PART III: WAKE ME UP WITHIN

Haunted Happy-ending: The Renaissance Of Reality

1: DARK DESTINY

"What has become of my kingdom?" Angela asked.

Princess Angela's faraway stare had a rather profound effect on Prince Paladin, who stood beside her and then stepped forward. Arriving back on Earth, she looked around as if she'd never seen it before. Mysterious faint music filled the air, telling a sad tale as black clouds swept the sky and slowly cast shadows on the land below. The Kingdom of Illumina had fallen into darkness.

The princess gazed off at the distant horizon and surveyed the scene. She turned away sadly, seized with a great sense of guilt for what had happened. She came back home to a different world than she'd left behind. Everything she knew – everyone she loved was gone. Memories flooded her mind like misty rays of light on stained-glass windows. Each thought brought more tears to her eyes. Past pains, present problems, and hope for tomorrow – she felt it all at once. The prince had given her a new name.

This town looks empty. It used to be so alive.

Wild beasts attacked men; peaceful animals turned violent. Famines struck every family and plagues separated people. No longer did children skip in the street, but fought for scraps of food and a warm bed. Poverty and crime took over the main marketplace instead of back alleys. Nobles carried coveted titles, took more than their fair share of taxes, and lined their pockets with gold. Men beguiled women into joining brothels. Security tightened; guards claimed it was for their own protection, but performed illegal inspections. Surprise searches occurred frequently. Innocent bystanders were imprisoned.

Men turned from the truth and hid from the light. Death came for them like a thief in the night. They thought they could do whatever they wanted, but they were wrong. Eventually, the wicked would face judgment for their thoughts, words, and actions. People prayed to idols and worshipped fake gods. Greedy leaders and false prophets poisoned their minds. The Dragon King didn't care what became of the slaves serving him as long as he got what he wanted.

I wish I could travel back in time and fix my mistakes.

"This can't be good." The world was dying. It broke her heart. She had seen enough. "How did this happen?"

"The Dragon King has returned to reign over your subjects while you were gone. He also told them that you're already dead. Far more time has passed than you realize. Time there in Heaven is not the same as it is here," he said.

"Can I go back to the point when this all began and stop it from happening? If we change the past, it might fix the future."

"Once threads of time are tangled, they'll never be undone. Truth is the fabric of reality, which can't be torn."

"Then we failed. Why didn't you warn them?"

"I did. Some of them listened. People see and hear what they want to. They twist the truth to their own destruction."

"Isn't there anything you can do for them?"

"I thought you would never ask. They must choose life or death, following me by faith or not at all. Truth has the power to set them free, but the Dragon King blinded them. Their prison exists partially in their own minds," Prince Paladin told her.

"If only you had been here this never would've happened."

"Nobody knows what would have happened, but you can still find out what will. I have done all I can for them."

"I just want to go home," she said.

"It's my world too. We're in this together. There's only one way to defeat the darkness. First, you should find the sword."

"You're coming too, right?" She held his arm.

The prince bowed his head silently, not answering at first. "I was acting as your guide. All the rest is up to you now. Don't expect it to be easy. It won't. Now go. I will wait until you finish. You must be ready to follow me when I return."

"You can't just leave. We need you here."

"I will be back." The prince promised her.

"It's been so long. Everything changed while I was gone."

"If they don't believe you, follow me alone. You won't see me all of the time, but I will still be there," Paladin said.

Fear filled her heart. She swallowed and nodded. She sighed and began to leave, but then turned back. "Hey, wait! Don't go!" The thought of him leaving her struck her with dread. Somehow, she didn't feel safe anymore.

What did I get myself into this time?

2: TRICK OR TREAT

The Queen of Shadows stood in the tallest castle tower with the blank stare of a remote viewer and focused her mind. Vivid images of violence flashed furiously with more depth than normal mortal sight allowed. A powerful presence broke her concentration and terminated the trance. The witch stumbled back and fled from it. She shrieked in horror. The king had returned.

Why does his face haunt me? Shadow rubbed her head.

Shadow had grown stronger in her midnight magic, finding an ancient spell-book only legible under a full moon's light. She succeeded, completely convincing a guard she was the princess, and then tricked him into freeing her from a mirror. After the fool let her loose, she suddenly turned him to stone with an enchanted emerald. Each time she used a spell, she gradually grew uglier. It almost became addicting. Yet she had no power over the prince.

"Tell me more about Prince Paladin," Shadow said.

"If I say anything, they'll have my whole family killed!"

"I'll do much worse. I've had some time to think about it."

"It's in that scroll of scripture. I've told you all I know!"

"Then I have no further use for you." Shadow smirked.

"Wait, please!" The frightened knight turned into rock.

The witch looked out a window, waiting for her servant. Her fallen kingdom's subjects seemed more interested in fighting one another than stopping her. She had learned how to make them bow before her. It wouldn't take much to bend them to her will. Only one man could cause trouble and ruin her plan. Without him, the princess was helpless against her. A long and drawn out plot, ending in a slow, painful death would have delighted her, but she could be content that he was out of the way for now.

"They're back. I tried to stop them, but they were too strong for me." A wolf demon lowered his head, panting hard.

The witch wasn't happy and did not hesitate to express her enragement. She banged her fist, then calmed down and composed herself. "The bully – picking on others weaker than himself… I won't allow it. Now go keep an eye on our spy."

"At once…" The wolf demon obeyed without question.

Sitting on her throne, the witch rested her chin on a hand. Her mind raced quickly to remove the threat. Brute force wouldn't work as well as beguilement. It was time to see if her power still worked; she would have to test it on someone.

My servant may be correct in this matter, but if he keeps stating the obvious, I'll cut out his tongue. I'm well aware the prince weakened my magic. As for the knight, I'll try to talk him out of it. Perhaps I'd rather not resort to other means of persuasion. I lust for power with every fiber of my being, but she keeps holding me back. That little nuisance has some nerve. We're like two sides of the same blade. One is dim and dull, the other sharp and deadly. When she is gone, I will be reborn.

With her evil heart elated, Shadow gave a cruel cackle. The wind and waves answered her call, rising to join her rage.

Leaping from the tower with a brief bound, she slowly floated through the air, glided to the ground, softly landed on the surface, and then knelt with her eyes shut. Her feet hit the moat and it splashed around her, secluding her from sight. It froze into ice, but she broke it with a single swipe. She slashed so fast the sword tip burst into flames. She walked on water to the other side.

A guard stood near the gate, pacing back and forth. A low, gray cloud wandered its way into a graveyard. The fog took form. At first, the strange figure standing alone out there in the shadows startled him as she stood still, silent as a statue.

The mysterious young maiden with a pale face wore a rather revealing spider-web suit. Her white gown glistened magically in the moonlight, blown by the breeze. The only color was her ruby-red lipstick. She took a rose and pinched its petals. A thorn pricked her finger; she squeezed her fist and crushed it. A drop of bright-red blood flowed out. When she opened her hand again, it was black instead. The flower withered at her touch. Then she blew away the ashes.

Look who wandered into my web this time…

"Who's there?" The drunk guard drew his sword.

The strange woman didn't even look up, but hummed to herself and simply sharpened her nails. "Oh, it's just me – nothing to worry about. I'm on a diet." She pointed to a pile of human skulls lying on a tombstone surrounded by small pumpkins.

"Who are you?" the guard asked.

"I'm your dreams and desires combined," she said.

"This isn't a dream." He shook his head.

"You're right. I'm real." She kissed him unexpectedly.

"For a moment there, you had me worried," he laughed.

"Hey, you don't look so good. Poor thing…"

He looked dizzy, like he was about to pass out. Instead, he dropped dead. It was death at first fright. One touch was all it took.

At first, she frowned; then a sick smile came to her lips. She made a mockery of it and admired her work. "Killed with a kiss… Gets them every time…" The witch pulled back her long black hair. Poisonous perfume hovered midair.

Another guard found the body and spotted her. As she came closer, he saw her face and lowered his bow.

"Princess Alice? What brings you here?" he asked.

"That's not your concern. Now leave me alone."

"This is a restricted area. No one is allowed past this point. I won't tolerate trespassers. Sorry, but I must ask you to leave."

"You can ask, but I wouldn't advise it. I don't wish to be disturbed." The witch kept walking. "Under-worked, over-paid…"

"If you're a witch, we'll burn you at the stake!" He fired an arrow, but it passed right through her and hit the turf.

"Boys and their toys…" Shadow shook her head. "Let's make this quick. I'm in a rush." When the witch clapped, the guard fell into submission like a puppet. Demon wolves hid behind her in the darkness. "You're lucky. Most men don't get a chance to see me before they die. Your weak mind will be easy to control. Fall to your knees. Sacrifice yourself to me."

With a wave of her hand, she made the man lift his sword and drive it into his own chest. Blood splattered all over her naked, supple breasts. She licked her lips. Wandering through a cemetery, the cold corpses lying around didn't bother her. Besides the dead bodies, there was no sign she had been there. She tried to decide who her next victim would be.

Mark turned down a dark road and entered the graveyard. He stopped, turning back to see if anyone had followed.

Here I am again, standing over her grave. I've been here every day since she died.

A beautiful young woman approached him. Noticing her female figure, he took another look. The naughty nymph teased him ever so tactfully. This voluptuous, vampire-like vixen took his attention away.

"Princess, is that you?" Mark thought it was a ghost.

"Of course…" She smiled.

"What are you doing here at a time like this?" Mark gulped. He started to sweat. He couldn't keep his eyes off of her.

"Look all you like." She gazed into his eyes and sprawled out her arms, flaunting her perfect figure. The thin gown pressed closer to her legs. She trapped him in a trance from the first glance. Innocent illusions of an infected imagination hid her true form.

"It's just that I've never done this before," Mark muttered.

"Please don't go. Stay with me. What's wrong? Am I coming on too strong?" The witch winked and curled a painted finger. She spoke sweetly and lured him like a moth to the flame. "Don't worry. I'll be a good girl. I promise. Come on…"

Bewitched by her beauty, Mark followed her upstairs to a bedroom lit by warmly glowing candles – still under her spell, caught in the witch's dark web of deception. Something told him she might grant his wish if he played along. A woman could break a man with just one smile. A man had to look decent in a woman's presence. That became important now.

"Just kiss me. I won't bite. Believe me. It will take your breath away," the smooth-talking seductress said.

"Wait, I can't do this. It isn't right."

"I want you to. Think of it as an order." The witch teased him with the cruel curve of her sexy smile. "I'm not that innocent." She had him wrapped around her little finger. "Trick or treat?"

"Tempting offer…" Before he could object, she silenced his mouth. Her lips were sweet as wine. "Can't argue with that!"

"Just let me put on something more comfortable."

As she embraced him, wrapping one arm around his neck, she slipped his sword out of a sheath and set it behind her on the bed. He shook his head and held her back, ignoring her romantic advances – reluctant to remove his heavy armor. "I'm sorry." When he opened his eyes, she looked different. The strange young wench revealed her true form. The demon tried to trick him, posing as the princess. Mark quickly reached for his sword, but it wasn't there. As he looked around, she lifted it above his head.

"Hey, what are you doing with that sword?" He pointed.

"What sword?" The witch shrugged and smiled innocently, hiding the weapon behind her back.

"Why are you smiling like that?" Mark asked.

"Because I know something you don't," Shadow said.

"Do you take me for a fool? I'm not so easily enchanted!"

"You're such a simpleton." She patted his cheek. "So what if you can see through me? You can't save yourself, let alone anyone else. Naturally, you expect danger. Even if you escape this trap, you'll fall into another hidden illusion behind it. The more you struggle, the more you're tangled up in my web of temptation. The worst part is, you never even saw it coming."

"You're not my type." Mark shook his head.

"Nobody turns me down! Come back here, coward!"

Then Shadow thrust the sword toward his chest. Shoving forcefully, she drove it deep. The knight fell onto the floor, but the steel had no stain. Under his uniform, he wore a hidden breastplate. Mark pretended to be dead, but it wouldn't fool her for long.

"Are you still alive?" she asked.

The princess is possessed!

Mark dashed downstairs and then ran away as fast as he could to leave the terrifying scene behind. He was soaking wet, drenched by the rain. Laughter filled his head. He turned around again and stopped for a moment to look down the street.

"Anyone there?" He span in place, looking around.

Mark quickened his pace, knowing he had to get away. Arriving home, he slammed the door and bolted it shut behind him. Then he sank down, cowering in the corner farthest from the door, breathing hard. He winced from the recent wound. Though the sword had not pierced his skin, it bruised him badly. He had always been a breath from death, but never quite this close before.

"Playing hard to get?" The witch appeared beside him again with her arms crossed, standing by the door.

"Do your worst, witch!" Mark charged at her. "Burn in Hell, *****!" Then everything went dark.

3: SWORD OF LIGHT

Swords are a symbol of strength. Gotta have options, girl…

Everything depended on retrieving the Sword of Light hidden in the castle. With it, she could easily defeat her enemies, but she had to locate it before someone else found her first. Walking down a hall, Princess Angela reached out, running a hand along stone walls. She turned, examining herself in a broken shard of glass – the only fragment left in the frame of a large decorative mirror hanging on the wall. She barely recognized her own reflection. During her brief stay in the other dimension, she became an adult. She looked older now. Her clothes had changed. Ever since she left, her choices got complicated.

This used to be my home. I hardly remember it.

The Armor of Light vanished the moment she went through the portal. It had given her special abilities on the other world, but it didn't work well here. Sometimes the armor felt so comfortable she forgot about it. Starlight couldn't speak anymore, yet still understood her. In this world, his horn was partly invisible. He was the size of a common horse. He seemed bigger before.

"That looks like a good place to start. We must be close." Her crystal heart necklace began glowing brighter like a beacon. "How many times have I been wrong before?" The unicorn tapped a hoof on the floor. "Hey, that was a rhetorical question!"

Entering the royal reliquary, Princess Angela searched for the sword. Weapons and shields filled the room, including bronze bucklers, jeweled javelins, golden gauntlets, and silver spears of many different shapes and sizes. Several polished suits of armor stood along each side of the walls, positioned at even intervals as if guarding the contents below. Under them were carved wooden chests reinforced by iron bars. Equipment came in handy in case of trouble. Finally, she found it. Nobody was in sight.

No sign of anyone… So far, so good…

The sword lay out in the open on a pedestal in the center of the chamber. She walked up three steps then reached out for the ancient artifact. The instant she touched it, the whole room lit up. Clutching the handle tightly, she tapped it twice and blew all the dust off. With one swift motion, she removed the rare religious relic from its sheath and then held it high. As she adjusted to its length and weight, the vaunted blade vibrated and guided her hand. She picked it up and stared at it. She gazed at the hilt and then slowly followed the blade to the tip. Feeling her fingers wrap around it brought courage. A faint light pulsed.

Still sharp! Shouldn't it be glowing? Why isn't it working? I'm going to get better at this blade.

The sword was special, to say the least – hardly an ordinary weapon. It possessed the power of a crystal shard containing light from the first star. The sword was sharper during daylight, but became a beacon by night. Focused like a laser, it could cut through almost anything and even divide darkness. It became an extension of a person's mind and heart that could be controlled by one's very thoughts. The crystal created a link with the wielder. The urge to be with it became irresistible. In a way, it used whoever held it. It literally had a mind of its own.

Crystals had the capacity to store vast amounts of data if a magnetic energy source manipulated sophisticated nexus networks of molecules in a matrix. Blessed with the power to purge the night, the armor piece amplified light refracted inside itself. In this way, the sword could actually adjust to a person's unique thought patterns. The transparent blade glimmered like glass. Jewels fit in the hilt; sapphires, emeralds, and rubies locked firmly into place. Each empowered it with a different supernatural property.

When Princess Angela tried to leave the room, a protective aura covered the sword. It hovered in midair then flung itself back to its previous position. Somebody had put it under a magic spell. It wouldn't allow her to hold it anymore.

That's strange. My sword's never done that before.

4: WICKED WITCH

"I think word might have got out early about our return," Princess Angela said. "We have to leave before they get back."

"You've kept me waiting." Someone stood behind her with his arms crossed, leaning against a wall.

"Whoa, you scared me to death!" She jumped back, startled. "Mark, does King Richard know I'm here yet?"

"He left me in charge in case you ever decided to return." The knight stepped into the light, revealing himself.

"Oh dear, does this mean we've got to start fighting?"

"I won't harm you." Mark shook his head.

"That's a relief. You know how to make an entrance."

"Welcome home – or to what's left of it. Coming back was a bad idea. You should have stayed," Mark said.

"I think you'd better tell me what happened."

"Your servants no longer work in the castle. A few aided us, joining the resistance without compromising our civilian status. I've always been loyal to the royal family. I served your parents until they passed away and now I follow your orders."

"We must fight with all of our might," she said.

"I just remembered something. Look what I found. I believe this belongs to you. I've been saving it for a long time. I got a gem." Mark reached into his pocket, producing a diamond. "Princess Alice, for the first and final time, I present this sword to you. Take care of it." Having fulfilled his oath to return the sword to its rightful owner, Mark knelt and held it out to her. "It burned in King Richard's palm like a hot coal, so he dropped it. He tried to destroy it when you left, but it wouldn't break."

Haven't heard that name for a while now…

The sword's drained energy seriously needed a recharge. She took it, lifted it high in the air, and then put the crystal in place. It glowed even brighter than before. They could see each other clearly, now that the light was back.

"Look at you now. Your parents would have been proud." Mark tapped his chin. "Hey, by the way, what's with the horse?"

"He's not a horse! Is that all you can see? Take a close look. Even a stealthy hunter can't catch a unicorn."

"He sure doesn't look like one to me. Where is his horn?"

"You just can't tell. Only the pure of heart can see it."

"What an incredible beast…" The knight stared at the unicorn, patted its neck, and then looked around again. "You can't stay here. You must leave as soon as it's safe. The guards could come back at any moment. If you go now, they'll search all over for you. I'll create a diversion and lead them the wrong way. King Richard told them to obey my orders as if they were his own."

"You're on his side! Why should I trust a thing you say?"

"If anything ever happened to you, I'd go out of my mind." He squeezed her shoulders. "You have to trust me just this once."

"Oh…" She sounded sorry. "Why can't I come with you?"

"You would just slow me down. Look, I'll let you go this time, but I can't keep on doing this or King Richard will find out. He'd kill you if he knew you've returned. If you want to live, then wait here for me. Stay out of sight. I'll be right back."

I'll have to keep an eye on him.

The princess merely nodded. Mark left her alone and ordered the other guards to follow him. She waited a while then checked the door, but it was locked. The unicorn broke it open with his horn. Then she heard footsteps. She turned the opposite way down the hall. She hid with her back to a column as they passed by, watching from a distance and holding her breath.

"Where is the witch?" They searched every room. "Hey, I found her! I need some backup! Don't move! Stay where you are!"

Heavy boots pounded into the hallway. The knights knocked over anything that got in their way. Starlight kicked them with his hooves so they crashed into each other. As they surrounded him, the unicorn backed into a corner and lowered his head. Charging forward, he smashed through a stone wall. The guards continued pursuit, chasing the unicorn down the hall.

"Now let's see what this sword can do!"

The relic remained lifeless in her hands until she finally figured out how to harness its energy and learned the secret of its strength. It worked the same way as her armor. It changed from a dull blade into a blazing saber. The men stopped, mesmerized by an unearthly glow. They held out their hands to block the blinding light. Instead of letting the power flow through her, it backfired. Then she tried swinging it in a circle. A shockwave struck the air with rushing wind, blowing out every glass window in the room.

"Oh, so that's how it works," she said, realizing the rest of her armor kept her from harm by the blade itself.

Starlight bolted up a spiral stairway to the top of a tower. Circling around the chamber to build up speed, the unicorn leaped outside. He shattered a window, sending shards flying everywhere. He barely managed to clear the giant gap. Just before riding away, the princess looked back and laughed at the astonished men who peered over the edge of the castle wall with open mouths.

"Later, boys!" She waved and blew a kiss. "Did you see the look on their faces?"

"We have you surrounded!" Guards slid down ropes.

I don't get it – first they threaten me and then they barely put up a fight? It's almost like they want me to escape.

A group of guards waited outside for her. The open area provided an unobstructed view of anyone approaching. How can I get to the gate without being seen? As she planned her next move, Mark ran into her again and caught her off guard.

The unicorn pointed its horn at his chest. The knight slowly dropped his sword, holding out his hands in a gentle gesture of surrender as he backed away. The confused unicorn threatened to end his life. It charged anyway, but the princess got in its way.

"Wait, he's a friend!" She stood between them until the unicorn left.

"You can't fight with so many armed men. I'll distract them so you can get around and sneak through the main gate."

"Can I trust you?" She stopped and stared at him in shock.

"I remain your humble and simple servant, princess. I took a vow pledging to protect you."

"Yes, but can you protect me from yourself? You locked that door!" He tricked her before, but this time she knew better.

"King Richard commands and I obey," Mark said.

"So much for chivalry…" She rolled her eyes. "Have you no honor? Are you even capable of compassion?"

"Look, let's discuss all our differences in a civil manner."

"Spare me the sympathy. I should have seen this coming." She crossed her arms. "Stupid soldiers… You're all the same – following orders without caring what happens to anyone. You think you're so tough, but you're not."

Mark whistled for his men to come out. The heavy thunder of hooves drowned his voice.

The Royal Guard assaulted her again, trying to arrest her. They hit her fast and hard before she had a chance to get away. The princess put up a bigger fight than the rest – most importantly, without ruining her dress. Mark managed to leap forward and grab her, pulling her away as she screamed. He held her back, separating her from Starlight. One knight swung a sword at the unicorn, but it broke instead. Starlight lowered his head to charge, scattering them. They chased after him until they lost sight of him.

