Mario’s body felt heavy. The floor pressed against his back, head and limbs. Hard and cold. The misplaced taste of stale, dank air roused him.
Oww my body hurts.
The last thing he remembered was sitting in his car. However, he didn’t recall ever getting back out. Why would he be outside his car, sprawled on the hard ground?
A car accident would make the most sense, the thought swam sluggishly through his head. Head trauma from an accident would explain the lack of memory of the event and—
Mario jolted awake. “A car accident?!”
He expected to be lying beside his car’s wreckage in the middle of an intersection surrounded by glaring headlights from the resulting traffic jam. Sirens of emergency vehicles should be wailing in the distance. Instead of seeing a starry sky overhead, he blinked up at the grey ceiling and four stone walls of a dimly lit space.
Joints and muscles stiff, Mario rolled painfully to a sitting position for a better look around. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He didn’t recognize his surroundings.
He was in an empty rectangular room with a lofty ceiling and a weird square 8ft-by-8ft door of latticed iron bars. Moonlight filtered weakly through a slit high in the wall which was probably meant to be a window. The only reason he was able to see at all was due to the orange glare of flaming torches from outside the latticed door.
Joints protesting, Mario staggered to his feet and reached for the door. The bars were as solid as they looked.
He peered into the outer room. “Hello?”
Beyond the door was a vast chamber with a dark, tunnel-like entryway at either end. Sturdy wooden benches lined the back wall and a rack mounted on the wall. At first the rack appeared to be supporting an assortment of brooms and mops but, upon closer scrutiny, he discovered it bore lances, spears, and other similarly unfriendly items, all showing signs of regular use.
Mario didn’t see any movement in the outer room. “Is anyone there?”
“Yes,” said a voice so near the outside of the door that he yelped in surprise.
Mario backed away from the door as a huge figure shifted into view and stood directly opposite the barred door. It was a man. A massive, hulking man. In… costume?
The stranger had bright green scaled skin, like a chameleon’s, which was plainly evident despite the poor lighting. The muscles of his arms and chest bulged beneath garments belonging in the medieval period in Europe. Instead of hair, a spiked ridge traced the dorsal aspect of his otherwise bald head. He was as tall as the 8ft door.
Mario stared up at the giant of a man. That’s one hell of a costume.
“My name is Cayn,” said the man. His voice had a melodious quality. “How are you? You’ve been asleep for a while.”
“I’m… confused,” Mario admitted. The painful stiffness in his body began to subside the more he moved. He’d shake it off in no time. “Where am I?”
Hah hah. No way I heard THAT right. “Sorry, what?”
“I said you’re in debtor’s prison.” Cayn’s round, twig-brown eyes studied Mario. “Your freedom is collateral for the debtor until full repayment is made. If payment is not made, your life will be considered forfeit.”
“Hmm.” Mario folded his arms and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. The giant lizard man says I’m in debtor’s prison, which isn’t a thing anymore, and here I am in an honest-to-God dungeon with torches and iron bars and this is absolutely ludacris. I must be dreaming.
The only other explanation would be that this is a prank… He eyed Cayn, trying to find flaws in the lizard man’s costume. Didn’t find any. I know no one who would spend money on anything elaborate like this. A dream makes way more sense.
Cayn cocked his head as a relieved smile replaced Mario’s frown.
“Excuse me, Cayn?” Mario tried to see past the giant for a better look of the outer room. “Do you by any chance have any reading material that I could look at? It doesn’t matter what it is. Anything with words. I don’t need to hold it or anything, either. I’d only like to look at it.”
Shrugging, Cayn moved out of sight and returned about two minutes later with a thin manuscript bound by twine. He stood on the other side of the barred door and held it up with a questioning look.
Mario beamed. “That’s perfect, thank you. Would you mind opening it? Is that okay?”
Like a kindergarten teacher reading to a class, Cayn opened the handmade book with the interior facing the audience, the bound side leaning against his chest, and held it in a way that his hands didn’t obscure the content. About 1/3 way down the first page—likely a title page—was a single horizontal line of abstract glyphs.
I have no idea what that says. Mario’s eyes glinted with excitement. “Next page, please?”
Cayn’s dexterous clawed fingers turned a thick page. The second page was filled with row after row of squiggly symbols and wavy lines with no discernible pattern.
Mario grinned triumphantly. “I can’t read.”
“It means I’m dreaming.”
Cayn was puzzled. “About being illiterate?”
“No. I’m in a dream right now, which means I was either in a car accident and am suffering from a head injury or I’m passed out in my car in the parking lot.”
Cayn turned the book to study the open pages. “I don’t know what you’re talking about but this is my great great great grandmother’s handwriting in my ancestors’ native language. It’s a dead language. Even I can’t read it.”
Mario’s joy dissipated. “Why do you keep it where you work?”
“It’s an heirloom for good luck.”
Mario tried to shrug off his disappointment. “Well, do you have anything written in English that I can see?”
“The language we’re speaking.”
A bell tolled from somewhere down one of the passageways in the outer chamber.
Cayn’s round eyes flicked toward Mario. “Your dreams of illiteracy will have to wait. The dragon king summons.”
[to be continued…]