PART I: SAVE ME FROM MYSELF

Bittersweet Beginning: The Collapse Of Creation

1: A STAR IS BORN

"It's time!" Queen Susan quickly sat up straight in bed.

"Now? Are you sure?" King Henry yawned sleepily.

"Of course I am," she said, swinging a pillow at his head.

He cupped his hands. "Someone fetch a physician!"

At once, royal servants ran back and forth. Maids dashed for water and towels, tripping over each other hastening to take care of her. They hardly heeded thunderclaps outside as she screamed. Queen Susan began to give birth at midnight, nearly fainting from an unexpected urge to spread her legs and deliver. She shrieked as a surge of pure pain rocked her body and curved her back away from the frame as electric shocks tingled down her spine. She gripped sheets until her knuckles turned white.

King Henry left the bedroom in a hurry. He needed to take his mind off this. Lost deep in thought, he paced a hall with his hands behind his back, robe flowing behind him. A jeweled gold crown rested on his brow; its weight gave him a sense of purpose.

The old midwife should arrive any minute now.

A bright lightning bolt streaked across the sky. A horse reared and lifted a carriage; it hit the ground with a thud, breaking a front wheel. Mud flew up in the air and splattered on a coachman's hat. The midwife arrived at the gate, soaking wet.

Queen Susan managed to make it through pitiless labor pangs for hours. The midwife calmly reminded her it was natural. Clenching her teeth, the queen pushed. She smiled, sighing weakly – her face soaked wet with sweat and her eyes blurred with tears. Candles waned dimly until a servant lit the fire again. Soon the sun would rise and chase away the dark storm clouds.

"It's a girl!" the queen exclaimed as her husband entered.

"Isn't she wonderful?" King Henry asked. "I've never seen anything like her. Our precious little princess…"

Guards stood watch by the door, but lowered their weapons to let Princess Elizabeth run into the room. She skipped around like a ballet dancer doing a pirouette, so excited to have a baby sister to play with – though she could barely see over the blankets.

All was in order. Queen Susan proudly held her newborn, cradling the child joyfully. King Henry smiled too, seeing it had turned out fine after staying up all night ordering servants around. Not willing to wait, he demanded a chance to hold his daughter. The mother passed the infant into his arms. The baby began crying until he started gently rocking her. The girl grew quiet. He walked across a rough rug then stepped out onto the smooth marble floor of an open balcony, gazing up at stars.

He named her Alice, meaning noble. King Henry knew she would rule the realm someday, instead of her older sister. In an odd vision, he bequeathed everything to his daughter with dignity. He didn't understand what the mysterious prophecy meant, but he intended to fulfill it. As the chosen one, Alice was destined to save the kingdom from future destruction with a brave prince. Together they would deliver the world from darkness, bringing light back to the land. Yet, the young girl had much to learn.

2: CRYPTIC CONSPIRACY

Mark leaned back in a chair and put his feet on a wooden table, taking a brief break from his evening duty. He heard someone scream, so he stood up. Plunking down a drink, he accidentally knocked over the ale and glass tinkled on the floor. Listening intently, he tilted his head against a wall, straining his ears and closing his eyes to concentrate. Then it came again.

Something strange was happening in the castle cellar. As he dashed downstairs, moonlight shone through a barred window. He grabbed a torch to chase away shadows; it flickered as he stepped into the room and took a quick look around. A rat sat on hind legs then scurried away with skittering claws. Others fought for bits of stale bread under barrels of fermenting wine. Thunder crashed and they scampered between gloomy, gray stone blocks. Cobwebs shimmered like crystals, glistening from flashing lightning.

Unable to find the sound's source, Mark searched for a trapdoor or secret passageway. A black cloak lay in the corner; he knelt to examine it closer, picked it up, then stood. He scratched his chin, trudged upstairs, and then returned to his post.

Mark was a young man – brave, but inexperienced. His father had been killed in a battle. A familiar, assertive voice called out for him. Mark had known John since they were children. As boys, they often ventured away from the village into the woods to see who could climb the tallest tree or race to the top of Talon Tower. They never cared what trouble they got into, having an uncanny lack of respect for risk. They fought rascals frequently, but always came out the way they went in – together.

John was older and wiser than his partner. The lion-like, kind-hearted knight was ready to rescue anyone in trouble. Always looking for adventure, he never stayed in one place for long. However, his daring personality also made him vulnerable.

John was the leader of the Royal Guard, which consisted of the twelve bravest knights in the kingdom. He had reached this rank in record time. It was an era of chaos and confusion. The world was changing; it would never be the same. A new kind of knight rose up to the occasion, whose best weapon was his mind. The members of this special group worked behind the scenes as the guardians of their generation. Unaware of the danger it had narrowly escaped, the empire never knew what happened.

"Ah, there you are. I've been looking everywhere for you."

"Here, take this old cloak if you want." Mark yawned, pulling off a chain-mail coat. "My shift is over. Good night…"

"No, on second thought, remain at your post," John said.

"I'll cover for you. Where are you going this time?"

"If I'm not back soon, you know what to do," John replied.

"That's what you said last time." Mark frowned.

"It's much easier to avoid enemies when I work alone." Indicating ignorance, John shrugged in submission to chance and then put his arm around his pal, satisfying Mark's suspicions momentarily. "I'm getting too young for this, old friend."

John held the garment in a gloved hand. It had a hidden infinity symbol; prophecies spoke of this powerful token of death and destruction. Putting it on, he went out to explore the area. Going through a gate, he looked back over his shoulder.

From the corner of his eye, John saw a faintly glinting tip, aimed with deadly accuracy. Hearing a bowstring being drawn back, he got a hunch whoever hid on the branch wouldn't risk an unnecessary conflict. Careful not to alarm the assassin by making sudden movements, he walked over to the tree until he stood under it while looking down. With one swipe, John lopped off the limb. An arrow whizzed past his ear, ricocheting off the ground. John threw him against the trunk and pressed a sword point to his neck.

"I want answers and you're gonna give them to me!"

"Foolish mortal…" The demon vanished without a trace.

A cloak and hood drifted to John's feet as if never worn. He slid his sword back into the sheath, then followed footprints to a canyon where they ended abruptly. He knelt, looked down, and saw a rope. He tugged to make sure it was secure then hopped off the perilous precipice. The castle stood on a sharp cliff that dropped like a knife. Mist rose beneath towers, covering them with clouds. A waterfall roared over the edge, cascading to the bottom where a river flowed past jagged rocks below.

John spotted a cave hard to see from a distance. He swung then leaped toward it while maintaining his momentum, landing on solid ground. He grabbed two rocks, threw one in the air, and then hit it with the other, watching them splash in the water. It was a long way down. The rising sun gave him just enough light to see. Hearing footsteps, he spun around prepared for anything.

"Welcome," a stranger whispered and then shuffled away.

John followed him cautiously. Another guard grabbed his throat, pulled him inside, and then pushed him against a wall.

"Is that any way to treat our guest?" the first guard asked.

"Check your weapon at the gate," the second guard said. "Look for trouble here and you'll find more than you can handle."

John's hand twitched toward the sword concealed under his cloak. He took it out and handed it over.

"Hey, only the king's men use this kind of sword!"

"Tricky, eh? A spy in the king's service…" John raised an eyebrow with the guile of a gambler.

"Hmm, could've fooled me…" The other guard grumbled.

The first guard flipped a switch and let John pass. A panel retracted to reveal a hidden door. Torches fixed to walls lit corridors consisting of skulls with white candles burning inside. John allowed his eyes to adjust to the dim light as the guards reached a set of steps cut out of stone without waiting for him to follow. Walking down a long, dark path, he came to a torture room. His ears met the startling sound of vexed voices and miserable moans. It shattered the silent air in all directions.

Whoever decorated this dungeon had a sadistic sense of humor. To think my men aren't aware of this…

To either side of the stairs were inmates reduced to mere shells of men, wearing rags and chained to walls. Guards goaded poor prisoners trapped in macabre museums. They threw some out to sharks, bones being the only evidence of their existence. Inmates interrupted his thoughts to fight for a better view. One turned his head, laughing insanely. Others reached out, hoping he would free them. Some begged for a scrap of bread or a cup of water. He continued past them, not having sufficient support.

"Save us!" a voice called out from below.

"You can't leave us like this!" another cried.

A hallway led to a circular chamber lit by torches. An assembly gathered for the same sinister purpose. The cloaked phantoms dressed in completely black clothing. Not even the demons dared to tread in the wide-open space at the head of the congregation. Behind him, guards whispered, pointing in his direction. He shuddered as a rush of cold wind swept through the air. Every torch in the room went out with a sputter as a serpent's figure flew overhead and landed in view.

The shape-shifter appeared in human form, towering above the rest. He tugged at his chin until his face slipped sideways, split away from his ear, and slid over his head. It had a blank expression as he put it back on his vacant plane of flesh. At length, he spoke.

"My brethren, we are all aware of what happened tonight. We must not let them find us here or interfere until I am ready to usurp the throne. Only then will I let you have it. The girl is mine. Leave her for last. As for the others, do with them as you wish."

"When shall we feast? Will it be soon?" A demon's claws dripped with the fresh blood of a recent kill. "Can we keep her?"

"I'm surrounded by idiots. I already mentioned my intent regarding this matter." The Dark Lord sighed and shook his head. "We must use caution, though it's so terribly tempting to consume them. Act cultured and considerate. Coax them into complacency. Then we can take control of the kingdom. The less mortals know about us, the better. Don't reveal yourselves yet. Darkness is your domain. Stray from it sparingly. If any present self-indulgence leads to a loss of prey, once you've had your first taste of blood you will thirst for it forever. Secure souls instead and they'll be like a cup you can raise to your lips whenever you want."

"I am at your command, Master." A wolf demon stepped out of the shadows, bowed, and lowered his head lasciviously. "I still don't understand what you see in the human girl though. She's just a child. What harm could it be to act now?"

"Find the babe and bring her to me," the Dark Lord said.

"Very well…" The wolf demon nodded before departing. "My faith won't fail."

"What a fragile creature… One would never dream she possesses such power. You could rule the very world with it." The Dark Lord laughed. "Sometimes the old ways work best. Nothing is naturally on our side."

"How will you do it?" another demon asked.

"The best way to deceive somebody is with whoever they trust most. I'll have hooligans kidnap the princess then save her later. I'll separate her from the world, break her down, and then build her up as I see fit. Preoccupied with the past, she'll forget the future. We'll make her conceited by giving her everything she wants. Bring her under the same curse that has befallen each of us. Perhaps one day she may be of use to me. Her sister is selfish. That's a quality I like in a mortal I'm taking advantage of."

"She'll be scarred for life if you're lucky." He hissed. "What's important is that we've done our worst."

The Dark Lord looked up again. Tears filled his eyes. "I have no greater joy than to see that my children walk in darkness. Once we have set our plan in motion, nothing will stand in our way. We shall rise again!" He lifted his arms high in the air.

The vast multitude shouted in many different languages. First, there were whisperings, then thousands of voices.

Hmm… Speaking in tongues, are we?

An evil presence tested John's heart as he fought its intoxicating influence like a struggling bird caught in a net. He had to leave and warn the king before they took revenge on the royal family. He wasn't sure how to escape without risking being caught. He felt his way along a warped wall, groping around as he stumbled through the darkness.

"We see you!" flaming skulls whispered, then screamed.

"A spy is here. Someone started the party without us."

"Don't just stand there. Slay somebody! Come back by sunrise. Why do I ever leave this place anyway?"

John heard evil spirits scream for his blood. He watched in terror as they pursued him. Prisoners grabbed his leg, refusing to let go. This brief struggle consumed precious time and energy. He turned and ran, almost out of breath. An adrenalin-rush kicked in.

That got their attention. Maybe this wasn't a good idea.

"I've been waiting here in case you caused any trouble."

"Just ten? I'm insulted! I mean, come on… How do you goons expect to beat me?" John panted as they surrounded him.

"Take this!" A guard pounded him hard in the jaw.

"I'll give you that one free. I wasn't expecting it." Raising a respectful eyebrow, the knight nodded, impressed.

"You're a dead man!" The guard tried to grab him.

Man, this guy's tough. Have to outsmart him…

Someone seized his neck, choking him, but John bashed his nose with his head; then he twirled free and gasped for air. Since he was fighting several opponents at once, he darted in whenever an enemy was open to attack and hit pressure points.

Bad move… Another slip like that and this fight's over…

Another guard approached him and swung an ax. John could almost feel the blade cut into his throat and wondered if he would be looking up at his decapitated body just before he died. He watched as it came closer, hoping somehow to evade the attack. He bent back as it passed above him, facing up and ducking under the deadly swing. Then he jumped as it swiped below him, swishing through empty air. He grabbed the handle and yanked it away, making it spin sideways and land with a loud clang.

John leaned slightly, avoiding another strike. Twisting his arm back, John used the man as a human shield. Another came at him with a clenched fist. Dropping and rolling to the side, John dodged the blow. It pounded the wall, freeing a loose stone. John elbowed his face, kicked him down the stairs with a brown leather boot, and knocked him unconscious.

A guard stood by the gate, almost asleep. "Excuse me." Someone tapped his shoulder. A fist struck him and he tossed a ring in the air. John opened his hand to catch the keys, and then used one on the lock, casually humming to himself, but it didn't work. He fumbled through them. Which one is it? Finally, he found the right one, slammed the gate shut, and then locked it before the angry mob could get their hands on him. He climbed a ladder; halfway up, he realized the rungs were made of bones. Looking above, he saw a tiny speck of light no larger than the mouth of a wine bottle. The spot opened outward.

John ran to the cliff edge, hung his shield behind his back, and grabbed a rope. Reaching one hand over the other, he pulled hard as his aching muscles allowed. The sun was about to rise. Demons dared not follow him into dawning daylight.

"Mark, is that you? Thank God! Good timing… A little sooner and it would've been perfect." John continued to climb.

"How'd you get way down there?" Mark hollered.

"You won't believe what just happened to me. Where have you been? What took so long?" John asked.

"I was starting to enjoy watching you sweat."

"Give me a hand. I could use some help here."

"The rope is slipping!"

"No, don't let go!"

John reached out for a rock ledge as he fell. He lifted himself up, only to find a whole group of guards waiting there for him. The king wouldn't learn of their treason until it was too late. No one had ever managed to escape before.

"You located our hideout. Unfortunately, you won't be around to reveal what you've found. I'm doing you a favor by putting you out of your misery. No time to kill you properly, so I shall have to dispose of you without a fair fight."

A guard patted the knight on the back and then shoved him. John shouted threats as he plummeted into the raging rapids.

Mark simply stood there, gazing into the gorge. At first, he leaned forward over the edge. Then he thrust himself out in the air, falling toward the rocks far below. Before hitting the ground, the stranger underwent a mysterious transformation, resuming his true shape. Catching John's corpse in his jaws, the dragon flew back to the cave entrance just as the morning sunlight arrived – the moment darkness met the dawn. After that day, John was never seen again. Years came and went, yet not much changed.

3: MAIDEN IN THE MEADOW

It was a glorious morning at the castle. Dew hung on bushes like diamonds shimmering in the sun. Moss, vines, and flowers covered the garden walls. Little birds came out to chirp and play. The weather felt wonderful. Colorful flags flapped in the breeze high above a tower. Each pole held a decorative banner bearing the royal coat of arms, soaring from spires touching puffy white cotton clouds. The image of the legendary Sword of Light looked like a cross. Each knight bore this symbol on his shield.

Constantly curious, Princess Alice enjoyed every little detail of life. She spent hours wandering through fields picking daisies and putting them in her hair, swimming in the lake, and finding friends to play with. She held her arms out and twirled in circles until she got dizzy and fell down. At times, she grew tired of her training and preferred to do plenty of other things.

The princess was pretty, adorable as an angel, blessed with beauty, brave, and as fair as a flower. Her long blonde hair was soft as silk – her eyes as deep blue as the sky. Her heart was pure, but a bit naïve and perhaps overly optimistic. Somebody was bound to take advantage of her. Of course, she was only twelve years old. She could only see the good in others. She always had a smile on her face, with such warm mirth and a playful personality. Just a glance could make even the coldest heart melt.

Her bedroom had become somewhat of a sanctuary, though the stone palace seemed like a prison. Sometimes she slipped away and went somewhere else to be alone for a while. Alice loved being outdoors, but her sister usually stayed inside.

Elizabeth had emerald eyes and fiery-red hair. She watched nobles dance in the ballroom on special occasions of pageantry and pomp. She'd play harmless pranks like putting stinkweed in her sister's perfume or itching powder in the guards' uniforms. The only thing Alice ever got away with was charging a toll, not letting servants pass until they gave her a piece of candy.

That evening, she examined herself in a mirror. Alice combed her soft, long, flaxen hair fibers. A rainbow ribbon held her long hair in a ponytail. She wasn't supposed to slide down the gold banister with silver bars, but she did anyway. She went out for a walk to her favorite spot. Off in the distance, she could hear her sister call for supper; instead, she ran out of sight farther into the forest. For all of her free spirit, she'd never been beyond the castle wall so close to dusk before. Hiding behind trees, guards attempted to follow her around wherever she went; however, they wore such heavy armor. By the time they mounted their special stallions getting ready to ride, she already had a head start.

Don't those guys ever give up? Stop spying on me!

Barely keeping her balance, Alice spread out her arms and walked across a log that served as a bridge over a stream. In a small cave hidden behind a waterfall, she kept a diary and jotted down the day's events in a little journal. After that, she sat under a tall weeping willow tree. She sang and swung on an old rope attached to a branch that stretched out over a lake where she used to skip stones. In this quiet place, she could be herself. The peaceful day passed just like a dream.

It's so nice here. Nobody will ever find this place.

Majestic mountains covered with white snow rose on the horizon, climbing above the clouds. Pine trees thinned out higher in the atmosphere. This ridge formed another natural defense against invaders. The planet seemed like such a big place. She wasn't ready to take on the world; she would cross that bridge when she came to it.

Winter was almost over. Spring was coming soon. A pair of hawks screeched, teaching their offspring to fly. Letting the wind lift them high, they glided gracefully and landed in a canyon adjacent to Vulture Valley. Two squirrels competed for a companion, scurrying around a tree and scratching bark with high-pitched squeaks. They fell from a broken branch then scampered away and left their desired mate alone while they wrestled; she didn't try to stop them from fighting over her.

A pink bud opened; petals reached for rays. She wove a wreath fit for a queen then placed the green garland on her head.

Could this be the first flower of spring? Perfect perfume!

Trees cast shadows onto tall blades of grass. Wind brushed past the willow's branches until it bent down to touch the water. Her long, blonde hair flowed in the breeze as she wandered through the meadow. As the sun sank, a neon aura set the sky on fire. Her eyes caught sight of it giving off its last golden ray of light. Then she chided herself for letting it get so late.

I must hurry home. A nearby bush rustled; the strange sound aroused her attention. She found a fawn and gave it a fresh apple to nibble, petting its velvet fur. She knelt down on the soft green grass, spreading out her skirt. The little deer sprang across a babbling brook, frightened into the forest. Birds flew away. Rabbits hopped off. Branches bent. Twigs snapped.

Taking a step back, she lost her footing. As she turned around, her arms went out to protect her head. Her silver tiara slipped off, rolling through the grass until a rock stopped it. Slowly lifting her eyes, she looked to find out what it was. A huge, black bear towered threateningly above her. Playing dead involuntarily, she fainted and lay still until it got dark out and the air grew cold. It felt like only a moment had passed, but it must have been hours past midnight. Crickets chirped. Owls hooted.

When she woke up, a fat, warty toad hopped onto her head and croaked, performing for the slimy swamp creatures. She jumped to her feet, brushed off the annoying amphibian, and watched it splash into a murky pond among reeds.

Alice looked around, trying to remember what happened. Her royal tiara lay there in the leaves, glinting on the ground. It had a golden glow in the sunlight, but a soft silver shimmer in the moonlight. Picking up the handful of flowers she'd gathered, she walked over to the willow tree and looked across the lake. Hundreds of shimmering lights spiraled with perfect precision in a delicate dance. Fireflies hovered around her in the misty fog. Moonlight revealed a reflection of a white swan.

Rushing wind rustled loose leaves as branches swayed. Taking a deep breath, she summoned the courage to head back home. It sounded like someone was coming toward her, but she couldn't tell until her eyes had a chance to adjust. Perhaps a guard had found her, panting heavily and out of breath. Glancing to her side, she glimpsed gray fur as a shadow slipped past trees behind her. Stopping abruptly, a wolf growled and stared straight into her wide-open eyes. A whole pack howled, sending a thousand tingling shivers down her spine. Her blood turned cold. She dropped her flowers, followed by the beast.

Alice turned to run. She tripped on a root and fell face down in the mud. The wolves were already upon her, crushing petals. She was up immediately – legs pumping, arms swinging, lungs burning. Her mind raced and her heart beat faster than a hummingbird's wings. She grabbed a rope hanging from a branch just as a wolf caught the corner of her dress. Her slipper fell off as she swung over the lake and then dived underwater. Frogs hopped off of lily pads, startled by the splash.

She swam across, reached the other side, and then sat on a dry bank. Taking off a shoe, she dumped sludge out onto the dirt. A tiny little mouse jumped on her hand. She screamed at the top of her lungs, fled through the forest, and ran all the way up the valley. Twisted tree shapes would have been enough to frighten almost any child. Climbing a branch to vault the castle wall, she sneaked back inside. She tiptoed across a long hall, returned to her room, and minutes later, she had already fallen asleep. It was just another day in the life of a typical teenager. With a little luck, her parents would never find out she'd left.

4: ROYAL RIVAL

Princess Alice awoke to a loud knock on her door. The warm sunlight was so bright she buried herself under a pillow, frustrated by the persistent voice calling her name. She got up and opened it. There stood Queen Susan.

"Where were you yesterday? What were you thinking? I told your sister to call you inside. How could you be so inconsiderate by running off without telling anyone?"

"Sorry, but the sun hadn't even set yet. Animals chased me. I'm lucky to be alive." Alice twirled her hair, trying to look cute.

"I was your age too once, believe it or not." Queen Susan examined a frayed fabric. "What about your dress? It's ruined! You should be ashamed. I thought I taught you better than that. I'm tempted to never let you leave the castle again."

