I lay on my bed, my eyes closing as the weariness melted from my fingers and toes. Every day at Mid-Realm Academy was like a week at a marine boot camp. Mid-Realm Academy was an inter-dimensional school for the elite of the elite of all the worlds. To give me a good idea of someone who had trained at Mid-Realm for a year, my chronicler Railix told me to imagine combining a Spartan, a Roman, a ninja, and a marine. Then he told me that the training period was ten years. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
Despite the incessant pain of training, the only thing I regretted was leaving my family. I was blessed with an amazing family, but I left them. I never felt like I belonged. I was never picked on, but I was always the strange one. No one quite knew what to do with me so I ran away to Mid-Realm. I belonged here, but I missed my family so much! I wished I could see them again, but I can’t. I’m from Earth—America, specifically—and Earth was a locked world. Interaction with its people or affairs is supposed to be non-existent. The Mid-Realmians allowed me to come and train, but I would never be able to see my family again. Just thinking about it was enough to make me want to cry.
Someone knocked, distracting me from my thoughts. “Come in.”
Faye poked her head in. Faye was the only other Earthling at the academy, the only one who could understand what I sacrificed to come here. “Hey Cassie, you okay?”
“Just homesick. It happens. What’s up?”
“Railix wants to see you in the Bochard.”
I sighed and sat up. “He probably wants to yell at me for something.”
“I doubt it.”
I gave her a hard look. “It’s Railix.” I joined her at the door. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”
Railix was a trallorp, something I had never heard of until I came to Mid-Realm. The species are human enough in appearance. They’re human in build, but they had metallic skin and eyes, gaunt features, and dark hair. Trallorps were known for their biting cruelty. They’re not cruel physically; they favor verbal cruelty over physical pain. Thankfully, Railix wasn’t like the rest of his people. He was exiled for being “too kind,” but as far as I could tell, “kind” to a trallorp was “Scrooge” to the other worlds.
Faye and I strode down the halls of the Academy, ignoring the gothic buttresses of the soaring ceilings. The place was amazing, and more human than I had imagined an alien school would be. Now the grandeur and majesty of the red castle-like academy was old news. The only thing I really noticed was the sound of our boots on the marble floor as we walked to the twin wooden doors of the Bochard.
I exchanged a resigned look with Faye. She smiled sympathetically and pushed open the doors. We walked into one of the open areas used for sitting and reading, but the couches had been pushed to one side and a table had been erected. On the table was a birthday cake and a stack of presents, and streamers had been hung on the nearby bookcases. From the rafters hung a banner that read “Happy Birthday, Cassie,” and beneath it stood my friends. There was my fire sprite roommate, Fia; my elf guardian, Chroniclus, and his wife, Aoife; my siren classmate, Conch; my albino half-dragon frienemy, Drax; and Railix.
As I stood there, shocked, Faye smiled apologetically. “They were supposed to shout ‘surprise,’ but I think surprise parties are kind of an Earth thing.”
“And this is a library,” Railix added with his usual sneer.
“Shut up, Railix.” Fia looked at me. “You didn’t realize it was your birthday, did you?”
I shook my head. “It’s not like we use Earth calendars here, so it just slipped my mind completely.” I looked to Chroniclus. “Is it really my birthday?”
He smiled. “You were seventeen as of one o’clock this morning. Happy birthday, Cassie.”
“Here,” Conch said, grabbing one of the presents from the table and thrusting it at me. “Open my present first!”
I laughed and accepted the present. I grinned when I saw what was inside. She had given me tortoise shell combs for my long, dark hair. I didn’t know how to use the things, but I thanked her anyway. Fia’s present was more practical. She gave me a pair of black arm braces I could use for archery, or as a day-to-day fashion statement. Chroniclus gave me a set of silver earrings, a stud and a wing. He told me that the stud was a speaker and the wing was a microphone, “earcoms” for inter-world communications. Then Faye gave me her present, a large, perfectly balanced sword.
I hugged Faye gratefully, and then looked around for Drax. The albino was perched on a ladder, playing with her throwing knives. She raised a white eyebrow questioningly. I grinned. “So, where’s your present?”
She tossed her knife up and caught it casually. “Your present, hmm. Well, I’m not throwing knives at you today, so happy birthday.”
“Well thank you,” I said with a laugh.
“Cake next!” Conch said.
“She has to blow out the candles first,” Faye told her, pushing me toward the cake. “And make a wish.”
Wishing for anything is stupid. If you know you’re not going to get whatever you want, why waste time wishing? And if you know you are going to get what you want, wishing is pointless. But I wished because I had just enough hope to dream it would come true. I blew out my candles, making sure to extinguish all seventeen in the same breath—just in case.
“Thanks for this,” I murmured to Faye. “It really means a lot that you set this all up.”