"Hold it! You're not getting off that easy," Mark said.

"You'll never catch him!" she shouted and struggled.

"You can be the bait now. Sorry, but I had no choice."

Only a young maiden could lure and capture a unicorn; however, sometimes she rode away with it instead. Mark set the princess gently on the ground, ordering his men to draw back. The princess called out for help, in tears. Approaching cautiously, Starlight whinnied to get her attention with a confused countenance. Then she ran to hug him when she saw him. The calm look in her eyes told him to wait until the right moment.

Be gentle with them. Princess Angela nodded knowingly.

She set a trap for the unaware unicorn. Suddenly knights surrounded him. Starlight ran off at the sight of them, but they closed in and cut him off. Somebody fired a crossbow bolt with a net, grabbed both the ends, and pulled. He tried cutting it open with his horn, but he couldn't escape. He pawed at the ground and attempted to break free. They tied ropes around his head and legs. The princess buried her face in her hands and shook her head.

In all the confusion, the princess stomped on Mark's foot, grabbed his arm, and then flipped him over her back. The others were too busy to notice when she ran off into a garden. This time, former friends were hunting her down. They knew all the escape routes she had used many years ago and turned all that once helped against her. The game she had once played as a child meant life or death now, but she could vanish like a shadow in the sunlight. Even though she had avoided capture so far, it wouldn't be long until they found her. Poking her head out, she carefully looked around. She ducked behind a fountain basin just as two guards came through the gate. They stopped a foot from where she hid.

"Did you hear that?" The first guard cocked his head.

"Yeah, it sounded like an idiot," the second guard said.

Crawling into a bush, she couldn't help listening in on their conversation, discovering from the discussion someone was trying to frame her for murder. By killing the knights, the witch had given her a bad reputation to restore. Until now, she had stayed hidden. Somehow, Shadow must have managed to persuade Mark to help her. Still, he didn't seem very thrilled with the idea though.

After a while, the guards gave up and stopped searching for her. She wondered where they might keep the unicorn locked up until they knew what to do with him, although she didn't know whether he was alive. It began to rain – gently at first, but then it poured hard. Drops continued to fall like so many tears. The sound overwhelmed every other noise. She fell to her knees in the mud.

How could I betray so noble a trust?

Princess Angela went on a witch-hunt of her own to clear her name. With a renewed sense of resolve, she quickly and quietly made her way to the tower. She walked up the dimly lit stairs and pushed a door open. Wearing a pointy hat, the witch merely glanced from the corner of one eye as if she didn't deserve her full attention. The princess silently returned her gaze with hate.

"I see you took advantage of my absence, Goth Girl."

"Well, if it isn't the princess… Leave home for a few days and look what happens. I like it here. I'm not going back."

"Ready for a rematch?" The princess slowly lifted a sword.

"You dare challenge me?" Shadow raised her voice.

The room grew dark as she slammed her fist down before an eerie moment of silence. From where she sat lounging on a throne, she rose to an intimidating height then walked down to where the princess waited with a brave look of defiance. Shadow stood out in the open center of the chamber and nothing but a faint beam of moonlight fell onto the floor. The princess charged and swung a sword at her neck, but hit a holographic illusion instead. As the princess turned, the witch vanished without a trace.

"Why can't you be a good little girl and just stay dead?" The witch mocked her vain efforts and waited.

The princess walked around the room, searching carefully. After a while, she grew frustrated and swung her sword around in the air. Shadow appeared again, grabbed her throat, and lifted her in the air. The princess struggled and grasped the witch's hand, trying to pry it away from her neck. Shadow held her out a window so her feet dangled and threatened to let her fall. The princess noticed a key necklace that the witch wore. She slipped it off and hid it in her dress. Then the witch flung her against the wall.

"I will not kill you on the spot." The witch whirled around with a horrible grin. "Your subjects need to see a show of my power to be convinced I'm in charge. Off with your head…"

Pulling a rope, the witch revealed a stone mirror frame. Princess Angela gulped as a guillotine blade fell, then left the area.

"You think that's funny? I'm going to make your death very slow and painful. You can run, but you can't hide from yourself forever. Here I come, ready or not! Nowhere to go now…" Shadow stood with her back to the mirror, waiting for the princess to come out again. The witch gave up and turned to leave. "I guess she's gone."

Wrong again… The princess slammed into her side.

Bending back, the witch melted into the mirror. As the dust settled, she looked around wondering what had happened, but she couldn't see anyone. A sword hovered midair, coming closer. She pounded on the glass as it shattered, but it was broken.

"Wait, where is it?" The witch clutched at her chest.

"Looking for this?" The princess displayed a dangling key. "Want it? Come and get it! Finders keepers, losers weepers!"

Even the witch herself seemed struck with fear. Her eyes opened wide, but then she recovered with a wicked laugh. "Do you have any idea how much trouble I went through to steal that? You shouldn't take things that don't belong to you, dear."

"Look who's talking!" The princess raised an eyebrow.

"When I get out of here, I'm coming for you! I'll make you wish you'd never been born! You'll beg for death before I get through with you! Once you're gone, your world will become mine!" Shadow shouted through the cracked pieces of crystal. The image became blurry then finally faded away.

The princess found another piece of her broken heart lying there on the throne. She picked it up and put it with the rest.

Princess Angela set out to find the unicorn. She climbed out a window then sneaked around a tower with her back to a wall. A loose stone slipped out of place; she nearly fell. Just then, she looked down and felt dizzy. Since the stained glass window behind her depicted a maiden, she matched the pose just as a patrol walked by and managed to maintain her little hiding spot.

The castle courtyard was eerily empty in the hours after even late night revelers had succumbed to sleep. Fortunately, one guard stood alone, lazily lounging about. He might have fought back if he hadn't been drinking. She covered his mouth.

"Make one noise and you're a dead man." She held a dagger up to his neck. "If you wish to save your wretched life, do as I say. Now tell me where they took the unicorn."

"In custody, of course…" The guard stammered nervously. "It's in that stable." He pointed without any further questioning.

The unicorn whinnied sadly and hung his head, seeing struggling was useless. His ears lay flat and hid in a thick mane. King Richard would have cut off his very valuable horn. When Starlight saw her, his ears perked back to a proper position.

"Point your horn at his heart just in case he tries anything." Pulling out a hairpin, the princess picked the cage lock.

Princess Angela jumped onto Starlight's back. When it was safe, the guard shouted an alarm, warning the others. By the time the princess and the unicorn arrived there, they surrounded the gate. They moved to higher positions and lay low to choreograph the crossfire. Starlight ran on the side of the wall and pushed off it, leaping over their heads. They stopped and stared, looking at each other – amazed he could jump so far. Moments later, arrows sank into the stone beneath his hooves.

Mark ordered them to shut the iron gate before she could get through it. Hearing a clanging noise, the princess looked up. The pointy gate came down a moment later; it nearly crushed her. She dived and slid on her knees just in time, then cut the chain so they couldn't follow. The guards had to lift it by hand; they never opened it manually before, not realizing how heavy it was. Starlight ran up the wooden drawbridge as it rose from the rampart. He leaped off the end just before it slammed shut.

"Damn, they got away!" Mark pounded his fist, cursed under his breath, and then threw his sword in senseless anger.

"It's touching to see my enemies enjoy themselves, knowing that soon I shall turn their courage into cowardice."

"Well good for you…" Mark groaned in grief.

"Do you ever wonder how a fox evades the hounds? The dogs just want another meal, but it's life and death for the fox. I admire my prey when it gets away. There's something worse than being hungry – being food," King Richard calmly remarked.

Mark almost pushed away the one person in the world he cared about more than himself. Despite all her efforts to save the kingdom, she had failed to accomplish anything; basically, she was still too blind to see her naïve human nature.

The princess… I have to see her again.

5: VIRGIN SACRIFICE

I always wanted a world of my own.

Gathering a great mob along with his army, King Richard summoned everyone in the entire kingdom to the castle courtyard. He turned to Mark. "Listen to this crowd. Look at them all. I'm a uniter, not a divider. I even let them choose their own leaders, as long as they still acknowledge my authority. I'm trying to bring order and control to their lives. It's a big burden."

"Just keep on telling yourself that." Mark grumbled.

"I could show you how to be a real leader, but you're still treating these slaves like equals. Threaten them. Use insults. Remember, image is everything," King Richard told him.

"I'm under a lot of stress right now," Mark said.

"Don't expect to get everything right on the first try. I want nothing less than your best effort." King Richard probed deeper.

"Then you shall have it, sir." Mark nodded.

"Good because if you betray me, you won't live long enough to regret it. The last servant was a setback for me." King Richard pointed at an executioner, then slapped Mark's back. "You've been doing a fine job, but I'm watching you."

King Richard briefly admired himself in a mirror. Sweeping a curtain aside, he stepped out onto the balcony to give a speech. His forces gathered below to witness him lift them to new heights of glory. It would be his gift to their generation.

"Make way for the king!" Guards held the crowd back.

"Shush!" A mother quickly quieted her crying child.

King Richard turned to the crowd, holding up a hand. He waited for the cheers to subside before he began. "The kingdom is mine! Oops, I meant ours. War is the only way to bring chaos to order. A new enemy has risen in our midst. I've heard many ridiculous rumors about this so-called savior. Don't be deceived by the superstition that he's alive again. Those who serve this false prophet must die. It will be a test of your obedience. Kill any among you who refuse to wear my symbol. Either you are for me or against me. Join me or stay out of my way.

"Recently, we have all passed through hard times. I sense your suffering. I feel your frustration. That is why you have come here today. However, I can't help. Though I fed and clothed your starving masses, you turned your backs on me! Is this how you repay me in return? You follow me because the world rejected you. This is your family. Stay with me now. You lost the path to paradise and you've been searching for it ever since. You already took the first step of a great journey. By this time tomorrow, a new world order will begin. Witness your first day in a globe united by one simple goal – to enhance our existence.

"You might be wondering how I will accomplish this feat, but do not fear. Your liberator is here. Now that my power is restored, I'm ready for anything. I will lay all your doubts to rest. Then you shall know none of my words were spoken in vain. I've brought the whole world under my dominion. I govern my subjects with wisdom that they may dwell in peace and prosperity. Haven't we learned to live together by now? It was a mistake to loosen things up around here.

"Let me elaborate on your origins, my offspring. You were born by mere chance and will cease to be when you die. You're made of dirt and destined to decompose like grass. Your body is a shell your soul must leave behind. In time, you'll leave like the morning mist. Everything subsists solely for our enjoyment as an idle game. Pray to your god! My will be done!"

Sometimes in order to think big, you've gotta start small. Children shouldn't have to see the terrible things we do.

King Richard outlawed all study of the scriptures. Even the school system had a corrupt curriculum, interviewing instructors and taking children from parents. Prisoners stood in lines; a guard walked up and asked if they were willing to obey King Richard. If they refused, the guard slit their throats and laid the bodies in piles. He spared heretics who agreed to serve him. Most of the remaining rebels were eventually found and caught, but some stayed hidden. Martyrs suffered for the sake of their cause.

Doctors burned disease victims. Smoke columns rose outside the dungeon by day. Undertakers placed the dead in a wooden cart – the living in a metal cage with high iron sides. Hundreds herded into cells so small there was no room to sit.

One man could end a war before it even began. Lying low on a nearby roof, a sharp-sighted marksman shut one eye and aimed with a finger on the trigger. King Richard spun around and caught the poison-tipped arrow. The assassin landed on a balcony, running away. Armed guards surrounded him and struck his face. They bludgeoned him then threw him at their master's feet.

"I think it's only fair to warn you. If you don't release me soon, my men will come to back me up," the old man said.

"Oh, them?" King Richard pointed at some prisoners.

"You can stop me, but there are others."

"Let us be reasonable. I'll give you one last chance. Leave me to my affairs and all shall be forgiven. If there is some divine power watching over you now, I'm sure he'll excuse you from any compulsion arising out of affliction."

"I would rather die than let you live." The old outlaw spat.

When the guards saw that he refused to remain silent, they led him before a fire. Many men looked up to him; even the tormentors wished to spare him if he'd change his mind, partially out of pity, but also admiration for his courage.

"Old man, you have made me appear weak. I must preserve the peace at any cost. Before my loyal subjects can question my authority, you will prove that I am their god by bowing down to me on your knees. Beings of divine wisdom deserve to be worshipped. Don't you pity those who perished before you? Yield now and I may spare your life."

"What if I refuse?" The old man considered the offer.

"I will destroy you." King Richard warned him.

"Very well… Let me loose, so I can speak to the crowd. Profane tyrant, your time is over! The wise man is master of his emotions and so your fire is cold to me!" If they had let the outlaw speak freely, he might have won some to his way, but instead they dragged him away. He dodged the executioner's axe meant for his own head, then cut others' chains with it; they caught him again.

"Let that be a warning to the rest of you."

Revealing his nightmarish nature, King Richard transformed into a dragon and stood before a cheering crowd that chanted his name. His false signs and mysterious miracles blinded them so they couldn't tell fantasy from reality anymore.

"I conjure the forces of darkness as Babylon battles with Avalon's armies! It is I, your lord and master, who commands it!"

The Dragon King was much bigger than the demons he ruled over. His true strength had never been seen before. No one knew what he was capable of, yet nobody could deny the power he possessed. He blew a horn with all his might. A flurry of foul black wings beat overhead. The sky grew dark with thousands of dragons. Shadows fell where the evil spirits circled above the city.

"When I pour out my power, you shall grow stronger." He lifted his hands as if he were a god, not merely a man.

With a steadfast stance, the Dragon King unceremoniously uncovered a giant gemstone. This mysterious jet-black jewel sucked up the sunlight. That contaminated crystal held enough evil to lay a world to waste. Not even death could save them from it.

"Go forth, my children, and take what is rightfully yours! Rise against those who dare to defy me!"

A wave of wonder came over the crowd. They cheered as the serpent split the dark crystal with his claws, releasing raw power onto everyone present, preparing them for the battle that would soon take place. The crystal cracked apart, tinkling like broken glass. With a loud bang, the magic jewel exploded into fine dust shards drifting in the wind. A shadow of death spread across the land, tainting everything it touched. Those close to the crystal dropped down dead. Brave men gasped and fell back in fear.

The Evil Emperor ordered them to forge tools of torture. They took out stones and began sharpening blades, feasting and celebrating their future victory. Enchantments empowered special suits of armor by means of magic. They wore black garments marked with infinity symbols woven into the fabric. Then they practiced fighting from sunrise to sunset.

Travelers reported several sightings of a terrifying monster. It swooped down to consume cattle and torch thatched huts. It came out of the woods at night to carry off children. Men doubted its existence, except from overactive imaginations.

At first, the villagers were wise enough to avoid it and left it alone. In return, it hadn't bothered them until recently one winter when a hunter stumbled upon it hibernating in a cave. He woke it somehow and now the serpent sought to harm humans.

Virgins who had reached age eighteen were chosen randomly by casting lots and sent out to be the Dragon King's annual offering. The only way to keep the serpent satisfied was a human sacrifice. The young women seldom went willingly; men had to bind their legs and wrists. Villagers carrying the victim could pass by safely. A small forest clearing served as a shrine.

Elders instituted a plan, indoctrinating children that being consumed by a dragon was a great honor and brought boundless bliss. Many bought into the bogus yarn, hoping to be the lucky one swallowed whole – anxiously awaiting eternal ecstasy.

Only a fair maiden was a fitting morsel, for she often spent weeks putting on perfume, brushing her hair, and changing clothes. Sometimes the dainty dish stripped bare, reasoning that the reptile might disdain coarse clothing.

The Dragon King wanted her for the purity she possessed – virgin virtue. He enjoyed examining his meal briefly before wresting her from the hook. Even as the huge maw opened, most retained resplendent moods. The serpent began to work its way up her body. Eventually her feet passed into a stomach full of acid. Jaws reached her neck, but she still had to wait before being totally engulfed in enzymes. Whether she panicked from the digestion process until she suffocated in a warm, wet tomb depended on how true she was to the temple's teachings. Often her hope gave out before the end. It had been done this way for decades.

"Let it be known that a sacrifice must be made from among your daughters. This will require a volunteer from the audience."

The town agreed to a tribute. Peasants presented a girl in a white dress. They tied her to a tree with a protruding branch to ensure she would make an easy meal. Then they left her to be eaten alive. The frightened young girl struggled to free herself, but wasn't clever enough to escape the chains. Then she stopped, looking up slowly. It was hard for her to let go. At first, she shook her head, but then apathetically accepted her fate. In the end, she gave up and let him have his way with her.

He found satisfaction in her sorrow – pleasure in her pain. Lusting for her life, he enjoyed her pathetic attempt to evade him. So ideal and innocent… So gentle and graceful… It seemed a shame to consume the creature.

Desperately pleading, the girl begged him to spare her soul. In her naïveté, she had never known death. Everything was still a new experience, but it was all too sudden. The maiden wasn't old enough to consider how her life would end, yet so young she'd barely begun and wasn't fully aware of her own existence. Tears filled her eyes. However, he refused her and let her go. They had to come of their own accord by a voluntary choice while the others watched. He wanted willing sacrifices.

"Bring me your body." The dragon looked down. "I'll be right with you soon. You'll have the honor of being my prey."

The next young maiden walked to the serpent and stood before him, making it more easy. Offering herself to him, she opened her arms. This time, he desired to devour her in front of his followers. A long tongue twirled, sliding against her skin, wrapping around her waist. She could do nothing but watch and wriggle as he lifted her up in the air and licked her legs. Her eyes opened wide to see the monster's mouth close, guiding her way into his gullet. Then she disappeared down his throat, slipping into his stomach with a scream followed by an appalling silence. They were one now – part of each other.

6: VANITY FAIR

Princess Angela came to a town called Elswayer, lacking literacy. In it, villagers held a fair all year – the Festival of Fools. Fallen timbers revealed forsaken hideouts of harlots, gypsies, looters, and pickpockets with hidden nets set up. Drunks danced and sang folk tunes, ranting and raving madly with knife-throwers, juggling jesters, and fire-eaters. Homeless beggars stood around bonfires, warming their hands. Outlaws auctioned inventory on the black market like there was no tomorrow. Pagans practiced the ancient crafts of magic arts, sorcery, and fortune-telling. Swearing, cursing, and lying went as far as the ear could hear.

Comedians clad in colorful clothes blended in with the background as they celebrated chaos. The crazy clown wore bright red, laughing insanely. The sad mime wearing blue wailed, so discouraged and depressed; the moment he stopped, he started crying all over again. The lonely one wore a dull gray garb and didn't do anything, but was rather boring; he simply stood there and watched the others. The paranoid one wore black and white bars, but he was terrified and hid from everyone.

Merry-go-round music from a carnival of chaos played for the Giggle Gang like a spooky symphony. The mimes mimicked various theatrical positions of dancing and jumping, smiling and frowning, laughing and crying. Wiping their hands across their faces, they displayed a different emotional expression each time. Swinging around on ropes and poles, acrobats performed aerial stunts and crisscrossed each other. They sprang off palms doing back-flips, cartwheels, and somersaults. They could support their weight with one thumb, pretend like they hand multiple arms or legs, and bend full circle.

Princess Angela had to figure out all their cruel charades. One clown came and put his elbow on her shoulder. She shoved him away. He rolled on the ground and kicked his legs up. He kept chuckling hysterically for no apparent reason.

One mindless mime spread his hands out flat, trapped in an invisible cube that slowly began to shrink. As he did this, the princess couldn't breathe and soon reached the point of passing out. Desperately, she pushed against the air. There were no walls, yet she could not break free. Then she cut a hole in the magic barrier to get out. A roller blade skater slid and then slammed into something. The princess turned around, accidentally bumping into the whimsical wall; standing back up again, she walked around it.

Someone sprayed acid from a flower on his silly suspender. One smoked a cigar with a fused tip. She covered her head, but it simply fizzled out instead of exploding. One pretended to pull a rope, but grabbed at thin air with his hands. A boulder almost crushed her, but she dived out of the way. Another mime wrapped a chain around her neck, but she held it and flung him into a wall. A fight broke out. A tomato hit her, messing up her hair.

"Ouch, who threw that?" Strangers watched as she made her way through the crowd, trying not to touch any merchandise. She stood on a wooden platform so they could hear her above the noise. "Excuse me! Can I have your attention please?" After a while, she got upset and started to yell. Everybody stopped what they were doing and stared at her. "Thanks… I like attention."

Princess Angela gathered those seeking a cause to fight for. Whoever was willing to follow her would become a target. Words flowed from her heart as if she were the very voice of wisdom. She cried out in the street to people passing by. She couldn't keep silent, testifying to the truth. Most of them said she'd lost her mind, but now at least they had a chance to change their lives.

"Listen to me, everyone! The king has returned!"

"Who are you?" someone from the crowd asked.

"It's me, Princess Alice." She stood before them.

"And I'm a queen!" A man mocked and did a little dance.

"I know I've been gone a long time, but I came back." Princess Angela coughed and cleared her throat again. "I'm searching for anyone who's willing to end this tragic reign of terror. I need all the help I can get."

"Yeah, you can say that again," Mark replied.

"The Dragon King only has control over you if you let all his lies blind you. Just open your eyes. He cares nothing for you or the people you hurt. If you follow him, you'll never be free. Stand up for yourselves. We're fighting each other while the real enemy tries to divide us. Now we face a common threat from within." The princess paused briefly. "So who's with me?"

