Part 1: Dragon Control, Inc.

The factory doors gaped wide on this hot and sticky Tennessee afternoon, without a worker in sight. Someone had taped a BEWARE OF DRAGON sign crookedly to the outside wall before heading for the hills. I parked my truck and walked through the doors, well protected in my fire suit as I searched the rafters for the troublesome dragon.

Yup, there she was, busily building a nest out of boxes and pallets. Her golden-green scales gleamed in the harsh light from the fluorescent tubes. She was about the size of a small horse, with broad, flaring wings. Evidently, she wasn’t at all happy with my intrusion on her nesting space. She turned her head toward me, hissed angrily, and shot a thin stream of flame in my direction.

I wasn’t always a dragon catcher. Three years ago, I was working at an Amazon warehouse with my buddy Shay when we heard there were dragons all over downtown Knoxville. At first we thought it was a hoax, but then some of our friends said they had seen the dragons, for real. So we drove into the city after work. Sure enough, there they were, roosting all over the rooftops like a flock of oversized pigeons.

Nobody had any idea where they’d come from. The most popular theories were secret government experiments or an alternate universe. But however they might have gotten here, nothing was being done about them. The Feds just wanted to send biologists to study them. Tennessee’s politicians were gleefully seeing dollar signs from dragon tourism. Most folks in Knoxville were totally freaking out, needless to say; but the Feds weren’t letting anyone shoot the dragons, and the animal control officers’ union was threatening to strike if anyone ordered its members to capture them.

“What a bunch of wusses, threatening to strike,” I said to Shay, who had grown up on a ranch in Texas and was a regular competitor in the bull-riding and steer-wrestling events at the rodeos. “I bet you could catch a dragon, couldn’t you?”

“Yeah, sure, Chris. No problem. They’re just animals, right?” Shay scratched his bushy red beard. “You gotta show ‘em who’s boss.”

The next day, I asked a guy at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce to help me write a business plan. He was so thrilled to find someone brave enough to start a dragon-control business, he practically wrote it for me. When I set up a crowdfunding page, contributions from the long-suffering citizens of Knoxville poured in. Shay’s cousin Wanda designed a fancy logo with a hog-tied dragon thrashing and spitting fire.

In all honesty, most of the time it’s not that hard to catch a dragon, once you’ve learned how to go about it. When I went after that dragon building a nest in the factory’s rafters, I ignored her warning flame and took another step forward. Then I tossed down what looked like a big, juicy steak on the concrete floor. I took an aerosol can from my pocket and sprayed some raw-meat scent, just to make sure the dragon would notice.

“Chow time!” I announced cheerfully. “Fresh meat! Come and get it! Yummy, yummy!”

Slowly taking a few steps backward, so as to give the dragon some space, I kept a close watch on her. Most dragons were impulsive enough that they went for the bait quickly, and this one was no exception. Spreading her wings, she glided toward the floor, opening her jaws wide to snap up the steak.

Of course, it wasn’t really a steak. Just as the dragon was about to snatch it, I pressed a button on a remote control, and a finely woven mesh net popped up and settled over the dragon’s head. She could breathe just fine, but she couldn’t see anything, which prevented her from flying away; and although dragons are dumb animals, they usually have enough sense not to breathe fire with their head in a bag.

All she did was sit there on the floor, making pitiful whining noises like a whipped dog and pawing at the net. Shay (who also wore a fire suit, just in case) didn’t have any trouble getting her outside and loading her into the custom-built cage on our trailer.

“Not much different from loading steers for market,” Shay observed in a satisfied tone, after we’d merged onto Interstate 75 and were heading north toward the dragon study facility up in the mountains. Passing drivers gawked, snapping photos with their cellphones. The dragon, with the net still over her head, mostly had settled down by then, although we still heard the occasional high-pitched shriek from the cage. Just another ordinary workday for us.

Part 2: The Sorcerers’ Portal

At first glance, the tiny speck circling high above the white stone walls of the Romanian castle might easily have been taken for a hawk or an eagle. I had come here in search of something else, though; and I wasn’t at all surprised when the long, scaly wings of a dragon became visible.

