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 even if dragons are just 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.

Part 4: An Unwelcome Conclusion

I was just about to turn away from the dead-looking lake when I noticed a small ripple forming along the horizon. Tiny wisps of fog started to rise from it. At first, they were so faint that I wondered if I might have imagined them. A few seconds later, though, I heard a whumpp sound, and a thick vapor boiled up to form a looming cloud in what had been, until then, an unbroken gray sky.

Just below the cloud, a wave started rolling toward the shore where I stood. It moved at a steady pace, like the tide coming in at the beach. Rising higher, it finally crested and began to curl as if breaking over unseen rocks. I might’ve been looking at ordinary surf—except that, as it came closer, the outlines of scaly blue-green heads became visible all along the wave’s crest.

I found myself wondering, in a strange moment of detached curiosity, whether sea serpents could breathe fire like their dragon cousins. But obviously, the situation called for being more concerned with self-preservation, and I wasn’t about to stick around long enough to find out what they could do.

Tossing my now-dry fire suit over my right shoulder, I took off running across the stone, trying (without much success) not to think about the fact that it was really a troll’s head. I listened the whole time for the sound of that wave hitting the shore, but the unnatural silence persisted. All I could hear was the sound of my own shoes slapping against granite.

After I crossed the stone and came out onto a road made of hard-packed earth (or at least, something that looked and felt like it), I slowed down just enough to take a quick glance behind me. Although I expected to see a few of those scaly heads reaching my way, I was wrong. Once again, there was no sign of life or motion anywhere near the lake. It had gone back to flat, dead-looking water. Both the wave and the cloud had totally vanished.

The sulfurous smell of dragons was much stronger here. Steep cliffs loomed on either side. Ahead, the road narrowed, leading to a dark tunnel cut into the mountain. Cave openings at regular intervals—much too regular to have formed naturally—suggested this might be the home of a primitive cliff-dwelling tribe. No paths led up to the caves, however, and some of them were on sheer rock faces that didn’t look anywhere near being climbable.

I’d already started putting on my fire suit in response to the obvious conclusion before my conscious mind caught up to it: Those cliff dwellers were very unlikely to be human.

Part 5: Stranger Danger in Dragonopolis

I wouldn’t have thought the sky could get any darker and gloomier above the dirt road that was, apparently, Main Street in downtown Dragonopolis. I was wrong, of course. Maybe not literally wrong, but everything around me looked darker through the visor of my fire suit than it had upon my arrival.

Now that I wasn’t running for my life or hurrying to get my fire suit in place before any dragons could swoop down and roast me, I had time to look more closely at my surroundings. They didn’t seem to offer much in the way of escape routes, unfortunately. Behind me was the lake or bay I’d come from, with its hungry sea serpents. Sheer cliffs full of dragon caves rose up on both sides of the road, which led only to a tunnel entering the mountain. Light gleamed faintly from deep within the tunnel as it curved to the left.

Other than the tunnel, nothing else broke the stark expanse of the cliffs at ground level. Well, unless I wanted to count a few dragon dens barely low enough to be reached by a climber more intrepid than myself. As a professional dragon-control specialist, I had climbed up to a nest on occasion to retrieve hatchlings after capturing their mother, but it hadn’t been my idea of fun.

A wisp of smoke curled up from the nearest of the low caves, off to my right. I heard a scrabbling of little paws, and then a fledgling dragon emerged from the den, eyeing me with curiosity. Spreading golden wings, it glided down to the road, only a few steps from me.

The fledgling wasn’t a threat—its head didn’t quite reach my knees. I was a lot more concerned about avoiding a close encounter with its mother, who surely had to be nearby. No more smoke came from the den, so perhaps she had gone in search of food.

Beating wings and a screech from behind me confirmed that guess. Mama Dragon, gripping an ugly snout-faced fish in her talons, went into a steep dive. I took a quick step toward the far edge of the road as she landed with a thud and a cloud of dust, halfway between me and Junior. Then she hissed at me, almost like a goose protecting a gosling—not that a goose would’ve breathed fire or been the size of a large cow. I was lucky she hadn’t decided to squash me.

