By J. L. Ender
The portal closed behind me with a whumph and a smell like rotten eggs. My eyes watered as I tried not to gag on the stench.
The clicks, buzzes, and cries of a vibrant emerald jungle enveloped me, followed swiftly by a sodden blanket of humidity. My dark human hair and ridiculous human robes clung to my skin.
“What?” I clawed at my pack and ripped a map out of the main pouch. “Why… How is there a jungle here?” Green and gold scales appeared on one hand.
Keep your irritation in check.
According to my map, this area should’ve been arid. Talons stretched my olive human fingers. I curled them in vexation. I didn’t do vexing well. Or wet heat, which dampened the ice magic I depended on to maintain my human form.
“The only way out is straight through,” I muttered. “Get what you came for and go.” I checked my list for the book and its borrower.
Alicen Paarval – Cottage and Garden Magic
Seriously, garden magic? Who writes these books?
I pulled a marble-sized tracking sphere from my pocket. One of the long nails on my scaled hand snagged, ripping into the black fabric. I suppressed a frustrated scream and painstakingly withdrew the nail.
Torn clothes, surprise jungle, humidity… could this day get any worse?
I tossed the tiny ball into the air with an irritated flick. It soared straight up as though attached to a rocket. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I blinked as the sphere vanished into the clear blue sky.
Portals are only so accurate. Mine had gotten latitude closer than altitude. I craned my neck, finally spotting an island floating well above the highest reaches of the jungle canopy.
Confound it all. Scales slid further up my arm.
I removed my outer robe and slid it into my pack. It had been years since I’d fully transformed. Involuntary partial transformation aside, could I still…?
My skin rippled and I was a dragon again, twenty feet long with scales shimmering in the diffuse sunlight. Well, that answers that.
Trees bumped my legs, tail, and wings. I gingerly used my fangs to heft my pack and pushed into the air. Broad leaves brushed my wingtips as I burst into the sky. With a sigh, I stretched and flapped leathery wings. The downdraft shook the treetops.
I should do this more often.
Laughing, I circled the island before coasting level with the rooftop of a small, gray stone cottage. Immense oak trees and a lush garden crowded the island. Narrow lanes wound through the gardens, every path bursting with hundreds of colorful flowers. Vines trailed several yards down, as though reaching for the jungle.
I landed on the roof with an enormous thump that would have made Saint Nick proud and anyone else pee their pants.
Up here, the air cut much clearer and cooler. I slid down the tiled roof, my latent humanity reasserting itself in midair. By the time I landed barefoot on lush, green grass, I was fleshy again.
I jumped behind a bush and threw my robe on, then shrugged my pack onto my shoulders. Around the corner, a door slammed open.
“Who’s there?” a female voice called. “I’m warning you, I’ve studied my elementals, including fire.”
I started to leave my hiding spot, realized my arm was still scaled, and shook it until it turned olive colored.
“Scary.” I straightened my robe, trying to look like a professional librarian despite the leaves in my hair. “But there’s no need to immolate me. I’m just here for a library book.”
“You’re what?” The woman—Alicen, I assumed—stood between two tall, conical hedges. Enormous, round spectacles gleamed, giving her an owlish aspect. A pinewood green dress hugged what humans call a “pleasantly plump” frame. The tracking marble floated behind, following her.
I raised my voice. “Library book. Overdue. Please return.” I held out an open palm.
Alicen shifted her weight from foot to foot. “I lost it.”
“You’re a filthy liar. Give me the book.”
The tracking marble, unlike humans, never lied.
She pursed her lips. “No.”
I sighed. “Fire, you said?”
Hand behind my back, I summoned an ice doppelgänger. The blue-white ice-man snuck up behind her. One arm flattened into a blade.
She threw a handful of seeds. They sprouted into long, slithering green vines streaked with purple. One of them grabbed my leg, another my right hand, then my left.
The ice doppelgänger struck. Alicen pivoted and smashed its face with a fist suddenly coated in a ball of tree bark. The ice-man collapsed, launching a spike of ice as it fell. The icicle sliced through the vine trapping my right hand.
I reached into a pouch in my robe and withdrew an ice sword. I cut through another vine, then blocked a punch. The sword bit into the wood protecting her hand. She swung her other hand and clocked me so hard stars smashed across blackened vision.
This isn’t working.
I opened my mouth and breathed fire at her feet. My sword melted, scales creeping up my left hand.
She shrank back. “My plants! You brute, you’ll hurt my plants.”
“Then give me the book,” I grunted. So much for her mastery over fire.
She ripped the book from her pocket and threw it at the ground. I picked it up with my human hand. The poor, beleaguered book was stained with dirt and water-logged. And she calls me a brute.
“Now turn off the jungle mania. You’re wreaking havoc on the local flora and fauna.”
I pocketed the book and took her arm, dragging her to the edge of the floating island.
“Holy smokes!” Alicen turned pale as salt. She eyed my arm. “Wait a second, are you…?”
“If you keep my secret, I won’t tell anyone you assaulted a Wizarding Library official.” I smiled. “Pay your late fee, return your books on time, yada yada, have a nice day.”