The castle, built on high ground above what once was a medieval town in the Transylvanian hills, had been converted during the communist era into the municipal utility building. It now served as both the waterworks and the control facility for a hydroelectric power station. Or, to be more precise, those had been its functions until the sudden appearance of dragons had sent its workers scurrying away in a panic.

“Well, Chris, at least it’s not a nuclear power plant,” my companion Shay observed, as we stood beside the flooded main road into town. The wide-open sluice gates must have been letting massive amounts of water flow past the castle for days. A truck engine started up and then roared away—again, not much to my surprise—as the town official who had given us a ride from the Bucharest airport evidently had second thoughts about sticking around.

“Small mercies,” I agreed, glancing down at our dusty suitcases, which held our fire suits and other dragon-wrangling gear. Shay and I had gone into business three years ago in Tennessee as Dragon Control, Inc., after the skies above Knoxville mysteriously filled with dragons one evening. Nobody had ever discovered why. Until now, we’d thought Knoxville was the only area affected—and then we learned otherwise last week when we got frantic phone calls from Romanian officials pleading for our services.

They had wired us a generous amount for expenses, with the promise of much more if we succeeded in ridding their country of dragons. Shay and I hadn’t needed much convincing to take off for an international adventure. We had been training a few assistants in Knoxville who could handle things well enough—we hoped—in our absence.

The road curved steeply upward through a thick forest, which didn’t seem too creepy on this bright, sunny afternoon until I heard rustling leaves very close behind me. I spun around, alert for danger; but there was only a tiny old woman climbing slowly onto the road from a path.

She wore a long multicolored dress that looked like something out of a medieval fairytale, with thick stockings and heavy shoes. Curly gray hair, which seemed to have a mind of its own, tumbled over a colorful shawl. Her face was deeply lined, and the hands leaning on her walking stick were gnarled and spotted.

“Be welcome here, dragon slayers,” she said in accented but understandable English. “Your arrival was foretold in the ancient prophecies and has long been awaited.”

I figured this was a roundabout way of complaining that we’d taken forever to get here. If so, it seemed unfair, considering how far we had traveled. Deciding to ignore it, I answered what she’d said first.

“Ma’am, we appreciate the welcome, but we are not dragon slayers. We are modern animal-control specialists, licensed by the State of Tennessee, and we capture and relocate dragons humanely.”

She just kept on nodding, as if she’d been so certain of her description that nothing would change her mind. Then again, maybe what I’d said just didn’t translate well into her language, or she didn’t know enough English to make sense of it.

“You are the one chosen to travel through the sorcerers’ portal,” she declared, staring fixedly at me with wide brown eyes as if she’d totally forgotten Shay was here. “You are the Hermaphrodite, the one who is neither female nor male, drawing upon all the powers of the earth and sky.”

My first thought was that she must have been reading too many fantasy novels. Even in a forest in Transylvania, who really believed that stuff? And hadn’t she ever seen a genderqueer person before?

Shay, bustling around by our suitcases, saved me the trouble of having to reply when he spoke. “Uh, Chris, you might want to put on your fire suit now. That dragon is heading straight for us.”

I grabbed my gear from Shay, who was already suited up. Sure enough, the dragon was very near the treetops and coming this way fast. It was much bigger than we had expected. Most of the dragons we’d captured in Knoxville had been about the size of the steers that Shay wrestled in the rodeos, but this one easily could have swooped down on an elephant and carried it off.

Tugging my visor into place, I looked through it, finding the view not at all improved. Daddy Dragon was bearing down on us like a tornado, and he didn’t look any smaller. He probably could’ve carried off two elephants, one in each front claw.

I stood there without moving, as did Shay. Out local visitor didn’t run away either, which did surprise me. Wearing our fire suits didn’t actually make it much safer for us to stand facing down this behemoth, given the fact that he could squash us flat no matter what we were wearing. But at least we looked like well-equipped professionals. Not soon-to-be-dead ones, I hoped.

Just as the dragon’s shadow fell over the road, he disappeared.

Literally. Disappeared. Meaning that I had been looking directly at him, and an instant later he wasn’t there.