I kept on walking toward the tunnel, slowly enough that I wouldn’t look like fleeing prey, and without taking my eyes off Mama. She watched me just as closely for a minute or so before turning to chatter angrily at her offspring. I was pretty sure this couldn’t be anything but a lecture on staying away from strangers.

After a few more steps, I started breathing a little easier. Mama and Junior went back into their den to chow down on the fish. The tunnel was closer now, and there was enough illumination to show me that no dragons lurked inside the entrance. Of course, there was no way of knowing what else might be in there, but I reminded myself that I didn’t exactly have a long list of choices.

Especially when I heard more wings beating above me. Dragons came out of their caves on both sides of the canyon, all of them flying in my direction. Turning around, I took a quick count—at least two dozen of them. Bad odds if they chose to attack; my fire suit wouldn’t last long against their sharp teeth and talons.

Staring up at the nearest dragon, I hissed as loudly as I could, trying to imitate the sound of a protective nesting mother. The dragon didn’t turn away, but it landed on the dirt road—followed by the others—and paused for a few seconds before advancing slowly toward me.

I hissed some more, bringing the dragons to a standstill again, and backed a few paces toward the tunnel. That went on for several minutes—hissing and backing, hissing and backing—until the rocky walls of the tunnel’s entrance rose around me. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed that the tunnel appeared to be empty of life.

An icy wind blew toward me along the tunnel. I backed up a few more steps, until it became clear that the dragons weren’t following, and proceeded to walk normally around the bend. The tunnel ended in an ordinary-looking door with a round metal knob. Or rather, the door would’ve been ordinary if it hadn’t been about three times the size of a human-built door. It obviously hadn’t been built by dragons either, given the fact that they didn’t have hands with opposable thumbs. Sunlight—but no warmth—came from a window set into the top of the door, which was far above my head.

I reached up and put both of my hands on the knob. It turned easily, and the door swung outward to reveal a very different landscape.

Part 6: Into the Wilderness

The icy wilderness beyond the oversized door looked eerily empty. It wasn’t altogether devoid of life; a few scrawny conifers clung to the rocky slopes on either side of a frozen lake, but I saw no animals or birds. Sunlight brightened the scene but gave little warmth.

I didn’t see any sign of dragons, either, which was one advantage of suddenly finding myself in a bitterly cold wasteland. Dragons, like all reptiles, preferred warm climates. Still, if I froze to death here, it wouldn’t matter that nothing was trying to eat me.

Going back the way I came wasn’t in the cards, though; not with dragons and sea serpents in the way, and of course I had no clue how to reopen the portal to my own world even if I could reach it. Lacking any other choice but to go forward, I let the big door swing shut behind me, but not until after I checked to make sure the knob would turn from this side. No sense locking myself out when I had no idea what I’d find here.

I took off the hood of my fire suit to get a better view of the landscape without the visor. Looking up, I saw no flickering magical portals anywhere, which didn’t surprise me. After all, nothing was ever that easy. I did see two blood-red moons that hung near the horizon, both large enough to give the unsettling impression that they might fall out of the sky at any moment. The sun was low enough that it didn’t look like I could walk far without losing the daylight.

The cold wind in my face was strangely constant, without lulls or gusts. It smelled of ice and rock, with maybe a trace of woodsy scent from the trees, but that was more likely my imagination. Putting my hood back on so I wouldn’t lose too much body heat, I decided to start walking to my right, toward the setting sun. If I didn’t find shelter in that direction soon, then I’d have to turn around and come back here. The hard stone of the passageway inside the door wouldn’t be the most comfortable place to sleep, but it definitely beat freezing in the open air.

I picked my way carefully along the rocky shore, feeling very thankful for my sturdy shoes. A clump of conifers nearby offered a windbreak and more level ground, so I headed toward it. There were no paths, which suggested that no predators were likely to be lurking, but I kept a close watch anyway.