"It's not our fight," a random man said. "We don't want you here, so go back where you came from."

"Look in your heart. See who you are. Don't become what you've fought for so long. You know it's wrong."

"Try telling him that. I'm only here because I refuse to be branded like cattle with stupid symbols. First you leave us and then expect us to follow. I'm sorry, but you aren't making any sense."

"This time it will be different," she said.

"The whole world is full of people who fear and hate you! Why waste your time trying to protect them?" Mark asked.

"Do you really think giving up is a better solution?"

"Even if I were stupid enough to join your cause, you must be crazy to think anyone else wants to. I won't send others to fight in my place either." Mark waited a moment. "King Richard is right. A war is coming. Are you sure you're on the right side?"

"At least I've chosen a side." She reasoned in resentment. She frowned at the looks on their faces. Her subjects had seen their share of heartache and sorrow. She had been gone so long she forgot about them. The only mistake she had made was leaving.

"Going against the Dragon King simply isn't sane."

"Well, I guess you find out who your friends are."

"Yeah, they don't turn their backs on you. You left us all, running away to God knows where. Pious priests are too often obsessed with religious traditions and pointy hats. If Paladin is real, he certainly doesn't care what happens to us."

"I went to Hell and lived to tell the tale. Coming back here was the hardest thing I've ever had to do."

"How did you survive?" Mark asked her frankly.

"I didn't have a choice." She looked down.

"You're on your own. Better stay away from me too…"

"Fine, go!" she shouted. "You know I'm right, yet you act like you haven't heard me. Years from now, you'll look back with regret. Let's leave. We're wasting our time."

As the crowd went its way, Mark frowned and watched her leave. Her words would haunt him forever, echoing endlessly, unless he did something. At first, he stood there while people walked past him, but then he ran after her.

"Wait, princess!" Mark reached out for her again.

"No, I'm through waiting!" She shoved his hand.

"I mean it," Mark said sincerely. "I came back to warn you. I fear for the future of your kingdom."

"What else is new? Tell me something I don't know."

"King Richard – he's not that bad," Mark said.

"Have you lost it?" She knocked on his head hard. "I could never consent for my subjects to submit to a tyrant. If only you had listened to me from the start, this wouldn't have happened in the first place."

"Everyone has been fighting, but they're getting nowhere."

"And he has all the answers?" she asked.

"Some, perhaps…" Mark glanced down at the ground.

"Are you too blind to see the truth? You have to give up hope that something else can save you," she said.

"It's a lost cause. There's nothing I can do for them now."

"The world won't just save itself, you know," she said.

"It's not training out there on the battleground. With all due respect, there are enough dead heroes in this war."

"Sometimes even one person can make a difference."

"He murdered the members of the Royal Guard. After that, he killed my family. John was my mentor, but he's gone now. That man was like a father to me. All I could think about was that I wanted it to end. Once I thought power would bring me happiness, but I was wrong. My sorrow grew stronger and drove me mad. I'm ready for revenge."

"Revenge starts out sweet, but then turns bitter. If you think the hatred in your heart can make you strong, you're wrong. I hear the men who escaped are still hiding undercover. I hope you'll be there to lead them," she said.

"That's the last thing I feel like doing," Mark said.

"Listening to your sob story made me feel sorry for you, but now I see who you really are – hiding from the truth – lying even to yourself. Why can't you just be a hero again?"

"Because it never works out in the end! I've spent my life becoming the hero they always wanted, but what have they ever done for me? Let someone else be a hero for once. Who cares?"

"Maybe the real heroes are the last to find out. The greatest victories are those nobody knows about," she said.

"You don't know what it's like," Mark murmured.

The princess wanted to be truthful, yet not too hard on him. "No, I know how it feels to lose a friend. I miss my sister, but that doesn't stop me from pressing forward. Things were easier when I was a kid. Remember when we were like that – without a care in the world?" She smiled, thinking about the way life used to be. It sounded so simple. Nothing was normal here.

"We're in a war. No one's young anymore."

"Even when we lose the ones we love, we must focus on the task at hand." The princess put a hand on his shoulder. "Sacrifices must be made. Your friend died for a reason, but you can still live on for him."

"John died for nothing!" Mark pushed her away.

"If that's what you think, then you're right."

"Point taken," he spoke in a softer voice.

"Mark, I'm really sorry about setting us up last time. I never should have let you go unprepared. I heard what happened."

"You don't have to apologize again. I watched the Dragon King destroy this world. The only thing keeping me going was the hope that someone would stop him. I just wish I could turn back time. I didn't know I was the only one who could warn them." Mark opened his mouth, trying to find the right words to say, but slowly shook his head instead.

"He can't beat us as long as we have hope," she said.

"Oh man, I can't believe what an idiot I've been. I wouldn't blame you for never talking to me again."

"It's ok. I'm used to it. You haven't done anything to be ashamed of. You weren't the only one who he tricked."

"I didn't do enough." Mark saw his mistake. "On further consideration, I'll help you any way I can. I won't just wait here for the end to come. I never thought of you as much of a leader, but I guess I was wrong. Don't let me down."

"Wish I could welcome you back to active duty under better circumstances… I hope you don't get in trouble for all this."

"I'm not sure how to slay this dragon, but for what it's worth, if anyone can stop him, it's you."

"What makes you think I can do it?" Angela asked.

"I don't know. I just have a feeling."

"Well, that makes one of us," she said.

"King Richard is expecting an army," Mark mentioned.

"Well, keep him waiting. He will be difficult to defeat."

"So what's your point?" Mark lifted an eyebrow.

"It looks like pride is his only weakness. How do you beat an enemy that's stronger than you?" she asked, testing him.

"You need to outsmart him somehow." He shrugged.

"What if he's smarter than you?" she asked.

"You have to call on a higher power." Mark gulped.

"The prince didn't say when he'd be back. He must have a good reason for not being able to meet us here. He will show up if we need him, but we don't know when he will act. Until then, we must do what we can."

"What kind of king would abandon his people and why ask us to hope in him? Why should we listen to a complete stranger?"

"I believe this battle depends on more than how many men we have on our side. There are more angels for than against us."

"I doubt King Richard would agree," Mark mumbled.

"He has no respect for the fleeing refugees. We can provide food and shelter for them. If we keep fighting, others will come to stand by our side. We need their support."

"Send them all home." Mark crossed his arms.

"To where? They have no place to go," she said.

"What are they willing to offer in return?" he asked.

"Are you saying I should just turn my back on my subjects? I won't do the right thing for the wrong reason!"

"Sure, I'd love to go skip around doing good deeds, but we can't afford to waste any time. We still need to be free to act."

"It won't take long. We're on the same side, remember?"

"As you can see, our supplies will run out soon. I won't lead my men any farther without their consent," Mark said.

"Some of these people risked their lives to help us."

"Fine, you go ahead and play Good Samaritan. I've got a job to do. We must move quickly. I'll return with reinforcements."

"Be sure they don't give away our position." The princess had a weak spot for those in need. "We have to take this chance. The kingdom's fate depends on it. This day we die for the truth or live for a lie. I won't sit back and watch this happen."

Mark made himself scarce, not wishing to be intensely interrogated about his recent conversation. He knew how to deal with fellow officers without further recourse to excuses and answered their questions with the fewest words possible. He didn't lie; he just hadn't admitted the entire truth. However, King Richard hadn't accepted his hurried explanation.

7: FORSAKEN FAITH

Mark abandoned Princess Angela's efforts to help rescue fleeing refugees, but he had to reunite the Royal Guard. He left her to care for countless multitudes trekking across the border and into nearby villages. She didn't mind assisting charitable causes, but she could only do so much in one day. Towns went under siege, but the rebel forces refused to give ground. Men, women, and children headed to the forest on foot. They hid in a clearing covered by trees where they would spot approaching enemies.

"Princess, how can we ever thank you enough?" An old crone cackled. "You risk so much keeping our faith alive."

"I wish I could do more." She sighed.

"You gave yourself and nothing is more noble than that."

The princess took note of one troubled teen who seemed set on storming the castle alone. She grabbed her wrist.

"Hey, hold on there! Are you out of your mind?"

"They captured and carried off my whole family!"

"Sorry, but I can't let you go in. It's way too dangerous."

"At least that way I could confront the evil man who took them away." The young girl sat, burying her face in her arms.

"What would you say?" The princess sat down beside her.

"I'd ask him why he did all this." She burst into tears. The princess hugged her, letting her cry on her shoulder. "You saw what he did, right? I thought if one person could stand up to him… Oh, what's the use? You won't listen anyway!"

"People think I'm strong because I'm a princess, but they don't know me well. I'm not used to being around others in my moments of weakness, for all to see." Princess Angela bent over to comfort the child. She squeezed her hand. "You might be surprised what I've been through. When my parents died, it was the worst thing I could imagine."

"You don't have to make up stories for me to feel better." The little girl looked up at her again. "What should I do?"

"I'm not sure what happened to your family, but I'll help you find out. By now, they are probably being held prisoners. If you go alone, you'd just be an easy target and the same thing would happen to you."

"Yep, I guess so, but who's going to help me?" The little girl nodded, but she didn't sound very optimistic.

"My teacher used to tell me that you can either stay here waiting for a miracle or get out there and make one happen."

"Are we going to win this battle?" the girl asked.

"In a way, we already won since we're on the right side."

The young girl lifted her head with a new sense of strength. Then she hugged the princess and ran off, not forgetting the favor.

"What you have heard is true. The war will be over soon." Mark rallied the troops. "We are near the end of our struggle. If anyone is afraid, you may decline now."

No one moved to take up Mark's offer. Each soldier took a sword and a suit of armor. Steel bled sparks as they sharpened weapons on emery wheels. Then he trained them how to use all the equipment. Being the leader meant he'd get killed sooner, not later. Dying wouldn't be so bad compared to sitting around talking all day. He pretty much preferred to keep to himself, but at least he was on their side – better friend than foe.

A little while later, Mark took off his heavy helmet and met with Princess Angela again, advising her how to conduct the military operation. All his knowledge of the enemy's weaknesses was necessary to formulate a successful strategy.

"When do we make our move? That area is difficult to defend. Let the enemy come to us or we'll be overwhelmed…"

"Agreed, now let's proceed. How many are there?"

"Too many… This is gonna be tougher than I thought."

"That doesn't sound good. So what's the plan?" she asked.

"For now, I'll follow King Richard's orders and submit to his service. I'll pretend to betray some friends of mine. We will embrace the evil one, only to plunge the dagger deeper. After that, all we can do is wait and see what happens."

"That's your big plan? Well, I like it."

"It looks like this is our only choice," Mark said.

"I agree, but that's a one-way trip." She nodded.

"I thought that's how you'd estimate our chances."

"You've got a talent for cynicism. One thing bothers me."

"Go for it. The suspense is killing me."

"Whoever gets in his way ends up dead."

"What's the worst that could happen?" he asked.

"I'd keep my distance if I were you," she said.

"I'll return, but what if he suspects something?"

"Flattery will get you further. Just be yourself."

"Don't sound so surprised." Mark glared at her.

"I know we haven't always agreed on everything. I'm just not used to working with someone who tried to do me in."

"Stranger things have happened. It will take time to heal this wound. Fighting side-by-side will do much to mend the pain of the past. If we ever want to get out of this alive, we have to set all our pride aside." He offered a hand. "Temporary truce?"

"There's a first time for everything." She rubbed it in.

"Don't say anything to anyone, ok? Keep conversations completely confidential, of course." Mark swiped a hand.

"What conversation?" Angela asked.

As the evening ended, they sat by a campfire and discussed plans for hours. It was nearly time to face their foe. No other arrangements could be made; whatever came their way, they would be ready. Then came the worst part – waiting.

"It won't be long. We did the best we could with the remaining resources. I hope it's enough." Mark frowned.

"When you're locked in combat, what do you think about?"

"Well, it just happens. Your body does the hard work."

"This battle could be the last we see. We've all got to die someday. Heroes don't live forever, but cowards never live at all. Together, we can overcome the odds," she said.

"Ok, here we go. When you give a signal, we'll be ready. I have unfinished business to take care of. I'll be back soon."

You'd better, or I'll come looking for you.

8: ALL THE KING'S HORSES

Princess Angela felt way too tired; still, she couldn't get any rest at first. She finally fell asleep and had a nightmare. Her prone body lay on the floor in the throne room of a gray castle. She opened her eyes and stood up slowly, looking around. Then she glanced down at black and white squares made of marble. A battle took place on a big chessboard. She stood in the center of the chamber, wondering what to do. A sense of being watched came over her. She turned full circle, but nobody was there.

Are you blind yet? Can you still see?

"Who are you?" she called out. Her small voice echoed through the empty space. "Show yourself!" There was no answer.

The statues in the room looked so lifelike, but puppet strings hung from above. Paladin stayed beside her; on the opposite side stood Shadow the Witch and the Dragon King. Instead of bishops, knights, and pawns, there were skeleton priests, unicorns, angels and demons. Between Heaven and Hell, her friends and foes met in the middle – their facial features obscured.

Shadow stood just outside a ring of moonlight. Everyone is a player in someone else's giant chess game, like innocent pawns in a power-struggle. Which piece goes first? With a laugh, the witch turned toward her. It's your turn. Make your move.

Later that night, Mark sneaked away from camp. Checking to make certain no one was watching, he walked down an abandoned alley. He planned to meet the evil prince in secret one last time before the battle took place. Just then, a group of guards came down the road, shouting threats and beating a civilian who stole a loaf of bread.

"Thought you could get away, huh?" A guard kicked him.

"Please, I'm only trying to feed my family!"

"Ignore him. He's a common criminal." King Richard noticed Mark was upset. He intended to inquire about it.

"Let that man go! I'll see that he's properly punished."

"Of course…" They hurled him to the ground.

"What made you meddle?" King Richard asked Mark.

"My conscience compelled me. I was not trained to slaughter the weak."

"Yes, but you will follow orders. I have enough threats coming from within our own border."

"Is it really necessary to post guards in the castle? Couldn't they just patrol the outer perimeter instead?" Mark asked.

"Now is not the time to change the way things are done."

"Then when? How many lives must be lost?"

"I've slain many men. Shall I recall anyone in particular?"

"Maybe your memory will improve if it happens to you."

"Your life is hanging by a thin thread. The penalty for treason is death," Richard said.

"The thought did cross my mind," Mark mumbled.

"I'm well aware you met with the princess in private. Have you forgotten I can hear your thoughts whether you speak them or not? If I find you've been lying to me, no amount of prayer can bring you back from where I will send you."

"Hold on!" Mark waved. "I can explain everything."

"Get to the point, or you'll soon feel one at your throat. Choose your words carefully, for they may be your last."

"Princess Alice is planning to launch an attack against us. Someone needs to keep her out of trouble."

"My faith in your intelligence is momentarily maintained. However, I did not rise to this throne by being a fool. You revealed valuable information. You're supposed to entertain her, not educate her." King Richard probed deeper. "Have you gone mad?"

"You said to trust my instincts," Mark murmured.

"Then what were they telling you this time?"

"To defeat an enemy, you must become it."

"Go on." King Richard tested him, still suspicious.

"I had to trade something in exchange for her trust. I made up everything I told them as I reviewed their plans. Then I sent out scouts to determine a suitable strategy. Certain areas are open and vulnerable to attack. Looks like they took the bait and followed my advice…" Mark crossed his arms. "I couldn't let anyone learn my plot – not even you."

"From the very start, you never obeyed orders. When I strictly forbade you to interfere, you ignored me. You managed to defy me on multiple occasions. I'm not quite sure how to thank you for it. Perhaps I was too quick to judge you. Your method is unorthodox, but has its merits. You always were my finest student. I'm glad to see my lessons paid off."

"If you aren't angry, then why did you act like you were?"

"It just wouldn't do for a military general to pardon one of his men, even if that soldier is instrumental in winning a war. What a wicked concept… So, you betrayed me and joined my enemies only to turn on them later? Who taught you how to lie so well?"

"Like you said, I learned from the best."

"If only all my subjects were as loyal as you."

"I'll take that as a compliment. You've trained me well."

"As much as I'd like to claim credit for this, it was your idea. I like the way you think," King Richard told him.

"I think the way I like." Mark shrugged.

"My respect isn't easy to earn. You're smarter than you look. I never doubted you for a moment." He shook Mark's hand.

"You're too kind, sir." Mark nodded once modestly.

"Who knows? Perhaps you've come into the kingdom for such a time as this." King Richard patted him hard on the back.

9: WE ALL FALL DOWN

Human history would end with a great battle between good and evil, which none could escape. Heaven and Hell were fated to meet on Earth and fight upon common ground. One thing was sure. Blood would be spilled. The lines were drawn. All appeals were whispered in their passionate prayers. There was no more lukewarm, half-heartedness, or double-mindedness. Both sides worked long and hard to prepare. Each man had been trained how to kill. At dawn, they drew their swords and advanced.

A scout placed his foot in a stirrup and swung back into a saddle. He took the reins in his left hand, raising a broadsword in his right. He rode until he came to a town. As angry villagers approached, voices grew in volume. His horse reared in the air, veered upon its haunches, and then pranced amid the mob. The scout swung his sword around and then quickly departed.

Thick, black clouds swept overhead and blotted out the sky. The moon rested in front of the sun and cast shadows on the land. The forces of darkness looked across abandoned, untilled fields that had suffered from seasons of drought. Mercenaries mingled among them. The mixed crowd was a multitude that couldn't be counted, like a locust swarm. They went into the plains, burned crops, and slaughtered herds. They crushed everything in their way, leaving a path of destruction in their wake.

Folks fled in every direction at the sight. Women wept, children cried, and men concerned for their families prepared to defend homes. Some chose to die rather than to help the enemies encompassing them. Husbands witnessed their wives draw their last breaths. Relatives embraced with open arms and bitter tears. As the town burned down to the ground, villagers screamed and begged for mercy. Soon fallen bodies filled the streets, heaped on top of each other in piles. Skeletons hung from towers. Smoke and ashes rose. Mourners lamented their losses. Yet, this ruse drew rebels out from hiding before they banded together.

Mark rode in silence, but then got off. As his boots shifted through ashes, he beheld the charred etchings of city skylines where children once sang and played. He walked a while then mounted his horse once more.

"Sort yourselves out and get in position, men!" The captain cautiously surveyed the situation before beginning an assault.

"What happened? Our allies must have beaten them before we even arrived. Hey, look! The cowards are running. Let's route the rest before they can escape." Mark raised a sword high in the air and took charge of the troops, but then fell back.

King Richard stood on a hill above his defeated enemies. He saw only the triumph over an enemy falling to his forces, but he knew better than to accept an unearned victory. His black stallion snorted. "No, stop you fools! I issued no order to advance!"

At first, the dark forces marched in formation. Then the human half split apart from the fallen angels. Rogues broke ranks in pursuit of plunder and raced to reach the treasure before someone else took it. Each fought to get ahead of the other. Then suddenly they stopped, still divided and isolated. Eager expectations faded as greed and gluttony turned into terror.

Riding upon a unicorn, Princess Angela held out her sword and shouted as it reared high, pawing at the sky. Then she charged at the loose wave that was about to attack. New voices yelled and joined the battle cry. Several bodies lying on the ground stood up. Any one of them could chase a hundred. The expression on their enemies' faces was worth the wait.

Mark wryly watched their destruction from a safe distance. Ah, your own greed was a befitting betrayal. How hypocritical

King Richard noticed that his commander had left the fight. Outwardly, he appeared stoic, though furious he had been fooled.

"Master, he refuses to join us," the wolf demon whispered.

The members of the Royal Guard who remained loyal to the princess were there as well. They never ran away, but would rather risk their lives or die fighting than break their promise to protect her. Courageous knights faced the crisis with unwavering patience. Even though they were surrounded on every side, their faces were full of a dauntless determination.

"You go first, sir. I'm glad you're leading this charge."

"Me too," Mark said. "Dragons are deceptive beasts. They attack from behind, not the front. I had to learn that the hard way."

"I'm not afraid of those monsters," a new recruit said.

"What do you know about dragons? Have you ever seen one up close before? You don't want to. Trust me."

"Any more advice, sir?"

"Try not to die."

Wings beat the air as a shadow fell in front of them. Several men moved back to give it space. The Dragon King descended, landing beside the brave young knight. The others ran off and hid from it. The mere sight was enough to scare them.

"Mortal, do you mean to arouse my anger? Come back with me or die with them," the Dragon King said. The silence grew deafening; still, Mark said nothing. "Very well, then prepare to perish. If I had time, I'd kill you myself."

The dragon spread its wings and knocked the knights back. Then it soared into the sky until it was out of sight. It flew in a big circle, surveying the battle scene. Moments later, it dived. Just before its massive hulk hit the earth, its wings unfurled wide. Flapping furiously, it hovered in place. Scaly leather limbs beat. After taking in a deep breath, fire rained from above to clear a path. The dragon landed on the ground with a loud thud. Then it spun around and swiped its tail.

Archers began firing volleys of arrows; shafts hissed, pelting mercilessly like rain until it became impossible to tell what they might hit. On both sides, soldiers blocked with their bucklers; Mark had mastered parrying simultaneously with his sword. Angels fired amber arrows from golden harp strings. Jagged jewel shards shattered and exploded on impact, doing even more damage when taken back out. Poison tipped human weapons. Demons fired bone darts from spider-web strings using flaming brimstone bows. The safest way to attack enemies was from a distance.