"But mother…" Alice retorted, stomping on the floor.

Queen Susan sternly glared down at her daughter and wagged a finger, recognizing the rebellious attitude. Any arguing was useless. It was pointless trying to justify the incident. Gradually, her tone of voice grew calm again.

"Do as you're told. I need to know what's going on in your life. If you had a baby, you would understand. When will you stop acting like a child instead of the sophisticated young lady I know you are? Grow up! This behavior isn't appropriate. Your appearance isn't presentable. Besides, you're behind on school studies. Your teacher has been waiting patiently because you were too lazy to get out of bed this morning. I don't want you to miss anything important. Now go get dressed and ready for breakfast."

"I'll be down in a minute." Alice nodded.

The princess pulled back a curtain, as if the whole world were her stage. She could see the entire kingdom from her bedroom balcony. From a window, she watched students play games. Her best friend Jack looked up just then.

"Hey Alice, quit daydreaming! What's wrong with you?"

"It's hard to explain. It'll have to wait until lunch."

"We sure can use a girl on the other team. We're losing."

"Hey!" She put her hands on her hips.

"Don't want to waste such a beautiful day sleeping away… Oh well, see ya!" Jack just shrugged sheepishly.

Hoops and belt buckles shaped like hearts enhanced her outfit. Attended by royal servants, Alice promptly hurried down to the dining hall. She was still half-asleep, but couldn't get comfortable. After a brief breakfast, she grabbed her bag and left. Students made their way to class. She felt lost in the crowd. Then just as quickly, the courtyard was clear and she was alone.

"How about an escort?" Her mother waved out a window.

"That won't be necessary." Her tiara tilted over.

The teacher reviewed yesterday's lesson with the class. Later he'd switch gears from lecturing on philosophy to math. Charles raised a finger and held an open book in one hand. His gray hair shifted as he read the text and gave his own view on the subject matter. Often he became more like a bard than a teacher. Everyone could always count on him for quick answers to difficult questions. Though impatient, he seldom hesitated to speak up or offer his advice. His scholar's robe swished.

Alice didn't always get along well with others. Swinging the door open, she gulped at the sight of twenty other teens. Students were already seated, books open, with pencils in hand. Their heads turned around.

"I'm so pleased you could join us, princess. Care to explain why you're late for school yet again?" Charles asked.

"Sorry, I'd rather not if you don't mind." Alice shrugged, grabbing her wrists behind her back with a mock curtsy.

"Very well, then take a seat." Charles gestured as if it were a throne. "Oh, by all means, feel free to take your time," he suggested in a sarcastic tone. "Now class, as I was saying, whatever happens everything has an explanation, whether we see it or not. We take a lot for granted in life. What if we're wrong? How can we be sure something is true? Should we trust our senses or is it better to believe in the impossible? We must consider what we've come to accept as fact."

In this institution, the kingdom's best and brightest young men and women would grow up to change the world someday. Graduates were gifted with great genius, but she would never be one of them. She couldn't stand spending hours in class reading boring books. She just wanted to have a normal life instead of staying cooped up inside a castle all day.

Princess Alice sighed, looking out the window longingly. During this particular lesson, she couldn't stay focused on the front of the classroom. Instead, she let her mind wander. Resting her head on a hand, she seemed about to fall asleep. Noticing this, someone sitting nearby tipped her over. Alice took a book and hid behind it. Notes passed under desks.

"Alice, were you listening?" Charles asked her again.

"Uh, yeah…" She shook her head, snapping back to reality.

"Now let's see what you've learned. Time for a test…"

Charles called on her to solve a problem, assuming she did last night's homework. It involved dividing a certain number by zero; the answer was infinity. She stood up, took the chalk, scribbled something, then turned to face them when she finished. She hurried to change her answer, but accidentally knocked over the board, which fell and hit her head. The other students couldn't bear it, holding the air in until their chests burst with laughter. Girls gawked, whispered as if she'd committed some terrible crime, checked if the teacher was looking, wiped the smiles off their faces, and twiddled when he turned around.

"Enough, everyone!" Charles scolded, drowning out the noise. "You may sit down now, princess. Are you feeling ok?"

"Yes, sir… It's just that I'm so tired of listening to lectures." She yawned, then shrugged and leaned back in her seat.

"Stay put. I'd like to have a word with you after class." Charles frowned. "As for all you, don't forget your assignment."

Princess Alice remained seated, staring off into space. The room quickly emptied with sighs of relief and groans of complaint. Some students haphazardly brushed past her, knocking over her books. They rudely ignored her, but she acted indifferent.

"What am I going to do with you?" Charles asked.

"I'm sorry! I get so bored sitting at a desk all day long." She looked down at the floor, fidgeting nervously. "I wish we could go out and do something fun for once. Why do I need to learn all of this stuff if I'm never going to use it anyway?"

"Maybe you would find the lessons more interesting if you paid attention. I spend a lot of time and energy teaching you."

"Practicing how to be a princess, I learn so many useless manners, like how to sip tea without offending anyone or balance books on my head. There's a thousand ways to insult somebody important. I'd rather sword-fight than solve equations, working with confusing calculations. What's the big deal? I'm just a kid!"

"Ah, but you do things other children couldn't dream of. There is a balance between work and play. I won't pretend you don't have big responsibilities. Someday you will be in charge, but I can't always be there to help you along," Charles said.

"I can never get a moment to myself. My own servants tell me how to dress. I'm not free to do what I want. I feel so trapped."

"Your choices affect people around you. Many will depend on your decisions. So set an example and show them how it's done. Learn before you teach. Train your wild imagination. Be patient and accept that others might be more experienced. In order to lead, first you must follow. The key is knowing when to do so."

"Well, I sure wasn't getting much positive feedback."

"That's because you've been asking the wrong people."

"Are you trying to teach me stuff again?" Alice asked.

"What do you remember from your math lesson?"

"Not much…" She bit her tongue.

"Life is an equation. The only way to calculate an unknown variable is to find a universal constant that's unchanging."

"Or someone," Alice said.

"Nobody's born with character. We acquire it during difficult times. Naturally, we get upset when we make mistakes, but we can learn from them. The lessons in life that mean the most are often the hardest to understand. To succeed, we must be willing to fail. Just take it one step at a time. Prepare for the worst. Hope for the best." Charles lingered in the doorway before he left.

"Is there anything else? Can I go now?" Alice asked.

"Life is a test. Study hard," Charles said.

Elizabeth came to check on her little sister. "I think it's time we had a talk. The other students are starting all kinds of ridiculous rumors. You have to earn their respect or my social status will, um… Do you see what I'm trying to say?"

"Can you please pretend like you have a life for a minute? You're turning into one of them!"

"Though I'm developing my diplomatic skills, don't expect me to do everything for you. We have different paths in life, but don't worry dear. It will be fine. Just wait and see."

"Sigh, royalty ain't what it used to be," Alice said.

"Believe me. I know exactly how you feel." Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and then hugged her. "Did you give the guards too much trouble? How did you ditch them, honey? You shouldn't go anywhere unless they tag along. Mother was worried sick."

Mother is just a mad cow. Alice rolled her eyes.

Princess Alice lay down in the soft grass, gazed up at the clouds in the sky, and watched the birds fly by. She imagined having a world of her own with nobody to tell her what to do. Lately, she spent her time dreaming of her true love. Someday a handsome prince would take her away. She didn't know who, but it didn't matter. Anyone would do, provided he was perfect and had a white horse. The knight could lean down and break the spell with a kiss. Then they would ride off into a sunset.

A boy dumped a pail of water in her face. "Oops…" The bully laughed. "I thought you passed out from heat exhaustion."

"Hey!" She sat up and coughed. "Go away." She frowned.

"Yeah, leave her alone!" Jack shouted at him. Wearing a leather vest, Jack chased after the big bully with a wooden sword, crossed a painted bridge, and pushed him into the stream. Then he slipped on the grass, tumbling downhill.

Alice sat alone under an old oak tree and opened a book. Pretending to be preoccupied, she barely glanced up.

"Did ya see that?" Jack sat at a picnic table.

"Ok, that does it! Doesn't anyone around here care I have work to do? I'm busy!" She banged her head on a tree repeatedly.

"Sorry, princess…" Jack knelt.

"Stop calling me that. I don't like it. My best friend shouldn't bow to me either. It's embarrassing," she said.

"Whatever you say, princess… Whatcha doing?"

"Just soul-searching," she said.

"Well, when you find one, let me know," Jack said.

"Might take a while… I've had a lot on my mind lately."

"Wait, let me get this straight. You're reading on purpose?"

"Yeah, so?" She laughed, but managed to turn it into a cough, covering her mouth to avoid revealing her amusement.

"I've slain another serpent this morning." Jack bragged.

"That's nice. How many does that make now?"

"Hmm, I lost count." Jack scratched his head. "I'm Sir Lance a Little. You're trapped in a tower and only I can save you."

"I can take care of myself, thank you."

"Come on, where's your sense of adventure?" Jack asked.

"I left it back there with my lunch." Her stomach felt sick. "Maybe later… I just need to think for a while."

"Quit studying. Let's play."

"I wish I could, but I've got some stuff to worry about."

"I don't get you – or girls in general, while we're at it."

"Let me finish eating first." Alice took out an apple. "I got a low grade on my test, as usual." She shuddered.

"Bet it's not half as bad as mine…"

"Soon all sorts of terrible things will happen to me."

"Like getting an education? Careful, you'll learn stuff!"

"I can rule a kingdom. I'm almost thirteen."

"So why don't you run away?" Jack asked.

"Fine then, I will! Why not?" She shrugged.

"How far are you gonna get? I bet you could survive a whole week if you don't acquire a taste for your own cooking. You'd make a great chemist, except for those putrid brownies you're always asking everyone to try." Jack jested.

"I might as well take all my books and throw them in the moat with you. See you tomorrow – if I survive, that is."

"Hey guys, wait up for me!" Jack ran off again.

Outwardly, she gave a good show. Inside, she was irritated. Life was moving far too fast. Nobody truly understood or accepted her. She didn't want to stay here for the rest of her life. If she ran away, would anyone care enough to look for her?

5: A PRINCESS IN PERIL

After supper, Princess Elizabeth retired to her room to spend the rest of the evening painting a portrait. She dipped her pen in the ink and drew a simple sketch on canvas, yet barely noticed when her sister stepped in. Princess Alice plopped onto the bed, bouncing lightly; she lay on her stomach with her head propped up on one hand and her hair spread out behind her back.

"Who are you illustrating?" Alice asked.

"Paladin, supposedly… Have you ever heard of him?"

"I've been listening to rumors about him lately. Some people say he's a prince searching for his one true love."

"Well, you never know if he's still single. Either way, he's an excellent model. His eyes are so intense, strong, and confident." Elizabeth gazed passionately at the image, brushing back her hair. "It sounds so romantic – if only the tales were true."

"Maybe I should leave you two alone together?" Alice winked and bit her lip as her sister put on perfume and makeup.

"I've got to get ready for tonight's recital. It's worth the trouble to go to town. The last symphony left the audience stunned, longing for more. This will be the finest concert ever conducted. I absolutely adore classics!" Elizabeth exclaimed.

Great, another family feud… They're talking about me!

Princess Alice heard yelling in the master bedroom, so she pushed past the guards. Her parents were getting into quite a few quarrels lately. Ironically, they disputed what was best for her and what schedule changes might improve her performance. They'd been so busy they waited until servants reported about her most recent mischief and probably figured this was a growth phase.

"I can't stand it when you guys fight. I'll do the best I can, but please don't argue over nothing like this," Alice said.

"Don't talk like that in front of your father, dear."

"You're causing a spectacle." King Henry gestured for the servants to leave the room, which they did gladly in a great hurry.

"This isn't who I am. My role was meant for someone else. I never wanted this! When will you see?" Alice asked.

"I'm very sorry if you feel that way, but we would never hurt you." Queen Susan hugged her.

"Your mother is right – for once. We can't afford to stop and drop everything we're doing right now. Thousands of people will be here for the Renaissance Festival. We've spent months preparing for it. After this, I promise we'll do something together."

A servant knocked twice, informing King Henry that an ambassador had arrived from a foreign land. He proposed a new treaty that instigated interdependence between both. The king became so involved in the discussion it lasted an hour. After listening for a little while, excluded from the exchange, Princess Alice left again, finding it rather rude.

"Is something wrong, Sire?" Charles asked with concern.

"I should say so." The king used a tiresome tone of voice, turning from a wardrobe with the manner of one casting off an old mantle. He rarely called even great gentlemen into his private chamber. "I find fault with the way you teach. I want my daughter prepared to take her place on the throne. It's time to stop protecting her from the real world. Life is a battle that must be fought."

"I told her she could achieve anything she puts her mind to. I didn't mean to overdo it. Sorry about that, Sire…"

"Sorry isn't good enough."

"It won't happen again, your highness." Charles bowed.

"See that it doesn't. Do not disappoint me."

"Don't you see, Sire? This is exactly what you predicted."

"My daughter is a bit too old for these fairytales. She will take private lessons at the castle. From this moment forth, you are officially dismissed. I mean to find someone to supervise you." King Henry pointed at the door and waited for Charles to leave.

Queen Susan barged in and queried her husband. "You told our daughter the prophecy isn't true?"

"I'm just trying to offer her a firm sense of reality, dear. Why give her hope for something that will never happen?"

"Are you done yet?" The queen impatiently interrupted. "It's your own fault. Ever since she was a child, you kept telling her to work hard and follow in your footsteps. I'm putting Charles back in charge. There's no reason to replace him."

"Wait, I haven't agreed to that." The king held up a finger.

"I'm not asking anymore!" She slammed the door.

How can we help the kingdom until we fix our family first?

DEAR DIARY:

Yes, I'm a princess, but I try not to think about it. Everyone seems to have this strange idea that if I'm left alone for a moment, a dragon will swoop down from the sky and carry me off. I am not your average damsel in distress. I don't need a knight in shining armor. I'm not saying being a princess is bad. I've always been the girl who had everything, getting whatever I want. My parents – well, technically the servants – watch me to make sure I stay out of trouble. Wish daddy didn't have to work so hard… I know he cares about me, but he's so busy. I suppose his way of making up for lost time is to order guards to follow me around. Mother is so overprotective. Then there's my sister. I don't know what to make of her. I've got a lot to live up to.

YOURS TRULY

Alice couldn't stand the daily routine of life. She had heard stories about villagers slacking off. The raised voices of servants broke her concentration. She left the noisy hall for the peace and quiet of her own room. Envelopes sealed with wax, imprinted with fancy symbols, lay on a table. She recognized the elegant calligraphy handwriting and gold font before opening them.

Prince Richard was handsome and heroic, with wavy brown hair. Studying at overseas universities, he'd shown a remarkable skill in military strategy. His father and mother died in a war when he was just a child. Peasants wondered how he had retained such riches. Nobody knew where he came from; he seldom spoke of his past. Some were suspicious about the distant land he referred to. Few questioned him or had time to travel to the farthest corners of the known world where merged horizons met. Nevertheless, he promised to visit her sister someday.

Queen Susan admired aspects of many audacious artists' provoking pictures. She spent a lot of time at balls and feasts, inviting various guests from foreign lands. When she was young, dukes fought in duels competing for her hand. Her husband triumphed in an annual jousting tournament as the arena champion in trial by combat. Men had waged wars because of her beauty. When hundreds of men were dying in battle, he turned the tide.

Economic advisers reported as King Henry monitored various merchant guilds. The kind king introduced projects involving farming techniques, clearing forests, constructing roads and buildings, improving transportation and communication, and cultivating the land to distribute natural resources. Being alone was a chance to get extra work done with more exhausting enterprises. His duties demanded all his time and energy, leaving little left for his family. In his spare time, he prayed for wisdom and guidance. Speaking Latin fluently, he led congregations in hymns, but sometimes attended church services for the show of it.

Elizabeth was the most popular princess, being a competitive perfectionist and an eloquent orator. She liked to show off and attract attention – spoiled rotten with so much makeup, classy clothing, and ridiculous grooming rituals. She had a stately, commanding air about her. She remained focused in hard situations and insisted on knowing exactly what to expect. She knew what she wanted and would do anything to get it. When words didn't work, she turned to force. There were many different ways to outsmart others. Although she could be annoying sometimes, usually she meant well.

Would anyone recognize me without my silver tiara?

She took it off and set it down. Instead, she put on servant clothes, wearing wool socks and leather boots. Princess Alice dumped out her purse onto an ornate oriental carpet. Jewels and perfume bottles fell to the floor. She packed a doll and several gold coins. After that, she tore out a page from her diary, wrote a short letter, and left it on the dresser, which had wooden towers carved into either side. Maybe she wouldn't have to travel very far. She would be back before they knew it.

That night, Alice took her things, walked across a hallway past the master bedroom, and went downstairs. Hearing footsteps, she hid behind a curtain. The throne room was unoccupied, except for one guard who looked out a window. He shrugged, returned to his post, and figured it was just a false alarm. She hung from a sill, jumped down, and hid in the bushes. She climbed an old oak and crawled on a branch over the castle wall. She pulled a red hood over her head. The lantern she held gave a warm glow. For a young girl, she wasn't easily frightened. Few dared to wander through the woods alone at night.

She searched for a path, but remained alert. Then a twig snapped. Her head spun around. A gust of wind made her hood fly up in her face. Unable to see anything, she tripped, accidentally dropping the lantern. The glass broke and it set a bush on fire.

Normally, wolves didn't attack unless provoked, but game was getting scarce due to hunters. It stood on its hind legs with its paws against the trunk, snapping, snarling, and swiping its claws. The hair on its back stood on end. She grabbed a branch, but it bent and her foot dangled an inch above its teeth. Crying out for help, she kicked at it. A fire spread through the forest, but the wolf remained until it felt the heat and ran away. She gasped, letting go. Thick smoke stung her eyes; she covered them and coughed.

DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER:

By the time you read this, I'll be long gone. I'm running away because of my overwhelming responsibilities. You've built so many expectations for me over the years I didn't want to tell you. I feel like I have failed the kingdom, because whatever I do, it's never good enough. I can't even bear to face myself in the mirror. I'm not a leader. I don't wish to be bound by this obligation anymore. Please don't get upset or worry about me. Don't use this as an excuse to fight. Don't try to bring me back. I shall return soon. I bid you farewell. I love you and I'm sorry.

FOREVER YOURS, PRINCESS ALICE

"There's a fire in the woods!" a guard said to the captain.

"Go and get me the kingdom's swiftest steed!" he replied.

A guard burst into the master bedroom and stood in the doorway, waking the royal couple. He saluted, breathing hard.

"I don't mean to disturb you, but your daughter is in danger. We checked the castle, but she's still missing."

King Henry yawned and rolled out of bed. His face turned pale when he saw the patch of her dress she left back at the lake. Queen Susan blamed them for letting her slip away again. Her husband had to calm her down so the guard could continue.

"What are our chances of seeing her again?"

"Do you want it straight out?" The guard stood, waiting.

"Don't spare any details."

"Let me put this as gently as possible. Basically, there's a chance we're dealing with bandits on a slaughter spree, but it's nothing compared to some of the horrible things I've seen. We heard a scream come from the forest. It seems wolves got her first, but we can't find a body so perhaps she escaped. Hopefully, she took shelter from the fire before it rained."

King Henry felt sick, especially after reading the note his daughter left. He loved her and longed for her return, so he sent out letters asking for aid. Search parties entered towns all to no avail; he ordered them to keep their eyes open and report anything unusual, yet they couldn't find her anywhere. Clever con-artists made many false claims trying to collect the reward money.

"We haven't received any word of your daughter."

"Let no one in the land sleep until she's safe." King Henry pointed wearily. "What have we done? If only we'd known…"

"Oh, to be kidnapped is one thing, but to run away…" Queen Susan shook her head and covered her face.

"Don't blame yourself, dear." He patted her shoulder.

As the weeks passed, they couldn't bear to go into her room because it brought back painful memories. Queen Susan stayed in her bed thinking of other things. King Henry spent hours in silence busy at work in his office, rationalizing rather than grieving. He simply did what any man would do – move on. The king was very worried for his wife. The queen had qualms about his waning health. Finally, they abandoned hope of ever finding her. They figured she'd been eaten alive or burned to death.

They held a funeral in the valley by the willow, gathered in a circle. The queen said nothing; her daughter was dead, so she wept instead. In her bitter anguish, she could barely stand. Servants came to comfort her, sharing her sorrow, but couldn't hush her.

"Care to do the honors, Sire?" An old priest gestured.

King Henry raised his voice and addressed the royal court. Servants bowed their heads in respect and looked down at the ground, followed by a moment of rumination. The royal family left in a dignified procession. Musicians played solemn tunes.

Elizabeth wondered what happened to her little sister, disdaining the fancy euphemisms spoken by her father. She could conduct her own search, but wouldn't put her parents through the turmoil of losing another dearest daughter again. So instead, she searched the prophecies, hoping to discover something to explain recent events, but found nothing noteworthy.

6: WHISPERS IN THE WIND

During all this drama, Princess Alice was alive. She had crawled under a hollow oak tree, struggling to stay conscious. She got some rest, despite the hard ground. It became bitter cold. Sunlight fell through branches, lifting the morning mist. When she woke up, her clothes were stiff with a light layer of frost. She stood up to stretch out her arms. Normally, she would never get her dress dirty; she liked to keep it neat and clean. Today she pretended not to be a princess. Birds began chirping cheerfully.

What a wonderful day to visit the village…

The forest looked friendly. The fresh smell of spring filled the air and she breathed it all in. When the wind blew, leaves drifted down and crunched under her feet. Streams trickled under bridges next to grass growing right by the roadside. As she walked through the woods, the long path hurried to nowhere and had no end in sight. She headed toward town along a trade route, trying not to attract unwanted attention. She hadn't gone far when she came to a coach. She quickly hopped on before it passed by.

"If you please, sir… I could really use a ride," she said.

"I'm Benjamin, the blacksmith. Where are you headed?"

"I'm on my way to Elswayer," she replied.

"And whose business brings you there?" He helped her up.

"My own…" Her smile faded into a frown.

"I hear it's a tough crowd. I hate passing through that town, but I just can't help myself because they're filthy rich!" Benjamin bellowed. "There are many thieves. You might get hurt wandering around out here like this."