After a while, the trees grew more densely. Calling them a forest would still have been a stretch, but they could at least pass muster for a respectable woods, of the sort that lakeshore cabins back home in Tennessee might’ve had. The sun was just about to sink below them, which would have been my cue to turn around, when I saw the bright glow of a lantern through the trees.

Part 7: Friendly Alien Greetings

As the lantern came closer through the forest, I couldn’t quite make out who—or what—held it. The shadowy figure loomed above the height of any human; but even so, my best choice seemed to be asking for hospitality, if at all possible. I had no cold-weather gear, and the already-frigid temperature was dropping fast as the sun sank toward the horizon.

When he came clearly into view—”he” was my best guess as to gender, due to a long and bushy beard—I couldn’t decide whether he looked more like a Sasquatch or a caveman. He wasn’t as much of a giant as the huge door in the tunnel might have led me to expect. Eight feet tall, maybe, and hairy all over like a Sasquatch with caveman-style clothes roughly made from animal pelts.

I figured I’d better hurry up and say something friendly when he held the lantern higher, tilting his head one way and then another, looking baffled to find a scrawny little alien like me suddenly appearing. To give him a better look, I took off my hood, trying—without much success—not to shiver when the wind hit my face.

“Hey there, Sasquatch. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Lovely planet you’ve got.”

Well, maybe it could be called lovely if one were inclined to overlook such minor details as dragons, trolls, and sea serpents. On the plus side, nothing had tried to eat me (yet) in this forest.

I plastered a big smile on my face and then said, “I’m Chris,” pointing toward myself and speaking slowly and distinctly. “Chris.”

My newfound companion beamed delightedly and echoed, in a booming voice, “Cree-iss!” Then he poked me in the chest with a thick, stubby finger—hard enough that I had to brace myself not to stumble backward—and pointed toward his own chest while saying something that sounded like, “Irawaddagummygolly.”

“Glad to meet you, Ira.” I made myself smile even more broadly.

I was pretty sure he hadn’t understood a word I’d said, but he seemed willing to offer hospitality anyway when he turned back the way he’d come, gesturing for me to follow. By then, it had gotten dark enough that I had to focus on making my way carefully through the trees as I trailed along behind him. That was just as well because it distracted me from thinking about other possibilities, such as that Ira might be a cannibal with plans to roast me for his dinner.

I shivered again and told myself, firmly, that it was just from the cold.

Part 8: Dinner with Bigfoot

I hadn’t been walking much more than ten minutes before I saw a cabin through the trees, but by then it was nearly full dark. The two moons, which had taken on a greenish hue after sunset, had risen enough that they no longer seemed perilously close. Their light helped me to stay on the path when Ira, with his much longer stride, got well ahead of me with his lantern. Snow had started falling and already coated the frozen ground near the cabin, where the trees were sparse.

The word “cabin” seemed to suit Ira’s house because it was a simple wooden building with the dimensions and general appearance of a hunter’s cabin, although sized for giants. The doorknob, which was barely within my reach with raised arms, came to shoulder height on Ira’s sturdy Sasquatch-like body, leaving me to wonder what sort of people might have lived here originally.

Inside, the cabin felt wonderfully warm after my sojourn in the frigid woods. A fire burned brightly in the large stone hearth across from the door, and a stewpot hanging above it gave off an enticing aroma. I hadn’t eaten since grabbing a quick breakfast at the Bucharest airport in what seemed like another lifetime, and I sternly reminded myself that I’d better keep my focus on looking for potential dangers.

Nothing looked ominous when I surveyed the one-room cabin. The furniture, all made of wood, consisted only of a table, two chairs, and a footstool. Boxes of various sizes were scattered along the walls. A rug covering the floorboards by the fireplace was the pelt of a large animal I might have taken for a brown bear, except that its paws were absurdly oversized and had seven toes. In a corner, another rug on a raised platform apparently served as Ira’s bed. It all looked spartan in the extreme. I heard squeaks and flapping wings from somewhere far above in the darkness of the rafters, but otherwise there seemed to be nothing of concern. Walking across the room, I held out my hands to the fire’s cheery blaze, trying to get some warmth back into my icy fingers.