Princess Angela tried to ride away, but lingered too long. Sounds of battle filled the sky, growing louder as she came closer to all the action. Sword clashed on shield. One archer aimed carefully and then struck the unicorn in the shoulder. Frightened by the pain, Starlight stumbled and she flew off his back. She yelled and fell, but it was little more than a whisper in the noisy battle. Hitting the ground hard, she rolled downhill until she stopped at the bottom and lay on her side. As she stood up, the archer took aim. A string sprang forth and sent the arrow flying through the air, which never reached its intended target. A knight charged into the line of fire and let it hit his chest. Judging by all the bodies around, he took out a decent number of enemies before dying.

"Forgive me, fair maiden. I have failed you."

"You have fought faithfully and kept your honor," she said.

"Perhaps you can succeed where I could not." He coughed, lying wounded in the middle of the field. His vision grew blurry.

"Leave him. He's dead, and so are you." The archer grew impatient. "Tell me, do you value their lives above your own?"

Princess Angela slowly stood, holding up her hands. Royal Guard members gathered and waited by her.

"His life wasn't wasted," she said to him.

The archer just laughed and fired another arrow. A sharp shaft shot forth from a string, spiraling toward her as she closed her eyes in anticipation. Mark parried, deflecting it just before it reached her heart. It knocked the sword out of his hands then hit an enemy trying to sneak up behind him. Mark dodged more darts zipping past his face; they hit the ground where he stood a moment ago. Now he had a chance to confront the annoying archer.

"Once more we meet, but this time you shall die just as John did." The demon gestured at the destruction around them.

This was not an ordinary opponent; this same archer had assaulted Mark's former mentor. He reached behind his back to take out another arrow, but he'd run out. Looking around, he found one floating in midair. He quickly put it in place and fired. Before it hit Mark, it slowed down to a stop. Thinking fast, Mark grabbed it and flipped it around to point the other way.

"Allow me to demonstrate how this weapon works!"

The arrow accelerated before piercing the demon's throat. It morphed into a wolf and ran off.

"I'll hold them off while you get away!"

"What about you?" the princess asked.

"I'll be fine." Mark pushed her. "Just go."

"No, I won't let you waste your life."

"This is no time to talk! Now go!" He pointed.

"If you say so…" She sighed and left.

Mark protected the princess, battling on her behalf in a mindless manner as she climbed onto Starlight's back and then rode away without stopping to watch. The unicorn dropped her off and then returned to aid their allies.

Knowing she was safe, the knight fought fearlessly. His own life was in jeopardy, but at least he bought her enough time to escape for now. Mark let his basic survival instinct take over. His fellow knights did their best to cover his back. Most wouldn't make it. The slaughter went until he was the last one left still fighting on the front lines.

Mark began to sweat. Blood soaked his blade. The sword felt heavy. The pain was helpful; it kept him alert. He liked it; it gave him an edge. His clothes were tattered and torn along with skin in several places. His body grew weary; already his muscles ached. The adrenaline rush that pumped through his veins wore off with his earlier enthusiasm. Feeling fatigued, he stood his ground with a sword drawn. He barely had time to raise his shield as an attacker approached, then was brutally beheaded.

"Come on! Get up!" Mark kicked a dead body on the ground. Too bad I can only kill them once! He withdrew his sword from a man's chest, borrowed his enemy's blade, then ceased fighting for a while. He won't be needing this anymore.

As the enemy closed in on his position, the knight ran out to meet his formidable foes halfway, standing against them alone. From atop a hill, he surfed down on his shield, deflecting arrows, watching out for obstacles. He hadn't counted on coming to a cliff. He timed his move, driving a sword into the ground. He held on tight and swung, coming back around again.

"You want some, huh? I'll take you all on!" Mark shouted.

A wild black stallion charged through the battlefield. Mark assumed somebody killed its rider and it ran loose. Then he noticed that it had a horn about a foot long. From its forehead grew a sharp black spike. He didn't see it before because he thought it was a horse. The dark unicorn headed toward him, nearly running him over, but he quickly rolled out of the way. Then it turned around. Mark held out his shield, hoping it would protect him. He cowered, covering his head with one hand. A horn struck the metal and pierced through it, stopping inches from his face. He opened one eye, shrugged, and then laughed. His shield had shattered.

With a fierce snort, the unicorn reared on its hind legs and stood high above him. Its heavy hooves came crashing down, but he managed to dive away at the last moment. Sharp feet sliced through the air then landed beside him. He could've been crushed. The unicorn glanced down, as if noticing him for the first time. Nightmare's nostrils flared furiously.

Mark crawled away, but the unicorn lowered its head and held the sharp horn point to his neck. The beast stepped back, gesturing with a nod. Mark stood up slowly, holding out his hands. Driving its horn down, it tried to thrust it through his heart. Mark blocked the blow with his sword instead, but the blade broke. The demon decided he wasn't worth its time. It turned and left him lying there on the ground. Ignoring him, it went after the princess instead. Mark tackled her to push her out of harm's way.

"Forgive me for being so direct, but I believe unicorns prefer virgins. From the way this one reacted, I doubt you qualify."

Tilting her head, she raised an eyebrow and gave him a glare. Her cheeks turned red. "I never asked for your opinion." She playfully punched him, meaning it in fun. Mark rubbed his arm. "It serves you right."

Nightmare was the name of this dark unicorn. The souls of the slain stained his hooves. His midnight black mane waved in the wind, sparkling with stardust from worlds he had laid to waste long ago. His defiant demeanor struck terror in heroes' hearts. Carried away with the annihilation of petty creatures, his fangs lusted for lost blood. The color around him seemed to grow duller. His evil red eyes glowed like a gemstone. His special ability lay in creating black-holes. He could control gravity to shatter the stars, warp worlds, and distort the dimensions of time and space. The awesome power he possessed brought forth chaos and confusion. His obsidian horn tore open another rift in reality to tamper with time itself.

At first, the battle scene stopped a while. Then knights stuck their weapons in the ground, trying to hold on. They yelled as the wind sucked up rocks and trees. They could barely stand up straight with all their heavy armor on. Some of the soldiers looked still as statues. Others fought faster or drifted in slow motion. The rest appeared to be moving in reverse, depending on their position relative to the anomaly. These images were no longer part of presently occurring events.

A sword lay on the ground; an arm tried to grab it. The sword jumped back into its owner's glove, which grasped it tight. A man stood up; a shaft lodged in his chest leaped back out again. He began to block flame-tipped arrows that bounced off his blade. One had split in half and killed two enemies standing behind him. Then they flew back into an archer's hand, which caught them and put them back in a quiver.

The battle was brutal. Blood fell like rain. The ground changed colors as it came back inside a corpse before skin sealed together again. Someone's head rolled uphill. It sprang into the air and then returned to the body where it belonged. The sword that chopped it off withdrew without a stain. A scarlet spray remained frozen for a moment, hovering motionlessly in midair. King Richard reached out to touch a drop of the liquid life, brushing aside tiny beads. He smiled as it flowed out from the battered bulk.

"My favorite…" King Richard sucked his index finger.

Knights hid their faces from the fierce beast, which terrified them with a glance. Seeing them standing there, the unholy unicorn snorted. He lowered his head, charging at the knights; they fled from him and he followed them. They looked back just in time to see him split right through their ranks. He rammed hard, knocked them into each other, and sent dead bodies flying in the air past those who were still alive. He came without warning and killed them all. Triumphantly trampling over countless corpses and boundless bodies, he left them lying there in the field, out in the open for all to see. The unicorn was unstoppable.

I'll defy my destiny and shatter the stars!

Striking a dominant pose, the black unicorn rose on his back legs above a hill of shattered swords and shields. Once again, he stood over the slain bodies of his mortal enemies and it was a satisfying sight. His mane whipped wildly; his hellish hair hovered in midair, defying gravity. Rules of reason and laws of logic didn't affect him. He pawed at the sky and snorted fiercely, then stamped on the ground with his hooves. Many foes had fallen; few could resist his relentless slaughter. It went on like this for a while. He waited by a pile of broken bones until a worthy opponent came along. The unicorn went unchallenged.

Having a unicorn on the battlefield was a unique occasion. One could cause an enraged warlord to pause from all his wrath; now there were two. Naturally, there was rivalry between them. Starlight knew he had to face Nightmare alone.

Nightmare's ears twitched forward; he narrowed his eyes, turning to face a new opponent who had challenged him to combat. Unlike the other unicorn, he could still speak his mind here freely. There's no time to play games. You don't even stand a chance.

Who are you? Starlight communicated telepathically with his thoughts. Though he did not fear death, it was not welcome.

I'm your worst nightmare! Stronger than you dare to dream… The dark unicorn stared. By the way, I can't let you live.

Taking revenge was risky. The untamed unicorn released his rage upon the victims of his violence. Though Starlight was fast, Nightmare could accelerate beyond any vector of velocity by twisting the nature of time and folding space fabric. Starlight wasn't as powerful in comparison, but he kept it under control. Starlight tried to ram Nightmare with his horn, but it passed right through him like liquid because of his unnatural phantom properties. They fought it out, fiercely jabbing back and forth with their hooves and horns. Nightmare lost his balance, but before he fell, Starlight charged and knocked him into the sky.

Nightmare flew into space, hurtling toward the moon. His hooves hit the ground and left a crater where he landed. It trembled, vibrating violently – shaking the stardust loose; the crust cracked apart while mountains mysteriously rumbled. Kicking up a cloud, he bounced back to the Earth. His horn tip glowed like a fiery comet as he entered the outer atmosphere. Starlight backed up to get a running start. They rammed into each other with such force it sent out shockwaves. The chaotic collision knocked knights off their feet. Many men flew into the air from the intense impact. A layer of dirt jumped up from the rumbling tremor that followed, blanketing all parties present as it came back down again.

Parallel planes and dual dimensions released raw power. A shift in time-space pulsed like a strobe-light. Between flashes, it was hard for the knights to see. Only their skeletons showed in the raw radiation. Then the light faded and the wind ceased. Starlight skidded back for a mile before coming to a complete stop. It was then he discovered a special ability – that he could focus the light from his horn like a laser to nullify negative energy. Despite this, Nightmare dispersed the brilliant beam into a harmless split spectrum. He neutralized it so it had no effect. Things were finally back to normal for now.

Princess Angela looked around and stood in confusion. Time seemed to slow down in her mind. Though the brave knights managed to hold off the barbarians, fierce fighting came closer. The sight of blood still made her sick. Her first battle had frightened her, at first. With a horrible shock, she realized something terrible. As each enemy fell, another took his place. More fought than when the battle first began, though many were killed in the initial charge. Soldiers scattered every direction, using hit-and-run tactics. Even that wasn't enough. Bodies piled higher, yet they kept on coming, trampling over rotting corpses. She could hardly see her allies in the big crowd. She called for help.

The castle was already under attack. Gothic gargoyles on the wall grinned at mortals far below, gloating at the gore.

"Here comes the cavalry!" Mark warned his men.

The enemy withdrew in an effort to regroup. Someone signaled for reinforcements. Freelance mercenaries joined Mark. The knights couldn't break through the front line. Even with unexpected backup, the skirmish could be quite costly. This was a pivotal point in the battle. They had to advance now before it was too late. Both sides fought hard, but only one would win today. Villagers stormed the castle gate with sheer numbers. They fought their way to the throne room and overtook the guards left to defend it. Utter panic and horror came over the cowards as they ran for their lives and retreated. Gradually, they gave way.

"Go on and run!" Mark shouted above the cheering crowd.

"The enemy comes to meet us in battle even as we speak. We have to withdraw from the human allies," the wolf demon said.

"Bodies are mere trophies. This battle is for men's souls."

"The scouts you sent out failed to report. Apparently, they were ambushed. You have disappointed us. We lost."

"There'll be no mistakes this time. I shall defeat the prince myself. Never send mortals to do a god's job. They may have won this battle, but I will win the war. I'd say a swift retreat is in order. They won't be able to follow us here."

The Dragon King cut a gaping hole in space-time, opening a magic portal to an alternate dimension that hadn't existed earlier. No longer having mortal allies to rely upon, the dark forces fled. He left with his accursed angels, whistling for his unicorn.

Starlight charged at Nightmare. Instead of hitting him, he passed right through. The dark unicorn quickly turned around and stabbed him in the back, thrusting a horn into his side. The tip dripped wet with blood. Starlight was too weak to stand, but it wasn't a fatal wound. He could heal himself, but it would take some time. Nightmare wanted to finish the fight right there and then, but he had to leave before the pulsing portal closed. The solar eclipse ended.

I'll play with you another time. Later, loser…

10: REALM OF NO RETURN

Bright beams of sunlight broke through a gray cloud in the sky and parted it like a curtain. Warmth came that had been missing since spring. Rays revealed the extreme extent of the aftermath. They won, but there had been heavy casualties. Half-dead heroes cringed clumsily. Blood stained the battlefield. The castle completely collapsed, reduced to smoking ruins.

Family members hugged; relationships were restored. Voices filled the air. They rejoiced that day, knowing they couldn't have won the victory alone; it could only be divine deliverance. Being a servant was much better than being a slave.

"Your plan worked well. Actually, I'd say it was inspired."

"I like keeping my enemies confused almost as much as they do. It had to appear genuine so nobody would suspect anything. If I'd been committed to a false creed, I'd be pathetically predictable." Mark grinned. "I was only one among many."

"Don't be so modest." Princess Angela sighed, relieved.

When Prince Paladin returned, she ran to him. He opened his arms and let her leap into them, nearly knocking him over. He lifted her up and swung her around, then gently set her back down. She laughed – a butterfly sensation in her stomach.

"What was that for?" The prince smiled knowingly.

"I'm just happy to see you. Oh, I missed you so much." The princess brushed her hair back. "We did it, right? We won!"

"We have done well, but the battle has only begun. We must pursue the Dragon King to his fallen world. We can't stop now, or he'll return stronger. We may be too late already."

"You're going back there? What are you, crazy?"

"Remember how I came back for you before?"

"You've got a point." She scratched her head.

"I will be with you." Paladin reassured her.

"Yeah, but…" Holding up a finger, she tried to think of a good excuse. "Well, count me in. I wonder where we'll end up."

"I can't bring us directly to the castle. He set up a magic barrier to keep us out. You may come along only on one condition – if you promise to return when I tell you to. After that, you must leave me to go on alone."

"Well, if you insist…" The princess nodded patiently.

"Do you know how to use that thing?" Paladin pointed.

"I never thought I'd have to." She shrugged.

"The sword is not your source of strength, but an extension of an even greater power. Unless you have a pure heart, you'll never unlock it. It knows what you want. Just hold on to it. You don't use this sword. It uses you. Every element has pros and cons. It glows different colors, along with the armor, depending on the type of attack. By focusing your faith, you can make the blade sharper. It can also cut through time and space. You can only use its power for good. It can't harm you."

"It looks heavy though. Are you sure I can even lift it?"

"It's pretty simple, really. Give it a try," Paladin said.

The sword grew heavy in the hands of a person who wasn't meant to use it. If it was such a burden to bear, how could she possibly wield it in battle? The princess found it more manageable, like it lost weight. She handed it back.

"I guess it's not as hard as I thought it would be."

"You seem to have no trouble carrying it," Paladin said.

"Ready when you are…" She turned to leave.

"Wait, don't go with him yet!" Mark waved. "The castle is under control, but there are people here who need help too."

"Sorry, but they'll have to wait. I want you to stay behind and heal the wounded. The needs of the many outweigh the few."

"This is hardly something to be taken lightly. You can't simply stroll into that realm of no return." Mark warned them both.

"I didn't say it was smart, but it is the right thing to do."

"Are you certain you don't require my assistance?"

"This isn't your battle. I have my job and you have yours. Don't worry about me. I won't be alone. Think about the innocent people who will die. Everything that we've worked so hard for will be lost. I won't ever allow this to happen again. It's not easy for me either, but it has to be done. We've been through some tough spots, but there's no time to explain, so don't try to stop me."

"I won't let you go through with this," Mark said.

"Does everyone think I go around making suggestions? That wasn't a request. It was an order." The princess turned away.

"You don't plan to come back this time," Mark said.

Nothing could prepare her for what came next, but Paladin would be there to guide her. The Sword of Light cut a wide hole through time-space, opening a dimensional doorway. Then they revisited the other realm where the final battle was about to begin.

11: VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH

The prince and princess arrived on the fallen star, riding upon the white unicorn in the Forbidden Forest. They stopped and stared, looking at each other. From here, they viewed the valley down below. It spread before them like a grave waiting to swallow them up. They couldn't see how deep it was because of a thick fog. Dark clouds converged overhead. Ground was hard as stone in some places, but mucky in others. Earth's fate rested in their hands. Failure wasn't an option.

Lowering his head to sniff the black grass, Starlight nibbled it then spat it back out. The prince patted the side of his neck.

"We have a long ride ahead. You may regret we ever met."

"You always bring me to such nice places." Her brown leather boots sank in the mud. Gazing out across the dark world, she took a deep breath and tried to imagine what lay ahead. Shadow the Witch was still out there somewhere. She looked around nervously, staying by his side. "It looks even worse close up. I hope I'm not making a big mistake by coming back here."

"Do you still want to save your world?" he asked.

"I never said no. It's just that we've got a long way to go."

"Then let's get started."

"Where are we going?"

"Deeper into the darkness… Remain in this realm too long and your heart will turn hard and cold. Walk while you still have light, before night overtakes you. Let us pray our presence here goes unnoticed. We must keep moving."

A faint glow came from beyond the tangled boughs of twisted trees. Princess Angela approached to get a better view. The armor gleamed bright when active, but started out dim and dull – rather rusty. The witch tried to disguise it as a dirty and useless hunk of junk. A diamond disk hovered in midair by a boulder, illuminating the ground around it. The Shield of Faith gave her new hope. It was light as a feather, but hard as a dragon's scales.

Imagining for a moment a tree branch moved, the princess stopped and took a closer look. A camouflaged creature leaped out to strike her. The prince sliced off its head before its fangs reached her neck. The tail flopped around on the ground from muscle spasms and uncontrolled nerve impulses. Trees seemed to come alive as other serpents lunged straight toward them, spewing smoke. Their tongues flicked out and tested the air. Paladin dodged flaming fireballs, defending himself with a shield and cutting them in half in midair as they all darted at him. Bark crackled. Branches burned.

Squirming shapes with glowing yellow eyes came crawling toward them. Then a serpent sprang at her, but she jumped out of the way just in time. She swung her sword and missed as it lunged again. It hit her shield, sending rainbow-colored sparks flying everywhere. Before it got away, she hopped on top of her shield to crush the slimy creature, but it slithered free. She waited for it to strike, moved to the side, and then thrust her sword into its neck, severing its head from its body.

Trees dropped like daisies. A hiss escaped through a pair of milk-white fangs. Flames licked at the air like forked tongues. Picking up the princess, the prince ran with her in his arms. Crossing the water quickly, he avoided slippery spots. Turning around, he leaped back as the serpent lunged and fell into the mire. Its tail hit the water with a slap and knocked it onto the land; then the trench refilled. The wet serpent could no longer breathe flames. It uprooted a tree with its tail to smash him. Grabbing the serpent's scales, the prince drove his sword through its skull. The snake writhed violently in the swampy marsh, then finally fell still.

The prince and princess followed an uneven trail until they came to a cliff. They went along a rocky ridge, continuing toward the castle. The river turned into rapids they couldn't cross. Roaring waterfalls grew louder as they came closer. As they rode through the forest, wolf demons emerged from the shadows and surrounded them in every direction. Jumping off the unicorn, they stayed close together, standing back to back – swords drawn, shields raised.

"If the wolves sense you're weak and scared, they'll attack. Never run from the things that you fear. It attracts their attention."

The wolves gave a fierce growl and charged, trying to slip between their shields. None made it past. As the princess blocked their attacks, the prince drew his sword and struck one wolf's head. Obviously outnumbered, they ran for a stone wall. Rushing up to one of them, she slashed. The wolf turned and lunged at her throat, ready to rip her into pieces with its razor-sharp teeth. If it hadn't been so mad, it would have succeeded, but she had just enough time to duck and thrust. Moments later, the beast lay dead. She withdrew her sword, wiping the sweat away. The wall collapsed into a cloud of dust and almost crushed them.

The unicorn kicked at them with his hooves. He stomped, but they were still too swift. One tried to bite him, but he knocked it in the air then rammed it against a tree. Starlight snorted and neighed. His nostrils flared wide open as he tossed his mane.

Wounded wolves whimpered and then ran with their tails between their legs. At first, they retreated, but when they lifted their heads to howl, it became clear they were calling for help.

A giant wolf gave a long, hideous howl, baying at a blood-moon, then pursued its prey. It snapped, but the prince pulled her away. He took her to a nearby tree and lifted her to safety. The princess climbed as high as she could without breaking any branches. Jumping down, he held on as the wolf rushed past, riding on its back. It stopped and flung him in the air, trying to hurl him over the nearby cliff. Rolling when he hit the ground, he spread out the force of the impact, but he still fell.

Wretched wolves advanced from every angle, pawing at the trunk and trying to knock it over. She kicked hard and knocked them down again. She couldn't risk climbing higher or farther out. The weak branch wouldn't support her full weight.

The giant wolf returned to part her from the tree trunk she clung to, swiping its sharp claws at the loose limbs. Then a twig snapped and it turned around. The prince climbed over the cliff edge, grunting in pain, but the wounded warrior was only pretending to be paralyzed. The beast snarled and then charged at him. He stood his ground until the last moment then dived out of the way. The wolf demon lost its balance and fell onto jagged rocks below. Alarmed at the sight of their defeated leader, they turned and fled. They abandoned the princess; the tree tipped over so she jumped down.

