely felt. He soaked in the sheer wonder of it all.
Soon, the ghosts flew him to the core of the Valley, where they kept their prisoners — most of whom were human, but not all.
Ero still didn’t feel any need to worry, until the ghosts dropped him into a dark cage and locked all the doors.
“Wha — Hey!” the calf cried out. “Get back here!” He glared through the circular glass window.
The ghosts laughed raucously and ignored him, flying back to their own business. One of them shrieked, “I love tormenting mortals until they lose their minds.”
Ero was just angry at first, believing this was some nasty prank. But as he yelled and raged and got no response from anyone, he finally grew to be afraid.
It was so dark here, so cold, and worst of all, he was isolated.
Ero didn’t know how long he had been trapped in this cage. How many days. He was hungry, weak, but the enchantment of the cage kept him alive.
The ghosts didn’t want their victims to die so soon and escape their “punishment”.
Still, Ero languished, his spirits crushed. He missed his parents so much. He should have taken his mom and pop more seriously with their warnings.
The calf hadn’t shifted into his human form in a while, either, and didn’t have the strength or heart to do so.
One day, while Ero stared through the window, hoping in vain for any of the ghosts to take pity on him or at least look at him, he heard a scratching noise nearby.
Though the calf’s physical health had faded, he had also grown more attentive to slight changes in his surroundings, as the monotony around him was unbearable.
Hope and fear warred in his young chest. And then, just like a miracle, an orange and crimson light burst into being beside him.
A creature appeared and its skin glowed with orange-yellow light. It stood on four strong, clawed feet; it had glinting scales, a muscular whip tail, and a pair of big, leathery wings.
Ero gasped with giddy joy. “A dragon! Please tell me I’m not dreaming.”
“You’re not dreaming,” the dragon said in a voice that was haughty but not unkind. It peered around the cage as if looking for something.
Ero continued, eager just to talk to someone after all this time, “What’s your name? I’m Ero.”
The dragon darted its gaze back to him. “Call me Anastasia. I go by ze, zir pronouns.”
Anastasia told the calf-shifter, “Stay behind me while I work my magic.”
Ero was ready to do anything this dragon angel bid him, let alone something as simple as that. He felt a mixture of terror and excitement when he saw the fireball expand from zir mouth.
The orange sphere spread like gasoline all around the front of the cage. The heat was so intense, Ero thought he would faint.
But the cage began to melt before his eyes.
He was so awed, he couldn’t stop gawking.
Before long, Ero and Anastasia could step outside! Ero wanted to shout for joy. But the ghosts nearby noticed and came swarming and shrieking.
Anastasia looked perfectly at ease, and ze released a torrent of flame that frightened the ghosts away. The dragon nudged him. “Climb on my back. Now.”
Though Ero and Anastasia were about the same size, Ero didn’t waste time questioning zir strength. He didn’t know how long the fiery fence could deter the phantoms.
When the dragon flapped and lifted off the ground, Ero felt such an overwhelming thrill that he grew lightheaded and dizzy.
But it didn’t matter. He was safe. He was going to go home.
Then he realized that Anastasia was not taking him home, at least not yet. Ze told him about the dragons’ operation.
“The ghosts of the Valley have dominated and terrorized people here for decades. We can’t let that go on any longer. I’m taking you to the Valve, a hidden pocket inside the Valley where my kind congregate.”
Ero was restless. “When can I go back home, though?”
Ze snorted. “You’ve been gone for days. Missing your parents for another few hours won’t hurt them.”
As the two dived towards the Valve, little did they know that Ero would be gone from home for far longer than a few hours.
Note: Anastasia’s pronouns are ze, zir, zirs, zirself. Some nonbinary people use neo pronouns, which are pronouns that are neither he, she, nor they.
Additional note: For this world, I envision a society where it’s normative and acceptable for anyone with nonbinary or unexpected pronouns to mention them right away, to save them the pain of being called the wrong pronouns later. Since being misgendered really hurts! They live in a society where it’s also normative for people to accept someone’s pronouns right away, rather than getting defensive, which makes it easier for trans or binary people to disclose their pronouns even to strangers, if they choose to. Anastasia is a very assertive and confident person, so I would expect zir to introduce zir pronouns sooner rather than later, too.