The trees seemed to grow bigger and taller and wider and greener as she approached the edge of Noon Stalker Territory.  The excitement of exploring the wonders the jungle held helped her forget how thirsty and hungry she was becoming.

It had taken her longer to get across the meadow than she expected, and her legs were growing itchy from walking through the long grass under the hot sun.  The boring brown dress she and all the girls in Zandador had to wear hung just past her knees, and that left the bottom of her legs exposed to the grass.  Had she been smart, she would have snagged a pair of pants from the wagon full of uniforms she had escaped Oer in.

Next time.  Next time she would be smart enough to bring water, food, and pants with her.  For now, she would deal with being thirsty, hungry, and itchy.  That was better than being stuck in her room with nothing to do but read about the place she could now touch and smell.

Before progressing into the jungle, Taliya looked to her left.  She could still see the city she had escaped from, but she was certain no one there could see her.  She was too small and too far away.  Plus, no one would be looking for her.  If her parents ever bothered to discover she was gone, they would probably be happy they didn’t have to deal with her today.

“Well, I’m happy I don’t have to deal with them.”  Taliya smiled and studied the trees in front of her.  In a few steps, she would be standing in the jungle where Noon Stalkers lived.  “Time to find me a dragon.”

With her mind now focused on dragons, she trudged forward between two giant trees that had leaves bigger than her head.  She had no trail to follow, so she carefully weaved her way between trees and ferns and shrubs and flowers.  Wanting to keep the place as pristine as possible and keep from disturbing any creatures who lived on the plants, she found herself ducking under branches and dodging leaves in an attempt to touch nothing.  Being short finally gave her an advantage in life!

Everything around her smelled fresh and alive.  Colorful birds sang lovely songs above her.  Other animals she couldn’t see chirped and whistled.

This.  This felt like home.  This felt like a place where she belonged.  Maybe she would stay here.  Maybe she would never go back to Oer.

Her stomach rumbled, reminding her she had yet to eat today.  Maybe staying here wasn’t such a great idea, at least not until she figured out how to find food and water.  And a place to sleep.  She did like having a bed and a roof over her head.

She looked up at a bright red bird with a long black feather for a tail.  “I’ll go just a little bit farther, then turn back.  Even if I didn’t get to see a dragon, at least I got to meet you.”

The bird cocked its head, let out a high-pitched wail, then flew away.

“Fine,” Taliya yelled at the departing bird.  “I didn’t want to be your friend, either.” 

More birds fluttered through the trees, and she could hear animals on the ground around her scurrying in every direction.

“What is going on?  Do I smell weird?”

Confused and a little hurt by the sudden departure of all living things, she trudged forward.  That’s when she stepped on what felt like the root of a giant tree.  Only it wasn’t a root.  Or a tree.  It was the tip of a tail of a giant dragon, a dragon that became visible to her the second she came in contact with its tail.

She screamed and ducked just in time to avoid a flash of fire from the dragon’s mouth.