"I think that was the last of them. We have to hurry."

"We just cheated death! Can't we stop for a second?"

Now they had to cross the Dreamless Desert. Scorpions scuttled out from under rocks, rolled down sand dunes, unfolded pincers, and squirted acid from spiked tails. Feeling a painful burning sensation on her skin, the princess rubbed her arm hard. Each time a spray of poison hit her, a protective aura flashed around her. She would have to wash it off soon. They rode away, trying to avoid another delay. Vegetation thickened into shrubs.

The earth erupted into a draft of dust. A huge monster came from its hiding place. Boulders bounced off its back as it climbed out of a hole in the cliff wall. It lifted a long, thin tail, trying to stab the unicorn with its stinger, but fortunately, Starlight was fast enough to dodge the blow. The next time its tail struck the ground, the prince grabbed it. It swung and flung him in the air. The unicorn caught him just before he fell. Backing away, Starlight stumbled on a loose stone, cornered against the cliffs.

"Oh no, I'm not falling for that again!" she shouted.

A waterfall poured over the edge and plunged into the black depths far below. It rushed down and splashed against sharp rocks. Their only chance was to make a break for it, leaping for their lives. The unicorn's hooves gracefully tapped on slippery stones. Never missing his footing, he bounded off boulders and pushed against the wall to slow down as he fell faster.

A rainbow shimmered in the mist below as long hair whipped around her face. Then she held her breath and dived in the pool with him. Submerged underwater, she opened her eyes, seeing only rushing bubbles, then shut them again. She broke through the surface with a splash and gasped for air. She swallowed liquid and coughed it back up, but it sucked her down again, sinking silently.

Hooking onto the scorpion's hairy legs, the prince climbed on its back. He dashed across it, slicing its long tail in half just before jumping off. Moments later, guts gushed out and the water began bubbling. The scorpion fell still.

Waves pulled the princess along and swept her farther away. Caught in the current, she spun around dizzily. The whirlpool carried her in circles and took her under the waterfall. The powerful flow plunged her deep down until she nearly passed out and drowned from lack of air. He grabbed her hand as she reached out. He pulled her up and dragged her away from danger in time to avoid the acid. Scrambling onto the shore, they caught their breath. Starlight landed farther downstream. He pawed at the solid ground, rose from the water, and then shook his mane to dry off. They had reached the end of the river.

Winding its way through the valley, a path led them to the foot of sloped buttes. On either side ahead, cliffs rose like walls. The princess couldn't find a way around it. It appeared they would have to turn back, but it wasn't a dead end after all. Ancient legends mentioned four elemental elite dragons that guarded the gloomy land. Each one had its own strengths and weaknesses.

A massive mountain stood before them; a veil of fog shrouded it from sight. At the top, they passed a big boulder. A hidden dragon opened one eye, watching them. It seemed to be made out of stone. The ground quaked as if the whole mountain were alive. A giant dragon burst through the earth's crust, shaking dirt and trees off of its back. It picked up a huge boulder and then hurled it at them, but missed. The prince charged and thrust his sword, but it had little effect.

The dragon stomped and the princess fell off; then it bent down and snapped at her. The prince threw a rock to distract it so she could escape; however, this only made it mad. The sword sent out a flash of light that turned the dragon into stone. Then he used a diamond element to knock it over a sharp cliff edge with wind. It broke in pieces on the ground below.

They came to a lake, which was the only oasis in the desert. Waves slapped the shore in an odd pattern that didn't seem natural. The princess came closer, wondering how this was possible without any wind. Ripples broke the surface. A head popped up, then dipped down again. Little drops sprayed into her face, blinding her as the liquid erupted. It stretched out like an ameba, thrusting itself toward her. Paladin cut off the tentacle with his sword. Revealing its true form, the dragon emerged from its element. Beneath its outer shell, water flowed like blood. The waves were from its breath, for it lived in the lake.

"Get away from the water!" the prince yelled.

The water dragon's teeth and claws were sharp as ice. It caught her feet and wrapped her up – first her ankles, then her legs. She tried to push it down her hips, but it wound around her waist binding her arms to each side. Icky slime oozed along her skin. She kept her lips pressed tight, hoping it wouldn't seep into her mouth, nose, or ears. Gooey bands of gunk squeezed her like a snake with a rabbit. She stayed calm, relaxed her muscles, and took short breaths. A bitter blast of frost froze the princess in place. Soon she'd run out of air, trapped with her hands spread against the ice. The prince used a sonic shockwave that vibrated atoms until the ice dragon shattered into pieces. He melted the ice with a ruby element, freeing the princess from her prison.

They could see the air dragon flying high above them, cutting through a cloud. Lightning bolts came down and struck the soil. The prince and princess shielded their eyes from the wind. They clung to branches to keep from being blown away.

"I can't hold on much longer!" Her tree tilted forward.

"Let go!" He reached out and grabbed her.

When another tree went flying through the air toward them, the prince cut it in half. Seeing they had survived, the diamond wind dragon grew enraged. Instead, it exhaled a poisonous puff of gas. They held their breaths, but couldn't wait for the fog to dissipate, so they started running. The princess nearly fainted from exhaustion along the way up the slope.

There was an active volcano at the peak. It erupted into a thick cloud of ash; this veil concealed them from the air dragon. Lava flowed behind brimstone. A fire dragon spewed magma from its mouth. It slid, setting everything it touched on fire. The couple dashed downhill, heading toward the lake. The ice dragon's heart began to beat again as melted shards collected.

To make matters worse, the air dragon found out where they were. Dust whirled around in the wind, blinding them. Then a ring of fire rose around them; the unicorn tried to jump over it, but a rock wall towered above it. A waterfall began filling up the whole valley, but the earth dragon burrowed down and then came up from underground. The prince passed through the obstacles then drove his sword into the enormous eye. The unicorn was unharmed. Fortunately, fate was on their side this time. At the last moment, the prince protected her with his shield as the dragons collided into each other, trying to crush them.

"At peace! Be still!" The prince held out his hand. He could command the wind and the waves, walking on the water. Even the elements seemed to obey his will. As he held her, the princess thought they were about to die, but then opened her eyes again.

"Um… What just happened?" she asked him, blinking.

"The eye of the storm is the center of my will. Though all your fears and doubts surround you, nothing can touch you there."

12: SOMEWHERE UNDER THE RAINBOW

"Aww… Isn't that adorable?" Princess Angela pointed out.

A doe wandered into the forest, searching for some food. It lowered its neck, nibbling on a bunch of berries.

"I don't see how anything could survive here," she said.

"It's just hoping for life to return someday," he replied.

Princess Angela began to walk toward the deer as it wandered away. Then she saw a beautiful field of flowers. Vibrant roses glowed bright with light and color. The sweet scent pulled her closer with its intoxicating fragrance, but the prince grabbed her hand. Her eyes narrowed slightly as something else caught her attention. The roses weren't red; instead, blood stained the poison-coated thorns. The deer fell to the ground; vines dragged it away.

"How could anything so beautiful be so dangerous?"

"Beautiful, but deadly…" He warned her.

"Are you sure you know where you're going? Oh well, if this is as bad as it gets, we shouldn't have too much trouble."

"Then what do you call that?" Paladin pointed.

Dead bodies lay scattered all over the ground. Whatever had killed them was big and had sharp claws. The creature was coming for them. A dragon roared in the distance.

"It can't possibly get any worse, can it?" The deadly predator emerged from the nearby trees. She kept an eye on the ferocious beast. "Or perhaps I spoke too soon?"

"Don't move a muscle," the prince whispered softly.

"Why can't we just fight our way out of this?"

"Do not tempt fate." He held her back.

The dragon hissed, opening its jaws. The tips of its teeth dripped with blood. It growled in all of its lethal glory, exhaling moisture into the night air. For a moment, she peered into its mouth. She stared at it, opening her eyes wide – then shut them tight. While she distracted it, the prince sneaked around for a stealthy ambush, keeping his head low. With two hands on the hilt, he raised the blade then brought it down. The beast fell back, but let out a roar louder than before. Hearing all the commotion, several more dragons came in response to its desperate cries.

"Are they still coming after us?" she asked.

"Why don't you go ask them?" He teased.

"There are too many! We'll never make it!"

"There's one place we can go where they can't pursue – into the Whispering Woods. I doubt that you'll like it, but it's safer than staying here. Don't speak a word. They'll sense the sound vibrations of your voice."

"It doesn't look dangerous." The princess gulped, nervous.

He checked to make sure she kept up, but could have been more considerate. It wouldn't hurt to slow down a bit.

We're never going to get out of here. I'd better be careful.

Hesitantly, she followed him, wondering why they had to be so quiet. As they walked through the forest, the mist made it look ghostly and surreal. It's so boring and ugly here. Then she saw a radiant rose blooming among weeds, hidden for no one to ever know its beauty. How sad… I should bring it with me. Its warm glow made her feel good inside. When he wasn't looking, she reached out to touch it. Her hand got stuck in midair; she tried to pull it back.

Transparent silk strands glistened in faint moonlight beams shining down through trees. Webs wove between branches. The intricate nets of death and darkness caught other creatures, struggling in the shadows. That's where their hearts were trapped and tangled; their souls were strangled. Spiders sucked on the sweet nectar of life. Draining fresh blood down to the last drop, they fed on flesh. Skeletons hung from the silver strings of peril like puppets.

The prince led the unicorn by the reins to keep from touching any threads only he could see. However, to the princess, this web was invisible. A tripwire vibrated silently, sending out an alarm. Wind rippled the web; waves spread to the shimmering sheet's clingy core. She glanced up, confused. Something moved, coming right toward her. She could see it clearly in the moonlight. In the middle was the biggest spider she'd ever seen.

Oh no… Turn around and back away slowly.

Beady evil eyes blinked. Venom dripped from its fangs; the potent poison paralyzed its prey so victims couldn't fight back. She turned and ran. The spider followed her; she could hear its pointy little legs scuttle over rocks and dirt. It moved quickly with alien attributes, strangely sickening to behold. Its head swayed sideways. Instinctively, she knew this deadly dance was a ploy to make its prey try to flee. Spreading its legs high, it prepared to pounce. She hurled a stone and hit it in the eye. The monster backed away, climbing higher, and then turned around to attack.

The huge spider swung down from a branch and scooped her up in its hairy legs. Then it threw her into a hollow tree. Eggs hatched open at the mere scent of her flesh. One of the brood crawled onto her chest and lifted its fangs. She screamed and turned her head, closing her eyes tight. Her arms spread to either side. Tangled in the web, she tugged at the sticky threads. Spiders wrapped her body in a stringy substance. She panicked, which of course made it worse. Soon she would suffocate.

The prince climbed the tree, parted a web with his sword, and then swept the brittle blankets aside. The pale curtains were so thick he had to slash through them. His sword got stuck. He tried to pull it loose, but found himself trapped in a sticky situation. The unicorn focused the light of his horn and used it like a laser. A bright beam cut the cords until he broke free.

A spider leaped and struck with its fangs. He lifted his sword for a heavy blow and hacked off the spider's head. Then he fought off the rest of them, stabbing and cutting off legs as they lunged. At first, they writhed, but then lay still. He was just in time to save her. The prince cut the crystal cocoon with the utmost care, slicing through the strands that held her there. She pushed, breaking free. Then she freaked out, brushing off bugs crawling all over her skin. He cupped her mouth before she could scream.

The prince picked her up and carried her with his arms under her legs while she wrapped her arms around his neck. He swung on a strand like a rope, slashing at the spiders pouncing from the trees. Then one grabbed him with its long legs. The web string snapped under a combined weight so they fell to the ground. The moment he landed, he kicked it off. It tried to stab him with poison fangs, but he rolled to the side then struck it in the head. The deadly creature curled up then stopped moving.

It started to rain – first one drop and then another. Then she saw the bodies hanging in midair. Crimson beads slid down the strands, turning the web red. Feeling nauseous, Princess Angela put a hand to her mouth. Feeling a tap on her shoulder, she sighed in relief. The princess turned around, putting her hands on her hips.

"Well, it's about time you arrived. I was getting worried."

Not hearing any answer, she looked up slowly. A tree smashed down and blocked her path. Saliva splattered on the ground right beside her. The hidden predator had followed her, waiting for her to wander into the open. The spider lowered its body and then sprang, wrapping its legs around her waist. The prince sliced off the two legs that gripped her.

"Be gone!" Paladin held out his glowing sword.

The evil creature crawled away and crept back into the hole it came from. Paladin grabbed her and dashed through the forest, weaving through webs like they were part of an obstacle course. He rolled under one then hurdled over another, twisting to his side to fit through the narrow holes and gaps. When they reached a safe spot in an open clearing, she stopped, panting heavily.

"Don't give in to temptation." He warned her.

"Why always wait until the last moment to save me?"

"So you'll learn to trust me," he said.

"Oh…" She walked faster. "Hey, wait for me!"

At the forest edge, a faint glow came from a hollow stump. She had found another piece of the armor. It hovered there in the air before her. She sat down and then put them on. The boots gave her great speed and stealth, but never wore out. She could move quickly and quietly while hopping even higher.

They made it out of the Whispering Woods. A veiled moon barely revealed the surrounding valley. With the sword lighting the way, they ran down a dark path. As they passed by a cave at the foot of a hill closer to the castle, they came to a vast graveyard full of tombstones and crooked crosses. They walked through the creepy cemetery with alertness. A heavy mist hung low in the sky like fog. It was so silent and still it seemed like a peaceful place.

A hand burst through the dirt and grabbed the unicorn's front hoof, trying to drag him down underground. As Starlight struggled to break free, the prince chopped off the clenched fist with his sword so they could gallop away. Ghosts in the graveyard entered the dead bodies, bringing them back to life again. Skeletons burrowed beneath tombstones, rising from the ground. The unicorn kicked the corpses, breaking their bones. This slowed them down, but the smaller ones were quick and hard to hit.

One skeleton dashed from tree to tree, hiding behind them. Its long, bony fingers wrapped around the trunk. It glared at them and climbed up high. Then it jumped off a branch, hanging itself.

The princess fell off Starlight's back. Horror filled her heart as frisky fingers sapped her strength. Corpses chased after her, wanting a fresh body to feel alive again like zombies seeking to satisfy a hunger for human flesh. She carefully crawled on her stomach then backed up against a tombstone, hoping the skeletons hadn't followed her. One rock had her name written on it. Holes in the ground beckoned foolish travelers to look and fall in. It felt like this was going to be her last night alive. She ran for the safety of the cave. Fortunately, she was faster because of her boots.

I might end up as a midnight snack!

A skeleton jumped on her back and grabbed her neck, trying to choke her. Defending herself, she flung it over her shoulders. Spinning in circles while she held its hand, she used it to knock over the oncoming hellish hordes then swung it under her legs. It hit another skeleton sneaking up behind her. They both slammed into stalagmites that looked like a bed of nails and fractured into crumbs. The others came closer.

"Hey, can't we just sit down and talk this over?"

Finally, the prince arrived, fighting his way forward. Leaping from the unicorn, he ran across the tops of their heads, severing their skulls with his sword and knocking them off until there was a pile of broken bones.

Bones began to rattle, shake, and come back together again – forming a full skeleton, with spider webs serving as tendons. A long arm reached out to grab the princess with gnarled fingers, but she wiggled loose. Pulling out a huge, heavy sword, the giant skeleton split a boulder in half. It lifted the sword high above her head. The princess ran up to a cliff edge.

"Now would be a great time for some backup here!"

The unicorn leaped and rammed into the monster. They lost their balance and fell into the bottomless pit. The unicorn ran up its long, outstretched arm. Starlight almost slipped along the way, barely making it back safely onto solid ground.

"I'm glad that's over." She turned to leave.

"Be quiet," the prince whispered, trying to concentrate.

"Did you hear something?" The princess leaned forward, peering over the edge.

"No, I just want you to be quiet," he replied.

Grasping a corner, the skeleton nearly crushed her. The prince attempted to stop it before it could climb up again. He dodged its fist as it tried to pound him into the ground, but he cut off all its fingers. Unable to hold on any longer, it fell. This time, they both watched to make sure the monster was gone for good.

By the open exit was another piece of Angel Armor. She put it on. Fresh waves of energy surged through her soul. The Breastplate of Righteousness gave her superhuman strength, but no attack could pierce it.

13: THE CASTLE OF CHAOS

The prince and princess fought their way through many dangers to reach the castle. The last part of the journey was hardest. The prince patted the unicorn's neck to urge him on. The unicorn buckled under the weight of the riders on his back. He snorted and stomped on the ground restlessly. He was so worn-out he stumbled along the road and faltered beneath the heavy burden.

"Just a little farther and then you can rest all you want."

"Are we there yet?" Princess Angela fought to stay awake.

"I don't think we should bring him in. He doesn't like to stay in one place for long. He'll find a way home somehow." Paladin lifted her off Starlight's back and left him there.

A crescent moon hung over the haunted castle. A valley spread out below them. The landscape resembled a volcano belly. Clouds of smoke drifted into the sky and random jets of flame spouted from the rocky ground between glowing streams of lava. A moat of magma surrounded a twisted tower; it released boiling gas bubbles exploding with heat. A river of fire cast an eerie glow on the black walls. Demons guarded the gate, including a hooded corpse riding a skeleton horse with a bone blade that sat waiting for them across an old bone drawbridge. The evil spirits standing watch over it wouldn't permit them to pass.

The prince put a foot out to test his weight on it and led her across. A dragon swooped down and slashed, breaking part of it. Before they reached the other side, the bridge began to creak and tilt over. The princess started sliding toward the molten magma. Hanging onto the edge, he grabbed her hand and swung her up. The broken bridge started to shake and lifted them higher. Carrying her, he dashed and leaped off the end just as it burned and sank into the lava. They barely managed to clear the gap and land on solid ground, rolling as the planks disintegrated and fell into the flames.

"I guess they forgot to leave out the welcome mat." Angela crossed her arms, leaning against a tree. "Now what?" She sighed.

"We must find another way across. Let's keep on looking."

After a while, the princess got tired of trying to locate the hidden entrance. Her armor was out of power from all the fighting and needed a recharge. Her feet were aching, so she sat on top of an old tree stump and then tumbled head over heels. The prince turned around and got a glimpse of her astonished expression just before she fell into a twisted tunnel. She had found a hidden path that led below the castle walls. The stairs flipped over, but he grabbed a crack between the stones.

"Help me! I'm slipping!" The princess started falling.

"Hold on! I'm coming for you!" he shouted.

Letting go, he went after her. He reached out for her hand as she dangled upside-down. Thinking fast, he stuck out his sword to stop himself. At the bottom of the hole, a skull floated up to the surface of a bubbling acid pool.

"Whew! That was close." She exhaled in respite.

"Watch your step." The prince pulled her up.

"There are two ways to go, but they both look the same."

"As long as you stay on the path, you won't get lost."

"How do you know that's the right way?" she asked.

"Don't worry. Just be patient and trust me."

"I hate it when you say that." The princess pouted.

On either side, there was a vast pit. One wrong step meant certain death. She stood on something solid, but couldn't see where she was going. She almost turned back and wondered if it would be more dangerous to continue. She went on, looking for a better route. Then she found a fork in the road. The paths went parallel. Maybe they would meet back together again later.

I might as well take the easy way.

Naturally, light attracted her, but something was strange. She almost took the right path, but left the light-source for an artificial image, went the wrong way, and got lost again. Then she turned around, looking for the prince. Without trusting her senses, she walked by faith and not by sight. They couldn't see each other anymore, so she followed the sound of his voice.

"Hey, where are you? I can't find you!" she shouted.

"I was right here all along. Why did you doubt?" he asked.

A steadily glowing light came from somewhere nearby. The last piece of Angel Armor hovered in midair above a pedestal. Princess Angela picked up the Belt of Truth and slipped it around her waist; it fit her perfectly. It sharpened her senses and granted her knowledge by helping her see invisible things, including some evil spirits and any dark deceptions.

After they entered the next room, the prince prevented her from taking another step. Fiery darts flew from holes in the wall, but the prince blocked them with his sword. Leading the princess away, he took shelter in a hollow crevice carved out of a pillar. A metal spear shot out of a wall near them and then retracted horizontally. Watching the destructive devices to predict a pattern, he waited for the right moment; they ran and dived out of the way.

Suddenly another gate slid between them, separating them. They couldn't afford to split up right now. Unable to turn back, Paladin searched for a way around. The princess would probably be chained up somewhere in the castle or trapped in a tower.

14: THE TOWER OF TERROR

Prince Paladin made it to the Great Hall, which led to the center of the castle – where he'd have to face yet another threat. The princess was stuck on the other side of a mirror with a worried expression on her face. Tears filled her eyes. Help me! Please hurry! The image faded away. He put his hand up to the glass and pounded his fist against an invisible wall. When he finally left, the image came back to laugh. It was the witch. Shadow pretended to be the princess to lead him into a trap.

Dust had settled everywhere. Crimson curtains hung down. Heavy pillars supported stone blocks between rusty suits of armor. Chains of former captives lay on the floor. A fountain of blood spurted between two sets of stairs, pouring from gargoyle mouths. Romanesque rails led to a pitch-black throne festooned with polished bones and a crown of twisted thorns. A fire glowed in the hearth near the skeletal seat. An open ceiling hole let in a column of moonlight; the faint beam fell, illuminating the ivory chair.

