The Dragon Girl
I went to sort the freshly folded shirts back on their shelves and found an elf. I was working at a department store at the time, trying to earn money for college, and I didn’t realize he was an elf at first. He was wearing a grey knit beanie pulled low over his ears, and it looked weird because he was an obvious adult, possibly only in his late thirties, and the rest of his outfit seemed to be out of a GQ magazine. He wore a black suit jacket and pants, a white button up shirt, and a deep red tie. And that beanie. It was distracting. It almost made me miss his silver eyes; they were the only things on his person that matched the beanie. He caught me staring and smiled.
I quickly turned my attention back to my work, silently cursing my sister for hammering some semblance of fashion into my being. I was only wearing a t-shirt and jean skirt, so it wasn’t like I really cared about clothes. My black hair was pulled back in a high ponytail (yet still reached past my waist), and I flipped it back over my shoulder as I tried to look busy. It didn’t work; he started coming over.
“Excuse me,” he said.
I quickly checked my peripheral for another associate of the store, but I was alone. I suppressed a sigh, slapped on my working smile, and straightened. He was still wearing that beanie. “May I help you, sir?”
He clasped his hands behind his back; it emphasized how thin he was. It also made me notice how tall he was. “Perhaps you could help me. I’m looking for a specific book, but I can’t seem to find any books at all in here.”
“That’s because this store sells stupid things like clothes, shoes, and frying pans,” I responded. I made a mental note to smack myself later; sarcasm isn’t an appropriate answer to customer questions—even if they’re stupid ones. “We do have some children’s picture books in the back by the bathrooms. They’d take up one shelf of the three dedicated to toys.”
“The book I’m looking for isn’t quite a children’s book. It’s rather thick—over three hundred pages if I had to guess—and I believe it would be classified as a young adult fantasy.”
“We definitely don’t have those. Sorry, sir.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am quite sure, sir, that you are in the wrong place. If you want picture frames, we have a minimal selection. If you want clothes, we got them in barrels. If you want candy, it’s by the register. I can help you find any of that stuff, but I can’t help you find those kinds of books.” I turned back and shoved a shirt into the stack. Then I got to kick myself and dig it back out so I could stick it in the proper pile.
The man’s narrow smile never faded as he watched me put clothes away. “I think I am in the right place. The book I’m looking for is called Finding Love. You’ve heard of it.”
I stopped sorting as I processed his words. Heard of it? I wrote it. The question was: how had he heard of it. I turned to face him again. “I’m sorry, sir, but can I ask your name?”
He didn’t answer right away, but he stuck his hand out for me to shake. “My name is Nicus.”
“How did you hear about my book? It’s not even finished yet.”
“I am aware of that, but you have been providing copies to your friends. Chapter by chapter as you finish.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Did Rachel send you my book? Are you an editor?”
“Do you have a moment to talk?”
I had an hour lunch break coming up. I could take it early. “Just give me a minute to clock out.” I tried my hardest not to run back to the break room, but I might have rushed the clocking out process just a tad so I could get back to the man. “Let’s talk.”
Nicus stepped to the side and gestured for me to lead the way. I started out of the store, trying to think of a place for us to sit and talk. There were a couple of picnic benches on the hill by the parking lot, and they were often empty, and they were within sight of the store. Nicus had called out my weakness, so I was obligated to talk to him, but I didn’t trust him. I’m not fast, but I’m loud and not afraid to bite.
We sat on opposite ends of the table. Nicus kept his hands folded in front of him as he faced me. I mimicked his posture, trying to be as professional as any sixteen-year-old girl could.
“Cassandra Moon,” Nicus began.
“You can call me Cassie,” I interrupted. “My full name makes me feel like I’m in trouble.” I chuckled awkwardly, regretting the seconds the words left my mouth. Why did I have to be stupid?
Thankfully he seemed amused. “Cassie, then. I should start by telling you I brought you out here under false pretenses.”
I knew it. I stood and started to walk back to the store.
“I’m an elf.”