"Lawyers, celebrities, and politicians? Oh my!" The poor girl gasped. "If you see any, be sure to point them out for me."

"Watch out for wolves. They've recently turned ravenous. Traveling alone isn't safe. Do you have any skill with a sword?"

"Let me see what you've got to offer," she said.

"Sure, go right ahead," the bulging blacksmith said.

She sorted through weapons and pieces of armor. A dagger shaped like a dragon tooth caught her eye. Armed knights rode right up to the coach. Hearing this, the princess peeked through the curtains. Quietly, she slipped away, hiding in the trees.

"Excuse me sir, but have you seen a young girl go by? We're looking for a lost princess. The king is offering a reward for her safe return. We have official orders to deliver his daughter back into protective custody."

"Just a moment ago, a little girl covered in ashes wearing a red hood was here. She must have slipped out the back somehow."

"We must find her at once! Where did she go?" he asked.

The men set out to search the area. As they headed in her direction, she held onto a waterwheel and climbed on top of a roof. Water fell in froth, white cascades into the creaking wheel's wooden lattice. She avoided the patrol and waited to see which way they went. Looking along the road, she sheltered her eyes. The horses galloped off. As she leaped to the other side of the stream, a paddle snagged her hood and swept her down underwater. Trying to swim away, she spluttered and splashed, then gasped for air.

I left my sack! All my food and money was in there.

Noticing a nearby stable, the princess found a little pink pony and borrowed it. Trying to keep ahead of the search party, she rode on as far as she could. Here in the forest, she felt at peace. Then she ran into another group of guards and let it go. She hid behind a tree and waited as they chased after it. She left the main path and continued her journey down a road-less-traveled-by. Walking through wheat fields, she smelled serfs baking fresh bread in mills. In a valley, the local villagers sang a cheerful song in the hustle and bustle of everyday life as they went about their work.

The town was bigger than she had imagined – full of more folks than she could count. When she arrived at rush hour, people shoved her aside. There was only one traffic law; those less important made way for the ones higher up on the social ladder. She felt like part of the food chain. The princess pulled a hood over her head and wrapped it around her shoulders; in this disguise, she investigated the word on the street without revealing her identity. A few shops caught her eye, but she didn't stop.

Morning crowds went about urgent and unattended business, hurrying toward various destinations. Ordinary folks with just enough to live on spoke of the upper-class strata of society. Women gossiped about the latest fashions, displaying handmade wares on quilted tables. Farmers sold fruit, vegetables, and bread. Hunters carried a long pole with a carcass hanging by its hooves.

The throng became so tight she couldn't move. Guards stood on both sides of the road, leaning on rusty rapiers. Some walked and swung their arms, getting along with anyone who would drink to their health. When one gestured to the others listening to his tale, she ducked and darted down a narrow lane, which brought her to a quiet street on the edge of town. It was less crowded here than in the public square, except for vagabond vendors. Merchants bought and sold cheap trinkets.

Stories spread like wildfire. Crowds conversed about the prophet Paladin, saying that he was more than a man. Some claimed he came from a distant world. Monks affirmed he made everything in the Earth. He would judge the wicked and bring peace to those who trusted in him. Others ridiculed the rumors, saying he was only a carpenter born of an obscure peasant family. Traveling pilgrims portrayed many more versions of these tales in marionette musicals. It was difficult to determine fiction from fact.

I know the truth is out there somewhere.

Scholars and priests sought to be in Paladin's presence and learn more from him. His words offended some religious leaders, though nobody could counter his teachings. He'd be a big crowd-drawing factor during the Renaissance Festival. Maidens told each other romantic stories about a handsome prince. Candles burned in windows like flickering lights of longing that danced in the night.

When the prophet arrived, the princess left to find him. She could hear them from a mile away. Peering through the trees, she saw a man clothed in a flowing white robe standing on a hilltop. Finally, she made her way to the front, pushing past strangers and slipping through the throng, hoping to meet him. The man sat in their midst and spoke, completely captivating the audience. To the crowd's astonishment, he healed the sick, deaf, and blind with power beyond mortal measure. However, he took them aside later and told them not to reveal who he was until the proper time came. People whispered, pressing closer to see what was going on.

A group of his disciples mentioned something about letting them go home. Then a little boy came out carrying a basket of fish and loaves of bread. They laughed, wondering how such a small meal could ever possibly feed so many. The prophet took it, said a short prayer, and then passed it out. Later he sat with the children, telling stories. The sun began to set behind the hills.

Perhaps he's the prince I've waited for my whole life. Where did he get such wisdom and power?

Keeping a low profile, the princess sought Paladin as the crowd left. If he wasn't telling the truth, he was either a liar or a lunatic. She felt sure that he would help her once she met him. It seemed like she had known him all her life.

"Are you a prince as the crowd claims?" Alice asked.

"Who do you say I am?" The matter became personal.

"I don't know." The princess shrugged. Shyly, she looked into his eyes; he caught her gaze and never released it. His rough hair matched clothes worn from travel. He definitely didn't look like any prince she'd ever seen. "Why do you dress like that?"

"I was wondering the same thing about you," he said.

"Who me? I'm just a peasant." Her eyes narrowed warily.

"It's not just about what's on the outside. Right, princess?"

"How do you know who I am? I've never met you before!"

"I know all things. Nothing can hide from my sight."

"Are you saying you can read my mind?" Alice asked.

"Without wisdom, you can never truly know me." His kind voice held a note of authority. "If you give me your dreams, I may multiply them, though some will laugh at you. I take good care of all that's mine. In my hands, even little things go far."

"Can you help me?" The princess pulled off her hood. "I came to seek your guidance for ruling the kingdom."

"An enemy speaks softly, yet in his mind he plans to take your place. In prosperity, he'll become your equal, boast of wearing fine clothes, and exalt himself, but don't put him next to your throne. He won't stand by your side in times of trouble. Wounds from a friend are trustworthy, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful."

Princess Alice nodded skeptically, but she kept her mouth shut, regarding him with respect. "Will something bad happen? I don't need your help anyway. I've got it all under control."

"Did someone tell you there's a better way – a shortcut? How have you come to forsake your faith and stray so soon?"

"There's no harm in having a little fun," she said.

"It's the wrong way. Many doors bring death, but one leads to life and few find ever it. You know it's there – the path to peace many would call myth. The farther you go, the harder it gets. Others go before you, but some will walk with you. Many would mislead you. It's hard to know who's telling the truth, so think for yourself. To find yourself, first you must be lost."

"Yeah, whatever you say…" She rolled her eyes.

"So this is your choice?" he said sadly, looking down.

"Look, it's getting late. I'll come back tomorrow, if you're still here." She tried to be as patient as possible, not wanting to get caught outside after curfew. She wasn't sure if he was a prince, but she dismissed the matter from her mind.

"Very well, until we meet again…" He let her go, knowing she would find him when she searched with her whole heart.

Return when you're ready. I'll wait for you.

7: HELD HOSTAGE

Somebody shouted. Civilians dived for cover. A horse galloped past, nearly running them over. A cart veered and crashed into a well, sending egg crates and feathers everywhere. The driver flew through the air then landed with a wet thud in mud. Squealing pigs hobbled off as a wooden wheel rolled by. A door swung open. A fat man ran out yelling, demanding a fee for damaged goods.

"Having trouble steering straight?" Alice asked.

"Something spooked my horse. Could you help me clean up this mess? I'll pay in advance. I'm William, the locksmith."

"Oh, um… I'm an ordinary orphan. My parents died before I even knew them." She displayed her dress. "Look at these rags."

"I can tell you're from out of town," he said.

"I need a place to spend the night," she said.

"Well, you're welcome to stay at my home and play with my daughter Sarah. If you don't behave, you're on your own."

"Do you mean it? That would be wonderful!"

Alice met William's delightful family at the dinner table. The tasteless, meager meal had the texture of soggy gruel, but it was better than nothing. While it wasn't enough to eat, the princess was polite. After getting a good night's sleep, she'd have some fun.

"Good morning!" she sang.

Waking up early, she went out to see the town. Light lured her from shady streets, drawing her into day. She lifted her face and extended her arms, welcoming the warm energy. She waved to greet friendly villagers who took turns in line at the well cranking a handle filling up buckets, then wandered around aimlessly. Chickens scurried around and pecked at the dirt. That afternoon, she played tag with the dirtiest, smelliest children in all the land. No one made fun of her, except a rotten brat named Roger.

"Ha! You play like a girl." Roger pushed her down.

"Leave me alone!" Alice warned him.

"Make me! Ludicrous lass…"

"It just so happens I am a princess."

"Very funny… Prove it! Everybody bow down to the royal street orphan. I'm training to be a knight." Roger bragged.

"A real knight protects the weak from bullies like you. Let not the one who puts on armor boast like the one who takes it off."

She took out a dagger and then spun it on her fingertip. She tossed it up, flipping it in circles, then caught the handle.

"You'd be really good at that if you had skill," he said.

Roger wasn't about to let her beat him, so he flung a dagger behind his back. The tip sunk into a distant tree trunk.

"Are you trying to impress me?" She lifted an eyebrow.

"Oh, not at all…" Roger yawned, showing off.

"I don't often get a chance to meet great warriors like you. Could I interest you in a little wager? Care for a challenge? What's the matter – shy around girls? Let's see if your sword is sharper than your tongue!"

Roger seemed reluctant, but it was too late for him to back down now. Other people were watching. "I accept your ante. I've got a sword right here." He held it high for all to see. "Always carry a spare. Never leave home without it. That's my motto."

"Just shut up and fight!" She dared him.

"Fair enough, you leave me no other choice!"

A circle of children gathered in the street, goading them to stop flirting and start fighting. The opponents stared each other down then drew their swords. Sheaths scraped with a noise like nails scratching a chalkboard. As the excitement grew, un-chaperoned urchins held their breaths and the shouts died down. Roger picked up an empty wooden barrel and hurled it at her, but she gracefully whirled out of the way. Shop-owners started complaining about the mess. Children clapped and cheered.

"Hey, are you dodging or dancing?" He grunted.

"Watch where you swing that thing!" She ducked.

It would have been a more even match if Roger wasn't stronger, but she had better balance and hand-eye coordination. The princess was fast – light as a leaf. She made good use of her feet and kept out of range. Roger hadn't the faintest idea what to do – waving around wildly and slicing at the air. She sidestepped each thrust until he tired out. With a twist of her wrist, she knocked the sword out of his hand. When it was over, he was at her mercy with a blade pointed at his throat. The spectators stepped back.

"You were saying?" Alice gave a satisfied smirk.

"We're just playing, right?" Roger gulped.

"See? I told you. Girls can get pretty scary if you make them mad." Standing over him, she tossed the sword at his feet.

"Where did you learn to fight like that?" he asked.

"I have my ways." A famous fencing expert trained her.

"Could you teach me?" Roger wrung his wrist.

"I can't afford to waste time with you. Keep practicing. Nice try, for an amateur… Let's go before we get in big trouble."

"Act like nothing happened. Maybe nobody will notice."

"What's wrong?" Alice asked, sitting next to Sarah.

"I'm just a teensy bit nervous." Even a child could easily see through Sarah's sad smile. "My father wants me to marry a man I know little about, except that he's rich and able to pay off a debt to restore our family fortune. Perhaps he'll take pity on us."

"Well, that's just stupid. Is that all we're here for – to be married off? What is this – the Dark Ages? I'd rather run away."

"Where would you go?" Sarah looked up again.

"Anywhere but here," Princess Alice replied.

"My father's back hurts and business is slow. Mother does what she can as a tailor. The baker offered to take me on as an apprentice. It's never enough to make ends meet though."

"Maybe he'll find someone else." The princess frowned.

"I mustn't think like that. We would soon be out on the streets. My parents have provided for me to the best of their ability. Now it's my turn to pay them back. I can't bear to go against their wishes and cause even more great grief. I hope he's kind, respects me, and treats me as an equal. Maybe I'll learn to love him and forgive him for not courting me properly," Sarah said.

The poor girl was being forced into an arranged marriage, betrothed to someone she'd never met. Though it was not official yet, her parents hinted at it often and made all sorts of suggestions. Her father understood that she had some objections and wanted a chance to talk in private. He wasn't getting younger, yet wanted someone to take care of her when he was gone.

William walked up to them and waved hello. He was starting to act suspicious around her. He'd been working on a special project no one ever saw, staying up late long into the night. For now, he was taking a break while his wife was out.

"Make yourself more useful and help me complete a chore, since I don't suppose you've ever done any farm work before in your life." William waited for the princess to follow him upstairs to the attic. He locked the door. "I know who you really are."

"What in the world are you talking about?" Alice asked.

"Oh, don't play dumb. I saw you the other day."

"I had to learn how to fight and steal to survive in the streets. I picked up some moves here and there," she said.

"You're the princess. There's no use denying it."

"Who told you that? I'm simply a servant!"

"In the city nobody cares what you do, but here the whole town talks. I don't want my daughter with the boar next door."

"I thought bigger towns would have better minds."

"Guards will be here any minute to escort you home."

After William was gone, Princess Alice used her dagger to break open a window. Hearing voices, she cautiously peered around a corner. Several men stood there, staring at her shadily – either robbers or rapists.

"What have we here? You're coming with us!"

The thugs cornered her in an abandoned alley, but didn't see the dagger behind her back. She waited for them to get close enough to slash, but somebody grabbed her from behind. After a brief struggle, she did what any sensible girl would do. She screamed for help, hoping the noise would wake up the villagers. The guards were too drunk to stand, let alone fight. A hand slapped over her mouth to muffle her shriek. She tried to break free from his grip, but he tied her hands together and heaved her over his shoulder so her hair swept the soil. The armed bandits mounted their horses and rode until they reached the forest edge.

The next moments were a blur to her. She was still dizzy from being knocked down. She hardly knew what was happening until her captors dragged her across the ground then threw her against a tree. Holding her arms straight, they wrapped ropes around her waist then gagged the girl. The leader wrote a ransom letter, tied it to a rock, and then tossed it over the castle wall.

TO HIS ROYAL MAJESTY:

Your daughter is alive and well, for now. Meet us under the hollow oak tree by the edge of town, near noon – with lots of loot!

PERSONAL REGARDS, THE SCARECROWS

"What is it, worm?" The bandit leader grinned.

"I've got a bad feeling about this." A young thief paced.

"Then why are you doing it?" Princess Alice pouted again.

"Why else? Mommy and daddy will pay up if you come back home safe and sound. Just one more time… It'll be worth it."

"My father will have your head for this! Do you hear me?"

"Hey, I have to make a living too. Be a good girl and you won't have anything to cry about."

A few weeks passed, or maybe even months. By this time, Princess Alice was getting bored. She acted like she didn't have a drop of royal blood in her body. Abandoning an aristocratic upbringing wasn't hard for her. She made it difficult every chance she could. Except for constant arguments, they got along well. After receiving no response, the thieves lost interest and left her alone. They didn't know what to do with her. The young thief watched her like a hawk. He was always the last one to snooze and the first to rise in the morning. She suspected that he didn't sleep at all. There had to be something she could do.

"This rope is way too tight! Could you loosen it a little?"

"I need the great sum of cash your ransom will get me."

How romantic… "What will you do with it?" Alice asked.

"I'm deep in debt from drinking and gambling. If I don't pay it back, I'm a dead man. I'm just a victim. I have no choice."

"Yeah, but you're part of this whole thing," she said.

Instead of yelling, Alice found a different way to drive him insane that took less energy. Abducting her was easy; the hard part was listening to her constantly complain in a whiny tone about the dingy dirt and how hard the ground felt.

"I just kidnapped you! Can't you show me some respect?"

"If you bring me back to the castle," she said.

"Why do you want to go back anyway?" he asked.

"It's better than this. I'm sure you understand."

"Stop that! It's annoying!" he shouted, apparently agitated.

"I have an idea. Why don't you let me go? I won't run away. A princess never breaks a promise. Collect the big reward the king is offering. Then keep it all for yourself."

"Rather not risk it," the young man said.

She hid a sharp little stone in her dress until later at night when everyone was snoring and all of the crackling bonfire embers had extinguished. At once, she put her plan into action. She used a tool to cut the ropes, then took a key she saw hidden on a tree to unlock her cuffs. Quietly, she walked off, taking care not to let anyone see her. After reaching the road, she ran all the rest of the way. The front gate guards didn't even recognize her.

"Step aside and let me pass. I am the princess."

"Is that so?" A guard laughed until she took off her hood. His jaw dropped open. "Princess Alice, you're alive!"

"I can make life very difficult for you," she said. "I order you to escort me now, or I'll make sure you never drink ale again."

"Forgive my former rudeness. I apologize for my lack of proper respect. I didn't expect to see you." The guard knelt down.

"Why hasn't my father come looking for me?"

"Haven't you heard yet? He gave on up the search."

Back at the castle, things weren't going well. When she got home, no guards greeted her. Family portraits hung on the wall. Torches lit a path covered with red carpet. Suits of polished armor saluted like knights standing at attention. As she hurried through the hallway, she started feeling frightened. Cries came from the master bedroom. The heavy wooden door was open a crack.

Why did I wander so far from home?

Her mother wept bitterly on the floor by her husband's bed, holding his limp hand as she rubbed it against a blanket. A physician parted a crimson curtain, shook his head slowly, and informed the queen he'd tried every imaginable variety of potions, ointments, and herbs, but nothing had shown any hope of success. The fever was fatal and couldn't be cured. For some strange reason, his mouth slanted up as if to smirk, but otherwise his expression remained stoic. Queen Susan cried as her younger daughter Alice leaped into her arms. However, her sister Elizabeth ran out of the room without even speaking to her.

"How is he?" Alice asked anxiously.

"Your father is very ill, dear," her mother said, gently touching her shoulder. "I fear he won't last much longer."

"Mother, I can't do this anymore, pretending to be someone I'm not." The silence felt awkward. "Say something."

"How can you rule a whole kingdom without any discipline? To relinquish your position would be rather prudent. I'll leave you two alone now. Let's discuss this later." Queen Susan quietly left and shut the door. Outside, she sobbed openly.

"Come closer," King Henry said, brushing her cheek. His little girl had grown up. He loved her in a way no words could say.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered softly, tears filling her eyes. The joy of seeing him smile was not enough to cover up the sadness that came over her. She could tell he had little time left. "I can't handle all the responsibilities you trusted me with."

"It's too late for apologies now, my dear." King Henry coughed harder. "You're so much like your mother. I must ask you something before I'm gone. The prophecy is true. You'll take my place. My last request is that you try to be a good ruler. Do what is right even when it hurts, without partiality or favoritism. Don't be afraid to stand alone. Never trust in riches. Promise me."

"I swear I will, but please don't leave me, father."

"I've been saving this sword just for you. Do not lose sight of it, for it will guide you with the light of truth when you are lost. Use it wisely, for its power can't be controlled easily." The king's head fell back on a pillow. His eyes slid shut, never to open again.

"I love you," she whispered, but he was already gone. Instead, she turned from her father, focusing on other things.

Princess Alice opened the case and found a crystal sword. As a tear trickled down the blade, it flashed faintly, analyzing her genetic code. She flung it down in the floor so it stuck up straight. Then she knelt by the bed and wept until morning.

8: ROSES IN THE RAIN

It had been several years since King Henry passed away; the castle was never the same without him rushing around giving orders. The kingdom began to grow bigger as they developed new trades, pursued arts and crafts, and built impressive steeples. After advances in agriculture and medicine, survival was second nature. The world forgot all the ancient prophetic warnings.

When Princess Alice turned eighteen, they held a coronation ceremony, but she still wasn't quite a queen yet. As she grew older, she constantly faced challenges. However, she wasn't sure what to do next, worried she wouldn't have the wisdom to rule with justice and lead her subjects as her father wished. Every day she endured, fulfilling her childhood vow. She feared the kingdom would gradually fall apart if the burden rested on her shoulders alone. Everything was going fine except for one detail.

"If this goes on, mother will be dead before you know it!" Elizabeth yelled, throwing things. "If only father hadn't had that stupid vision. I told him it wasn't going to work. Why do you get to rule the land? What makes you think you can do better?"

"I'm sorry if you believe I'm to blame, but don't ever accuse me of hurting her. I'm trying really hard."

"I was always a superior student. I embraced each contest. The sad part is, you're considered capable of elaborate endeavors." Elizabeth never let her sister get a word in edgewise. "Do you know how hard it is to be me? I mean, look at it from my side. One day I'm an only child – the next my little sister is scheduled to rule instead. Then she runs away. They think she's dead, but she comes home and suddenly she's back in charge." Elizabeth scolded her sibling, adding insult to injury.

"I'd give anything to bring papa back, but he's gone. Don't walk out on me too when I need you the most. I don't know why I was chosen for this task. I'm not ready for all of this responsibility. I have a confession. I don't really want to rule the realm."

"Why didn't you just say so?" Elizabeth spun in shock.

"I tried to, but he just wouldn't listen. He made me swear. Like it or not, we're family. It means more to me than you know."

"Not as far as I'm concerned… It's time to start acting like an adult. We'll have to settle this some other time. Right now, I have more important affairs to attend to, unlike someone I know." Elizabeth exited the throne room without another word.

"There you are, princess. I hoped to run into you, highness. Something's troubling you. Is it anything I can help you with?"

"Oh, you startled me. I didn't see you standing there."

"I couldn't help overhearing your conversation," he said.

"Who are you? Is this personal or business?" Alice asked. "If you're here because my instructor sent you, tell him I'm busy."

"Eats you away inside, doesn't it, my dear? The guilt just won't go away as the feeling festers. Your father sent me out to acquire a certain artifact. I received news of his illness and returned, sadly realizing all my knowledge couldn't save him."

"Wait, now I recall. You were there on the night he died. Thank you so much. Sorry I got upset, but I can't stand my sister."

"So spend some time together with your mother."

"I already tried that. We barely ever talk," Alice said.

"You can't run away from your problems forever."

"I guess you're right." Princess Alice had a habit of searching for information about each person she met. She had to be prepared to talk to anyone anytime. It helped to avoid awkward silence during conversations. "What's your name anyway?"