When he reached the throne room, no one was there. The prince took a step forward, then stopped. One of the black and white squares of the checkered floor sank; apparently, he'd stepped on a switch. Spiders crawled back into the shadows to hide. Bats flew through barred windows above ancient architecture. Following footsteps echoed through the long, empty hall. Hearing whispers, the prince spun around in anticipation, but the abandoned suits of armor stood still. At first, nothing happened, but when he turned his back, strange figures stepped forth and came to life. Some of the evil spirits animated steel shells. They almost looked human, but couldn't think and act on their own. Someone powerful controlled these puppets from a distance.

A spear hovered in the air, lifted by telekinetic forces. When he ran away, it followed behind him. It flew past as he ducked, dodging it. As it came back around again, he deflected it with his sword and it stuck into the ceiling. A sword came slashing, but the prince grabbed a nearby shield and sent it out to defend against the attack.

The Dragon King's elite guards filled the room. Hooded skeleton priests hid safely in the shadows. He could barely make out the figures wearing black cloaks as they surrounded him. Evil spirits circled the chamber, floating in midair. Suddenly, the phantoms struck. Wasting no time, the prince drew his weapon. He put the sword under his feet, standing on top of it, using it to slide down a metal rail. Sparks went flying everywhere. As he did this, they attacked him again. He dodged the blades sweeping past his face. He ducked and then jumped into the air. When he landed, he hit the ground and rolled to the side, ready to defend himself.

Timing his next move while keeping his balance, he ran up along the side of the wall and then leaped right onto the balcony. Resting a hand on the railing, he swung his feet over, dropped, and landed on both legs bending his knees slightly. Moving faster than they could follow, the prince flipped backward then regained his poise. Now he had some space to work with.

His ominous opponents absorbed energy from the light, turning it to darkness. Each time he swung, his sword passed right through them. Their terrible talismans possessed supernatural power. There had to be another way to get past them.

The prince observed these wicked warriors were wearing magic pendants, noticing one seemed more solid than the others. Only one was real; the rest were illusions. His sword cut harmlessly through several copies until the demon defended itself. The sword flashed bright and blinded the leader. Taking advantage of his disoriented adversary, he broke the accursed amulet it wore around its neck. It could no longer stand against the prince. The enchanted suits of armor fell lifelessly to the floor in pieces.

No time to rest… I have to find the princess.

Divided and badly outnumbered, the wolf demons fell back into the bastion to recover and regroup via trapdoor hidden behind the throne. They tried to keep the angels from advancing, for if they failed, it would seal their fate forever like their fallen leader.

The Dark Lord watched them all this time from his forsaken fortress. As a last resort, he sent out his own bodyguard to stop the prince and buy more time to prepare for the final fight. Banishing had always been his favorite method of dealing with disloyal subjects. If they so much as thought about disobeying, he would unleash his terrible wrath upon them.

"What news do you bring me?" He tapped his fingers.

"Our forces have engaged the enemy in combat."

"Let them come." The evil prince turned away.

"Can I be of further service to you?"

"No, I wish to be left alone now," the Dark Lord said.

"Are you sure, Sire?" the wolf demon asked.

"Leave me!" he shouted in an edgy tone of voice. All of the demons around him fell silent. "Just go."

"Of course…" With that, the wolf demon bowed and left.

The Dark Lord sighed, resting his head on one hand as he sulked on his throne. He captured the princess once, but neglected to kill her. This costly error in judgment gave her another chance to defeat him. His arrogance had left him vulnerable when he underestimated her at first. She had beat him, but not without help. He'd see to it personally that she paid dearly for her defiance.

If I can't have her, no one will.

15: TWISTED TWIN

Princess Angela quietly wandered around the haunted castle, watching out for traps. This time, she wasn't going to let her guard down. She entered an empty pitch-black room. A mysterious column of moonlight fell in the center of the chamber. As she stood there, she heard someone's footsteps. It came as a terrible shock when she realized she wasn't alone.

"Who's there?" She stopped, not noticing a shadow that swept over her a moment before she spun around. It was too slow a reaction. From the corner of her eye, she saw something move – slipping across the floor – sneaking up on her.

An elusive form emerged from her hiding place and stepped out into the open. The witch wore a special suit of ancient armor powered by several magic jewels. Moon and star earrings hung on either side of her head under locks of black hair. Blood stained her halo like a twisted tiara. The princess noticed an odd aroma getting stronger. The air grew heavy with magic as a strange dark mist filled the room. She slammed a door shut behind her and then leaned against it with her back to the wall. The witch walked right through it like it wasn't there. An orb rolled in, crawled up her leg, and then hooked onto her hand.

"How did you get in here?" The princess gasped, startled.

"The same way I invaded your weak mind…" The witch spoke in a very different voice than the one she had used until now. "Why are you here? Where were you going?"

"I'm searching for something, but I forgot what it was."

"Everything you could ever wish for is right here, dear."

The princess struggled against the spell, but the strange magic grew hold of her ever more with each passing moment. The fact that she could still sense it in this half-awake state meant it hadn't fully worked yet. The mist made its way into her mind. The stronger the spell, the more it felt like she was still in control. Lost in a trance, she wavered in place.

"No, I came from a land of light. I remember the rainbows. It's bright and beautiful. It's warm and wonderful."

"There was never any world but mine," the witch said. "Light is a legend. There is no truth. Reality is an illusion."

"It's more than a myth or forgotten fairytale. I've seen it before with my own eyes," Princess Angela told her.

"Where is your world? What makes it so much better than this one anyway? Can you show me? Try using your imagination." The witch gave her no time to reply. "All you know is based on simple senses – external experiences – counterfeit copies – virtual reflections of reality. Yet, you know nothing of the universe's nature beyond this mental mirage. You're too mature to play pretend like this. These silly little stories would suit you better if you were younger. I'm tired of your childish curiosity."

"I went there once, a long time ago," Angela said.

"Perhaps you saw something, but I see no hope here. There's only darkness, death, and despair."

The princess squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating harder. "I may not live in a perfect world, but I can dream."

Shadow spoke in a soft and sweet voice, lulling her into a deep sleep. "You must rest now. You can't think clearly. Just close your eyes. It will be easier that way, and faster. All in due time…"

Closing her eyes tight, the princess fought the dark magic taking over her thoughts. It felt like heavy weights held her down. After pausing for a suspenseful struggle, she finally gave in. It seemed to make sense at the moment.

"Yes, I see now. I was wrong. You were right all along." She nodded in a hopeless tone of voice, absentmindedly agreeing.

This sapped her strength even more than before. In the back of her mind, she couldn't help thinking she ought to remember something important. Suddenly the witch's words sounded false and hollow. Hope was stronger than any curse or spell that any old hag could cast. It melted her magic, for she could not make it serve her since it had no power over the pure of heart. Holding up her head, Princess Angela looked deep into her eyes and saw what the witch was trying to do.

"No, I won't forget. I've learned to look past all the lies."

"Hold on!" Shadow shouted. "What are you doing?"

"Waking up… I won't deny what you said. Suppose I simply imagined all of those things. Well in that case, they seem more important than what is real. Your world is a sick and twisted place. I don't want to be part of it. Nightmares would be nicer."

"Is that a head on your shoulders or is it just there for decoration? You learned nothing from our first encounter, yet here you are coming back for more like your silly sister. Now your fate will be hers. It's funny how history tends to repeat itself."

The princess ignored the natural need to turn and run, realizing this was exactly what the witch wanted. It would take all her will to defeat the demon. "No, I'm not going to run and hide. I'm not afraid of you anymore. If I learned anything, my fear and doubt can bring about the very thing I'm trying to avoid. One often meets fate on the path one takes to prevent it."

"You had better not be serious!" Shadow scowled.

"Or else what?" The princess put her hands on her hips. "You'll turn me into stone? I don't think so!"

"I haven't seen you this angry in a long time," Shadow said. "What a pleasant surprise…"

"I'm through running away. It's your turn now."

"The time has come to face your fear." The witch leered menacingly. She used a diamond to control the air. "Which one of us will still be standing when the dust clears?"

I can do this. The princess never lost her head for a moment, even in the face of overwhelming odds. "You're just a mindless monster – a senseless shadow. As long as I still have a breath in my body, I won't give up."

"Then we'll just have to take that away, won't we?"

The witch's black blade released its mysterious magic. Shadow scraped her sword on a stone floor and drew a ring of fire to trap the princess in it. Setting the sword by her side so its tip touched the ground, Shadow leaned against it to admire her work. The princess started suffocating in the center circle. She fell to her knees, coughed, and held her neck because she couldn't breathe. It sucked the air out of her chest. As it became harder to breathe, she held oxygen in her lungs to save her strength.

"Did you really think you had a chance?" Shadow smirked.

At first, the princess began to fade away and closed her eyes. Each step she took was a separate battle. She tried to focus as her legs turned into ice, yet she couldn't control her fragmented feelings, mixed memories, and empty emotions. The princess froze in place again, but not for long. The Sword of Light melted it all away. Barely managing to believe, she overcame her doubt with faith – trusting in the truth. She opened her eyes and became solid again. The Angel Armor's protective power was the only reason she could resist the magic. Without it, she would have been defeated again just like the others.

I mustn't use magic. That would make me as bad as her.

The witch seemed surprised, but when the princess reached her, she had enough sense to bring her sword down on the magic jewel instead. It was the foundation of her wicked hex. The black gem shattered. A shower of sparks twinkled toward the floor.

"Your little tricks won't work on me anymore. Now I know what this armor is for."

"I don't need to use any magic to defeat you. If I can't manipulate your mind, I'll just have to kill you."

"When you bring darkness into light, it loses its power." Princess Angela pointed to a shaft of sunlight streaming down from above through a hole in a cloud. "I have the advantage. I can see you. It's my turn now. How does it feel having to fight fair?"

"I don't like the light. It bothers me." Shadow shielded her eyes. She had to squint because it was way too bright.

"Lighten up! There's a lot more where that came from."

The witch bit her lip so hard a drop of blood appeared. Her face grew pale; then she simply smiled. "You think you've won? You haven't seen the last of me yet!" Shadow left the scene.

Princess Angela had stood her ground, but she was still no match for Shadow. Cautiously she continued, creeping through the haunted castle. She stopped to have one last look around the area. As she turned to leave, a flash of lightning illuminated the room.

The Sword of Light acted like a mirror, revealing the reflection of the otherwise invisible figure behind her. When she turned around, no one was there. Her elusive enemy never made the slightest sound. She came face-to-face with herself again. It was the last person in the world she wanted to see – a creature with no other purpose but to kill her.

"I found you, faker!" Princess Angela pointed again.

The witch's keen eyes darted around as she took in the situation. She closed the door without ever touching it.

"Alone together at last!" Shadow said. "Sorry I had to leave you back there. I can only survive so long in sunlight."

"You said you wouldn't use any more magic."

"I lied." Shadow shrugged. "It's time to finish what I started and get rid of you for good. Only one of us will leave here alive."

"I'm aware of that. I just want to be real for once."

"Your faith is futile. You have no hope," Shadow said.

"Oh yes I do!" Angela held the sword high in the air.

"You shouldn't play with sharp objects. Didn't I tell you that pointing isn't polite? Your stupid sword can't save you. Do you seriously think that will stop me? All your power pales compared to my charms."

"I thought you weren't at the peak of your power."

"Entirely exaggerated! I wanted you to feel like you were doing well. I am a master of magic and an expert of the elements."

"Why use magic when I can turn it right back at you?"

"I'd like to see you try, especially since I can do this!"

A crooked change came over Shadow's evil smile. She pressed her lips tight together. Her fists clenched, ready for action. Her long hair streamed like a comet's tail. A strong gale rose in the room, coming from nowhere. Drawing energy from the air with sweeping motions, she molded a burning ball that hovered in her hands. The witch walked forward with wide, swift strides. She raised her arm, letting a loose sleeve fall to her elbow. She leaped in the air and yelled with her mouth wide open, closing her eyes as power flowed through her. Her hair waved wildly, whipping in the wind.

"Now witness my wrath!" Shadow the Witch shouted.

Shadow sent lightning bolts rushing past the princess, coming from her fingertips. A split spectrum shot out of her hand, but the spell backfired. The Shield of Faith protected the princess against the witch's black magic, absorbing hits near the area with two flamboyant angel wings. Elemental attacks had no effect on her now; the wind and waves couldn't push her around.

Then something strange happened. The princess transformed and unlocked an untapped power within her that perfectly preserved her. Her body began to glow bright with light and became crystal clear. A shimmering sphere floated in midair. A rainbow-colored aura covered her like some kind of shield – a layer of light darkness couldn't break through. The shell surrounding her warped time and space. In this spontaneous state, she affected her environment from the inside out. She had created her own reality that existed in a different dimension.

I'm alive, but how? Princess Angela looked around.

Electricity crackled between them as the brilliant beam wavered back and forth. Gradually darkness gave way until finally the light overtook it. The witch tried to use it against her. Instead, the princess let the power flow through her and reflected it. It hit Shadow's chest; the witch flew back, slamming into a wall. The sphere of light surrounding the princess vanished. As the bubble burst, sparkling embers briefly filled the room and then faded away. The princess dropped down, slowly lifting her head.

"You've been a very bad girl." Angela admonished.

"Stay back! Don't come any closer to me!"

"Shadow, you're cunning, crafty, and cruel, but it's time to put an end to all your evil enchantments."

"If you kill me, you will destroy yourself and be lost forever. Leave now and I might let you live."

"Maybe that's the only way to beat you."

Shadow realized what the princess planned to do. The witch begged and held out her hand. The princess used the sword on her heart, but she could feel the witch's pain too, so she stopped without following through. It hurt too much.

"That's right! You can't do it. Can you?" Shadow asked.

The witch fell to the floor and gasped for air, fading faster. Shadow became solid again. The princess cautiously approached. With lightning-quick reflexes, Shadow knocked the sword out of her hand. It spun around on the floor, just out of reach. The princess slid toward it on her knees, but the witch kicked it away before she grabbed it.

"Don't even think about it, princess." Shadow smirked. "Hey, are you ok? How many fingers am I holding up now?" Shadow stuck out the middle one in a grotesque gesture. "Here, let me help." The witch politely offered her hand, but then kicked the princess in the stomach while she was down, making her curl up. "Don't be so hard on yourself. Stop beating yourself up about it."

Princess Angela bit her lip, ignoring the pain; she clenched her teeth, tasting her own blood. Her whole body hurt. Lying on her side, she pushed back with her legs. Every muscle ached miserably, stubbornly protesting, but she pressed on.

Got to get up… Angela didn't have time to think – just act.

"Remember this moment, lest it should be your last!"

As the witch lifted her blade, the princess reached for her sword. She retrieved it and then thrust it through Shadow's chest.

Suddenly Shadow stopped smiling. Pleasure turned to pain. The witch staggered back. She coughed and let go of her sword. Falling onto her knees, she found it hard to breathe. A tear of blood rolled down her cheek.

"Why?" the witch asked. Looking up, she nodded. "I would have done the same for you."

The witch never wanted to live, seized by a desire to end her existence. Her dark heart longed only to return to the oblivion she had come from; for her, it was the path to peace. Her life meant nothing; neither would her death. Her goal was to end the good part of herself – such a simple task, yet she had failed.

Princess Angela wasn't sure if the witch was really gone. Shadow's lifeless form lay still on the floor. Then a finger twitched; she gasped, forming a fist again as the pool of blood entered her body. The witch slowly raised her head with a fierce look in her eyes, remembering what happened. It must have hurt, but she wasn't crying; she began to smile. She yanked the sword out of her chest. Rather than tossing it aside, she tried to use it against the princess by wielding both the weapons. It grew hot and heavy in her hand so she dropped it and swung the other one instead.

"Hey, mind if I cut in?" A taller figure stood beside her. The prince unexpectedly blocked the blow. "Let's dance!"

"I should have killed you when I had the chance!"

"My brave prince has power over the grave. He's back and you're gonna be in trouble!"

"Be quiet you little…" Shadow snarled.

"Release her right now!" Prince Paladin demanded loudly.

"And why should I?" Shadow squinted.

"I suggest you reconsider," he replied.

"Fool, you'll ruin everything! Keep out of this!" The witch wouldn't surrender, yet she still kept her distance. "You think you can protect her from me? Hey, I worked hard to steal her soul. I'll drag her back down to Hell where she belongs."

The witch leaped and struck like a viper. The prince dodged the blow, countered, and inflicted heavy damage to her.

"Not bad…" Shadow coughed, wiped a bit of blood from her lip, and stood up again. "You're good, but not good enough." The witch lifted her hand and flung her arm out, throwing him in the air without touching him. He bounded off a wall with one foot.

"I control the horizontal and vertical!" Shadow shouted.

"You forgot one thing." The prince pointed up.

"Oh? And what's that?" Shadow the Witch asked.

"The Z-axis!" Paladin charged forward.

The sword's shockwave knocked her into the air. The witch flew through several walls until finally she hit one that stopped her. Part of it broke, cracking and caving in. Though the impact left a crater, she was still in one piece. The armor protecting her was difficult to penetrate, but already started to split and break apart. As she reached out, her sword magically floated in midair and boomeranged back to her hand. Thinking she was defeated, Paladin turned to leave. He stopped as she rose from the rubble.

"Let's try that again." Shadow stood back up.

"Out of the way!" The prince held the princess back.

Lunging furiously, Shadow attacked with a series of well-placed blows. Her black hair whirled around as she spun in circles. The prince ducked and tripped her with a sweep of his leg. Frustrated, she struck from every direction. He blocked each blow. Then she charged again, but he grabbed her arm and hurled her. Her back slammed against a wall. Instead, she played dead.

Shadow's thoughts were as quick as her actions. The prince was far too powerful for her. If she couldn't outfight him, perhaps she could outsmart him with his one weakness. The witch slipped into the shadows, dissolving into the darkness. Her black blood poured like sand particles through an hourglass. She pleaded in a faint voice and staggered toward them as she started to fade away.

"Wait, take me with you! I can change! Don't leave me here like this." The witch reeled back with a frightened look.

"Mercy is for the weak, remember?" Angela asked. "I was never afraid." The princess turned away in triumph.

"Don't you dare turn your back on me!" Shadow pointed.

Though Shadow turned invisible, her image appeared in a mirror right behind the princess. The witch grabbed her hair and forced her head back. The princess tried to remove the hand around her throat. At the press of a fingernail, she offered no struggle.

"Take one step closer and I'll cut her throat. Still think you can save her? Just try me! I'm having a bad hair day."

"Leave her alone!" the prince shouted.

"No way… This is far too much fun!" Shadow brought the nail closer to her neck. "In fact, I should have guests more often."

"I think she really means it!" Princess Angela cried out.

"Give us some room," Shadow said. The prince set down his sword and slowly backed away. "That's more like it!"

The princess pushed her arm away and ran to him. Shadow grabbed her by the neck and threw her to the floor. Then she hurled a sword at him like a spear. The prince caught it with his bare hands as it spun around then flung it back at her, pinning her arm to the wall. The witch shook her head and recovered, but he thrust the Sword of Light through a joint in her armor to pierce her chest. The beam grew brighter. The princess watched as the witch faded away until nothing was left.

"My doom has come," the witch whispered calmly.

"That had to hurt! I hope she's sorry." Princess Angela was glad the witch was gone, but she couldn't help feeling a little sorry for herself. She found a fragment of the crystal heart lying on the ground; there was only one piece left.

That ghost is toast. And yet, I'm still not sure who won.

16: DRAGON'S LAIR

"Are you with me?" Prince Paladin asked.

"Yes, I'm with you," Princess Angela replied reassuringly.

The prince and princess ran up a stairway that spiraled to the top of a tower that seemed to go on forever. Along the warped walls, wax candles flickered faintly, casting a dim glow; when they went out, only the sword's light was left. Hurried footsteps echoed into their ears as they climbed higher. The long, circular passage grew even narrower with each turn. The tower coiled tighter around as it ascended until it appeared that with each step the walls were closing in on them. Bubbling puddles of slime oozed down the ramparts – the black blood of darkness itself. A parasitic presence permeated the perimeter with its viral vector.

When they reached the dark door, they stopped before it. As they walked boldly to face their fate, he took her hand.

"The Dragon King doesn't leave his lair often," he said.

"Wait, it could be a trap. We don't know what's in there."

"We've already passed the point of no return," he said.

"Well then, I'm going with you. I have to pay him back."

"No, you must let me face him alone. I'm sorry, but you can't come this time. You fought your shadow. That's enough."

"I won't let you go on without me. No matter what happens, we'll face it together," she said.

"He knows we're here. I know it seems like you came all this way for nothing, but you helped more than you might realize."

"It's hard waiting around when a friend is in trouble."

He hugged her tight, but she sighed heavily. "What's wrong?" He broke the embrace and looked at her with concern.

"I'm scared. That's all." The princess pivoted around.

"This is all going to be over soon. Everything will be ok."

"You don't have to do this." She tried to talk him out of it.

"If I don't stop him, then who will?" Paladin asked.

"Many others are willing to stand against him. It doesn't have to be you," Angela said.

"It's the only way." He shook his head.

"You're so selfish sometimes!" She slapped his face.

"I sacrificed my life to save the world. How is that bad?"

"Do you know what it was like believing you died? What if we never see each other again?" She opened her mouth, but no words came. She turned away again; she couldn't help crying. Trying to wipe the tears from her eyes, she smiled nervously and looked up at him like a lost child. "Just promise me something. Don't die this time."

"I'll come back again for you. Do you believe me?"

"If you can't do it, no one can. I never thought we'd make it this far. Thank you. I'll never forget what you've done for me. I'd be lost without you. I love you."