I turned my head from side to side. Nothing. The Romanian woman was still standing right next to me, placidly nodding, like vanishing dragons weren’t anything new around here.

When I took off my headgear for a better view without the visor, that was when I saw the sorcerers’ portal. Or at least, that was what I assumed the woman had meant when she used that term. Just above the road, extending for a short distance above the trees on either side, a square of blue sky flickered like a poorly streamed video.

Shay, who was also bare-headed by now, stared at the portal for several seconds before he said what we both were thinking.

“No way either of us is going through that.”

Part 3: Stone Troll Dead

To all appearances, the Transylvanian forest had returned to normal immediately after the dragon’s departure. Birds chirped peacefully, branches stirred in a gentle summer breeze, and the sound of water steadily flowing nearby would’ve been soothing if I hadn’t known the road was flooded ahead. And if the flickering square of sky that the Romanian woman had called a sorcerers’ portal hadn’t still been parked, ominously, right above my head.

I looked around for the woman, but she was long gone already. For just a moment, I caught a glimpse of her bright dress and shawl through the trees, moving a lot faster than I’d have thought possible for an old lady with a walking stick. That set off my mental alarm bells, but I had no time to act. Only a fraction of a second later, I heard a shout from Shay, who was standing a few paces away.

“Chris, watch out!”

A huge shadow fell over me. Of course, my first thought was that the dragon had swooped back down through the portal and that I was about to be roasted, since I’d taken off the headgear of my fire suit. But no, the shadow was mostly round, not dragon-shaped.

The shape reaching toward me resolved into a giant hand, apparently connected to an arm on the other side of the portal. Its dull grayish-brown surface looked like stone rather than flesh. Before I could run away or do anything halfway sensible, the hand grabbed me firmly and lifted me through the portal into the sky.

Except that it wasn’t sky on the other side—it was water. And it was clear enough to see that I was just above the rocky bottom of a lake or bay. For an instant, the green forest flickered beneath me, and then it winked out as the portal closed. There was nothing besides rock under me now.

The hand raised me smoothly through the water and then deposited me, gasping for air, on what looked like the top of a granite boulder forming part of the lakeshore. When I looked down, though, I realized it wasn’t a boulder. The outline of a stone troll was clearly visible in the water, and the hand that had captured me was now resting on the bottom of the lake. I was standing on the troll’s head, under a dark and gloomy sky, with jagged mountains behind me and cliff dwellings cut into the rock.

And it was HOT. Wouldn’t you think a lakeshore with low, heavy clouds would have a cool breeze? Well, maybe that would’ve been true back home in Tennessee; but this sweltering, stagnant air felt like it came straight out of the gates of hell. It even smelled faintly of sulfur, which meant that there had to be dragons not far away.

I didn’t see any dragons close by, though, which was about all that had gone right today. My fire suit, with the headgear unfastened, was now full of icky lake water. Taking the suit off to shake it out, I kept careful watch for dragons or other potential perils. There didn’t seem to be anything alive nearby, except a few clumps of straggly brownish grass pushing up through cracks in the rock. When I looked more closely, I realized that the cracks were wrinkles in the skin of the troll’s head and that there were ridges running through the granite like veins. The grass was hair growing out of the troll’s mostly bald dome.

My fire suit already was almost dry in the unnaturally hot air, as were the rumpled business-casual shirt and pants I’d been wearing underneath it. That didn’t leave me feeling much better. I stomped savagely on the nearest clump of grass and then yanked it up by the roots. Although I would’ve liked to say this was a brave, calculated plan to provoke the troll into throwing me back where I’d come from, it was nothing of the sort. I just hadn’t thought about the much more likely possibility of the troll smacking me like a bug.

What actually happened, of course, was nothing at all. The troll never moved. Smelly ichor dripped from the twisted roots of the grass clump I was holding, and in disgust, I threw it as far as I could into the lake. There wasn’t even a ripple in the still water when it sank. Everything around me, including the troll’s massive figure in the water, looked and felt dead.

I only hoped that I wasn’t about to end up stone troll dead, too.

To be continued…