That was ridiculous, but I turned around anyway. Nicus was still sitting at the table, but he had taken the beanie off. Two tall elvish ears poked up from either side of his head, perfect silver hair tousled by the removal of the knit hat. “Congratulations on your dedication to LARPing,” I told him, not caring if he could pick up on the sarcasm. I folded my arms and stayed exactly where I was. “What do you want with me?”
He left the beanie on the table and smoothed his hair back. He was no longer smiling. Instead, he was leaning on the table as if he was tired, and his strange silver eyes kept straying back to the store. “I’m sorry for misleading you earlier, but I didn’t want you to make a scene. My name is Chroniclus. I’m the Head Chronicler at an interdimensional military training facility called Mid-Realm Academy. I’ve come to recruit you.”
I stared at him dumbly for a moment, then I had to laugh. “Okay, forgetting the whole ‘interdimensional’ part, why on Earth would you want to recruit me for a military training facility? Look at me!” I gestured to my shirt, one I had specifically chosen to hide how overweight I was, but anyone could tell I was fat. A blind man could probably hear it in the way I breathed. Physical activity and I weren’t on speaking terms, but pizza was my best friend. There was no way anyone would want me for military anything.
To his credit, Chroniclus’s eyes didn’t flicker. “What does your appearance have to do with anything?” He asked calmly.
I snorted and shook my head. “You, sir, have a stupid cover story.”
He stood up and stepped away from the table, raising his hand to show me the ring on his hand. I could barely see it from where I was standing. He turned his back to me; something flashed in front of him. A golden light grew, swirling until it was as tall as the elf, and then it opened. He stepped aside, showing me the scene inside the golden-rimmed portal, and I had to get closer. There was a red brick castle, topped with a black roof, a mile in the distance, but it was so huge it still filled the view. Red towers climbed to the clouds and pierced them, sending clean sunshine down on the statues that framed the black doors of the wall around the castle. Stained glass windows winked in the castle as a white dragon cast its shadow on them. It circled around the tallest tower before folding its snow-white wings against its lithe body and diving to the ground and out of my sight.
Chroniclus knew two of my weaknesses. I tried not to be impressed, but I failed. “That was the best CG dragon I’ve ever seen.”
“That was a real dragon.”
“Please. I’m not stupid. That’s a projection of some fantasy landscape made by a genius computer programmer.” I leaned closer to examine the picture. I wanted it to be real so badly that it was hard to be skeptical. I waved my hand across the portal, front, top, bottom, both sides, trying to find the light source, but the image never flickered. I waved my hand around the back and noticed that I couldn’t see its shadow. I walked around to the other side, stopped, and stared.
The castle was gone. I was looking at an other-worldly forest, with impressively varied trees. I focused on the closest tree, noting the light purple of its bark and its dark blue, toothed leaves. The tree beside it had bark with a cranberry tone, and its leaves were the deep, rich green of a holly. I loved the imagination behind them. If this was a trick, it was a good one.
“Your trees are terrible,” I told him. “They’re not realistic at all.” I stepped away, wondering how he had gotten a double-sided projection to show so clearly in the middle of an open field. I glanced back at the table to make sure I hadn’t missed a camera or projector while I continued to critique his trees. “The colors are completely wrong.”
“They’re wrong for this world,” he agreed, walking around to look at the trees. He consciously kept his distance and kept his hands behind his back as he nodded at the first tree. “He is an Othymti. They’re native to Nundara Five, but we had him transplanted to Mid-Realm so he could help me in the Böchard.”
“Yes. He’s a dryad. His name is Tim.”
“Is that reddish tree a dryad, too?”
“No. That’s just an elvel. They’re common in Mid-Realm.”
“Nice.” I forced myself to step back, checking my phone for the time. If I was lucky, I would still have enough time to cram my sandwich down my throat before I had to go back to dealing with customers. “Well, your LARP effects are great. You should talk to someone in Hollywood; you could make a fortune with that tech there. I have to get back to work.”
“It’s a portal, Cassie. You could go to another world, a world with dragons.”
I would definitely deal with dragons over people any day of the week, but I, unfortunately, had to accept reality. “Dragons were wiped out centuries ago. Portals don’t exist. That’s not another world, that’s a high-quality projection or hologram, and you’re wasting it on me.”
