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The Outsider

By J. L. Ender

The portal closed with a whumph and the smell of mint chocolate chip cookies. My human stomach rumbled as I stepped onto the pier. Seagulls’ piercing cries sounded above.

The city sprawled along the gentle curve of the giant turtle’s shell, the buildings rising taller as docks and warehouses gave way to apartments and shops, eventually peaking with an elegant stone clock tower. Further out to sea, another turtleback city floated, a lighthouse gleaming at its apex.

Todanlué was definitely one of my weirder travel destinations.

Two fishermen muttered as I strode through the wharf district. A little girl pointed me out to her mother, and a man tugging a rickshaw stopped to whisper to a boy selling broadsheets.

Great. My reputation precedes me.

I strode up to the seaside cottage of a Malin Valrys, who had let Runic Dreams come overdue. I raised my quaint human hand to knock…

The door swung open. An older woman—Malin, I guess—shoved a book in my face.

I lowered my hand and cleared my throat. “I’m—”

“I know. Just take it and go.”

I studied the cover. Runic Dreams.

She slammed the door, almost hitting my stubby human snout.

Maybe I should change my face. There was nothing to stop me. Except… I’d gotten used to seeing my human visage in the mirror, strange though it sometimes was not to be the dragon.

Who am I?

Thoughts heavy, I tucked the book in my satchel and set out. Supposedly, a local noodle place near Todanlué’s neck served a fantastic spicy ramen.

A distant roar pierced my thoughts. I snapped my eyes to the sky.

Like a streamer of pure sunlight, a golden dragon gleamed against the fluffy white heavens. Two sorcerers—aeromages guarding the city—soared nearby, little flecks in sky-blue robes. Lightning arced from their fingertips.

I shouldn’t get involved. I seriously shouldn’t.

My hasty portal closed above me with a whumph and the pungent scent of a fishing wharf.

Plummeting through the air was a serene experience as a dragon but nauseating in a human body. As I fell, I created a widespread flurry of ice and snow, briefly blinding the aeromages—and inadvertently the dragon—and created one last portal.

Arid badlands stretched around the dragon and me. I’d ported us farther than I intended, to some unfamiliar plateau. I checked for rogue unicorns, then sagged against a rock outcropping, exhausted.

Stepping close enough that I could smell brimstone, the golden dragon snarled. “What did you do?”

My human form quivered in a visceral reaction to her proximity. I ignored the urge to run.

“Why did you help me?” She glanced around, eyes widening. “Did you help me? Explain y’self, human.”

The dragon’s presence muddled my thoughts. I could reduce my people to an abstraction when they weren’t around, but here was a living, fire-breathing reminder of what I’d left behind.

“I’ve come to believe humans and dragons don’t have to be in conflict. We used to be allies.” Now there was tension, threats of war. I’d been sent among humans as a spy, and I’d become… I didn’t know what.

Huge yellow-green eyes bored into my soul. “Something off about you.”

I swallowed. “I’m just a simple librarian.” I wanted to leave, but I was so tired.

She snorted. “As if.” Her eyes flicked to distant horizons, then back. “I’m no demon magic user, but I know portals en’t easy. Tell me the truth.”

Could I trust this stranger? “What were you doing above Todanlué?”

“I’m a courier. Just delivering a message. Didn’t know the city was patrolled.”

“I hear negotiations between the Prime Minister and the Dragon King are… intensifying.”

She nodded. “World’s going crazy.”

I shrugged. “Isn’t it always?”

“Well…” She sat on her haunches. “Can you take us back?”

I still hadn’t moved. “Eventually.”

“I could kill you and fly away.”

“I know.” A dusty wind blew between us. “Please don’t.” I studied my fingernails. “What was your message?”

She quirked an eyebrow. “Who are you, really?”

“I work for the enforcement arm of the Taori Wizarding Library. I collect overdue books.”

“And I was delivering your Prime Minister a top secret recipe for chocolate cake.”

“Really? That sounds delicious.”

She rolled her eyes. “Take me back. I need to deliver my message.”

I nodded and stood, wobbling a little. Portals get exponentially more tiring. “Where were you headed?”

“Tishanté.”

“Never been. I’ll take you back to Todanlué. You’ll have to fly the rest of the way.”

“Fair enough.” She eyed me. “You smell of dragon.”

I raised an eyebrow but said nothing. I cracked open another portal.

We arrived on Todanlué’s head. No buildings out here. The immense turtle shivered slightly but swam on.

The dragon studied the sky between here and the next turtle. “Well, goodbye, human.”

I nodded but again said nothing. I didn’t trust myself.

And then she swept my legs out from under me with her tail. I fell backward toward the ocean far below—

No time for a portal. Too tired anyway. Familiar green-gold scales shivered down my skin. I flapped my way back to the turtle’s crown. I glanced toward the city with farseeing eyes, but no one there had noticed.

The golden dragon studied me. The water lapped below. Seagulls wheeled and squawked. The bell of a distant rickshaw rang out.

“Traitor.”

Was I? The dragon flew away, leaving me cold and hollow.

I shifted back to human on the nose of the turtle. She watched me with big, doe-like eyes, but passed no judgement. A single tear slid down my cheek.

Fool. Dragons dont cry.

I wiped it roughly and patted my bag. Still intact, and I’d managed to keep my robe together this time. Good. I had no time to worry about the opinion of one stupid dragon.

I had a book to return. Someday I might be forced to pick a side, but for now, I had a library to tend.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

J. L. Ender is the author of the superhero series Steel Fox Investigations and mecha vs kaiju mayhem The Cold Below, as well as a number of other novels and short stories. Ender has worked as a dishwasher, a beef jerky labeler, a warehouse worker, a shelf stocker, a greeter, a traveling technician, a laser engraver, a package handler, a copywriter, a graphic designer, a librarian, an editor, a dispatcher, a phone operator, a hotel clerk, and hopefully someday soon as a novelist… He lives in Ohio with his wife and fellow writer SCE Ender.


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