"Victor…" The man smiled. "While I'm on the job, you need fear no threat. You are in more danger in this very room. I assure you. You're such a lovely young lady – a beautiful vision to behold this fine morning. Charming creature…"

"Stop it! Everyone's staring at me." She began to blush.

"And why wouldn't they? An exotic flower flourishing in a common garden quickly attracts the eye," Victor said.

Flowers are dreadfully boring when not planted in a bed.

Queen Susan lay alone in bed, longing for her husband. She sifted through memories of his remarkable reign, looking at some old family portraits. A tap on the door interrupted her thoughts. Princess Alice ran into her arms and cried.

"Mother, I've been meaning to speak to you," Alice said.

"Why don't we discuss it together over breakfast?"

As they walked downstairs, the morning sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows, casting colorful, warm rays onto shady stone walls. Phosphorescent dust particles danced into view, riding tiny air currents. They sat at a long table while servants prepared breakfast. Maids brought bowls filled with fresh fruit and bread with a tray of wedged cheese and boiled eggs.

"What's the matter, dear? You look upset," the queen said.

"I'm sure it's nothing. Could you please pass the butter?"

"Good morning," the chief chef said. "I hope this will adequately satisfy your appetite – roast ham and wine to wash it down, with biscuits and jam." He bowed before leaving.

"I'll just help myself." Princess Alice poured out a cup of tea, propping an elbow on the table, resting her cheek in one palm. She crossed her legs, shifting to a more comfortable position.

"Perhaps I was being too hard on you by advising you to give up the throne." Queen Susan folded both hands in her lap. "I'm aware you don't care much for history, but when it comes to family, it's a different matter. Dear, your father considered renouncing his royal title to be independent again, but then–" Coughing violently, Queen Susan choked and passed out.

Alice spat out the tea she was about to swallow, which splattered on the wall. She wiped off her mouth with a tablecloth.

"Mother? Please get up!" Alice cried in confusion.

As the queen stared into her daughter's tear-filled eyes, servants came rushing from every direction. Physicians checked her pulse, but their efforts were in vain; it was too late to reverse the poison's deadly effect.

"What's going on here?" Victor found a dead body in the kitchen. "How did this happen? Get the Royal Guard!"

"Someone ambushed the servants." Mark reported.

"Permit me a moment to counsel the princess," Victor said. "Don't be upset, dear. It's not your fault. Everything will be ok."

"Please bring her back!" Princess Alice cried out.

"I am forced to speak first. I swear to find the traitor who did this and run him through with my blade. I'll teach you how to rule the kingdom. Your father himself made me promise that if anything happened, I would take care of you."

"Meaning what?" she asked and opened her eyes.

"Truly your training paid off, princess, but I'll have to be blunt with you. You show promising potential, but it's not enough. I can guide you. If you're smart then you'll let me help for now." Courtesy veiled the threatening tone in Victor's voice.

Princess Alice stepped back and shook her head. "No, it can't be a coincidence. You murdered my mother."

"Precisely, princess… Nice kid, bad judge of integrity… Did I put too much poison in your mum's meal? Was it the wine?"

"You think you're so smart, huh? I won't have an assassin on the loose. Guards, arrest this man!" Alice yelled as he dashed down the hall and then leaped out a window. How could I be so blind to accept his advice?

Princess Alice swore to avenge her mother's murder. Hatred surged within her; sorrow turned to anger. She saw a letter that he accidentally dropped. Wondering what secret the stranger hid from her, she opened the envelope. Leaning against a wall by a window, she gazed below. Then she threw it away without another thought. Imaginary realms had no room in her mind. A few years as an adult cured that. From the time she was a little girl and her daddy died, she just wanted to grow up and put the past behind her.

DEAR PRINCESS:

You may not fully understand now, but someday it will make sense. Don't fear the trial you're about to face. Trust me and you'll never lack the courage to do what's right. Let the truth set you free, because there's hope in your future and joy no one can take. I have a plan for you and will come soon. I will always be with you. Mark my words well. Until then, my beloved…

THE PRINCE OF PEACE

Queen Susan's tragic funeral took place out in the garden. Servants gathered for the occasion with friends and family members of the Royal Guard. Men carried her coffin at the head of the procession then set it down next to the other. In a symbolic act, Princess Alice took a handful of dust and slowly let it go to spread all the ashes in the wind.

"Why do you wear that?" A little kid tugged on her sleeve.

"This necklace helps me to remember things I never want to forget. Now I can carry a lock of her hair wherever I go."

Charles stood behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder. He had been her friend and mentor for many years.

"I lost my wife. It was hard for me at first, but I managed."

"I miss them so much! Will it ever stop hurting?"

"Some scars never heal, but they remind us the past was real. It might feel like there's nothing left to believe in, but you can't let the pain eat you inside out. As long as you remember the good times, you'll always be together," Charles said.

"I never got a chance to say goodbye. I wish I could believe they're in a better place." Princess Alice sobbed softly and lowered her head. She set a rose on the casket and whispered farewell. "Mom? I'm not sure you can hear me, but I won't let you down."

The crowd fell silent and started to leave. Alice hugged her sister, who pushed her aside, refusing to forgive her. Mounting without a word, Elizabeth rode off into the forest in a fiery rage. Alice reached out again, hurt more than anyone could know.

"Elizabeth, you're all I have left. Fine, be that way!"

Alice tore her black dress and fell to her knees. The sky turned gray as dark storm clouds passed overhead. Razor-sharp raindrops fell down like daggers, sending a shiver up her spine, as if the angels were crying with her. She missed her mother, but she knew some things were worse than losing a loved one. Though her quest would be hard, she had to find a way to fulfill the prophecy.

9: SECRET SERVICE

Within the next week, more members of the Royal Guard died or disappeared randomly, but not by accident. Bodies hung from the ceiling above fresh puddles of blood dripping on a floor. Shields and swords melted into piles of twisted, heavy metal. Shocked servants discovered residue left scattered around the throne room that morning, as if warning them the monster would return. At twilight, the serpent soared past a turret to knock guards over the edge. It left claw marks on several stone walls.

When they received word of this, brave knights went into the woods to catch the creature. The deadly dragon came up from behind them. Giant claws grabbed one man from his horse. Hearing nothing, the others continued until a body hit the ground right in front of them. Horses reared, frightened by the sight. Knights regrouped and rode in circles, aiming loaded crossbows as they searched the sky. Then the dragon dived at them with its wings folded for protection, heading toward the action.

Mark found his mentor's corpse by the cliffs. That day, he swore to avenge John's death. Days filled with training and long nights with study in the library – the Halls of History. Years later, he went on to become the new leader thanks to Matthew's lessons.

Trainers appointed substitutes in case of an emergency. They bravely replaced the honored heroes who fell before them. Such respect was reserved only for courageous champions. Youthful speed and strength made up for the skill and experience of older veterans. They all gathered in sparring circles, learning from each other. There was always more work to be done.

"Pay close attention class. I'll only show you this once."

The head instructor approached. Suddenly the men snapped to attention and stood up straight, hands to their heads.

"I have a new recruit for you, commander," Matthew said.

"At ease," Mark said.

"Sir, I thought you said many men would be standing outside a door waiting for a chance to serve under your command."

"These halls used to be filled with knights. They kept getting killed," Mark replied to the new recruit, then looked away again. "I'm afraid this is a bad time to join the Royal Guard. Are you prepared to give your life for the kingdom?"

"Yes sir!" He saluted. "I was born ready. When do I start?"

"There's more to morality than just being brave. You could certainly use more practice, but I suppose you do have some style despite lacking formal instruction and a general lack of guidance. I'll initiate training tomorrow."

"And what if we must fight?" A novice squire shrugged. "How am I to prove myself in battle if I never get in one?"

"You remind me of when I was young and stupid. Use your head, while you still have one. First, defend yourself and anticipate the attack. Wait until your opponent wears himself out and then strike. If your sword splinters, then draw a dagger. Remember, be the blade," Mark said.

"Tell me, how did these brave men die? What happened?"

"At first, we started out resuming a routine patrol pattern. It went well until we lost contact with the rest of our search party. Then these creatures came after us." Mark's mind wandered as he recalled what happened when he arrived at the scene to investigate.

It was such a simple plan. Everything was under control. I had it all worked out. How could anything have gone wrong?

A butcher opened the basement door and never came back. The one who had found the nasty nest was still alive somewhere in the shadows, cowering in the corner – so terrified and tormented he'd lost his humanity.

"Where are the others? Why haven't they returned?"

"The monsters are everywhere!" The frightened butcher cried like a crazy lunatic. "Go find your own hiding place!"

"It's ok. There's no one here but us," Mark said.

"The others are dead. I can still hear them scream."

A swarm of spiders crawled through the corridor. Prickly hairs scuffled across the floor and covered the ceiling. They left behind bodies to feed upon later, hanging in the hallway. The man saw something hang above his head.

"Get out of here. Turn back while you still can. Stay away from me! I'm warning you! Leave me alone! Somebody help!"

Pouncing on its prey, a spider climbed onto his face. Fangs injected poisonous saliva that dissolved his flesh into mush. It soon sucked the victim's blood out of his body, draining soft tissue until only an empty bag of emaciated skin remained. When a squire saw the man eaten alive, he swung his sword as hard as he could at its legs, but the blade broke. Turning its ugly head to a new target, the spider stared at him with beady eyes. He dropped to his knees as if nothing mattered anymore, prepared to let them take him away too. The spiders wasted no time wrapping him up and dragging him off, keeping him alive so they could use him for bait.

"Stop them!" The commander banged his fist on the floor.

"You can't help him!" Mark held Luke back.

"Who's in charge here? I don't know how you do things where you come from, but I never leave a man behind," Luke said.

"Everyone's dead! They're gone!" Mark knocked some sense into his commanding officer. "Give me your hand. This fight is over. Let's go before they come back to finish us off."

"Go on without me! Save yourself! I'll hold them off. You have your orders." Luke pushed the men.

More spiders poured through the vaulted doorway and crawled on the walls. The brave knights turned to face the threat with their weapons ready. A spider stretched out its legs, leaping into the air toward them. It went after Luke and cut his throat. Someone fired a crossbow bolt and killed it. Mark broke open wine bottles with his blade and dipped the tip into a nearby torch. He set some spiders on fire, but it only made them mad. There were too many of them to fight. Instead, he torched the whole nest. They hissed and curled up in a wreath of flames. Moments later, the monsters were dead. That was their weakness.

It still wasn't clear where the spiders had come from, but after that, they'd keep the latch locked. At least they got away with their lives, except for their leader. By the time the rest of them arrived, nothing remained but bones. The young knights looked down in disbelief at the broken sword lying lifeless on the ground and grieved for their fallen commander.

10: PRINCE CHARMING

Princess Alice stood high above the castle on a balcony quietly viewing the kingdom, staring vacantly off into the distance. Mountains stretched across the horizon; the sun rose behind them. It seemed so peaceful, like the calm before a storm. As she gracefully glided down the spiral stairs and proceeded to the throne room, sunlit shafts fell from lofty ledges of windows.

The Royal Guard's leader nodded and held out a hand – always the noble-natured warrior. Mark, her personal bodyguard, remained attentive and alert. He looked so handsome dressed in formal attire. He would never marry a member of the royal regime. He couldn't allow affection to compromise his honor, but would only demonstrate his devotion by assisting her adequately.

"At your service, princess…" Mark squared his shoulders.

With satisfaction, Alice saw all was in order. The servants were busy and didn't look up. Since her mother's death, her older sister ran the castle. Elizabeth had taken the necessary precautions against assassins. A look-alike tested food before she ate anything.

"I'm so extremely exhausted. Ruling a kingdom involves only paperwork. I feel so useless. I want to actually do something."

"I admit life around you is never boring. You're handling this much better than I expected," Elizabeth said.

"Ok, who are you and what did you do with my sister?"

"Look, I'm sorry I got angry with you." Elizabeth waved, gesturing for a guard to open the gate and announce an arrival. "Hey, there's someone I'd like you to meet. We have a very important visitor, so allow me to introduce him."

"Remind me again why I care?" Alice yawned.

"This one is cute – couldn't be more charming." Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps you should leave the talking to me."

"Presenting his royal highness…" A servant briskly bowed.

"Be sure not to embarrass me again, Alice," Elizabeth said.

"Why would I, since you're sure to do that all by yourself?"

Guards lowered their weapons, permitting someone to pass. A tall, young man with heavy locks, curly chest hairs, and a sturdy jaw entered the throne room. His cape flapped in a wide arc as he spun around to address her. Firm, broad, statuesque shoulders matched bulging, toned muscles. Standing before her was the most handsome prince she had ever seen. She sat up straight.

"He's hot!" The color drained from Alice's face. Her lips pressed tight, trying to keep a silly smile under control.

"I found him first!" Elizabeth elbowed.

Setting down her scepter, Princess Alice waited patiently as he approached her. Prince Richard knelt slightly with a gallant gesture. He kissed her hand. Biting her lip, the princess blushed – surprised but not upset.

"I am Prince Richard – the first and last."

"Have we met before? You look vaguely familiar, but I can't put my finger on it." Princess Alice paused just long enough to look him over. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you resemble the prophet I've read about from my youth."

"Hard to memorize so many names and faces, isn't it? Initial impressions may mislead. Happens all the time," he said.

Alice wasn't sure how to take that remark or the wink that followed it. Then Elizabeth picked up where she left off.

"Welcome to our kingdom. Your reputation precedes you."

"I've heard so much about you. My condolences for your recent loss… Without parents there to guide you, I must say you're wise beyond your years. Having lost my family, I know just how you feel. You've been doing such a great job lately. I came to pay a visit and support your efforts. I hope you had a chance to read the letters I sent. I'm here to help any way I can. I've held to the highest standards of society from youth. Together, I believe we can bring peace and prosperity to your kingdom."

"It's an honor to meet you and I humbly accept your help."

"I am quite qualified," the young prince said. "However, I do have some issues to discuss with you in private."

Princess Alice leaned back, rested her chin on one hand, tapped her fingers, and then crossed her legs. "I'm a little bit busy at the moment. Meet me upstairs in about half an hour. Meanwhile, you might like to take a quick carriage tour."

"Unfortunately, I must decline your invitation to venture forth from the castle confines, but I am grateful for your generosity." He expressed his appreciation. "You see so much more of the countryside when you walk instead."

"Oh look, a wall… Who put that there?" Elizabeth rubbed her head. She pointed and laughed on the way out.

Prince Richard approached the meeting room. Guards checked him for weapons and asked what his little box contained. He told them it was a present for the princess. A table stood by open windows, facing a balcony outside, which overlooked the sea.

"I was just out for some fresh air," Alice said.

"Nice view…" He nodded.

"I made my bodyguard take the day off. I hope you were able to entertain yourself while I was gone."

"I'm glad you could grace me with your presence, princess. Oh, I almost forgot to give you this."

He placed a little box on the table. As Princess Alice opened the lid, it released a flash of light through the room to reveal jewels. There were glittering gemstones, precious pearls, enchanting emeralds, radiant rubies, dazzling diamonds, seductive sapphires – nifty necklaces, beautiful bracelets, elegant earrings, and rare rings of various shapes and sizes.

"I can't accept it. I hardly know you."

"I insist. I want you to have it," he said.

As the princess reached out to touch one of the glowing gems, music flowed from the colorful crystal. Strangely, she felt full of hope and joy, but barely noticed its enchanting enticement. She admired the adornments, then closed the box and set it down.

"Oh, that's so sweet. Nobody has given me anything like this before." She smiled. "So what did you want to tell me?"

"As I mentioned before, I have many questions. I won't hit you with everything up front, but I've been talking to the servants lately. Some of your subjects have doubts about you, despite your sister's support."

"What would you suggest I do about that?" Alice asked.

"I'll provide plenty of protection from invaders along with wild animals, ensure your people have enough nutrient variety in their diet to stay strong and healthy, and replenish their resources. This is what your father planned before he passed away."

"That sounds good, but how do I know I can trust you?"

"I understand your concerns after your mother's death. I would never ask you to do anything I wouldn't if I were in your position. I suggest letting your servants monitor my progress. Regarding the important tasks, you'll be there watching."

"I don't mean to be rude, but I will not be naïve about this. Just to give you fair warning, I take my position very seriously. Don't think I won't. You had better not step out of line. I can't take chances with anyone posing a threat to my throne."

"We have just cause to trust each other in our fervent faith. I can't do it alone though," he said.

"All right, I will allow this for now. You have my permission to begin the project. I could certainly use your experience, but don't get overconfident. You must speak to me first before you do anything. Authority comes with accountability. If you abuse it, I'll take it away. If you mean what you say, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship."

"Shall we play a quick game?" he asked.

"I never cared much for chess," she said.

"Pretend it's real life. You'll learn fast if you want to win."

"I'm not really in the mood for it, but as you wish."

An hour passed as they sat and tested various strategies, trying to understand what the other was attempting to accomplish. Trading pawns for queens, he forced her to retreat so he could have more time to build his defenses gradually. Growing impatient, she let down her guard and lost the match gracefully. Prince Richard swept his hand across the board, knocking over the pieces.

"Checkmate…" Prince Richard grinned.

They looked in each other's eyes, smiled and shook hands, and finally bid farewell. She carefully considered his unique offer.

Why did he have to mention my parents?

Princess Alice walked out onto an open balcony and twirled a long strand of her hair. The open sky served as a constant reminder of the limitless possibilities tomorrow held. Clear cerulean firmament faded and left behind a beautiful painting. As she watched the sun set, neon clouds rolled across the horizon. Rhythmic waves crashed against the cliffs as a cool breeze brought comfort. She wasn't afraid to face the future anymore, yet stood there for a while, and lost all track of time.

Then she turned and leaned against a wall. She picked up the gold box, taking out a jewel. It looked very pretty, shimmering in the sunlight, but the glittering gem's brilliant beauty could not disguise the darkness within. This time, when she touched it, the crystal felt cold. Her head ached and throbbed as it rearranged her physical brain structure. It twisted her thoughts and aroused passive emotions from a repressed subconscious, abandoning her to the anxiety in the air. Negative memories and experiences came to her mind. Intensity increased when withdrawn from the artificial addiction. Neural networks accelerated activity.

Doubts about Prince Richard's authenticity and suspicions of his sincerity fueled this fear – including personal inadequacy. Her thoughts switched between bittersweet memories of joy and sorrow, despite an inner doubt that weighed heavy on her mind.

Trumpets blared early the next morning, summoning one member from the head of every noble household. Princess Alice would present Prince Richard to her loyal subjects in public to promote her popularity. A considerable crowd gathered, coming to the ceremony. They walked or rode carriages into a courtyard. Colorful clouds of confetti drifted in the sky. Consultants took advantage of the attendants, reporting on various affairs. The princess opened a curtain to peek outside.

At least some people are happy. Nobody would ever catch Elizabeth socialize with commoners. I see a cheerful crowd, but no familiar faces. I have everything I ever wanted, but I've lost touch with my true friends. In a way, I feel more alone than ever before. How do they manage to go on for such a long time? Well, better not keep them waiting…

Princess Alice stepped forward and waved to everyone below from the balcony until her feet hurt and her smile faded. Afterward, they applauded as she went to meet random well-wishers, return greetings, and muster their morale.

Prince Richard planned a speech for the occasion. Any fool could see this charismatic leader knew how to win an audience's attention with a passionate and polished performance. His voice was powerful and persuasive in an authoritative yet personable manner. He always maintained a proper posture. They laughed and cried. Much talk of him spread throughout the land.

"He's perfect!" One maiden fell into a fountain.

"My hero…" Another tilted her head and twisted her arms. "Soon suitors will line up at my door. All men are pigs!"

If you only had a brain… Alice rolled her eyes.

Prince Richard created a new version of a game called Imperial Insurrection. Kings had three hits and queens took two. Royals started on the same side, working together to wipe out the common pieces. All the other units arranged in defensive formation on the opposite end, using half the board. Each common piece could only attack one time and was then out. Multiple pieces could strike during the same turn, but couldn't move at all unless a royal piece was within range.

He introduced himself to the servants and soon came to know most of them by name. He met artists, writers, and musicians then ate with them to debate in discussions. No scholar could challenge his intellect. No knight could match his might. Maidens-in-waiting giggled or gazed with heavy sighs and sorrowful eyes. Warriors-in-training regarded him with respect. His hidden skills and talents amazed them all. He was brave, strong, and handsome – doing many heroic deeds. They gave him a key to the kingdom and allegedly knighted him as a living legend. He even had a statue made in the town square by a sculptor's studio.

Prince Richard sought to broaden understanding beyond the outer provinces, negotiating compromises that transcended personal priorities. They'd profit by adopting new ways of life, cooperating in a mutually beneficial manner.

"I've decided to dedicate my life to help those less-fortunate than I, including everyone," Prince Richard proudly said.

Princess Alice presumed nobody would listen to such illustrious ideals, but the expression on their faces had changed. Her sister spent so much time with him. He had the whole kingdom wrapped around his little finger.

So go write a book then. What a waste of an honor…

Prince Richard approached with pride in his stride. He made his way toward her, though she pretended not to notice.

"I was just talking about you. Please accept my praise."

"For what?" Alice huffed, far from being flattered.

"With this new treaty, we'll have done more than any distinguished diplomat. It nearly takes the virtue out of victory."

"Well, keep up the good work." She stuck a thumb up.

Attending to her affairs, she listened to reports about him. She spent every spare moment watching him closely. It affected her ability to do easy tasks. After a while, Princess Alice wished her servants had the same support for her. They didn't respect her like the other relatives. Noble notions meant nothing to aristocrats who'd always resented the ruling monarchy and ministers. At times like this, she wondered if she had wasted the time invested preparing to rule the kingdom. Gradually, she grew jealous and forsook faith in everything she had once so strongly believed in.

Perhaps my position was inherited instead of earned.

Elizabeth flirted with everyone, addicted to the attention – cleverly capturing their hearts just to make Prince Richard jealous. Men lined up to catch even a glimpse of her, but she turned them all away.

"Hey, where's everybody going? Over here!" She waved. What good is vanity if nobody is around to notice?

"Your sister seems happy," Charles commented.

"Oh, is that so?" Elizabeth initially sounded intrigued, even though she envied her sister. It was just a simple smooch. It wasn't like he gave her the stars in the sky or proclaimed her the most beautiful maiden in the entire kingdom.