Chroniclus stepped backwards into the portal. The golden light swallowed him, then he was a part of the projection. I went back to the portal and walked around it. Chroniclus followed me from within the golden frame, watching me with an amused look on his slender face. The portal had the same width as a penny; there was no way he was hiding behind it, and the hill I was standing on was definitely grass and dirt. I couldn’t think of another way for him to pull off this trick, so I stuck my arm into the glowing circle. The elf took my hand from the other side and pulled me through.
I was standing on another world’s grass, and I was disappointed that it was green. I could see the castle, reaching up from behind the safety of its grand wall. I was at the edge of the forest, in front of the dryad’s othymti tree. I reached out to touch Tim’s bark, then decided that would be weird and touched the elvel instead. Its bark was paper-smooth and a little soft, completely unlike the rough and hard barks of Earth.
“It’s real.” I turned in a slow circle, openly gawping at everything. “It’s real! This is real!” I covered my mouth after an excited shriek escaped it and looked at Chroniclus. “You’re really an elf. Your ears are actually pointy, and they’re taller than Legolas’s.” I looked at the castle. “Is that the military place?”
“Yes. That is Mid-Realm Academy, and just behind it stands the Böchard, the complete collection of every written work carefully shelved within its walls.”
“Dude, you should have opened with the giant library.” I started to walk toward it, then stopped and looked back to the portal. It was still open and still set at the top of the hill, looking down at my job. “I can’t go. I have to get back. I have to finish my shift! I could get fired!” I ran back to it, then stopped again and looked at the castle. “The dragon was real? What’s his name?”
He smiled fondly. “Her name is Draxia. If you decide to attend the Academy, she will be one of your teachers.”
“Seriously?” I had to smack my face to force myself to turn back to the portal. “No! I can’t do that! I can’t do that to my family. Not to my mom.”
“I understand. It’s a difficult decision.”
“There is no decision. I’ve had my entire life planned since I was eight! I’m set to graduate next year! I’m going to get a writing degree in college, and I’m going to get published. My mom has always believed in me, always supported me. If I left, just suddenly disappeared, my mom would go crazy with worry. She would never get the book I promised her.”
He nodded quietly. “I understand. You love your family very much.”
“I do. I can’t leave them.” I stuck one foot out of the portal and stood between the worlds, my mind still swirling. I was honestly not sure which was the more idiotic choice: leaving or staying. Chroniclus stepped through the portal and helped me back onto Earth’s soil. He didn’t say anything as I stared at the wide cement building below us. My break ticked away—I could almost hear the clock—but there was still a question I needed to ask. “Why me?”
He looked at me, one silver eyebrow raised questioningly. “Why not you?”
“Because I’m fat. I’m not going to bring anything to the table physically, and I’m pretty sure I can’t bring anything mentally either. So why bother asking me?”
He considered the question, raising his eyes from the store to the heavens. “Because I believe there is a world out there that only you can save.”
“Yes, you, Cassandra Moon. Cassie. You may not think much of yourself now, and I will admit that you are not a prime candidate for the school, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do something great.”
“I could save a world?” I snorted derisively, but I couldn’t deny it was tempting. There was so much about his proposal that I wanted. I wanted to go to another world. I wanted to meet a dragon, and I definitely wanted one to teach me cool fighting stuff. I wanted to live in a castle. I wanted to save the world, but I didn’t want to leave my family to attend a military boot camp. “Is it worth it?”
He was quiet again. “Not at first,” he admitted finally, avoiding looking at me. “Our training program is brutal. Your teachers will push you until you break, then they will patch you back up and break you again and again until you stop breaking. Then you are sharpened. When your training is complete, you will be perfect. The life I’m asking you to accept isn’t easy. Everything is demanded of everyone, and once you join, you cannot leave. Do you understand?”
I glanced over my shoulder at the castle, still visible through the portal. I could see banners flapping in the newly arisen wind. There was a world I desperately wanted to be a part of. “Can I think about it?”
Chroniclus nodded. “Of course. You are scheduled to attend your church camp this week, aren’t you? You may have to the end of the camp to make your decision.”