"I know." He held her in his arms.

"Be careful," she whispered.

"I will." He nodded.

The sword's power surged through him, strengthening him as he braced for the battle. Now it was time to finish the fight.

Princess Angela hesitantly headed through an arched portal. Walking forward, she went back to her world. Arriving back on Earth, she landed on a patch of grass then rolled to a stop. Mark waved, walking over.

"Are you ok, princess?" He checked for injuries.

"Sure, the ground broke my fall." She brushed herself off. "Remind me not to dive headfirst through any more portals."

"I'll make a note of it." Mark helped her up.

"I'm fine. Stop staring," she said, feeling light-headed.

"It looks like you've been to Hell and back again," he said.

"I have," Angela replied. "I trust your mission turned out as successful as mine?"

"Everything is going great. It couldn't be better. I'm not kidding though. You look awful! Who did this to you?"

"I did, actually." She brushed her hair back. "It took all I had to stop her, but somehow I survived."

"What do you mean?" Mark arched an eyebrow.

"I fought my shadow in the spiritual dimension. I wouldn't be here having this conversation if the Dragon King won." She explained to everyone what happened to her, mentioning the battle continuing even as she spoke. "As for the rest, I'll tell you later."

"There's something else I think you should know. Your sister hanged herself right after you appeared to die."

"I don't believe it."

"It's true!" Mark didn't mean to upset her.

"Why didn't you tell me before?" she turned and shouted over all the noise. The others grew silent.

"I'm sorry! I should have said something earlier. I can't remember everything. I thought you knew."

"You had no right to keep that from me, Mark!"

"He was only doing what I told him," Charles said. "If you had known, you never would have stopped to think clearly. The Dragon King could have used your emotions against you, costing us our lives or even the war."

"So you were in on this too, huh?" She narrowed her eyes.

"Wait, let me explain!" Mark shouted, but she stormed off.

"I think she needs some time to herself," Charles said.

"Gee, what's her problem?" Mark scratched his head. "I've never seen her like this. She says she's fine, but I doubt it. I wish I were a close friend of the family. At least then I could relate to what she's been going through of late."

"You'll find unofficial ties count for much more. This is just a result of all the recent trauma and pressure she's under."

"She's almost as stubborn as me." Mark walked over and knelt next to her. "I'm sure you'll see your parents again soon."

"I know." She nodded, wiping a tear away. The scars of war were not always visible. "This place doesn't exactly hold the best memories for me. I came to pay my respects. That's all."

"Sometimes we forget because it hurts to remember."

"My sister chose her own path in life," she said.

"As cruel as it can be, Earth is all I've ever known. I can't leave until that flicker of hope becomes a burning flame."

So much had happened. Through it all though, she felt peace in her heart. Her quest had been worth it after all. She recalled hardships they met along the way. Prophecies rushed through her mind as she prayed. They couldn't escape the past by rewriting history; their best hope was simply to continue learning. Now she could look forward to the future.

"What's wrong?" Mark noticed how upset she was.

"Oh, nothing…" She smiled.

"So, your adventures are over now?" Mark grinned.

"I'm just getting started." Princess Angela rose and walked away, ready to face a new day.

A sharp horn tore a hole in time and space, ripping the very fabric of reality. Another portal to the other world suddenly appeared before her. The unicorn emerged with a desperate look in his eyes. Though he couldn't speak, she could tell he wanted her to follow him back through the dimensional disturbance. His urgency was unmistakable.

"Wait, something is wrong! He needs my help! I can't let him do this alone. I've got to go back."

"I know. I have to baby-sit." Mark nodded.

17: EYE OF THE STORM

Princess Angela went through a portal and arrived in the Forbidden Forest. She left little breadcrumbs behind to help return to reality, but the birds of the air appeared to eat them all up. Her companion changed back into his true form. Nightmare circled like a starving vulture waiting to catch its prey unaware, delighted at her dismay.

"It was I who led you deeper into the darkness. We've been watching you all along, waiting for you there," Nightmare said.

"And let's not forget the fallen star of the show."

Shadow walked up to Nightmare and wrapped her arm around his neck. She stroked his mane to calm him down while softly whispering something in his twitching ear. Nightmare narrowed his eyes. His flared nostrils snorted.

"I thought you were dead!" The princess shook her head.

"Death can come for you anytime and anywhere. You have to face me yourself. Nobody can do it for you. I will only be killed when you are. As long as there are still shadows in your soul, I'll be there. Until then, you've got a date with fate."

"What part of my heart is still in the dark?" Angela asked.

"That's for me to know and you to find out," Shadow said.

"Not again… Please, no…" Princess Angela backed away.

"Welcome back. I think you're staying this time."

Shadow quickly leaped onto the dark unicorn's back. Nightmare charged after her and chased the wind.

I can't believe I went this far just to fail! I came so close.

Princess Angela's heart pounded faster than her feet. She pushed branches aside, careful not to get tangled up in them. Before she could escape, Nightmare struck the final blow with his horn and thrust it into her heart. He had dipped the tip in pure poison. When he withdrew it, she fell down to the ground, lying still. The princess was poisoned; if she moved, it would spread, circulating through her bloodstream. It hurt at first, but now she couldn't feel anything.

Shadow shielded her eyes from a blinding blast of light. Starlight had waited outside out of concern for his companion. He nudged Angela with his nose and pawed at her gently with a hoof until she lay on her back, but he could tell she was still breathing.

"I'm ok. The armor protected me. It took all my strength to use it. I don't think I can take much more of this."

"Come on… I have to bring you back." Starlight knelt. The effects would wear off eventually, but he had to carry her for now.

"The sooner you get me out of here, the better." The girl gripped the unicorn's mane and urged him on.

"After them, you fool!" Shadow screamed.

"I'll tear you apart!" The dark unicorn shook the stardust from his midnight mane. "This will stop them dead in their tracks."

Black mist blinded Starlight. He accidentally stumbled into a hole. The princess fell off his back, but he bit her hair with his teeth until she grabbed a hoof and held on. They dared not move, not knowing how far a drop it was.

A breeze grew stronger and caught their attention. A gray unicorn stood at the edge of the woods. His mane and tail waved in the wind. Leaves on the forest floor levitated in circles, whirling and dancing around. He bounded from trees, hitting the trunks with his hooves. He leaped into the air, landed gracefully on the ground, and then came to an abrupt halt next to them.

"No time for formal introductions… Call me Cyclone."

Thunderclouds thickened; a lightning bolt struck the ground. Liquid lead rained down; the drops came together forming a cybernetic creature. A unicorn revealed itself, rising from a pool. The mechanical monster lifted its legs from the molten metal in all its malice. The name of this technological terror was Lightning. The digital demon had the sophisticated structure of complicated circuitry. As his hooves hit the ground, the earth shook at the sound. A thick shell of armor covered his body; solid steel plates slid into place. The silver stallion's horn looked more like a microchip with a neon amber aura. Even his eyes glowed.

Lightning blasted out a bolt of raw electricity by polarizing air molecules with a magnetic field. Showering sparks hit Cyclone, but somehow he managed to reverse the effect by repositioning an antenna so it took a different direction and hit Nightmare instead. The static shock flung him back and knocked him out. Flowing current made his mane stand up and illuminated his inner skeleton.

Cyclone formed a wall of wind so nothing could come near him. Lightning rammed into a tree and his horn got stuck. Jerking his head, he pulled and tugged to free himself. He tossed it away, but Cyclone was gone.

Lightning turned into a metal ball that rolled after them, knocking over every tree in its path and breaking all the branches. This form worked well going downhill, but soon the soil leveled out. Bolts streaked down from the sky; trunks shattered into splinters. Starlight dodged the detonations and then bounded back and forth between trees, knocking them over with his hooves. Lightning cut them off at a river pass before they could escape.

"I won't let you get away that easily!" Lightning shouted.

Starlight shot out a brilliant laser beam with his horn, but it bounced off Lightning's metal frame like a mirror. It reflected the blast of energy, cutting down a row of trees, which nearly crushed him when they fell, blocking his path. Starlight turned, facing him head on, but the evil unicorn formed a force-field around himself. It looked like a bubble of electric energy. When Starlight tried to ram him, a jolt sent him flying back. The magnetic field repelled anything that came close.

Starlight leaped into the air over the river before starting to swim across the rest of the way. Lightning shook his mane, sending sparks flying everywhere. Dipping his horn in the water, he conducted a current. The liquid would zap them the moment they touched it. Just as they fell, the surface froze and turned into solid ice.

"Now what's going on?" Lightning looked and wondered.

Another unicorn sprinted across the surface, standing in her support. Crystal, a majestic mare, gracefully glided toward them. It seemed like she could walk on water. Frost formed at her feet with each step. Her pale face was as white as snow – with a misty mane, a steaming hot tail, and a horn and hooves made of ice. Her talent lay in lifting liquids and directing flowing fluids. Water waved out underneath the unicorn; she leaped and landed beside them.

Lightning dived into the water, coming after them. Crystal combined her efforts with Cyclone to create a hurricane. Water and wind would stop him for sure. It sucked him under; the only way to escape was to go down and ride out the current. Eventually, he passed out from exhaustion and drowned from a determination to free himself.

A faint sound hit their ears – the kind of crackle that could only mean the ice was about to break. The first small fissure became more, growing larger each moment, spreading out over the top layer until the surface shattered. Princess Angela and Starlight fell with a splash, but Cyclone created a miniature tornado to lift them in the air and out of the boiling water. A flood of fire burst out from underground, pouring into the place. Another unicorn emerged from the earth, standing alone. He parted the liquid lava in two walls, holding it back while he walked through them.

All the ground around him turned into ash. Magma spurted forth each time his hooves touched the dirt. His mane and tail looked like flickering flames – his hooves like brimstone. His horn burned bright just like the sun. He shook his mane, flinging fiery ashes into the air. He rose from the flames like a phoenix, leaving charred cinders in his wake. Gas ruffled his tail. He looked around angrily, unable to understand why the others were laughing. They pawed at the ground with their hooves and shook their manes.

"That burns me up!" Inferno glared at Cyclone.

Snorting smoke from his flared nostrils, Inferno summoned lava from deep below the surface. Crystal fought the flames with a nearby stream, which evaporated into a sizzling steam. A liquid wall kept him away, so he couldn't cross. She didn't have a steady supply source at her disposal. The others continued while Crystal held him off and restrained the river. Running downstream, they reached a waterfall. Not everyone could prance down the cliffs with fancy footwork like Starlight. Fortunately, Cyclone could just jump over the edge and gently glide down. It was difficult work racing through the forest at such dangerous speeds.

"Are you ok, princess?" Starlight checked on her.

"Actually, I think I've finally got the hang of this!" she said with a smile and a wink. The princess glanced over a shoulder, but then turned around, whacked into a tree branch, and fell on the ground. Starlight rolled his eyes, going back for her.

Inferno sent scorching lava that looped like a tidal wave. Crystal concentrated and cooled it down enough to form temporary stepping-stones, then ran through the center of the cascade. Moments later, the blocks melted back into the collapsing stream.

Crystal approached a cliff edge and looked down. Unless she avoided the rocks below, she would never survive. She exhaled a cold misty air, freezing it so she could slide down safely. She fell in the water with a splash then turned into liquid to absorb the remaining force of the impact. Inferno followed her over. He tried using the bridge she left behind, but it melted the moment he touched it. Unable to stop, he plummeted into the pool far below. The waterfall became a fire-fall. Walking to a lake, Crystal lowered her head. She dipped the tip of her horn into the liquid. A silver ring fled away from the area. It froze, trapping Inferno in ice. The crystal cage doused his flames, petrifying him in place. Even air bubbles stopped before they rose to the surface.

Princess Angela turned to leave with the others. The ice gave off a bright, red glow as it cracked apart. It began to boil, turning into thick clouds of steam. A flaming pillar shot up from under the surface as Inferno furiously leaped into the air.

Crystal used the waterfall to create sharp shards of ice. Inferno formed a shield of fire around himself. The deadly darts never reached him. Icicles sizzled into steam, evaporating into the atmosphere. Crystal focused on freezing the lava that he stood in, trapping his hooves in solid stone. Inferno broke free and charged after them through the trees. A heat-wave kindled dry branches until the whole forest was on fire, consuming every living thing. Now there were only a hundred black sticks and a thick cloud of smoke where the trees were. The fire unicorn kept coming faster.

Crystal stopped, facing him. Her body adopted a frozen form. Her mane and tail became sharp spikes of ice; her horn stuck straight out. Inferno sped up instead. When he rammed her, she shattered into pieces. He paused to gloat. The only thing left was a liquid puddle streaming across the ground. It took a while before he realized the water wasn't going downhill. He watched as it swept past his hooves. Beads gathered; Crystal cleverly kicked him from behind.

"He's gaining on us!" Crystal warned the others.

"Hold your breath now!" Cyclone sucked in oxygen.

Cyclone kept air away from the flames until they all fizzled out. Without fuel, the blazing fire gradually died down. Inferno went from a sprint to a trot. Coughing hard, he finally passed out, collapsing onto the ground.

"Everyone ok?" Starlight stopped.

"I was badly burned, but I think I can manage. Keep going. I'll slow them down." A tear streamed down Crystal's cheek.

"Go without us. Protect the princess." Cyclone panted.

"We have no time to waste!" Starlight nodded.

Before they crossed over to the other world, Nightmare appeared from out of nowhere. He had followed them, moving so quietly they never even knew he was there – remaining unseen until recently, due to the witch's magic medallion. Shadow turned him invisible, but hoof-prints in the dirt gave away their position.

"Don't you ever know when to give up?" Starlight snorted.

"Let's have a race. If you reach the top of this mountain before me, I'll even escort you to your precious paradise."

"What if you win?" Starlight asked him warily.

"I get to keep the princess. She'll stay here forever."

"Are you crazy?" Princess Angela whispered.

"Just trust me. I know what I'm doing." Starlight winked.

"You can't be serious!" The princess hit him.

"Ok, she'll do it, but on one condition," Starlight said.

"Name it." The witch gladly granted his request.

"I get a head start!" Starlight sped off, leaving them behind.

"You're on!" Nightmare nodded, hooves kicking up dirt.

Light and darkness raced. More noble than Nightmare, Starlight was unevenly matched in this fallen world. They devoured the distance, never even hesitating for a heartbeat. They flew up the mountainside like it was a hill.

"Time to redefine reality…" Nightmare cricked his neck.

Nightmare wasn't as fast, so he had to cheat to keep up. Seeing Starlight was already far ahead of him, he used his special ability to slow him down by forming a black-hole with his horn, twisting time – spinning space. It tore up trees, ripping roots out of the soil. It sucked rocks into the air, swirling them around until it swallowed them up.

Starlight fought the force of nature, sprinting swiftly. Princess Angela had to hold onto his mane to keep from falling. He could jump off broken boulders even while they fell. Water hit his face as he dodged debris, crisscrossing the mountain's edge. Cliffs crumbled away and tumbled down into darkness. By the time they broke free from the gravity's grip, half of the ground was gone with only a huge crater left. They barely made it out alive. This was the final stretch to the peak. Neck-and-neck now, neither side would give nor take. Nightmare pulled ahead, taking the lead as Starlight fell behind.

"Come on, you can do better than that!" Nightmare noticed Starlight was having trouble. "You're out of your element here."

"You forgot one thing." Starlight didn't seem upset.

"What's that? You're losing!" Nightmare turned his neck.

"You're still on the wrong side." Starlight stopped.

Nightmare was so proud of his own power he wasn't paying any attention to where he was going. If he had been watching the path ahead, he might have seen that he was heading toward the brink of a black-hole even he couldn't control. Somehow, Starlight concealed it with an artificial light. Nightmare still resisted it enough to slow down. He screeched to a halt before he came too close, nearly caught in the grip of its gravity.

"You were trying to trap me in there, weren't you?" Nightmare neighed.

"They thought they could beat us at our own game!" Shadow smirked.

Starlight pushed harder and faster until he surpassed the speed of light in a super-luminal shockwave. His body began burning until it turned transparent, glowing bright with glory. Great resources were required for this transformation to take place, so the effect was only temporary. Using the powerful pull to gain enough energy, Starlight rammed into Nightmare.

The collision sent Shadow the Witch flying off Nightmare's back. The Dragon King caught her before she fell, but then flicked her back into the air. He needed every bit of strength for the battle ahead. His maw opened wide to swallow her up. She had ridden upon the beast for far too long, but it turned on her and devoured her with flames of fury. Her screams echoed as the black-hole sucked her up like a mist, vanishing into the void from which she came like water going down a drain. Then there was only the silence of space. Now she was nothing more than a memory – a nightmare that never should have been born.

Nightmare hadn't counted on this happening; the blow threw him high in the air. Nevertheless, he landed on an old tree to keep from flying away. Since the gravity was stronger in this area, he found he could stand on the side without falling. He created another black-hole, always assuming it would cancel out the other. However, his plan backfired; he couldn't stop it. The tree he stood on creaked and then tipped over; he didn't dare move a muscle, but it broke anyway. The dark unicorn disappeared, trapped forever. Lusting for more power, he consumed himself in the end.

"We're heading for the eye of the storm!" Princess Angela started to slip off his back, but managed to grab his mane.

"That's it!" Starlight stopped.

"What are you doing? We'll be sucked inside!"

"Hold on tight! Don't let go!" Starlight said.

She couldn't hear him. He was already moving faster than the speed of sound. He couldn't fight a combined force of gravity. He had to go through the darkness, not run away from it. Instead, he turned around and headed toward the hellish hurricane. A bright beam of light shot straight into the center. The air grew still. They passed through the violently swirling vortex and came out on the other side. The black-holes canceled each other out and collapsed inside themselves, vanishing without a trace. The princess started falling, but the unicorn ran underneath and caught her just before she hit the ground. She was safe now, but still worried sick.

I wonder how my brave prince is doing.

18: WARRIOR WITHIN

Piles of treasures lay in the chamber's corner. Hollow shells lay scattered and caked with dust, wrapped up in webs that hung down from stone columns like curtains glistening in the moonlight. Bats flew to safety, anticipating the approaching battle. In a human form, the Dark Lord watched Prince Paladin. The evil prince sat upon his black throne, secluded in the shadows.

"I've been waiting, warrior. What took so long? With your reputation, I expected something more impressive. Oh, I know who you are. Forgive me if I don't bow. You're the son of the klutz king who denied me a place in paradise. How could I forget after you ruined my glorious ascension? Yet your foolish facade was all for nothing like a vain victory."

"I'm only going to say this once." The prince grasped his sword tighter. It glowed brighter. "Get off my throne."

"I was just warming it up for you." The Dark Lord stood to greet his guest. "I knew you would come. Are you the only one?"

"The angels waiting for my order won't interfere, for now."

"You are a fool to face me alone. You care for creation. The way you hold back makes you weak. They'll never be perfect like you. You can't save them. I can only imagine how it breaks your heart to see the lost souls I've stolen, destroying one after another. Have you nothing better to do than play this game? How long will you hold your ancient peace? All that power, yet you choose never to use it… Well if you won't, I will. Apparently, omnipotence is overrated."

"Power must be focused in the right direction."

"You're unfathomable and uncontrollable, but ultimately not unconquerable." The Dark Lord derided. "Your own creations have abandoned you. They serve me now. Is this really what you wanted? Should the world suffer for one man's mistakes? You'll never undo what I've done. Some things even you can't change."

"Your gambit has a fatal flaw. Remember this?" The prince pointed to an old scar on his hand that preserved painful memories.

"I have my own fan club. This universe isn't big enough for us both. There can only be one god. If I can't rule the world, then no one will. I always get my way in the end. You can't keep cowering behind clouds and hiding behind that stupid shield."

"I am the rightful heir to the throne. I will take back the kingdom that belongs to me." The prince slowly lifted his sword, letting it flash to life in his hand. "Step down!"

"Blah, blah, blah… If I wanted to talk, I'd write a letter. I've read your boring book by the way and I don't like the ending. We'll see if your words stand the test of time. Haven't we already been through this before? So how many times do I have to kill you? I defeated you once and I can do it again. Soon I shall be the last one left. It's just you and me now."

"That's not gonna happen." Paladin shook his head.

The Dark Lord drew his sword, circling behind Paladin's back as he stood still in a silent stalemate. Then they stared each other down without speaking a word to see who would make the first move. Swords met in midair with a fantastic flash. The black blade shattered into a thousand pieces. Crystal shards hovered in midair for a moment.

"Here we go again with the light show. Amusing antics…" The Prince of Darkness rolled his eyes mockingly. His hand vibrated violently as he brought the broken shards back and then clenched his fist. "All the pieces are coming together."

The rivals accelerated their attacks on each other. Neither of them could even see each other's present position, fighting with past images. It took a split second for the light waves to reflect off the blades and reach their eyes. No mortal could possibly protect himself from such pure power; each blow would kill a man. The swords changed colors. Glowing rainbow-colored sparks hit the stone floor and crackled away like dying embers. Only light could hurt the Prince of Darkness; elemental attacks wouldn't work. This time, the Sacred Sword destroyed the Sword of Shadows.

"Lucky hit… I won't let you get another. Playtime's over! Now let's end this once and for all."

The evil prince lost his flawed human form, but became another ethereal entity altogether. Black wings shot out from his back, looming threateningly overhead. As his body melted, he shed his skin, peeling it away like a shell, transforming into a dragon. Instinctually attempting the impossible, he tried to harness infinitely intangible chaos beyond mortal control.