"Yes, she just can't stop smiling. Would you know why?"

"No, but I'm happy for her." Elizabeth bit her lip and held back any rude remark she wanted to make. She had let herself entertain thoughts of a relationship with Prince Richard. Whatever possessed father to name her his heir?

11: LOOKING-GLASS LAND

That night, Prince Richard slipped into Alice's bedroom. Assured by her steady breathing she was asleep, he quietly stepped forward. He watched her rest a while in silence. The princess woke up, startled to see him standing there at the foot of her bed.

She clutched her chest. "How long have you been here?"

"There's something you need to see. Follow me."

"You can't come and go as you please," she said.

"Don't tell anyone else, and bring your blade."

Entering the sovereign suite, he moved a hanging tapestry to reveal a hidden passage. Then he turned, waiting for her to follow. She gulped and grimaced before brushing away cobwebs. Many mysterious secrets remained within the stone walls.

I never saw this door before. She looked back, uncertain.

A long corridor lay ahead, followed by a flight of stairs spiraling toward the highest tower. The light that led her on had no known source. Everything behind her disappeared into darkness. In the center of the chamber, she saw a pool of water.

"Well, here we are. Now what did you want to show me?"

"This pool is a portal into another dimension. It's a bridge between that world and ours. They've grown rare over the years. In fact, this is one of the last. At certain points, the planes of time and space intersect where fantasy meets reality," he said.

"What will happen if I go through it?" Alice asked.

"You must promise to be patient, for with the blessing there comes a curse. The power to rule this realm is not without price."

"I'm ready for whatever is required of me." Princess Alice brushed her hair back, but he stopped her before she went in.

"It's not so simple. If you go, you may claim the birthright. However, if you fail the test, you'll forfeit it forever."

"You mean it's all or nothing?" She frowned.

"Not all paths lead to the same place," he said.

"Well then, maybe this wasn't meant to be. I'm not sure I want to follow a path others have chosen for me."

"Decide your own destiny. Forge your own fate."

"As I recall, my father warned me to stay away from it because it's too dangerous." She found it strange that at first he warned her, but was now impatiently imploring her to go. "I appreciate what you're trying to do for me, but this is too much."

"You weren't supposed to find this place until the proper time came. I'm sure you can handle it now that you are of age. It must be hard with all those subjects depending on your leadership, but not being able to live up to their expectations. Leave your body behind for now and you will attain the knowledge you need to rule the kingdom as your father made you swear."

"How would you know? Wait, why is my sword glowing?"

"Aliens forged it in another realm of reality," he said.

For her whole life, Princess Alice never had a choice; she'd been hoping something like this would happen, but still felt a bit frightened. When she twisted the sword into place above the pool, the water turned crystal clear, casting bright light onto a stone wall. The mist melted away as she reached out to touch it, stirring it with a finger. It covered her skin like a balmy blanket, yet her nerves tingled by an electric shock. A tear fell from her eye, creating circles across a still surface. Liquid light made her face glow.

"You're sure it's safe? Can I come back if I want to?"

"Of course, I promise." He nodded. "You were never happy here in this world. Come with me to a place where anything can happen. We all have dreams, but how bad do you want them to come true? Well, what are we waiting for?"

Prince Richard held out a hand. Princess Alice glanced at him hesitantly. She held her breath, stepping in the pool. Then she relaxed, floating, and let it pull her forward. Drawn toward the daylight, she went deeper and become one as it bonded to her body. It flowed over her face like liquid glass, yet her dress was still dry. The water felt warm and she welcomed it, letting the light inside. Then it turned cold as ice, but burned. A physical plane dissolved. Reality faded into fantasy. The dimensional door tore her apart then put her back together again. She left behind trivial things she thought she couldn't let go of. It was too beautiful to behold and yet truly there, beyond belief. It called to her with an almost audible voice, telling her to come closer.

Sparkles held her figure for a second before she vanished. She hovered in midair. Then her body swayed, touched the ground, and stood on something solid, resting still. A series of warped sounds and images appeared; the whirling shapes could have been almost anything. The vague blur became more vivid. Liquid drops of light rained down colorful sparkles that splashed against her. The princess pushed through the veil and emerged under a sunny sky, surrounded by giant wildflowers so tall and thick she couldn't have wrapped her arms around them. Spongy green moss grew right under her feet, next to mushroom caps.

This world of crystal glowed bright – the source of all light in the universe. A perfect prism formed a radiant rainbow composed of many different colors with hues she had never seen. Creation came to life as it expanded exponentially and she tried to comprehend the connection between things happening around her. The beauty was breathtaking. It was so wonderful.

In the distance, there was a sapphire sea. Emerald palm-trees grew in white sand beside a tropical rainforest. Glassy waves rolled past marble monoliths. Dolphins played in coral reefs below the surface and then came up for air. Birds flitted into foliage. Robins, canaries, and bluebirds hopped around and tweeted. The animals were tame and at peace with one another; every kind of creature imaginable lived in harmony. The towering trees had thick trunks and branches and the sheer size of plants inspired awe.

The other islands on this pregnant planet had exotic ecosystems. Misty waterfalls of gems cascaded over a cliff into clear pools below. At the bottom, it created a brilliant rainbow. It offered the promise of paradise with a brighter future and hope for a new tomorrow. Bridges crossed over streams beside white, polished pillars. Fountains of flowing water lay in lush green meadows between hills and valleys. Fragrant flowers sprinkled fields dotted with daisies and yellow sunflowers.

Princess Alice looked at the light with wonder. It evoked an emotion near sorrow and brought tears to her eyes. Yet, she couldn't fathom the faintest whisper of that world, where her heart was free to dream forever. Each thought was a distinct dimension in this land full of life. As a child, she always wondered what Heaven was like, but she had never imagined anything like this. She wanted to live in such a land. She entered a world that was somehow more real than her own, without a single shadow. It seemed like she had been blind before and opened her eyes for the first time – like she'd never lived and just woke up.

12: TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL

Is this Heaven or just my imagination? Princess Alice wondered, standing beside Prince Richard. Her eyes widened as she opened her mouth and took in the scenery with childlike curiosity. If I even blink, it will all change back again.

"Let me be the first to welcome you to paradise," he said.

"I thought Avalon was a myth." She shook her head.

At that moment, she wasn't watching where she was going. She came too close to a cliff edge blurred by a low, passing cloud. She waved her arms around and accidentally slipped; he grabbed her hand. A concerned look in his eye told her she could trust him. He turned away again, as if hiding something – trying to avoid her. She had to get his attention back somehow.

"You saved my life," she said.

"Don't mention it – ever." He offered his opinion.

"Doesn't this make you wanna dance?" She jumped for joy.

"Now or later, my fair maiden?" he asked.

"What if my answer is neither of these? I need a partner."

"Well, you've got one." He took her hand.

"There's no music," the princess said.

"Don't you hear it?" He lifted his eyes.

"I'm trying to, but I can't." She shrugged.

"Be still and listen." He explained the melody of life to her. "It's timeless. There's only this moment right here and now."

"I suppose I won't be missed back home," she said.

"You look so lovely," he said.

"You really think so?" She smiled.

"Well yeah, except for this princess the next palace over…"

"I'm kind of shy." Alice blushed, looking away.

"My dear, love is not something to fear. I apologize if I'm making you feel awkward."

Go on. Let him know you like him.

Princess Alice stood by a white rose bush, still obsessing over him. Though her heart was in the right place, her head wouldn't listen. This love defied logic. She felt dirty – unclean. These feelings were forbidden here in Heaven, though allowed on her world. Lustful desires had no place in such a pure sanctuary. She stepped back, startled, and quivered with qualms.

They gazed into each other's eyes almost for an eternity. Then he reached out and gently took her cheek in a hand. She leaned forward slowly, her soft lips closing over his. The princess pressed harder, yearning for what she had kept hidden for so long – not caring about consequences. Her heart skipped a beat and her knees grew weak. Floating lighter than air, she forgot to breathe. She wanted him to remember this passionate kiss. She enjoyed every moment of it and longed for it to last.

Prince Richard wrapped his arms around her waist. Letting him pull her in closer, rudely shoving reason aside, she ignored what her mind was telling her and did something she hadn't allowed to happen for a long time. She let go and lived for a moment, surrendering to her senses. She opened her arms and wrapped them around his neck. Her body gave in to the outward pleasure, but bliss didn't dull the pain she felt deep in her heart. Luckily, somebody still had self-control.

"Where's it coming from?" Princess Alice looked around.

"I've seen it all a billion times before." He yawned.

Music filled the air – a peaceful prelude followed by a heavenly harmony. It flowed through the land wherever they went. The magnetic melody sounded so faint at first; they hardly heard it. The song began slowly, but grew stronger like a symphony. The sweet sound came from everywhere, yet nowhere – synchronized with the sky, which kept changing colors. Light ebbed and flowed, pulsing in a pattern to match the music. As a dove cooed, she felt her heart flutter again.

A choir of angels started singing; their faces were peaceful and full of purity. She couldn't grasp the music's meaning, but the moment they mentioned the Prince of Peace, she felt new joy. Prince Richard had trouble breathing, but his face expressed a dogmatic familiarity. He seemed bored somehow. In a way, he understood it better than she did. More voices joined than she could ever count, with wonderful songs impossible to identify. Majestic music flowed freely and she couldn't help singing along.

"Look, there's life everywhere. How did it get here? Who made it?" She spun in circles, trying to take it all in at once. Then Alice skipped away, carefree as a child, as if all the bitter pain and suffering in the world below was not her concern.

"I suppose that this place is practically perfect. It's too good to be true. It's driving me crazy." He frowned.

A rainbow divided the light from the darkness. At this point in reality that lay between both Heaven and Hell, dreams ended and nightmares began. The twin worlds were never nearer, so close their atmospheres actually touched each other in orbit. Vexed and violent creatures lived in that fallen star's shadow. The demons tried to break through the barrier, but some unseen force kept holding them back. They made passes, harmlessly striking it like waves against a stone cliff. Despite their desperate hunger, they couldn't touch her. They waited and watched to claim her soul if she strayed a little from the light, clawing out for her.

"Are these two worlds going to crash into each other?"

"Look well upon them. This meeting brings a blessing and a curse to us. All that you know is about to change." He spoke as if merely mentioning the time of day. "Things aren't always what they seem. Sometimes nightmares start out like dreams."

"How much time do we have?" Hope forsook her face.

"Don't worry about it. You'll find out soon." Prince Richard pointed up. "I brought you here for a different reason."

This child had come to him by destiny like an angel fallen from Heaven. From the very first moment he saw her, he watched as she blossomed into a beautiful young lady. He admired how she dreamed with an innocent imagination of a love without limitation. He found her fascinating – incredibly interesting. He'd been watching her for a while now, driven by a desire to lay siege to her soul. However hard he tried, she remained just out of reach – like chasing a rainbow. The closer he came, the farther she seemed.

He was an immortal, fated to live forever. The stars in Heaven had fallen for him, and yet of all the angels he could only fall for one. Nothing in creation captured his attention like her. He wanted her more than anything, for her beauty was not just on the outside yet hidden in her heart. It surpassed her surroundings, as the glory of a rose in bloom is beyond compare with a barren desert wasteland. She was special; he could see it in her eyes. Infinitely infatuated, he had to find a way to keep her forever.

13: A PROBLEM IN PARADISE

Prince Richard took Alice through a golden gate, which closed of its own accord. Lush green ferns flourished in the glorious garden, covering all but a narrow path. It was such a private place; it obviously belonged to someone else. Only a fool would ever dream of entering it uninvited. The flowers smelled so sweet she stopped to take in their fragrance, but he was in a hurry. In this pleasant place, they both began to grow younger. Gravity reversed a waterfall. Leaves leaped back onto tree branches. Raindrops floated in the air and returned to the sky. Plants turned into seeds and birds flew backward. They approached a giant tree in the middle. Time stopped as they came to the center. Nothing ever changed here.

"Take a bite and fulfill your divine destiny," he said.

"I can't. It's forbidden." Princess Alice turned around. "We were told never to touch the Tree of Knowledge."

"Have you ever actually seen the prophet before?"

"Well, no," she said. "I don't think so."

"Then how do you even know he exists? The king of this world won't grant his subjects freedom. He tells them what to do, claiming it's for their own good. He only wants to make you a slave. That's what happens to whoever listens to him. The unfortunate passing of your parents was unnecessary, but he wouldn't listen to reason."

Princess Alice recalled from her studies tales of a great battle between two worlds. Her eyes narrowed uncertainly, but then she gasped and covered her mouth. "You mean this is his fault? He's the one responsible for all of this?"

"Yes…" Prince Richard nodded. "Why should he judge you for being who you are? You can be whoever you want to be."

Princess Alice couldn't help staring at a fruit. Reaching out, she hesitated. "This is not meant for me. Surely I'm not allowed."

"Do you know what that fruit is for? I've already tasted it. You don't have to die, princess. Together, we'll live forever."

"What if he finds out?" The princess frowned. Words came to mind, defying the limits of normal memory. She remembered the prophecy, but it was like a distant, quiet voice. The very warning seemed part of the temptation. "I don't like this."

"Oh, never mind that." He shook his head. "If you wish to make a difference, this is the only way. Just think of everything you missed out on. The world is yours. All you have to do now is reach out and take it."

Wind stirred leaves that tinkled like little bells. A single fruit dangled near the end of one branch, about the size of an apple. It hung and swung back and forth in the breeze. It looked more inviting now than ever before. A longing came over her to taste it. Her hand worked as if separate from her mind's commands, moving where she begged it not to go. Her trembling fingers touched the fruit. She bit into it and closed her eyes, savoring the sweet juice. Her eyes opened wide. Finally, she was free.

Prince Richard led her higher up a long glass stairway until they ascended above a crest of clouds, which parted from place. Together they entered the Sky Sanctuary, approaching the open door of a crystal cathedral. Sapphires, emeralds, rubies, and diamonds cast colorful rainbows on the floor and depicted various scenes of Heaven's history. There was even a picture of a princess.

"This is the Temple of Truth, named after the Well of Wisdom. Drink deeply and it will show you some future events."

An open book lay on a big pedestal in the sacred sanctuary. It looked like the one back on Earth with words that only appeared in direct sunlight. Beautiful stained-glass windows made of precious jewels portrayed the image of an angel holding a flaming sword. It glared down with a stern expression on its face, guarding the glass heart. Princess Alice walked slowly. Looking up, she felt nervous being out in the open instead of covered up by clouds all around. Light made her self-conscious. Truth was transparent here.

"If you find the Sacred Sword, you can use it to destroy the darkness. Only someone with a pure heart can pull it out."

A ray of sun fell to the floor. Though she couldn't see the sword at first, when she stood there and looked up at just the right angle, it appeared floating in the air, invisible from a distance. She reached out and tried to touch it, but her hand passed through it; this time, as she concentrated hard, it felt slightly solid, but still wouldn't budge. Believing more than before, she grabbed it again. The blade glowed bright like it was made of light; she removed it from the crystal heart's center, tempted to keep it because of its beauty. It seemed to be the planet's power source, but she didn't know how to control its infinite energy.

"Don't touch the dream-stone. If you lose control, you might be trapped in a nightmare forever," he said.

"I've had many nightmares, but they only make the dreams more beautiful," she said. "Look at all the trouble I went through."

"Your thoughts reshape the surface of reality like a pool. When waves come from the center, they amplify one another. Many starting points interfere. With one touch, you can break the balance. Then reality will be whatever you want it to be."

"I see." She nodded. When she touched the crystal heart, it throbbed and pulsed like a vital organ. "Wait, what was that?"

It started slowly, but a bright flash of light and a deafening thunder blast came moments later. The wind and waves grew heavy and strong, followed by an earthquake of emotion. No sound came for a while; then suddenly demons screamed out for her soul. Dark forces knocked on the door, trying to get inside. Somehow, she had opened the gates of Hell.

"Wait, that wasn't supposed to happen. Oh no…" The princess clutched her chest. "I'm having a heart attack!"

An explosion of energy began by her side. Ripples spread into rings. The bubble grew bigger. It increased in intensity. It knocked over trees, blew clouds aside, and warped water. It bent everything in existence into focus at one point, twisting time-space. Things moved too fast and yet too slow – in separate moments, yet almost one. It wasn't simply one thing leading to another in a straight line. It echoed through eternity and rippled through reality.

After a blinding flash, it all went dark. The light slowly returned. The sky turned black and white, as if the color had been completely drained. Then suddenly it shattered, bursting like a bubble. When the wave passed, it put the planet back together.

The feeling of freedom gave way to worry. She had made a horrible mistake, initiating a spiritual struggle. She stole the light, but had to bring it back or all would die. The evil prince took the sword, which was even sharp enough to divide dimensions.

"What do you plan to do with that?" The princess tried to stop him, but he cast her down to the ground.

"At last! How long have I waited for this moment? After all this time, the power is mine! The universe is under my control!"

He held the blade high in the air, using it to break her heart and mind. The world shuddered with birth pangs and split in two, taking her with it. The crystal turned cold as the light left. A dream so delicate – a fantasy so fragile – could never last forever.

Dark forces penetrated paradise, impregnated it with impurity, and violated it like a virus infecting a cell by infiltrating its outer shell. Once it was in, it could take control by replicating itself repeatedly. The shield of light that surrounded the world grew weak. It glowed with color, but it had a black edge. Demons watched and waited. Claws reached through a small hole in the angelic atmosphere. The monsters managed to break through the barrier. Then they destroyed every living thing in sight without mercy. Angels assembled and went to meet them in celestial combat. Their leader held out a sword, shouting as he flew.

Princess Alice looked up at the spectacular sight above her – the beautiful, yet ugly beginning of the end. It was good versus evil, light versus darkness, and life versus death. Dreams and nightmares crashed like the ocean waves and met somewhere in the middle. The war was going on inside of her, tearing her in two. There was nothing left to do but leave.

He grabbed her hand and they ran outside. Turning one last time, she watched as the castle collapsed when the wave hit. Glittering glass flew everywhere. The princess shook her head sadly as the sanctuary burned. Angels stopped singing and fell to their knees. The choir cried out in tears, consumed by utter chaos. Magical music became a destructive din of disharmony. Holy hands pressed against windows melting like wax. Chandeliers shattered into pieces. Heavy debris crushed them.

Some animals stopped moving for no apparent reason; others fled for shelter. Forests became swamps and oases turned into deserts. Pools of water dried up into barren wastelands. Delicate daffodils withered, curling into puffs of smoke.

Violent vibrations shook the foundations of the world. Broken bridges rumbled and splashed into spinning whirlpools. Pillars and arches bulged out and toppled over. Towers crumbled until only a circle of synthetic stones remained. Mountains sank into lakes. Islands broke away and glided off the ground – planet pieces in fragmented form flung from the surface by rapid rotation.

Elements suddenly switched places, just as changing notes varies a rhythm's nature. Fire burned blue while water boiled and bubbled. Molten magma flowed slowly like blood, but then the long flames became a huge burning ball. Lumps of lava fell into oceans. Snow-covered peaks evaporated vehemently. No sun was left to warm the land. The entire Earth experienced a complete climate change. Storms, tides, or quakes came in natural disasters. The waves grew worse, becoming colder until finally they froze. Petrified palm-tree branches stuck out like sharp blades. Ice immobilized dozens of dolphins in underwater utopias.

So that's what it's like when worlds collide…

A withered sun still sat in the sky near the end of its life. Far above, the dark star absorbed the atmosphere. Falling out of orbit, it collapsed from within under its own weight. A black horizon rose high above the land of light. Shadows swept overhead like a thousand tentacles as the whole world disappeared in darkness. Lightning struck the sky where the two worlds crashed together, merging and becoming one as the spheres smashed.

"The stars are falling. Make a wish, princess." He turned to her. Only they remained, standing on a rock floating in midair.

"What have I done?" The princess lifted a hand to her lips.

"You opened the door and let me in. I am forever indebted to you for setting me free from my perpetual prison. I would never have escaped without your help. That sword was the only thing keeping these worlds apart as the key to that door," he said.

"You're him! Aren't you?" She backed away, shaking her head. "I knew there was something different about you."

"Can't you at least take a moment to welcome me back from the dead? You shall do what I say, or die."

"Then why did you save me?" A grin was all she got from him. The gleam in his eyes gave it away. "Answer me!"

"Did it ever occur the only reason I saved you was to destroy everyone? There are many ways to snare a soul, but some work better than others. What better way to lure you into a nightmare than with a delicious dream? I almost feel sorry for dragging you into all this. Let me teach you a little lesson you'll never forget. Never trust anyone, especially me."

"I thought we needed each other." She reached out again.

"And why would I need you?" He crossed his arms. "Don't you see, dear? I already have what I want."

Prince Richard's body transformed to manifest the monster this insidiously ingenious impostor really was. With each step he took, the flowers withered. All in reach perished by his poison breath. Everything he touched died when he walked by.

"Hey, let go! Leave me alone!" The princess fell at his feet. She watched in horror, doubled over in despair.

"You can never come back again to this radiant realm. Besides, someone could use the sword against me. We wouldn't want it to fall into the wrong hands, remaking reality. I must leave your blissful presence, fair princess. Heaven and Earth flee from your infinite beauty. Creation pales in comparison. Can't get carried away," the Dragon King said.

After hearing and seeing all this, Alice fainted with fear. The Dragon King spread out his cruel claws as the princess passed out in his arms. He picked her up, wrapping his tail around her waist. Her body hung limply. With a sweep of his wings, he leaped in the air, beating steadily higher. Ascending into the atmosphere, he took her back through the dimensional doorway.

14: COURT OF NOBLES

Princess Alice woke up back in her bedroom. Her father's sword lay beside her; it looked different somehow. She wrote everything down so she wouldn't forget. All she had to do was pick up the pieces and put them back together again.

Was it all just a dream? Even as the memory slips through my mind like grains of sand, I can still hear his voice.

After so many years waiting for the prince of her dreams to come along, it ended in tears. The more she thought about it, the easier it was to pretend it had never happened. She tucked all her thoughts away in the pages of a diary. Then she locked it.

"I hear you've been having some problems lately."

"Thing is, no one will listen to me," Alice said.