Ira picked up one of the smaller boxes and the footstool, setting them down next to me and gesturing for me to sit on the box. When I did so, the footstool came to a reasonable height for a small table. Rustling around in the other boxes, Ira took out two chipped ceramic bowls with mismatched patterns, two dented metal spoons, and a ladle that I thought at first might be a shovel. I brushed some dried mud off my makeshift table while Ira ladled stew into the bowls.

When he put a bowl in front of me, steam rose from the bubbling stew in the firelight. Mushrooms were recognizable, and there were chunks of a red root vegetable that looked like beets, along with the mystery meat. No, rodent meat, I corrected myself, noticing part of a tail. Doing my best to look on the bright side, that at least meant Ira probably wasn’t a cannibal.

I hadn’t quite gotten up enough gumption to start eating my big helping of alien rodent stew when Ira, now seated at the table, spoke. Although he was looking directly at me, his voice had the cadence of a ritual chant. Guessing that he might be saying grace, I stayed still, politely waiting for him to finish. Not having grown up in a religious family, I then mumbled awkwardly, “God is good, bless this food, amen.” I picked up my spoon and silently added a more fervent prayer that it wouldn’t kill me.

Ira’s chant had left me feeling calmer, though, as if his words—even though I couldn’t understand them—had somehow brought peace to the cabin. I managed to relax enough to eat the stew like it was an ordinary meal. It didn’t taste half bad, honestly. I wasn’t adventurous enough to eat the tail, however, and left it at the bottom of the bowl. So that Ira wouldn’t feel insulted, I rubbed my belly and let out a loud belch to make clear that my skinny little body had been very well fed.

Chuckling, Ira gathered up the remains of the meal, took a pail of hot water from the hearth, and poured some water into a basin to wash the dishes. The familiarity of that simple chore left me, for just a moment, nearly forgetting that he wasn’t human.

Part 9: Spellbound

While Ira washed the dishes, I took off my shoes and folded my dragon-protective suit into a neat rectangle. It made a reasonably comfortable pillow on the rug in front of the fireplace. I stretched, yawned, and listened to the cozy sound of the flames crackling as I watched Ira put the dishes away.

My self-preservation instincts nagged me again that I’d better stay on my guard. After all, this cabin wasn’t a vacation resort; it was an oddly oversized building on a strange planet, currently occupied by my Sasquatch host and whatever small creatures were squeaking in the rafters. For all I knew, they might be vampire bats, just waiting for me to doze off before they pounced.

I couldn’t muster enough energy to do more than turn my head, following Ira with my gaze as he opened another box. He carefully removed a book that looked ancient, with discolored pages. On top of the book, a bright pink flower had a weirdly lifelike appearance, as if it had just been picked.

Setting the flower back down in the box, Ira carried the book toward the firelight. He thumbed slowly through the pages, holding the book wide enough that I could see it wasn’t in any alphabet I recognized. Neat vertical columns filled the pages.

When he found his place, Ira began reciting the words in a slow, measured tone, moving a thick finger beside the letters as if he wasn’t much in the habit of reading. His voice felt soothing to me, although I couldn’t understand the words. After a minute or so, though, I started to pick up a few flickers of meaning. One word that he repeated three times sounded as if it meant “stranger,” and I understood another word as meaning “magic.”

At that point, the warnings at the back of my mind turned into clanging alarm bells. I had come to this world through what I’d been told was a sorcerers’ portal, which meant it was a reasonable assumption that there were sorcerers in the vicinity. And, of course, sorcerers had spellbooks. Ergo, Ira was casting a spell on me.

Before I could collect my muddled wits enough to decide what to do about it, the spell took effect, and I fell soundly asleep by the fireplace.

To be continued…