A bright blast hurled the Dragon King through a wall, shattering stained-glass windows and a serpent statue of himself. He plummeted toward the bubbling lava moat then pulled up in a nosedive and skipped across molten magma with a splash like a stone flung across a lake. The glow illuminated his fierce face; shiny black scales reflected intense heat as he rose from the ashes. Rising from the fiery furnace in a rage, he came back even more determined to destroy the prince than before.

"Let me show you what I'm made of!" he shouted.

The dragon took a deep breath of air into his flared nostrils then released it in an explosion of energy. The prince deflected the dangerous fireballs, sending them flying the opposite direction. The dragon's claws dug into stone, cutting it into pieces. They fell one floor. The serpent charged while snapping his jagged jaws. The prince rolled and slid under his legs; he thrust his sword, driving the long blade deep into his neck. With a horrendous roar, the dragon drew back. Unfortunately, the wound was not fatal.

The Dragon King flew away, trying to escape. He crashed through the castle wall. The prince dived outside, shattering a stained-glass window. When Paladin grabbed his tail, the dragon whipped it back and forth. Putting one hand over the other, the prince scrambled up his scales and onto his back. The dragon spun around and tried to wrench him off, yet the prince held on tight. As he ascended into the atmosphere, the prince lifted his sword then brought it down again to strike the serpent. The dragon fell and landed on the hard ground with a thud, skidding to a stop.

Bouncing back and using the inertial impact to his advantage, he kicked the prince off his stomach and sent him flying toward the moat. The prince grabbed a tree branch, swung back around again, and then charged. Instead of fighting further, the dragon knocked down trees with his tail. Opening his mouth, he set the whole forest on fire. The prince looked up just in time to see a tree tilt in front of him. It nearly crushed him, but he cut it in half like cardboard.

Flying up to the top tower, the Dragon King rested while the prince climbed up the castle wall. "You're forgetting something, prince. There's one little problem." He pointed to the fallen angels. "They still think I'm in charge."

Perched atop the castle, his tail twisted around the tower. The Dragon King whistled, summoning the evil spirits. After waiting a while and seeing no response, he began to panic. He needed help, but his followers betrayed him.

"This is between us." Prince Paladin prepared himself.

"My plan was perfect. The hour of fate is now at hand."

Prince Paladin ignored all the clouds closing in. They stood in the center circle – a vortex of violence. A narrow funnel formed rings in a self-destructive spiral. The entrance was wide, but nothing could escape, for it only went deeper into the darkness. There in the deepest, darkest pit of Hell, they faced each other in a fight to the death. The angels under Paladin's command prepared to attack, but he held out a hand; they stopped and looked at him, standing still until he gave them the word. Demons stayed to the side, unable to interfere, growing restless. It was like David and Goliath; whoever won this battle would determine their destiny. This was the war to end all wars.

Beating his wings rapidly, the dragon tried to sweep the prince off the roof. The prince ducked to avoid the wind current, but started slipping away. Having nothing to hold, he drove his sword down into the stone and clung to it. Seeing this, the dragon swooped at him again, breathing fire. The prince jumped off; in midair, he stuck his sword in the stone wall, looking down. After the wind settled, he swung himself up. A wave of lava splashed against the sinking wall a moment later.

Paladin leaped into the air and stabbed the dragon's tail, pinning it in place. He tried to grab it, but the dragon pulled free, winced with pain, and then retreated to the open sky. He wasn't flying away; he came back for another attack. He knocked over the tower with his tail. It broke apart before ever touching the ground. Only a pile of rocks remained.

The prince dashed down the tower as it tilted over. As it fell faster, he put his sword under his boots and used it to slide all the way down. When his feet hit the ground, he rolled to absorb the impact as the castle collapsed. He broke stones as they fell on him. It was hard to tell if the prince made it or not. The dragon knew better than to turn his back on such an admirable adversary. As he approached a thick cloud resting above the ground, his trained eyes began searching for a body. After waiting and watching, he turned to leave. Someone stirred amid all the wreckage. When the dust cleared, Paladin was still standing. Somehow, he had survived.

"Looking for me?" Prince Paladin stood behind him.

"Honestly, why must I always murder everyone myself?" The dragon wouldn't yield until he had no other choice.

Seeing Starlight, Paladin mounted his unicorn. When the long, black tail whipped around again, it knocked the prince's sword from his hands. Though completely cut off so it wriggled like a worm, it grew back again rather rapidly as the prince fell down onto the ground. The dragon quickly lifted his claws and closed in for the kill.

"I have you now!" the Dragon King shouted.

"Rejoice not, my enemy, for when I fall, I will arise again!"

The prince rolled and reached for his sword, blocking a heavy blow. Then he flung it into the dragon's heart. The serpent stooped back, receiving a mortal wound. Defiant to the end, he gave one last growl and finally fell. He slumped on the ground and kicked up a cloud of dust. The surrounding area shook. The dragon was dead. His eyes slid shut.

Just then, Princess Angela arrived on the scene. She stopped to survey the great battle that had recently taken place.

"What are you doing here?" Paladin turned around.

"Look out behind you!" The princess pointed, worried.

"It'll take more than that to stop me! Strike me down and I shall come back more powerful than before!"

Before the serpent could strike a final blow, the unicorn came charging. Starlight leaped into the air and rammed into the heart with his holy horn; he thrust it deep into a weak spot, piercing the darkness with a ray of purity. Black blood spurted out; the acid burned whatever it touched. The dragon caught him in his claws and hurled him down hard.

"You'll pay for that!" The Dragon King roared with rage.

Starlight stood up again. His horn burned bright. His body grew tense. He stopped and stared up at the dragon. The past came back in a vivid flashback as he relived an experience from early youth. This monster had killed off his whole family.

The dragon and unicorn stood facing each other. Neither one backed down. The dragon opened his mouth and breathed fire, but the unicorn dodged the attack and leaped out of the way. The unicorn advanced again; this time the dragon gave ground. Starlight aimed to kill, but he couldn't quite reach the evil serpent. He might as well have been stabbing at a shadow. The dragon crushed him under his sharp claws. Wincing with pain, the white unicorn stumbled onto the soil.

Without any thought of the danger she put herself in, Princess Angela ran over to Starlight. She knelt beside him where he lay wounded and cradled him in her arms. He looked up at her as she tried to comfort him, held his head in her lap, and stroked his muddy mane. Despite her bitter tears, his eyes slowly slid shut and his heart stopped beating.

"You know that you won't win, so why keep fighting?" Folding his wings back, the Dragon King shook his head.

"I choose to continue." Paladin got back up.

"I recommend you retreat. This fight is futile."

The defenseless prince had to dodge the attacks as he worked his way toward the sword. The serpent swung a tail to trip him, but he jumped over it then dived under it as it came back around. Before Paladin retrieved it, the dragon scooped up a bunch of boulders and then flung them right at the prince, knocking him out cold. The prince was unconscious and unable to move.

"I'm your creation. You made me, but now you can't control me. I rule this realm. Down here, I'm god!"

Princess Angela cried out, hoping he hadn't been injured badly. She dropped to her knees by his side and attempted to wake him up. His eyes wouldn't open. He was barely breathing.

"Can you hear me? Say something!" Princess Angela panicked; she expected him to lead them in a battle for freedom. Now he lay still. He's gone. It's hopeless. No, I won't let it end this way. I won't be weak this time. She picked up the sword while the dragon was distracted. "Come out and face me, coward!" The words left her lips before she realized who she had challenged.

A low growl echoed. A circle of fire lit up the area. The Dragon King appeared in front of her and then disappeared into the darkness. "A pathetic little child against the most powerful being in the cosmos? Do you really think you can beat me?"

"I'm going to try!" She walked toward him.

"Well, you won't last long. Nothing can stop me now."

"What about the truth?" She arched an eyebrow.

"Nonsense, what are you talking about?" He hooted, coming closer. He would crush the childlike faith from her fragile frame. "You couldn't defeat me last time when I was weak, but now I'm back and stronger than ever!"

"How can you control that kind of power? You were afraid of the truth and tried to hide the Sword of Light."

"You have no idea how that thing works. Do you?"

"Let's find out," the princess said.

She stared him down with a determined look. Although she appeared weak, vigor lay dormant deep within her.

The sword made high-pitched squeaking sounds; it became a useless, blinking stick. The dragon rolled on his back, laughing so hard the ground shook. Holding the sword like a bat, she swung at him, but missed. She tried to fight in her own strength, but it wasn't working. Then he smacked her. Her head rocked back while shoulders hit the ground hard. She landed flat on her back and moaned. She stood up slowly, wiping a red trickle away from her lip. Her crystal heart necklace flickered with orange flames.

"Give it up, girl. You are no match for me," he said.

"You're right. I can't defeat you alone – not without help."

"Put the sword down." He backed away slowly.

"No, this ends now." She shook her head.

She let the sword's power flow through her. It vibrated in her trembling hands as if it wanted to fly into battle.

"A spark – is that all you've got? I'm so scared!"

"One flame becomes a thousand more in a chain reaction."

"What are you doing?" The dragon's pupils dilated.

As she held it out and pointed it at him, it changed colors until it stopped and gleamed bright white. A streak of lightning leaped from the sword. Thunder shook the sky. The dragon was defenseless against such awesome power. It blew him back, throwing him against a stone tower. This expended the sword's energy and left the princess vulnerable. It held the dragon off long enough for the prince to recuperate. Then she threw the sword back to him; it spun in circles until he caught it.

They went so fast and furious she couldn't tell what was happening, so she got out of the way instead. Though she made a tempting target, the dragon was far too busy blocking blows to bother with her. Timing his move perfectly, the prince grabbed the dragon's tail and climbed up its back again. He scaled its neck, blinded it with another flash from his blade, and caused it to crash into what remained of the drawbridge gate. Seeing he was stuck, the prince chopped off its head with one well-placed stroke. The serpent slumped to the ground, but then it stood up and searched for its skull like nothing had happened.

"You can't kill me! I am death itself!"

"I don't fear death." Paladin stood his ground.

The Dragon King destroyed the gate and stood before the brave prince. He tried to crush him under his claws, but the prince pierced his paw. With one swift sweep, his tail knocked Paladin down again. When the prince fell, all the angels charged at once. The Dragon King swatted them aside like so many flies, as if ridding himself of a bothersome insect.

Seeing Paladin was defenseless, the demons came back. They circled a black-hole as stars spiraled down into the darkness – growing greater as everything became black. Even light couldn't escape, unless it was pure. The prince tried to avoid all their attacks. The swarm of evil spirits overwhelmed him until he couldn't be seen, striking from every direction. Moments passed, but there was still no sign of him. The dark shadow of death swallowed him up. The light was gone like it never existed.

"We own you now!" Demons chanted in chorus.

Princess Angela held out her hand, but the wind blew her back. Thinking all was lost, despair filled her heart, erasing even the memory of joy. She shook her head, closed her eyes, and cried. She fell onto her knees, floating in the air within a glowing glass bubble. The Dragon King held her in his clutches. The princess pressed on the transparent wall of the crystal ball that trapped her.

This was the Dragon King's nightmare come true. Darkness had consumed creation in an eternal eclipse. Death had slain life. His black heart beat, driving the poison deeper. His filthy blood flowed, tainting everything it touched. One star remained still; he hadn't gotten rid of them all yet. A bright round sphere of light hovered in space just like a diamond in the sky. It was so small he didn't consider it a threat, but the tiny point had a deep density. The Dragon King watched it for a moment. This reminder of reality would always be a thorn in his side. Illuminated by its glow as it drifted down, he tried to crush it in his claws. Summoning all his strength, he blew fire furiously, yet the orb absorbed the energy and began to glow even brighter.

"Let there be light!" A command came from his mouth that shattered the silence. Paladin let out a battle cry that shook the sky.

Then a blinding light drove the demons away. A sword cut through the cloud, slicing the shadows apart and dividing the darkness. Each time it hit them, it left glowing marks behind. They melted in the power of his presence and vanished like a night vision. The prince transformed himself, glowing with the glory of a thousand suns. He spread his arms, as if breaking chains. The princess couldn't see what was going on. She shielded her eyes, covering her face with her arm.

Prince Paladin stood over the dragon, lifted the sword high above its head, and then drove it deep into its evil heart. The sword burned bright until all the light in the universe focused on it. A beam of an infinite intensity came from the blade. The white ray shot straight through the center of a black-hole. Shadows fled in shame. With a pulse wave that shook the stars, an explosion of energy tore the dragon apart. Frail flesh melted away, leaving only a flaming skeleton behind. It burned in heat stronger than the sun. It howled in torment, twisting and turning in an attempt to flee. It had no place to go this time.

"I can't stand it! My punishment is more than I can bear!" The Dragon King groaned. "Release me!"

"When you call out, I will not listen. Your hands are defiled with blood," Paladin said.

Finally, the Dragon King gave in and bowed in submission. The prince turned his back and left him to contemplate his fate. Then he walked toward the princess, who was still stuck in a glass globe with her eyes shut. Once he broke the bubble with his sword, she fell down to her knees.

Princess Angela looked around, wondering if it was all over. Then she saw him standing there and ran right into his arms. "I thought you were…" Her tears turned back into laughter. Then she stopped and sadly shook her head. "He didn't make it."

The prince walked over to her while she wept by his side. Taking out his sword, he laid it on Starlight's head. The unicorn slowly opened his eyes once more. The princess couldn't help crying when she realized her friend was fine. It was a miracle.

"What did I miss? Hey, you're choking me!" Starlight said.

"I thought I told you to stay put." Paladin sheathed his sword. He had won the ultimate battle. He stood there, triumphant.

"Hey, what kind of friend would I be if I left you in your darkest hour?" She shrugged. "Besides, we thought you might need some backup." She smiled and winked.

19: FIGHT TO THE FINISH

Michael told his angel companions not to continue until the prince arrived. Now he was here so they came to aid in the assault. Michael bound the beast with a long chain of heavy links that could never be broken and wound it around the dragon's clawed feet. As the unicorn pawed the ground, a gulf opened wide. Starlight nudged the dragon, who rolled and tumbled into the pit then plummeted away. Michael locked the gate above the abandoned abyss with a giant key.

The Dragon King had almost won, but the prince made a new world he couldn't control and would never enter. All he had done faded with his power. Even he could not escape his final fate. He was a prisoner of time and space, yet trapped inside himself.

"Follow me," the prince called out to more lost prisoners. "It is over. I have come." Paladin led the parade.

There was still one important matter to take care of – setting the captives free. Many of them had gone blind from lack of light. The prince broke their chains with his sword. Liberated specters bowed and then followed him outside. The castle gates opened; another drawbridge fell across the moat. Stone-faced sentries looked, but never heard or saw them there.

"Few who are brought inside this evil place ever come out again," Paladin said. "The portal will soon part from this plane."

In the meantime, the forces of darkness regrouped for a final attack. The prince and princess reached a fiery lake.

"It's a dead end!" The princess pointed ahead.

"Don't look back now!" The prince prompted her.

The prince held up his sword and parted it into two walls. Molten magma flowed to each side; heat rippled the air as they went through. Demon wolves followed close behind them. It collapsed at the last moment, consuming the evil creatures.

"You did that on purpose, didn't you?" The princess glared.

"There's little time left. We must act now," he said.

Lifting the sword, the princess put it back in place – twisting it like a key in a door. It fit perfectly in the hole as if it were part of that world. The star began to glow bright with light. Thunder and lightning boomed, formed by the impenetrable wall that surrounded the twin spheres. The worlds split apart, dividing like a cell. The rift in reality closed itself again as the sword sealed shut the barrier between worlds. Wonderful waves flowed through a sea of space, splashing against the atmosphere.

They both stood there, staring on in silence. Then they left together without looking back once.

Never again would evil escape and bring pain to paradise. Demons suffered torment day and night without rest. Their flesh shriveled away until bones appeared and dried up into dust. Some skeletons were still partly intact, remotely recognizable – long necks, spiny ridges, narrow skulls, thick backbones, ivory rib cages, and wing structures.

The Dragon King slowly opened his scaly eyes as he lay in a dungeon, burning in hot flames. It seemed strange trying to break free from a place built to protect him – banished forever to Babylon in an eternal exile. The demons turned on him when he lost. For once, the King of Nightmares got a taste of his own bad medicine. Instead, he consumed himself – devoured by lustful desires. He sought to be filled, yet he was still empty. Rather than taking revenge or ascending above all the stars, he would descend into the darkness of death, for he had left the light of life. This was his new home now and he was to blame for building it.

20: ECLIPSED ETERNITY

Avalon entered the dawn of eternity – the start of a new era paralleled by nothing previous in history. The Kingdom of Heaven regained its former glory, but it would never end or pass away. Tall pearly gates opened to the Celestial City. Glittering, gleaming gold paved the streets while the walls were made of precious stones. From that day forth, there would be no more nightmares, because the prince himself was the light of that place. Angels held a royal coronation ceremony in a majestic mansion. Voices echoed, for there was a recurring reason to rejoice – a cause to celebrate. Creation was to wed the Creator.

Evil no longer existed. Death, pain, and sorrow fled away. Faith, hope, and love went into the land, ushered through the universe. Waves spread out like ripples in a pool of water. The initial impact faded, yet the roar never died down.

Princess Angela prepared herself for the coming ceremony, sitting in a bedroom. She examined herself in a mirror held between the decorative designs of angelic adornments, but this time she noticed something different about her appearance. Her face became brighter – more beautiful than before. At last, she had awakened to truth's light. This joy was not just an outward emotion. Something happened that had changed her life forever; she would never be the same – without a shadow of a doubt. She was no longer repulsed by her reflection.

Thorn-less white roses filled the garden, glowing bright with light. Angels held torches along the path to the Great Hall. Guests of honor came with robes trailing behind. A grand procession gathered. They rode upon unicorns, decorated with diamonds that hung from chains around their necks. Among them was Starlight with a polished horn. Honored heroes stared silently, saluting to trumpet serenades. In full uniform, Mark and John walked through a courtyard then stood before the royal throne.

Michael made way as the princess stepped forth. Mark fell to one knee; she knighted him. No common sword was used to bestow this high honor. As it touched both his shoulders, the cool blade confirmed his victory. The unicorn did the same with his horn. John tucked his gauntlets behind a studded belt going around his greaves. His sword lay flat in a shiny scabbard.

Every knight knelt in double columns that flanked a bright isle down which the prince passed in front of them. The prince took his place on the throne as the rightful ruler of Heaven and Earth. The crystal chair was perfect in its purity. All those standing in his peaceful presence knelt down to confess he was king and lord. He alone was worthy of honor and praise. Nobody ever questioned or challenged his authority again. Righteousness would reign forever in wisdom and truth.

"Rise and be recognized," Gabriel told the princess.

Seraphim let down their wings, presenting her to the prince. A unicorn approached with two wedding rings around his horn. Engraved circles represented infinity when both linked together. His consisted of gold and hers of silver. Cherubim carried the crowns they were to wear and placed the diamond diadems upon their heads. When he kissed her, time seemed to stop. Everyone cheered and shouted with joy, for their love would last forever in an eternal embrace. It was truly a match made in Heaven.

Angels gave a great feast on that day. Carried on flaming chariots, guests gathered to attend the wonderful wedding supper. Angels with white wings danced and filled the glass walls with glowing bright light, for there they could see the truth clearly.

All voices grew silent. Angels watched, holding breaths. Someone stopped at the top of the stairs, gazing below. Across the room, a figure emerged, dressed in a glittering white gown. The beloved bride gracefully glided downstairs. As the music began, she stepped onto a glass floor. Standing before them was the Lady of Light. The fragrance that flowed from her enraptured everyone.

A rainbow ring looped like a heavenly halo; it hovered in the air above her head. The transparent tiara went well with her golden, glossy hair. Her body began to glow bright with glory – shining like a star – standing like an angel in Heaven's holy light. For just a moment, everything surrounding her seemed to vanish in the purity of her presence, including the accompanying angels.

Then there appeared a greater glory. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the prince approach her from behind. Her radiance was a reflection of his own. Tears slipped down her cheek when she saw him there. He walked over slowly. The prince and princess met without a word. They smiled and looked in each other's eyes. She began to cry, but he wiped away all of her tears.

"I don't know this dance." The princess shook her head.

"Let me lead you," the prince whispered in her ear.

Slowly, she rested her chin on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her waist and lifted her up into the air. They flew higher until they rose above the very clouds. Time stood still as he danced with her. Cherubim surrounded them in the center of an endless sea of stars, spinning around like a spiral galaxy – reflecting the radiant light. He gently set her on the ground again.

"Just one more question… Why me?" she asked.

"Why not?" He smiled.

"I'm not worthy."

"I chose you."

"You could have anyone." She tilted her head.

"I traveled through time and space seeking a dwelling place, but I found no rest in my creations." He took her hand. When she opened it, she found something there. He was the last part of her heart. "If you can control your dreams, all that you wish for will be yours. The darkness desired to live in your heart and mind, but fear not for I have redeemed you, my beloved."

As they kissed again, a bright flash of light spread through the Crystal Castle, making the glass glow. The princess knew he would never leave her, but found it hard to believe they would always be together forever. Sometimes she wondered if it was a dream, but if so she never wanted to wake up again. They would dance forever in paradise – like poetry in motion.

The princess would shine forever like a star. Eventually, she would forget the fall of creation, as if she'd never known suffering at all. Dark shadows passed like nothing but a nightmare. All the things she went through weren't worthy to be compared with the life she had in him at his righteous return. This adventure was only the cover of a real story that was just beginning and would never end. Love lifted the curse. The spell was broken. From then on, they lived happily ever after.