"Did you say something?" Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. She turned around like she wasn't paying attention. "Just kidding!"

"I just found out about the new laws Prince Richard passed without my permission. There have been riots, and that's not all. He's up to something. I'm going to have a talk with him before this incident gets blown out of proportion," Alice said.

"You're being a bit hard on him, don't you think?"

"This might sound strange, but he isn't who you think he is. Apparently, he leads two distinct lifestyles. I saw him turn into the Dragon King right before my eyes, like the prophecy mentions. Besides, he murdered both our parents," Alice said.

"You can't expect me to believe such nonsense. You don't even have any evidence. Give me one good reason why I should trust you. Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot you're always right."

"Why would I lie about something like this?" Alice asked.

"Ever since you were a child, you went off and invented all kinds of silly stories to cover your tracks. Why expect you to be any different now? You're just jealous, huh? You want him all to yourself and can't stand seeing him with anyone else. Well I won't just sit back and let you ruin my life. I believe in what Prince Richard is doing and you should appreciate his help. Instead, you let your subjects suffer and hog the glory. Why not listen to what he has to say for once before passing judgment?"

"I didn't even know anything was going on between you. Not that I mind… Well, is it true? So, you admit it!"

"Don't despise me because you're not as beautiful. Why would he bother looking at you if I'm around?"

"Every time I try to talk, you just switch subjects. Why do you always need to take control of the conversation anyway? Look, this will take a huge leap of faith on your part, but hear me out. I don't think you'll like it, but I've got to tell you."

"Stop blaming all your problems on everyone else!" Elizabeth exclaimed, stomping off.

Whoever answers a matter before hearing it is a fool.

Princess Alice found her own sister Elizabeth eavesdropping, covertly conferring power to Prince Richard. Following a feudal system, nobles owned almost all the land via fealty. This time he had gone way too far. It had to stop.

"May I come in? I want to talk." She readied her rapier.

Princess Alice knocked on the door, waiting politely. Hearing no reply, she walked into the room. Prince Richard whirled with a blade aimed at her throat. Seeing who it was, he let down his guard again and sheathed his sword.

"Not the warmest way to greet a friend," she said.

"Sorry, you startled me. I thought you were someone else."

"Whether you are trustworthy remains to be seen. You wouldn't hide anything from me, would you?"

"No, not from you…" He shook his head.

"Oh really? Where is my royal signet ring?" The princess wasn't pleased. She tapped her foot.

"I borrowed it to examine its exquisite craftsmanship."

"You and I have to work on our social skills. I feel left out of the loop here." Princess Alice put her hands on her hips.

"Haven't you learned to trust me by now?" he asked.

"I can't afford to take anything for granted. When did you plan to let me in on your little secret?"

"This isn't just about us anymore. I only want what is best for everyone."

"Why did you lie to me? Did you think I wouldn't figure it out?" She pointed at him. "I've got a score to settle with you. You've been avoiding me every chance you get, going behind my back. You never told me about those revised rules."

"In order to advance, capital must be acquired. The only way I could gather enough resources was by raising taxes. You can hold me responsible for what happens. Physical labor is beneath noble blood. Look at all the new jobs I created. It's essential to our economic development. Once you see how much better-off they are, you'll thank me. Leaders make good breeders."

"You're treating these people like slaves," she said.

"What's wrong with trading your freedom for protection?"

"Don't tell me how to do my job. This is my kingdom and people follow my rules here. I think you owe me a big apology."

"I don't have to answer to you or anyone else." The proud prince lifted his chin in a defiant demeanor.

"I won't tolerate this treachery a moment longer."

"According to the ancient code of chivalry, might makes right. I challenge you to an old-fashioned duel," he said.

"That does it! I've had it with you!" she shouted.

Prince Richard approached and slashed back and forth. Their swords clashed together. Princess Alice knew that sometimes the greatest offense was a strong defense. She jumped onto the bed as he pursued. He grabbed the covers and jerked them out from under her feet, causing her to swing and miss. Before losing her balance, she grabbed a chandelier then swung to safety.

"You're holding back – don't." He teased her tactfully.

"Sure thing!" She spread her legs out wide.

Princess Alice was too busy parrying to attack. Prince Richard lifted her sword with his, spun it around in the air, and then thrust it in the wall; it stuck out straight. Her eyes darted toward her sword. She grabbed it again, but he stopped her before she could take a step. He swung so hard it broke her blade in two. She tossed the hilt down on the ground.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." He wagged a finger.

"Hey, that's not fair!" Alice crossed her arms.

"Well, I suppose that settles this little argument. Some things just don't turn out the way you plan. No hard feelings, ok?"

"Is that a threat? You aren't going to get away with this!"

"I already have." He thrust the sword toward her, halting it with the sharp tip barely touching her neck to prove his point.

"Just kidding! Never mind…" She gulped and smiled.

"It's amazing what a little persuasion will do."

"Sarcasm doesn't flatter you."

"Admirable sentiments, but not particularly practical, I'm afraid. I'll change the way things are done in this dim old world and alter this mundane mortal plane." He withdrew his weapon and let her go, then turned to leave. "Perhaps next time, princess…"

I directed every event from the very beginning. When they realize I still have the real sword in my possession, it'll be too late.

TO THE ROYAL COURT OF NOBLES:

Prince Richard passed new tax policies without permission. When I confronted him, he threatened my life. I have decided to take this matter further. Leaders are busy and for them to succeed, others must be flexible. I understand that setting general guidelines makes everything flow efficiently, avoiding arguments. However, often there are important details not taken into account.

I'm not asking him to make exceptions to the rule – only to treat me with the common courtesy and decency anyone deserves. It's below him to admit he was wrong. He believes he's infallible or has no humility. I felt I should bring his crude conduct to your attention so an investigation can proceed as necessary. I hope we can reach a reasonable agreement and forgive each other for the irrational impulses manifested by our behavior while blinded by incredibly intense emotions.

APOLOGETICALLY, ALICE

Waiting cautiously, without alarming him of her efforts to discover his plans, Princess Alice tried to figure out what Prince Richard was up to. Unlike Elizabeth, she made friends with the servants. They obeyed her out of loyalty, not fear. They willingly helped when she needed their assistance. Though Prince Richard's laws were void, he made new ones faster than she could veto them. She wrote a letter to each elected judge, hoping she could cope with this incident via political processes.

In due course, she patiently described her predicament. After much debate, the judges decided to question Prince Richard. He twisted the argument so it took a different direction. He turned them against her using their bias and prejudice.

"Why must we delay? The princess is not up to this task. Would you jeopardize your subjects' welfare and safety by letting them believe some mythical legend about the prophet Paladin while the world dies a little more each day? The messiah is a myth for ignorance to feed on. You're a fool to believe in something you've never seen. It's just wishful thinking! Where is the proof?"

"How do you know that he doesn't exist?" Alice asked.

"I've traveled the globe and gone farther than any explorer ever has. I believe in all I am – nothing else."

"We weren't made for this world. There's something else out there beyond what we can see."

"Still stuck with the ancient prophecies, are we? I found that book boring, since it has no pictures."

"Some say the pictures are in real life," she said.

"I'm afraid your devotion to that intolerant religion with its dead language is a weakness we shall have to remedy."

"I find your lack of faith most alarming," she said.

"Why speak out when so many doubt you?" he asked.

"You have to believe me because I'm telling the truth." Princess Alice held out her hands, hoping he would understand.

"This meeting is adjourned." The chancellor stood up.

"Hey, wait a second! Where are you going? Doesn't anybody care what I think?" She bent her knees, yelling at the ceiling. She waited there as political and religious leaders walked right out of the room single file. As it turned out, the case collapsed and she lost favor with the court while Prince Richard made a complete mockery of the church.

15: BEWARE OF THE BEAST

Princess Alice had to regain control of the kingdom while there was still time. Seeking counsel, she called a secret meeting with the Royal Guard in her room that night. They sat in a circle on the floor without danger of interruption. A dim candle flickered.

"I've contacted Mark. He should be here soon." Her throat grew tight and she had a bad headache, but tried not to sound nervous. They all started talking at once. "Could you please calm down for a moment? I need to rest for a little while."

"Ok, I'm here." Mark walked in.

"You are still faithful servants of my father. My sister and I are all that's left of the royal family and it's your sworn duty to protect us. Now that I've had a chance to collect my thoughts, we have important matters to discuss. New evidence has emerged that reveals a carefully concealed plot. I found out from a very reliable source Prince Richard wants to take over the kingdom, gradually undermining my authority using bribes and threats. Some servants remain loyal to me, reporting his treasonous acts."

"I meant to mention all the awful things he has done lately. We need a plan – besides using brute force," Mark said.

"We may be facing a more serious problem that can't be ignored any longer. Have you seen a dragon by any chance?"

"Hold on, did you say dragon? The one with big wings and fiery breath?" Mark flapped his arms. "Nope, haven't seen it…"

"Cut it out! This is serious!" The worst part was that each time she said this, it sounded less convincing. The look on her face implied something terrible had happened. "I didn't believe my own eyes, so I can't blame you for being skeptical."

"Strange things have been going on around here, but I never guessed that dragons were real. If what you claim is true…"

"There's no telling what he plans to do. We must act now, before it's too late. I couldn't stop him alone, but we can beat him if we work together. His power grows greater with each passing moment. Each day we delay, he's getting even stronger."

"You want us to slay a dragon? Is that all?" Mark smacked his head. "Great idea… Why didn't I think of that?"

"I hoped it wouldn't come down to this," she said.

"Princess, may I speak with you in private?" Mark took her to the far side of the room while others whispered quietly.

"Have you ever had a nightmare you thought you would never wake up from? Well I'm in one! The sword is safe, but if he ever found it, Heaven help us all." She stopped, noticing his concerned expression. "What's wrong?"

"You no longer have it in your possession," Mark said.

"How can you tell?" She spoke in a trembling tone.

"At first, I thought you had the real sword, but it turns out this one is a fake." He fingered the blade. "Here, see for yourself."

"So that's why it had no power when I fought with it. It's all my fault. I lost the sword. It's over for us."

"Pull yourself together, princess!" He shook her shoulder. Mark had heard the prophecy many times before, but never understood it until now. "Suddenly it makes sense. Unless any further evidence turns up, I have to assume not all is well."

"Let's get it back." Princess Alice set her foot down.

"How? Where is it?" Mark asked.

"I don't know, but I'm going after it," she said.

"It's not like enchanted swords lie around stuck in stones. Do you think he'll just hand it over if you ask nicely?"

"This is my responsibility, so you don't have to come with me. Well, I guess I'm on my own. Wish me luck," she said.

"Normally I would, but you're going to need a miracle."

"Now is the part where you're supposed to stop me."

"Next time, risking my neck for you won't be free. That's one more job I won't get paid for, but I've known you for a while so I'll just put it on your tab." Mark smiled with mischief. "If this is what you want, I'm with you all the way. Leave it to me."

"Gee thanks…" Princess Alice hugged him. "I'm putting you in charge of this mission. How will you do it – by the book?"

"Do you have a better idea?" Mark asked.

"Well no, considering our current situation," she said.

"I'll just have to handle this the old-fashioned way." Mark cracked his knuckles. "Stay close to me. No heroics this time…"

"Way ahead of you… Come on, let's go!"

If I play my cards right, I might actually live through this.

"Prince Richard, you have violated a royal dictation." A guard formally announced the accusation. "By order of Princess Alice herself, you are hereby placed under arrest until you stand trial for treason. Justice shall be served."

They rammed down the door, rushed into the room, and then surrounded the bed. Seeing someone lying there, Mark drew his sword and cautiously approached it. His men aimed crossbows. He nodded and lifted the covers, but found only pillows.

"Anyone else hear that or is it just my imagination?"

"Looks like you've seen a ghost," Mark said.

Princess Alice nodded, but her hands grew cold and her face pale. "He's here. I can feel it." Her voice was quiet. The feeling grew gradually; she couldn't tell when she first noticed it. Dizzy, trying to focus, she rubbed her head.

"There's nothing to fear here, princess," Mark said.

"That's what scares me. Just because you can't see dragons, it doesn't mean they're not there."

"Something doesn't seem right. Either she's telling the truth or she should have taken up an acting career. I sense an evil presence in the shadows. We're not alone now," Mark whispered. "Ok, everyone stay calm."

"All right… This isn't so bad. I love the excitement and danger lurking around every corner." A knight shook nervously.

An arrow cut down a chandelier. The brave knights turned around with their weapons ready, facing the hall. Smoke poured through an open window; a dark cloud filled the air. The shape solidified into a man with a black cloak wrapped around his back. The laughter grew louder and then suddenly stopped. An echo bounced off the walls, but he was gone. They listened and waited. A pair of opaque onyx orbs and a long, jagged neck towered high above them all. Their mouths opened wide as they stared up at the rising serpent, identifying the creature immediately. The beast roared with rage, baring its teeth. It would kill them all one by one.

"A dragon!" A recruit reached for his sword.

"We'll make our stand right here and now! Reform and regroup so we can work as a unit!" Mark stood in front, trying to defend them and protect the princess. They all looked around at each other, terrified.

"Wait, don't kill it! Let's try to reason with it," she said.

"Do you think it can talk?" Mark frowned.

"I'm sensing some hostility." The princess backed away.

"I bet it's not here for a hug or maybe it just wants to eat us because of bad jokes. Don't back down men! Fight for your lives!"

Arrows glanced off the serpent's scales like straw. The men fell back to the dining hall and shut the door, but it swung open. Flames flashed and consumed one of the men. His skin melted away until only bones and ashes remained.

A young knight panicked, running for his life. The dragon thrust its tail like a spear. He barely brought his shield up in time to block the blow, but it broke, leaving him defenseless. The tail's tip cut through the air and shot through his back.

Someone threw a dagger, but the metal melted in midair by a hot blast of flame. With a sweep of its wings, the serpent sent it flying back at him and pinned him to the wall. Steaming hot breath caressed his neck as teeth sank into his skull.

The bravest knight yelled, but his sword got too hot to hold. He dropped it and it splattered like butter. As he rushed ahead, the dragon tripped him with a twitch of his tail. Then it flicked him and he slammed into a wall. Others came to help, but he stood up.

"Aye, it's just a flesh wound!" He got back on his feet.

"Remind me to give that guy a raise," Mark said.

The strongest knight charged, but the dragon simply stepped on him like an ant. They heard the crunch of a skull smashed open like a squash. The dragon looked down. It lifted its foot and retracted its claws.

"How droll… Ouch! I broke a claw," the dragon said.

A whip-like tail flung them back. As it darted down, those who remained standing dived for cover to dodge it. The dragon stomped and sent out a shockwave that knocked them off their feet. The ground broke apart. A screech echoed through the halls as it scratched the stone floor, crumpling concrete. Men winced with pain and covered their ears.

Mark covered her mouth then pulled her under the table. Smart enough to stay out of the way, she huddled near him.

"Keep quiet," Mark said to Alice. "Stay here. Don't move."

The Dragon King released the fires of Hell upon them. Fortunately, he refrained from incinerating everyone, as he preferred his food raw and squirming. Mark slid on his knees and managed to defend one of his men by blocking a blast with his shield. Flames splashed around the shield's edges. Another body fell to the floor. He was safe, but not able to fight. Then Mark stood with a look of vengeance. Soon he and the princess were the last ones left.

"Leftovers!" The Dragon King licked his lips. "Oh, but I shan't spoil my appetite. Maybe just one more… Who's next?"

Princess Alice and Mark exchanged an uneasy glance, pointing at each other. He hid behind her.

"Oh boy… He's toying with us like a cat with a mouse. This isn't going well. So what's your plan?" Alice asked.

"I'm making this up as I go along," Mark said.

"Quick, request some reinforcements!"

"There aren't any left." Mark rubbed his face.

"Next time, I won't underestimate him – if there is one."

"If we live through this, I'm going to kill you."

"Have you always been this hopeless?" She rolled her eyes.

"He's the Dragon King? Thanks for the warning. You might have mentioned that a bit sooner." Mark crossed his arms.

"I didn't think this would happen," she said.

"You don't think often. Do you?" Mark murmured.

"Well, got any ideas? I'm open to suggestions."

"As a matter of fact, yes… Just keep him busy."

"Yeah, sure – no problem…" This will never work.

"The bigger they are, the harder they fall!" Mark yelled.

Instinctively, Mark placed a hand on a hilt. He pulled out his sword, set it directly in front of the dragon's eyes, and then hurled it, but it bounced off its chest without doing any damage. It fell and clanged. Mark started to leave, but bravely came back.

"Trying to distract me with a little diversion? Brave, but fairly foolish… What would you accomplish with a stupid stunt like that? You aren't going anywhere. I could crush you. I'd end your insignificant life right now, but it's not even worth the effort."

"Um, this isn't working very well," she said.

"Your turn…" Mark panted, wiping his perspiration away.

"Now, at what point did we start losing? Maybe someone should tell him that we're the good guys!" Alice added.

"What do you want?" Mark clenched his jaw.

"You see? It's all about what I want. I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. It's too bad you had to get involved."

"You can't fool us with that fake sword," Mark said.

"How did you know that it wasn't the real one?"

"You just told us." Alice raised an eyebrow.

"Without that sword, you don't have a prayer against me."

"You're just trying to scare us, but it won't work."

"Keep this up and I'll have to strip away your royal title." The dragon swung his neck around and brought his head within inches of hers. "You have no idea who you're dealing with. Perhaps you could use a reminder though, princess."

"Right, let's give him the respect he deserves," she said.

"You'd better not lay a finger on her!" Mark yelled.

"Empty threats – that's the best you can do? I eat knights like you for breakfast and pick my teeth with their swords. You'll die like all the rest, because there's no strength in numbers." The dragon sounded disappointed. "I find weapons unnecessary with the proper planning. I've always felt allowing any circumstance to turn toward violence constitutes a failure on my part."

"Kill me or let me go, but don't waste my time talking."

"Don't try anything stupid. That's what your friend John did, until I fired him."

"I had the honor of serving with him," Mark said.

"How much does honor pay by the hour?"

"Well, apparently I can't afford a decent suit of armor."

"If you insist on continuing to resist me, I will kill you – unless the princess cooperates," the Dragon King said.

"Over my dead body!" Mark formed a fist.

"That can be arranged. Your weapons are worthless. I planned to be lenient and let you live though." The Dragon King frowned as if he forgot something important. "Where are my manners? I don't believe we've been properly introduced yet."

A demon wolf emerged from the shadows in the corner. Bowing his head, he fell at the Dragon King's feet. "I got the girl, as you commanded, Master. Shall I destroy the heir to the throne? If you want to get rid of her, why not just do it now?"

"It's not time yet," the Dragon King replied. "The princess may be naïve, but she's strong. She would make a quaint queen."

"What about the guards?" The wolf circled Mark.

"These puppets have served me well, but I don't need them anymore. As for this wannabe knight, we shall see. He knows too much. He could be dangerous. Should he suffer slowly or should I let him live long enough to witness my rise to power?" The Dragon King tapped a claw. "It's more fun watching you run. Let's see how far you can get before you die."

Mark picked up the princess and swung her into his arms in an effort to escape. A scorching blast flung them to the floor; he let go of her as they fell. They sat there with their mouths wide open. A long tail lassoed his foot, but the sharp tip nearly slit his throat.

"Tell me, how does it feel knowing that you're about to die? Stay still. This will only take a moment. It won't hurt – much." Mark hung in midair, but the dragon let him down to see what he would do. "Aren't you going to run away?"

"No, I'll stand by her side so we can stop you together."

"Isn't that cute? When all is said and done, it's about love."

"Wait, maybe we can make a deal here," Mark said.

"I'm in a merciful mood. Tell you what – if you leave now, I'll kill him in his sleep. I promise it will be quick and painless."

"Hold on! Time out!" Mark waved. "Let her go and I'll surrender myself fair and square." He openly offered himself.

"Give me a moment to think about that." The dragon paused briefly. "Why settle for less when I could have it all? I'm in charge now. You're in no position to make any demands. I might be willing to spare you if you become my slave."

"What, are you crazy? I won't let him do it," Alice blurted out loud. "I'm the one you want. Leave him alone."

"Never hurts to ask," the Dragon King replied.

"Excuse my friend's behavior. She keeps rushing into unknown danger, as usual." Mark elbowed her in the stomach.

"I've made bargains with him before. Believe me. It's a bad idea. It's not worth it," Alice told Mark again.

"What will you two do next – hold hands?" The Dragon King laughed. "If you promise not to tell anyone else about this, I'll provide a position for you in my new realm. You'll be my loyal little pet. Sound fair? Now hurry up before I change my mind."

"Yeah, ok…" Mark nodded.

"No, don't do it! You can't trust him," she said.

"Oh really? Hadn't thought of that! Please princess, I don't want to see you get hurt. It's the only way to save our necks."

"Fine, whatever…" She shrugged.

"I'll arrest your family. What a shame it would be if they had a little accident… Think about it. Here's my card. I sell insurance too. It's been a pleasure doing business with you. Sorry about the mess…" The Dragon King flew out an open window.

"Well, that could have gone better." She blinked.

"Are you trying to kill me?" Mark glared.

"By the book, huh?" Alice crossed her arms.

"Some of us aren't used to running away!"

"I don't need you to fight my battles," Alice said.

"Could I please have some privacy? Trying to grieve here!"

"You're hurt." She helped him to his feet. They looked into each other's eyes, but she felt embarrassed and let go of his hand. His wound was serious, but not life-threatening. "I can't find any broken bones. You'll live."

"What about my men?" Mark caught his breath.

"Some of them are still breathing. That's a good sign."

Just then, servants came dashing through the hallway, roused by the struggle. Physicians attended the men who were still alive, suffering from severe wounds. One nurse put some pressure on his leg to staunch the bleeding. A surgeon grabbed it, stopping the spurting artery. He couldn't bring himself to look at his leg as they cauterized it with a red-hot iron.

"There we are, good as new," the head surgeon said.

"Who's responsible for this?" An overzealous guard searched the area for evidence. "Arrest him at once!" He pointed.

"They just want someone to blame, but I saw what you did. I'll clear your name of all the charges," the princess promised him.

"I'd like to request a leave of absence due to my injuries."

16: HOPE FOR A HERO

This is my kind of place. I'll just order a beer at the bar.