Faye smiled. “You’re welcome, but it wasn’t my idea. I’ve been here two years, and I still can’t figure out how Earth time correlates with the time here. It was Railix’s idea.” I didn’t bother to hide my disbelief. She grinned mischievously as she swallowed her mouthful of cake. “It’s true. He researched Earth customs, decorations, invited everyone, set up, and everything.”
I looked over at the trallorp. After the initial comment about the library, he hadn’t taken much interest in the proceedings. He was sitting in one of the chairs with a pen and a notebook in his hand, probably doing his job and writing down what was happening. I glanced skeptically at Faye, but she only nodded again. I silently promised to get Faye back if this was some kind of prank and walked over to my chronicler.
“Faye said this was your idea,” I said neutrally.
He didn’t even look up. “It was.”
“It was? But you—but I thought—why?”
“Because you needed it.” He looked at me, his amber eyes as emotionless as his golden face. “Are you done?”
“Done talking to you?” I guessed.
“Done with the party.”
“Oh.” I glanced at my friends then looked back at him. “I guess so.”
“Good.” He snapped the notebook close and stood. “Come with me.”
Confused but obedient, I followed him out of the library and into the communications control room. He led me to a console in the corner and sat down.
“I’ve arranged for you to have a brief talk with your family,” he said, his bony fingers blurring across the console keys. “You’ll have exactly five minutes to say what you want to say.”
“Five minutes. Use them wisely.” He moved out of the chair, and I quickly took his place. He reached over my shoulder and tapped the final key.
The screen snapped on, and I found myself facing my younger brother, Troy. I fought down the urge to cry and then the urge to laugh at his confused face. “Hi, Troy,” I said. “Are Mom and Dad there?”
Troy got over his shock fairly quickly. “Cassie? Where have you been? Do you have any idea how upset Dad and Mom are? What kind of stupid—!”
“I know, I know! But listen, I only have five minutes, and I’d rather not spend it being yelled at. Can you get Mom and Dad, please? And Helen and Hector?”
“Helen is in her room, but Hector’s out. Mom and Dad are in the kitchen.”
“Figures Hector would be out,” I muttered, fighting disappointment. “Can you get the others please? And hurry.”
Troy took his laptop into the living room. My heart nearly broke when I saw my home, and I braced myself as Troy called everyone together. Mom, Dad, and Helen appeared, out of breath and relieved. They instantly started scolding me for running away, telling me how worried everyone was, and that everyone had been looking for me. I had to work to get everyone to shut up long enough for me to explain my time limit. Everyone was disappointed when I said I couldn’t talk for long. They looked at me sadly for a moment.
“I’m fine,” I promised them. “Look at me. I’m fine, I’m hale, I’m healthy.” They nodded silently, and I began. “Mom.” She looked at me, her brown eyes showing her heartbreak, and my voice cracked. “Mommy, I’m sorry I left. I really am, but I had to. I know you didn’t want me to leave, but I didn’t belong on Earth anymore. I was useless there, just lazing about watching TV. I can be so much more here. I could help so many people.”
“Who says? Gold-face over there?” Troy pointed accusingly at Railix.
“She’s right, Troy,” Mom said quietly. “She didn’t belong here anymore. I just didn’t want to let her go.”
Dad squeezed Mom’s shoulder comfortingly and then looked at me. “Cassie, are they taking care of you over there?”
I smiled and promised that I was kept well-fed, well-clothed, and happy. Helen asked about the guys at the Academy. I told her truth—they were all men that girls drool over. Of course, Dad was quick to remind me about our family rule of not dating until we reach eighteen. Then I had to explain to Mom why it had taken me so long to call, and why I probably would never be able to call again. She was ready to cry when I finished, and none of the family was very happy with the news. We all looked at each other sadly for a minute before Mom remembered.
“It’s your birthday.” Mom turned to the others. “We should sing to her.”
“On my count,” Helen said. “One, two, three.”
They started singing. Helen was attempting to get everyone to sing in the same key. Mom and Troy were doing their best, but Dad wasn’t even trying. He was singing “Apple Bird-doo,” which had completely different lyrics. I was somewhere between laughing and crying when they finished.
“Best birthday present ever,” I told them. “I miss you all, and I love you, so, so much.”
Railix put his hand on my shoulder, silently let me know that my time was almost out.
“Listen,” I put my hand on the screen, feeling the precious seconds disappear, “I may not ever see you again, but I want you to know that I love you all, and if there’s ever a way for me to come visit, I will.”
“We love you, too,” Dad said.
“Love you, Cass,” Helen agreed, and then she elbowed Troy.
“Yeah, love you,” he muttered.
“Good-bye,” I whispered and the screen went black. I took a deep breath and looked at Railix. “Thank you.”
He nodded and walked out.
I sat there for a moment, staring at the now blank screen, crying. It was my seventeenth birthday, my first birthday away from home. I had wished on candles, and I had gotten my wish.