Camp sucked. In previous years, I had looked forward to it. My parents knew the owners, and it was a small, personal and crazy fun. It was a whole week to spend with my friends doing dumb stuff you could regret as adults. This year, I was the oldest girl in the group, all of my friends having either graduated or moved away. I just had my older sister, Helen, as a counselor, and my younger brother, Troy, to hang with. Another change was our camp was under different management, and the couple in charge were newly-weds more concerned with spending time with each other than organizing waterslides and canoeing. I wouldn’t have cared about that as much if the head counselor hadn’t enjoyed watching us be miserable. She organized an official camp food fight, providing bowls of spaghetti, mashed potatoes, corn, and leftovers—all doused with overwhelming amounts of mustard—and made it a requirement of the camp to participate. I watched one of the younger boys stagger around the outdoor arena puking while everyone else either did the best they could to dodge the flying food. Helen had tied up my hair in a bandana to protect it, but I still found mustard and marinara sauce caked in my roots. Then the counselors had us line up against the wall and hosed down with icy water, full blast. Even Helen was laughing as boys and girls alike screamed at the sudden cold. I was able to brace myself for the torture and barely flinched at the water.
“Aw, Cassie, you’re no fun!” The camp counselor complained.
I wanted to punch her.
The hose didn’t do a very good job at cleaning her nasty mustard food off us, so we were sent back to our cabins to change for our next activity. Dripping with cold water, my cabinmates and I found ourselves the victim of the counselor’s prank. She had taken all of our stuff, stuffed it in a canoe, and shoved it in the middle of the lake. Our lake wasn’t one you could swim in. It was the result of some government reservoir thing; geese swam in it and nested on the banks, but it wasn’t human safe. The other canoes had been taken back to storage, and it didn’t look like there was a paddle on our lone canoe. Someone was going to have to swim into the lake to get our canoe. I looked to the camp counselor’s husband, but he laughed and refused to get it. The younger girls were starting to freak out, and the youngest was crying. I already stank of camp food and mustard, so I decided to risk the polluted water just so I could have something clean to wear.
The girls from my cabin cheered when I waded into the water. Helen made some obvious remark on how unsanitary the water was, and the other counselors just laughed. The water was at my chin by the time I reached the canoe, and I had lost my flipflop to whatever muck lined the bottom, but I grabbed the prow and hauled the boat back to the bank. Seaweed wrapped around my leg, something sharp stabbed at my barefoot, I almost lost my other shoe; then I was back on dry land. Now that the boat was within reach, the counselor hauled it out and carried it back to the crowd of girls, leaving me on the bank.
I heard him say, “That was so gross!” and I decided I was done with the camp. I was covered in lake muck, mustard, spaghetti, and who knows what else, and I smelled like a sewer. My own stench made me want to puke. I tilted my head to the sky to breath and caught sight of Chroniclus in the shadows of the nearby woods. How long had he been there? He looked mad, his smooth face wrinkling as his lips puckered and his brow furrowed. The glare was directed was directed at my counselor, who was laughing at the situation with my sister. I made my final decision.
I stood and walked to the elf. “I’ll go with you.”
He glanced at the group laughing people, all walking back to the cabins, not even realizing I wasn’t with them. “Cassie, Mid-Realm won’t be any kinder to you. This camp was only a week long, and there’s two days left.”
“I know, but at least there the torture will have a point. It will make me perfect, right? That’s what you said.”
“Yes, but perfection takes a long time.”
I took a breath as I let that length of time process and instantly regretted breathing. I gagged, aiming any oncoming projectiles away from the elf, who watched sympathetically. When my stomach had calmed, I aimed my nose away from my body and said, “Fine. Let’s do it.”
He twisted the ring on his hand to open the portal. Again, I saw the castle, and I was actually excited. He held up his hand as I started to enter the portal. “Cassie, there’s no turning back now. Are you sure you want to leave without saying ‘good-bye’ to your family?”
I looked back. Helen and Troy were farther away now, still not realizing I was gone. “I’m sure. If I said good-bye, I wouldn’t leave. It’s now or never.”
He stepped aside and let me crossover before following.
And just like that, I was no longer on Earth.
 Pronounced Oh-thim-tee