Mark dropped by the town tavern for the latest news. He figured nobody would want to join him. Feeling reckless, he planned to drown his sorrows in drinks. A heavy wooden door swung open to the merry sound of laughter and music. A chandelier made of lanterns and an old wagon wheel hung above his head. Stairs led to bedrooms where paying guests spent the night. Traveling bards sang and played for a meal. He knew this pub like the back of his blade.

"What can I help you with?" a sexy barmaid said.

"Oh, I'm beyond help," Mark replied.

"Look all you like. See something you want?"

"I'll just take a moment to stare at your wares."

Mark took out a gold coin, slammed it down on a counter, grabbed a mug, and then sat at a back booth. Guards passed out on the tables and floor, holding their foamy froth busting at the brim. Folks hadn't been too happy with taxes lately. The rest were too absorbed in their ale to notice the newcomer. Occasionally, a rough-looking character grunted in his direction. One lost a bet and needed extra funds. Mark flexed his fingers, grabbing his sword hilt. After this subtle warning, the brutes backed down.

"Know any good men?" Mark asked a stranger. "That's what I thought. I don't blame you for being a coward."

"What did you just call me?" The tough-looking thug turned around, grabbed the knight, and lifted him off the ground.

"A coward…" Mark raised an eyebrow, never blinking.

The thug threw Mark on a wooden table; he landed on his back with a thud. It creaked under his weight and then shattered into splinters. He stood, stumbling forward. Regulars laughed and made room for a brawl, accustomed to such disturbances.

"You picked a fight with the wrong knight!" Mark yelled.

As men chased after Mark, he cut ropes loose so wine barrels started spilling. They ignored him and tried to save it.

Someone broke a glass bottle on his head. "I don't want any more trouble. Get lost!" The fat bartender kicked him out.

Mark staggered into the alley and sat down under an open sky as the sun rose. Princess Alice turned around the corner to find him leaning against a brick wall, dozing off to sleep.

"Try some of this." Mark brandished a bottle.

"No thanks…" She declined, holding up a hand. "I think you've had enough to drink for one day." She jerked it away.

"What the heck are you doing? I could've been killed and you're here drinking? Gimme that!" Mark grabbed it, losing his balance. He took another swig and swallowed the last of it. Then he belched and threw away the bottle, chasing off a cat.

"Well you're in a rotten mood this morning," she said.

"Sunshine gets me down," Mark murmured in a melancholy voice. "I hope you're happy. You're welcome."

"For what?" Alice frowned.

"Humph…" Mark grunted. "Saving your life…"

"Hey, I never asked you to save me, but I'm glad you did."

"Well, anyone can make a mistake, your majesty."

"I didn't mean it that way." Alice apologized.

"It certainly didn't sound very convincing," Mark said.

"It was worth the lives of your men. I had no choice."

"I don't believe this! Did it ever occur to you that we might not have risked our lives if we knew why?" Mark asked.

"I'd like to help, but I can't while you're acting like this."

"Just shut up, ok? I don't need this right now," Mark said.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't be taking this personally."

"Can we have this conversation some other time?"

"Where are you headed?" "Far away from you!"

FUTURE QUEEN:

I never meant to hurt you. It's not your fault I feel this way, so do not bear the blame. I didn't want to end our relationship yet. It reminds me of a song that stops suddenly or a rehearsal with no climactic crescendo. Perhaps you can prevail. Only time will tell.

The light I tried so hard to steal radiates freely from you. I sought to win your heart, but it wasn't a simple task. I am a devil among demons – a monster among men. Yet here you are – a rose among thorns. I actually admired you. Then I saw you could never love me, but I had to find out. My approach wasn't appropriate, trying to trick you. It's pointless to persuade you to change your mind now. I just want to know why you chose him instead of me.

PRINCE RICHARD

A few days passed. Princess Alice went to make amends with Mark, but waited until he was in a more decent mind-frame.

"Mark, you wanna talk?" Alice knelt beside him.

"Why not? I've got nothing better to do," he said.

"So, how are you?" She touched his shoulder.

"Pretty good, but I'll get over it soon…"

"He sure caught us off guard. Thanks for saving me. I owe you one." Princess Alice folded her hands behind her back.

"I'd say we're even now, but who's counting?" Mark grinned at her with mischief dancing in his eyes.

"Don't let it go to your head, but I just want you to know I couldn't have asked for a better bodyguard." She kissed his cheek.

"Gosh, it was nothing." Then she slapped him. He rubbed his face. "What was that for?"

"I was worth it!" The princess pouted, crossing her arms.

"On the other hand, I might get used to this," Mark said.

She couldn't help laughing, even though she was still upset. She tipped his helmet over with one finger.

"I liked you better when you were drunk."

"Gee, thanks… I think." Mark scratched his head.

"Actually, I came here to apologize," she said.

"It's hard when life starts to spin out of control."

"I've felt like this for some time now." Alice sat down and wrapped her arms around her knees, leaning her head back.

"Is it that bad?" Mark perked an eyebrow.

"I'm really getting scared. I don't know what to do. I can't just sit here and feel sorry for myself. I've failed to be a good ruler like I promised. My subjects managed to survive without me over the years. I guess I just grew up, but they don't need me anymore."

"Leave the complaining to me, ok? This is no time for an identity crisis." Mark shook his head. "You think too much."

"Feelings just get in the way. Narrow field of vision…"

"Emotion is what makes us human. You can use the longing hidden deep down in your heart for either good or evil. Desire is great, but power without control is a destructive force. People in love can do very odd things."

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder." She sighed.

"To suppress one's emotions only makes them stronger."

"Right now, all I can feel is pain," she said.

"Hey, join the club. Nobody should have to go through all that. We'll find a way to stop him somehow. Don't worry."

"I hope you're right, but it doesn't matter. However hard I try, it won't fix everything," she said.

"If you don't believe in yourself, who will?" Mark asked.

"I've completely lost control. I feel so powerless."

"We need to wait until we know all the facts. That way we can find out what we're up against. Learning the truth will keep us from making hasty decisions. Only a fool attacks without knowing who the enemy is. Live to fight again. Better safe than sorry…"

"Who would believe us if we tried to warn them?"

"Good question…" Mark wiped his nose.

"It could be worse. I got a letter."

"I don't see how. Let me read that."

"In the old days, dukes ended wars by arranging alliances."

"I don't trust him. It's probably a trick." Mark crumpled the love letter in his fist. "I'm used to fighting, not negotiating."

"Why did you decide to join the Royal Guard anyway?"

"My deep sense of duty comes from my father, who served the royal family before me. Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of being a knight. The problem is, princess, every time I help people they forget all about me. I hate that part. Until now, I knew what to do with my life. I always wanted to save the world someday, but this is more than I bargained for."

"You'll always be my hero." Princess Alice smiled.

"That means a lot to me. It's hard to be a hero."

"I went to a different world. All light passes through it like a prism. It's part of me. All I know is we'll die without it."

"You've been to Avalon? What was it like?" Mark asked.

"I've fallen and I can't get up again." As she looked into the sky, a tear fell from her eye. Then she looked down, realizing she couldn't return. "I used to believe the Prince of Peace would come and rescue me someday. I gave up on that dream a long time ago. If he were real, he would've shown himself by now."

"If anyone deserves a happy ending, it's you."

"Love is a luxury a princess can't afford." She sniffed.

"When I'm with you, I don't feel lonely," he said.

"Sometimes it's better to be alone instead of getting hurt."

"If there's one thing I learned about love, it's that you have to follow your heart. You aren't like anyone I've ever met before."

"Thanks, but I don't think you can help."

"Hey, that's what friends are for," Mark said.

"Are you sure I can't convince you to stay in active duty?"

"I'll think about it after this pity party. Looks like I've got my work cut out for me. Just look at us. I never thought it would end like this. You made the right call, but we may have to part ways for now. Hey, we put up a hell of a fight though."

"We had to try. Get some rest. You'll need it." She smiled.

Mark waved and walked off on his own, thinking the offer over. He easily encouraged her, but he didn't mean a word of it. He didn't want to believe it, but she was right. He smiled at the thought of her worrying about him.

17: MIGHT MAKES RIGHT

"Why did Prince Richard split my kingdom apart?"

"Take it easy. I'm just doing my job," an old priest replied.

"Who put you in this office?" Alice asked.

"Surely, you must know a good servant always follows orders. I'm afraid you'll have to take it up with him."

War divided the world. Every noble grew envious of neighboring territories that profited from slave labor. Even once peaceful villages came into the conflict. Instead of stopping them, Prince Richard encouraged it. Conquest was his method to maintain total control. He gathered advisers to find out how to possess provinces and randomly scattered settlements.

Military strategists met concerning campaign proposals. An open scroll lay out on a table; it was a map of Illumina and a nearby land. Blue zones were free before the war began. Those marked in red he intended to invade, so he set it on fire.

"Something is still missing. The time has come to claim what's ours. We must rise up and seize the moment," Richard said.

"There isn't a man among us who doesn't enjoy great wealth from your endeavors. Still, I must question your motives. We must do something about the recent rebellions. The situation is serious and should be salvaged," the head councilor said.

"Ye of little faith!" Prince Richard pounded a fist on the table. "Rest assured. It will work out perfectly according to plan."

Princess Alice wasn't to worry her pretty head over affairs of state. She drowsily keeled into the room and raised a finger.

"Can we go back to that other place? It was so pretty!"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said.

She tried to leave, but stumbled and fell into his arms instead. Before she could protest, Prince Richard bent down, hooked an arm under her knees, and picked her up bridal style.

"Haye, poot meh dewn!" She couldn't speak clearly.

"You've been on your feet all day. I'll handle it from here. Gentlemen, please excuse me. She's had too much to drink."

"Itt wuz reeal." Princess Alice hiccupped.

Prince Richard couldn't afford to let anyone fill her mind with dangerous new thoughts. He carried her across the hallway. Setting her down on the bed, he spotted a diary lying on a dresser. He flipped through the pages and read them.

"Ah, it appears we've run out of wood. Let me help you with that." He dropped the diary.

"No!" She pulled burning sheets from the flames.

"Your drinking habit is way out of control. I'll take care of everything. Just sit back and relax." He cleverly coaxed her.

I'm falling in love. From the first moment we met, his eyes entranced me in ways that I can't describe. He's the first thing I think of when I wake – the last thing on my mind when I fall asleep at night. I've never felt this way with anyone before.

I was born incomplete. I'm just trying to find the missing pieces of my broken heart. I hope for a future that never was and a past that perhaps shouldn't have been. I've done what I felt was best for my kingdom. My life wasn't always like this. Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me – to see him have any feelings for me. He didn't have to say any shrewd lies. I saw it in his eyes.

After eliminating the only remaining piece of evidence anyone held against him, Prince Richard made sure there were no witnesses. He relied mainly on intimidation tactics and threats to oppress the princess. He supervised her schedule; she had to ask permission to do anything. He wouldn't let anyone see her without setting an appointment. He even took her mother's necklace, which was very near and dear to her. He had won her with cunning and conquered by charm, but it was time to change his strategy.

That night, he went through the secret entrance somewhere under the castle. Demons trained there daily, practicing with prey and using lost souls to learn how to control human thoughts by emptying their emotions and manipulating them with their minds. Evil spirits prepared for a war unlike any the world had ever known before. They stood facing him.

"The princess is still unaware of our plan. I'll send her far away from this world and she'll never make it back again alive."

"The girl still lives?" the wolf demon asked.

"You dare question me? Mind your own business! I warned you not to tell me what to do. Heaven forbid – a mutiny in Hell…"

"Master, there is a tiny problem. Someone knows about us. He shall come to you soon in the foreseeable future."

"I'll deal with him later. While you're at it, add that to my list. We have to stay on schedule or we'll lose our brief window of opportunity. I'll grant the nobles more land to make them greedy. I've got them right where I want them. They lack due discipline. Soon we'll get rid of the worthless worms. The harvest is ready, so prepare these pathetic sheep for the slaughter. Let the bloodshed begin!" The evil prince lifted his arms high in the air. "We've waited so long and come so far. After an eternity, the end is finally here. Now the kingdom is ours for the taking. Wailing and gnashing of teeth will be like music to my ears. Oh, thanks for your devotion to the darkness. I could never have done it without your blind obedience."

Prince Richard went on a crusade. He rode with his shoulders square and proud; however, other kingdoms joined forces to resist him. Princess Alice sat staring out a window waiting for him to return. Her faintly beating heart refused rest from the moment he left on his horse until he came back through the open gates. She was in a bad mood and she expressed it without excuse, leading to this latest temper tantrum. It made her very disagreeable to deal with.

"You there!" Alice pointed. "Instead of standing around being useless, why don't you fill my cup with wine?"

"At once, your Majesty…" A servant nervously nodded.

"When you finish polishing the throne, make sure you prepare a feast for tonight." Drunk as a dog, she gazed down into her glass. Growing impatient, she splashed juice in his face then threw it at the wall. "You're supposed to serve me faster than this! Is that so hard? Everyone else gets it. Now go stand somewhere until I need you." With that, she began talking to herself again.

I could look at myself in the mirror, but then I'd fall in love. Putting on some perfume, she brushed her hair.

Somehow, Prince Richard always seemed to know what she wanted. Whatever happened, he was always a step ahead. This was not good. She was supposed to be strong and hate the villain, in spite of all his virtue. Instead, she was falling in love with him – unable to resist his magic charm. Eventually, everyone fell under his spell. His praise was like a master's touch to a pet. With a snap of his fingers, men blindly sacrificed their bodies, minds, and souls. After it was over, they all felt saved.

Oh, how could I let him treat me like this?

Princess Alice reluctantly revealed her heart to those around her. She concealed her mind, crying in private chambers. She felt like a delicate little doll for the whole world to play with. Over time, she had grown smug and spoiled. Each time her servants made the slightest mistake, she punished them personally. Fancy beds, jewelry, and feasts weren't enough to abate her materialistic motives. The pleasure couldn't quell the pain for long. Nothing she enjoyed in the past appealed anymore. She didn't even remember the ancient prophecies she'd read about. Her kingdom was already starting to fall apart.

Perhaps power is the only thing that makes him happy.

She was a slave to her own desires. She cared too much about makeup and clothes. Her purpose in life came from temporary things. She worried about what others thought too often, comparing herself with commoners, trying to hide her unjustified feelings of inferiority. She couldn't stop complaining about everything and everyone. Nobody trusted her anymore.

She wandered through life without caring what happened. She rehearsed each act so often it only became natural. She grew spoiled from her power as the heir to the throne, since the line of succession ended with her. She hated the monster she'd become, but it was too late to change her mind now. Perhaps pride had hardened her heart.

18: CASTLE CELEBRATION

That evening they had an elaborate celebration at the castle. The whole kingdom was excited about the event. Holding an annual feast with dining and dancing was traditional for rulers. Earls, barons, and dukes would also be attending. Servants spent the day preparing for the party. They hurried to pour out wine and put food on the table. Soon the Great Hall was ready for guests. No one noticed what Princess Alice was doing. When Prince Richard returned, they went together with nods to passing patrons.

They control the world, but who's in charge of them?

Ribbons fluttered from trees. Flowers lined the foyers. Chandeliers lit ceilings with flickering candlelight. Steady streams of guests poured through the gate wearing colorful clothes. Visitors came to meet the royal couple from every direction, bringing presents. They feasted to their hearts' content on a delicious banquet, dining on meat, cheese, and pastries. Gifted and talented artists performed comedies and tragedies for the grand occasion. Princess Alice rolled her eyes and blew her hair to the side, wantonly waving a fan. Socializing was common after such a fancy feast.

The way they eat! It's like they've never seen food.

Prince Richard approached her. "I have a surprise for you. Now close your eyes." He waited until she squeezed her eyes shut.

"What is it?" Princess Alice peeked.

"Open it and see." He raised an eyebrow.

Princess Alice lifted the glass key and then turned it in the crystal heart. It broke in two, revealing a diamond ring. The heart was missing some pieces; nevertheless, it made a nice necklace. This was not an ordinary ornament as a gift for a girl.

"Oh my, it's beautiful," Alice whispered, admiring it.

"The heart will change colors with your mood." He tapped a glass with a silver spoon, raised his hands for attention, and then knelt to propose in public. "If you'll be my beautiful bride, I will give you the world. In return, you shall rule by my side."

Princess Alice blushed as red as a rose. The question took her by surprise; she hadn't expected him to cut to the chase yet. This is just a really bad joke, right? Let me think about it for a bit! Everyone watched and waited. The pressure was on. He prepared the entire occasion so he could catch her at the right moment, wanting an answer soon. It didn't seem proper to delay any longer.

"I don't know what to say." She shrugged.

"Say you'll marry me." He took her hand.

"Yes, you may have my hand in marriage."

Prince Richard gave a short speech. Everyone at the table stood for a toast; guests clanked brimming goblets and then emptied them in a single swig. The crowd clapped, congratulating the couple. Lighthearted laughter rippled through the audience.

Rushing to get ready, musicians prepared their instruments. Their hands shook as they set everything up. They fretted; playing one discordant note would get them fired. Prince Richard had little patience for incompetent individuals. He had a very terrible temper. Perhaps they might lose their necks instead of their notes. Soft music played in the background as lights changed colors. The room was ready for a romantic ball.

Princess Alice came downstairs, wearing a white gown. The posh dress flowed down her slender waist, pooling at her feet. Nervously biting her lip, she searched the crowd. She glanced around, looking for someone. People whirled past her. Ignoring them, she continued wandering through the room. A man who wore no mask appeared right in front of her then left. There were too many people in the way. She stared and waited with her mouth open. The stranger watched from a balcony while she kept searching for him, reaching out. She knew that he was there, but she couldn't find him anywhere.

When she was just about to give up, she bumped into Prince Richard instead. She stood there, speechless. He placed his palm on the side of her waist and danced with her, eyes roving without rein. Timing his move with the music, he bent her back and kissed her unexpectedly. Opening her eyes wide, she pushed him away and glared at all his greed as he looked lustfully.

"Hey, get your hands off me!" When she slapped him, everyone else stopped talking. Alice resumed her place, but he advanced again. She stomped on his foot and acted like it was an accident, doing her best to sound apologetic. "Whoops! Oh, how clumsy of me…" Trying to keep a straight face, she left. "I just need some fresh air."

Nobles waltzed around wearing expensive costumes, gaily gabbing. Lords and ladies involved themselves with idle chatter. They hid behind masks, refusing to reveal who they were and it seemed silly. They all dressed up for nothing, congratulating her on the worst decision she'd ever made in her life. Princess Alice didn't feel like dancing, so she walked out to a balcony instead. She took off her mask, tossed it on the tiles, and leaned against a marble column in tears.

Time froze. Suddenly the music stopped. The old clock in the corner ceased its ticking heartbeat. Color drained from flesh and clothing. Everything from the fountain to a silk sash whirling around was trapped in time. Instantly, everyone stood motionless, still as a statue and silent as stone, except her. The guests still had no idea what was going on. They simply stood there.

"Can you hear me?" Princess Alice waved a hand in front of their faces. She scooped punch into a glass, flinging it at them.

Prince Richard appeared captivated by the enigmatic enchantment until his eyes moved. The princess jumped at a slight touch on her shoulder. When he spoke, the unexpected voice startled her. "It's not polite to miss your own party." His fingers suddenly snapped. Guests fell on the floor in comatose condition. He offered a hand. "Won't you join the dance, dear?"

Princess Alice paused, afraid to look – too scared to speak. Her chest rose and fell; she took a deep breath. Her subjects were in dire danger – running out of options; she couldn't leave them like this, so she gave in. He clapped to bring them back to life.

As their eyes met, she placed her white, gloved hand in his. His arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her closer forcefully. It felt so wrong. She closed her eyes, praying it would be over soon. The last thing she wanted was for him to hold her again. Just to touch him or to look in his eyes was more than she could bear. What hurt most was trying to pretend she was happy when deep inside it felt like her dreams were dying. She could fool the whole world, but not her heart. If life was a dance, so was death. He led her on as an unwilling partner – dancing in the darkness – stepping into the shadows – not knowing where she was going this time.

As they danced the night away in silence, Prince Richard devised a cunning scheme to get rid of the Prince of Peace. Her hero was mortal. He was only human. Turning aside, he tried to hide his jealousy.

19: ARRANGED ALLIANCE

Finally, the day arrived that she secretly dreaded. This wedding marked a great change for her. Soon she'd be joined in an eternal engagement. Princess Alice took her sweet time getting ready, looking for something pretty to wear.

"How delightful you decided to accept his proposal." Elizabeth dropped by to wish her sister well.

"What should I wear? I can't go looking like this."

"Where did you get that dress? Alas, you're wearing it. If only you were as gorgeous as I, everything would be easier."

Princess Alice cried and gazed into a mirror, smearing makeup all over her face. She lay down on her bed, buried her head below a pillow, and wept bitter tears. The maids said nothing. They left her before she could criticize them.

"Are you ready yet?" Prince Richard called out. "Let me remind you who I really am. It won't be long until we are united."

"I can barely breathe in this tiny corset, not to mention move," Alice said, although she was afraid.

Curious commoners stood out in the crowded courtyard. That day guards left the gates wide open. Anyone could enter unnoticed. The moment the princess appeared to the visitors, a hush fell over the crowd. Music accompanied her downstairs; it sounded like a funeral dirge. Nervously, she glanced along the aisle as guests whispered to each other.

"If there is anyone here who objects to this union, then let him speak now or forever hold his peace," the old priest said.

Then, to their surprise, a man climbed through a window. He ran past the guards and waved his arms around. He had to do something before she belonged to the evil prince. People pushed and shoved, trying to get a better view. They sensed something dramatic was about to happen. The crowd grew silent in support and the priest nodded with consent.

"Wait, stop! Hold everything!" the peasant man said.

"How dare you interrupt us? I'll have you thrown out!"

"Just listen to me. You aren't meant to be together."

"Why would you care?" Prince Richard sounded disgusted. A commoner had dared to enter his castle. He crossed his arms. "Oh, I see. You love her, don't you?"

"With all my heart," Paladin said. "I have to speak with her alone for a moment. If you really love somebody, set them free."

Princess Alice started to say something, but Prince Richard glared at her, glancing over his shoulder. Two men fought for the right to hold her hand and to win her heart in this moment of truth. The arrangement felt awkward. She dared not disobey.

"I am the Prince of Peace. I want to show you the right way to rule your kingdom. You don't have to let him control you."

"If you knew who I was deep inside, you would never say such things about me. I know he's lied to me ever since we met, but I'm too afraid to challenge him alone," she said. "Where were you when I needed you there the most?"

"You're making a very big mistake," Paladin said.

"Listen, let's just be friends, ok? You broke my heart." She shook her head and turned her back on him. Her eyes looked hurt.

"It was already broken." Paladin pleaded with her.

The whole crowd held its breath, waiting for her decision while she chose what mattered most. Everyone's eyes went wide. She lifted her veil and whispered her wedding vow to the priest. When the words left her lips, she couldn't take it back again.

"I do." She nodded to accept the alliance.

"Witness binding matrimony," the priest proclaimed.

"Lower your eyes, peasant. You are not welcome here in my land any longer." Prince Richard pointed at the door.

"You control a land you stole through treachery. The brief time I permitted you has passed. It is my right to rule the throne."

"Rule over a bunch of slaves?" The evil prince laughed. "They aren't worth your time, you old fool. Go home!"

"Is your hatred so great you would see innocents suffer?"

"You're too late. She's mine now. I have plans for the princess, but I would never hurt her. She'll make a charming addition to my collection."

"She was never yours to protect. Now let her go."

The evil prince paused to tap his chin. "I'm willing to negotiate. Perhaps I'll exchange her for someone even better. If you really believe the prophecy, you'll accept my offer. I won't harm her. You have my word. Now can we seal the deal or what?"

"Very well… You may take me instead in her place."

"Would you be willing to die for her?" Richard asked.

"I would rather die than live without her," Paladin said.

"That's interesting. I could consider it. It hardly seems fair. How do I know you'll keep your word? Guards, put him in the dungeon. Make sure he doesn't escape or I'll lock you up in his place and throw away the key."

Paladin simply stood there, letting guards seize him and drag him away. He turned his head, apparently wishing he could do something, but his enemy was expecting this. For the moment, the peasant held his peace. It took all his power to do nothing. He barely managed to restrain himself. He held out a hand to one of his followers who was carrying a concealed weapon.

"Put your sword back in place," Paladin said.

"I can't stand it. This is too easy." Prince Richard grinned cruelly, though he appeared unsatisfied by this passive resistance.

A tear slid down her cheek as she watched silently. Then she turned away. Suddenly it seemed like life lost all meaning. She could have died right then rather than never see him again, but in her heart, she hoped he could still save her somehow.

"Don't kill that man! He did nothing wrong! Please, I beg you to spare his life." Princess Alice fell to her knees and wept.

"Don't cry, darling. You'll mess up your makeup."

Prince Richard made an example of the event. He addressed the audience, encouraging everyone not to let this incident disturb the celebration. They went on with the wedding as if nothing happened. To him, emotion was a sign of weakness. Playing with pure passion, he thought he'd finally learned how to control love like a toy. It was stronger than the will to live.

20: LIFE FOR A LIFE

"I'm only doing this because I love you." Prince Richard sounded sincere. He put a hand on her shoulder, making her shiver.

"You don't mean that. You only loved yourself." She cried. Each word cut like a knife into Princess Alice's heart.

"Is it that hard to believe? I felt myself drawn to you since you were different. I was used to getting everything my way. You won my respect by challenging my authority. I thought you would give up because you were young, yet you continued to press on."

"I can't just close my eyes and turn away from the truth." She faced the sunlight then lowered her eyes, looking at the floor.

"You can forget all about it – pretend it never existed. There are no wrong answers, princess – only questions."

"I can't do that. Please, you're scaring me," Alice said.

"Would I go through all of this trouble just to kill you? I've got something so much worse in mind." He had to laugh. "I've ruled by fear for far too long. I'd rather have respect. Just go back to feeding those filthy maggots."

"Why did you help them if you don't really care?"

"The stomach is the fastest way to a man's heart, yet they want more. Useless creatures… It's a shame we share the same air with these lesser life-forms. I'm sick of their disgusting diseases. They'd better die soon and decrease the populace."

"No, this is wrong!" She held him back.

"How can something that feels so right be so wrong?"

"You lied to me. I'll never forgive you."

"It doesn't have to be like this, princess. We could get along so much better if you put yourself in my hands."

Prince Richard stood between her and a door, close enough to touch. Leaning nearer, he pushed her against the wall and looked deep into her eyes. He moved his head down to kiss her, but she put a finger to his mouth.

"Thanks, but I'll take my chances," she said.

When she tried to leave, he got in her way. Her lip curled; she ducked under his arms. She backed up against the door and grabbed the handle. He seized her arm, raising his other hand. She closed her eyes and waited for the first blow, but it never came; instead, he calmly composed himself and casually continued.

"I've been setting you up this whole time."

"You can make threats, but you can't change my mind. In my heart, I will always hate you as much as I love him."

"Go ahead and beg on your knees for his love, because you've lost mine!" He slapped her face.

"Stop, you're hurting me!" She rubbed her cheek.

"See what you made me do? I warned you this would happen! When the time came, you might have made a worthy heir to the throne. Get out of here. I don't have time to deal with you. If you'll excuse me, I've got a world to conquer."

Princess Alice shook, bewildered. Her nose was bleeding. In tears, she ran down the hallway and outside the castle to cry, bumping into her sister. Several servants heard the fight, but didn't interfere; they preferred to stay out of harm's way.

"Going somewhere?" Elizabeth asked.

"Prince Richard spread rumors to ruin my reputation."

"That hardly seems likely. Why would he do a thing like that? Maybe it's your fault. What happened this time?"

Princess Alice grew tense at the unexpected accusation. "He refuses to take no for an answer. He's such a jerk! There's just something about him that makes me want to–"

"Lash out irrationally?" Her sister finished the sentence.

"Don't tell me strangling him won't solve anything."

"You're overreacting. I'm sure it was just a simple misunderstanding." Elizabeth minimized the incident.

"I'll make him pay for this!" She shook her fist.

The castle dungeon was dark, cold, and lonely that night. It rained for hours, but trees provided little protection from the storm. Locked in a cell, the peasant waited for his trial. He had nothing to eat or drink in days until they brought some bread and water. Prisoners wore heavy shackles, preventing futile escape attempts. Paladin promised them rest, even though they were still slaves. While some believed him, others hated him more. Some couldn't even remember being free because they were born into irons.

"I need a moment with the prisoner alone," Alice said.

"I'll be on my way then." The warden walked off.

She wasn't sure why she came, but felt sorry for the slaves. She couldn't stand to see him chained like an animal against a stone wall. When she tried to warn him, he refused. She pleaded for him to beg for mercy, but nothing she said could change his mind. Realizing this, she ran away with tears in her eyes and never looked back. It didn't make any sense; she didn't understand.

At midnight, Prince Richard walked down the hallway, making sure no one was following. Silently he slipped into Elizabeth's bedroom. When she woke up, he was sitting there staring back at her. It startled her at first, but she blushed.

"I have a job for you. Can you do me a favor?" he asked.

"That depends…" Elizabeth lifted an eyebrow.

"I want you to blame this so-called savior for the people's problems. Killing him isn't enough. He'd have even more power as a martyr. We must turn him into what he hates the most. I can see his face now, dying believing his beloved betrayed him."

"It sounds so sudden." Elizabeth tapped her fingers.

"Did I upset you? I often say things without thinking."

"Shall I frame him for some terrible crime?" she asked.

"The peasants are revolting." Prince Richard leaned closer.

"Tell me about it!" Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

"No, that's not what I meant. They're confused and upset. Deliver him into their hands and they will kill him. I'll reward you well if you get rid of him. After our brief affair, it will be our little secret." Prince Richard persuaded her.

"I'll do all that you ask and more." Elizabeth nodded.

"I knew you would. That's what I wanted to hear."

Guards escorted Princess Elizabeth with the echo of footsteps and flickering torches. "That's the one." She brutally betrayed the poor peasant with a kind kiss. It was only business as usual; she never mixed business with pleasure.

By sunrise, a crowd had gathered in the town square. Elizabeth accused and interrogated the prisoner in public, but the man remained strangely silent, not defending his decisions. Looking his accuser in the eyes, he kept a calm, peaceful attitude.

"This man is responsible for all our slavery and starvation. Do you deny it?" Elizabeth asked him again.

"I speak the truth. I've done nothing evil."

"He's lying!" A bearded bishop laid aside a scroll and struck the man's mouth so blood dripped down his chin. "He doesn't look like any other holy priest. If he came to the temple in peace, then where is his prayer book and candle?"

"Who do you think you are?" She scowled.

"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me," Paladin said.

"If you really are who you claim to be, then save yourself. Prove it to us once and for all. Haven't you suffered enough? Walk away! End this! Isn't it better to choose life?" Elizabeth asked.

"Everyone dies. Most people never live," Paladin replied.

"I have the authority to set you free," she said to him.

"You only have power because someone offered it to you."

With a cruel look of contempt, Elizabeth turned her back and raised her arms. "So what shall I do with this spy?"

The crowd chanted mercilessly until the noise overcame her voice. Men mocked him and threw fruit like some unseen and unheard power possessed them. Executing a stranger was easier than someone they knew personally. A guard laughed when he saw the prisoner didn't resist. Then more men rushed in to help him, shouting and cheering as if they had done something brave, though he could have easily taken them all. They dragged him forward, stripped and whipped him, and then gambled for his garments.

People pointed and stared. His friends forsook him and left him there to die. His own disciples watched, standing at a distance. The man said nothing, mute as a monk. He followed them without a struggle, even when his enemies spat in his face. They led him to a wooden platform and drove nails through his open hands. On top of a dark hill, he hung between Heaven and Earth for all to see.

Though no one noticed, others came to witness this event. Demons scorned armed angels who stood ready to aid him.

"Ah, my old friend… It's been such a long time." Prince Richard attended the execution to give a fitting farewell.

"Apparently, not long enough…" Paladin turned his head.

"So you're the savior everyone keeps talking about? If you're a king, then where's your kingdom?"

"My kingdom isn't of this world," Paladin replied.

"Poor princess… What's the matter? Can't save her? Break your little promise. She only cares about the way things appear. That's why she was so easy to fool. She left when a better deal came along. I'll take her somewhere. You'll never find her. If you ever want to see her again, I'll be waiting for you in the world of darkness. Come to the castle all alone this time."

"One way or another, I'll get her back." Paladin promised.

"I thought you would be a bit taller. Was that your plan – to become a mortal like one of them?" The evil prince shook his head and laughed. He paused, pouring his hate into one glare. "After you are dead, who'll be there to stop me? You lost your life and still failed to save her. You've lost everything you ever loved. I want you to die knowing your defeat. Normally, I'd say prepare to meet your Maker. Since you have none, this will simply have to do. Care to say a few words to mark the occasion?"

"When it's over, you'll bow confessing I'm the true king."

Prince Richard stared at him for a moment before he turned his back and walked off, but then stopped to look over his shoulder from the corner of one eye. "Why wait?"

"Soon…" The peasant promised.

Guards obeyed their orders and executed the prisoner, who surely suffered as no man had before. The skies turned dark and the Earth quaked. Lightning, thunder, and wind blew past, spinning dust in whirlwinds. Onlookers ran and hid, fearing for their lives.

I'll get you back. I swear I will.

Princess Alice pitied him. At times, the crowd around him grew so thick it was hard to tell what was going on. She couldn't bear to watch the moment of the killing. Sickened by the sight, she turned her face, closed her eyes, and then wept. She shook her head, denying he was dead. It can't be true. They took Paladin's body and gave him a proper burial.

Prince Richard barged into her bedroom, invading her precious privacy. He attempted to justify his actions with rationale.

"How could you do such a horrible thing, murdering an innocent man? I told you he didn't deserve to die," she said.

"Your subjects began to blame all their problems on him."

"Then why didn't you try to stop them?" Alice asked.

"Do you want to get both of us in trouble? You'd better play along. Don't forget. You're just as guilty. They'll hang you instead once they find out this is your fault. Who do you think they'll believe – a spoiled little brat or a trusted courtier?"

"Well, you sure thought of everything, didn't you?"

"People die every day. You really shouldn't get so upset about it. No use crying over spilled blood… There are always other souls in the sea." He held her arms and looked straight in her eyes, though she hated him for it. "What's done is done. I had my fun. You can't bring him back. Forget about him. He was such a fool to think he could keep us from being together."

"Yeah? Well you're not exactly prince charming either!"

In her spare time, Princess Alice secretly visited the graveyard, but the prophet's tomb was empty. She looked around everywhere, but she couldn't find a body. Perhaps thieves stole it at night or wild animals dragged it away, but surely the guards would have stopped them. Disciples reported he'd come back to life again. It seemed very strange.

Barricaded in her bedroom, she tried to rest. She couldn't forget the look on his face – the pain evident in his eyes. He warned her that it was a trap, but she didn't listen. She had left him, but he'd made the ultimate sacrifice.

He died to prove his love for me. No time for tears…

The princess lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. She rested her royal head on a soft pillow with her eyes wide open, letting troubled thoughts wander. A knocking sound brought her back to reality. Unwilling to see anyone, she rolled over on her side. The door creaked and swung open; Mark shut it softly behind him. Some of her servants had sworn oaths of allegiance to Prince Richard. Rejection and regret hurt, but betrayal ached more. Right now, all she really wanted was revenge.

That evening, Princess Alice dressed up and made herself more ravishing to entice the eyes of all who saw her. A rosy color stained her cheeks. Behind her bright eyes, anger filled her mind. She hid a poison dagger behind her back. She walked across a crimson carpet and stood there before Prince Richard where he sat on the throne. Entering here without permission was truly an insult. Then she hugged him. When she thrust the blade toward his heart, he quickly grabbed it then threw her to the floor.

"If this had pierced my skin, it could've killed me."

"I thought I ought to return the favor," she said.

Prince Richard rose up, looking down at her, eyes burning with wrath. "Did you really think you could defeat me? Poison pulses through my very veins. You'd have to wake up early in the dawn of eternity to fool me."

"Like you've fooled yourself?" Alice asked, mocking him.

"Your will is strong, but I'll break it." He snapped a finger. "Don't make a mistake you might later lament."

"Well you're standing here, so I guess I already have."

"You always had to have the last word."

"Go to Hell!" the princess yelled at him.

"After you, I insist. Who says you aren't there already? Sweet dreams, little princess… Without further ado, farewell…"

With a wave of his hand, Prince Richard shocked her into submission. Princess Alice struggled briefly then stopped resisting him. After that, his voice became a distant mumble. She couldn't focus her eyes clearly, wavering back and forth. He caught her before she hit the floor. Then everything went dark and she passed out. She fainted and fell asleep in his arms. Placing a palm on her forehead, he erased her memories. It amused him watching her try to escape. She was completely under his control all along.

That's strange. How did I end up here?

When she woke up back in her bed, Princess Alice couldn't remember what happened. She tried the door, but it was locked. Then she rested her head in her hands. She slumped with her back to the wall, held against her will in her own castle.

The other half of the mirror was black and white. A hard to see, transparent heart-shaped key lay on a table. She picked it up and it glittered in her palm. She noticed a small hole in the frame. When she inserted it, it began to glow. The smooth glass surface rippled out in rings, reflecting reality's dark side – either temporal or eternal. Reluctantly, the princess reached out to touch it. Waves went every direction, distorting images and portraying past icons. When her hand went through it, she saw bare bones. However, it didn't hurt. Somehow, she passed through the glass. As she stepped forward, her other half stopped, then vanished.

Wait, that was weird! Where'd my reflection go?

The mirror showed her the bedroom she had left behind. Surely, it wouldn't hurt to look around first. The universe turned upside-down. She glanced up at the ground, feeling dizzy.It appeared the castle was abandoned for centuries; the years had taken their toll on it. The halls were empty, except spider-webs and dust covered everything. Burning blue flames here felt cold as ice.

Oh, it's no use! I'll never reach the key now.

Princess Alice pushed and pounded on the mirror, crying out for help. She tried to leave, but she couldn't remember how to get back. The key was still on the other side. At first, her fear kept her from concentrating, but then she managed to focus her mind.

Gasping in surprise, she tumbled back through it. Wind sucked the room's objects toward the mirror. She grabbed a wooden bed leg, but it began sliding. Books hit her fingers and she let go. Not knowing what else to do, she turned the key in the frame again. The floating items fell lifelessly to the floor. Bloody handprints appeared, like somebody tried to break the glass. Whoever it was left, because the screaming stopped.

Should I run away? After all, it worked so well last time.

Instead, she lay awake in bed for hours. She closed her eyes, but tossed and turned because her wandering thoughts wouldn't let her rest. Tonight seemed different somehow, with the storm outside. Dreadful feelings floated in the air like a dark and haunted halo. At midnight, she finally fell asleep and all awareness fled. She had a strange vision foretelling the future. She dreamed of a different world – another life in an alternate reality where she ruled as the Princess of Darkness, wearing a bloodstained dress.

Princess Alice stood outside a castle at midnight. The only light came from a full moon and the ghostly glow of fire. Fearing the worst, she ran across a drawbridge. As she walked through all the haunted hallways, she heard insane laughter, children crying, and the screams of tormented souls; sounds of battles echoed, but nobody was there. She shut her eyes, listening to loved ones calling her name who went unanswered. Wandering phantoms whispered and lamented their doomed existence.

I still see daddy's face in my dreams, and mom as well.

Flames blazed to either side of the path, blocking doors. As she approached the center of the castle, she saw the dead bodies of her friends and family lying on the ground. She fell to her knees, finding her father dead at her feet in a pool of his own dry blood. Memories came back in vivid detail – like the look in her mother's eyes before she died. That image was forever etched into her mind. Losing both her parents so suddenly was like living with a wound that would never heal. Were they trying to warn her?

"Please, you have to stop her." Elizabeth pointed.

Taking a deep breath, Alice opened the door. Someone was sitting there alone on the throne, with a heart cold as stone, waiting and watching her. It was too dark to tell, but it looked like the little girl started to smile. Amplified aggression grew greater; her hatred overwhelmed every other emotion. She marched up, but then stopped as the black-cloaked figure stood and jerked off her hood.

It's me? The princess put a hand to her mouth. She woke, breathing hard. Her heart pounded wildly.

Lightning flashed, followed by a crash of thunder. A window swung open. The princess grabbed her pillow, watching it warily. Her eyes opened wide, never leaving it for a moment. The candle she lit didn't keep the darkness at bay when the wind blew it out. With a nervous laugh, she tried to relax. The thought of going to bed made her feel uneasy. It seemed like something was waiting for her to fall asleep again so it could crawl out and drag her down. She couldn't close her eyes, even if she had to stay awake all night. Rain showered upon glass, blurring shapes and figures with its purifying power. The trickle slowly stopped.

Early the next morning, a servant announced breakfast. Princess Alice came down and took her place. As she looked at the long, empty rows of chairs, Prince Richard sat across the table from her and smiled. She said nothing and barely touched her food.

He stood up and approached her with a deadly look. She stepped back, but couldn't conceal all of her anger. She clenched her fists. He grabbed her arm. Then he waved a hand across her forehead and a stunned expression came over her face. Time slowed as her vision blurred; her eyes shut tight. She gritted her teeth and winced with pain. Her head rested on his shoulder as he held her. She opened her eyes, looking up at him. He let her fall onto the hard floor. Her legs gave out and her knees hit the ground, carrying all her weight. He stood over her, looking down with hate. She heard him say something about finishing her off later, but all she could recall was a cruel smirk on his face. That's the last thing she remembered just before passing out.

A perfect place to frame some random schmuck…

Lifting her lifeless frame, he took her in his arms and came to the hidden chamber. This time, the pool was black like space. The water swirled around, spinning slowly like a spiral galaxy. Then he threw her into a dark dimension.

That afternoon, Prince Richard addressed the royal court. He told them a spy murdered Princess Alice, but he caught the assailant in the act and executed him right there on the spot.

"You killed my sister, didn't you?" Elizabeth pointed.

"Fine, it's my fault. You have done what I wished, my dear. I couldn't care less. You see to it."

"So it was all a lie?" Elizabeth lowered her eyes.

"Yeah…" Richard paused. "No, wait… Yeah!"

"My sister was right. You are a monster."

"It's not so bad once you get used to it. If you serve me, I shall let you keep your eternal soul in exchange."

"I want nothing more to do with you," Elizabeth said.

"Aren't you forgetting one tiny detail? I own you now! I could always use another puppet. What do you say?"

Hearing this, Princess Elizabeth shook her head sadly. She ran out to the castle garden and hanged herself.

A funeral was held. Royal servants requested to be allowed to address the crowd; however, Prince Richard overruled their suggestions. He seemed uninterested in things he couldn't control. He removed the wedding ring from his finger. Kneeling beside her coffin, he swore to fulfill her wishes. He lifted his sword, drove it in the ground, and then placed her tiara on the hilt. Finally, he left a handful of flowers at her tombstone. He made such a big scene nobody questioned his sincerity.

"On behalf of the entire kingdom, I bring a royal family member to remembrance. Princess Alice is due all our deepest respect. As the last living heir to the throne, she touched our lives more than we may ever know. This assassination was a senseless and ruthless act. The great loss grieves us all, but now we must move on. There will be no further investigations or proceedings."

Mark stood still on top of a hill, watching from a distance. He removed his helmet and dropped his sword. Memories of her deserved tears, but none came. He was a hero; nothing could change that, but he didn't feel like one. He saved the kingdom on many separate occasions, yet felt nothing but emptiness at her death. Instead, he thought of what could have been.

The kingdom prepared for a royal coronation ceremony to commence, sending out invitations to nearby provinces. Tomorrow there would be more feasting and dancing. People went about their business as if nothing had changed. Life appeared to continue like it always had. Things seemed to be going well, but nobody knew the severity of the situation.

Prince Richard promised to bring hope back to the land. He managed to convince them the other lands were planning to attack while the real threat came from close within. He fooled them all, putting them in a false sense of security. They couldn't see he was a wolf in sheep's clothing. With the princess preoccupied, the kingdom belonged to the Dragon King now. No one was left to warn her subjects and stop him from taking over. The world grew a little darker that day.