PART II: RESCUE ME FROM REALITY

Never-ending Nightmare: The Dimension Of Darkness

1: FALLING FOREVER

Princess Alice woke to find herself stuck in outer space, floating weightlessly in midair. The world beneath her seemed so far away. Watching the magnificent marble was almost like trying to remember another life. A protective bubble of light surrounded her body, coming from the crystal heart necklace she wore. Leaving Earth behind, she came to the limits of the known universe. Reaching escape velocity, she broke free from reality – heading toward the center of a spiral galaxy.

What's happening? She tried to speak, but no voice echoed.

Now she stood on the edge of eternity before a black-hole, hanging in the balance between life and death. Torn between two worlds, the princess saw an abyss of naked nothingness. It would be so easy to let go. Someone could simply push her over the edge. Nobody held her back or kept her from falling forever into this endless expanse, deeper into the darkness, caught in the powerful grip of its gravity. She leaned forward to embrace the emptiness like a wandering star that had lost its light.

Gradually, she slipped away, making a slight miscalculation; she was only off by one degree, but after a while, she saw her final destination. She attempted to correct her course, but she couldn't figure out how. Once she drifted out of orbit and lost her balance, she found it impossible to get back again. She struggled to resist the force that held her there. She screamed, but her voice vanished into the vast and silent void of space. Her mouth moved, but wouldn't speak any words.

As she entered the event horizon, everything froze still; time slowed to a stop. Then suddenly the sky filled with shooting stars burning like silver raindrops. She flew by them, instantly traveling faster than light speed. Past images appeared in reverse as she caught up with them again. Two small twin spheres with touching atmospheres hung suspended in space, orbiting each other. As both planets came into view, she saw the first glow bright with light like a diamond in the darkness, hovering in the heavens. The world above seemed alive somehow, but the blackness below absorbed it like a withering weed that kept growing back.

Entering the upper stratosphere, a force-field blazed like the front end of a comet. Seeing she was about to crash, she braced for a rough landing. Trees, rocks, and dirt flew into the air. A trail of fog covered the forest like a blanket. The princess passed out, yet floated gently to the ground with her dress flapping. Then the bubble burst and she lay still, except her swelling chest. When she woke up, she stood there for a while. Sick from spinning around, she stumbled with her eyes crossed then hit her knees and hurled.

Well, that's the least of my troubles now.

As she crawled away from the crater, her eyes adapted. The other orb hovered high above her in the sky. She could never return to that wonderful world. She'd always lived in the light, which she naturally reflected. The stars glowed like beautiful gems surrounded by the darkness. As she looked up, gazing at the glorious, glittering galaxy with wonder, she felt so small and alone. Now she was a fallen star – an angel of light that fell from Heaven. It was not a pretty sight.

Where am I? How did I get here?

Slowly raising her head, she gazed farther into the forest, wondering what was waiting for her out there. Taking her first step in this unforgiving realm, she found herself lost in the gloom of a world where night reigned supreme. The air grew cold; wind began to blow. Clouds swirled in circles. Looking up, she saw no sun in the black sky. Moonlight cast strange shadows onto the alien landscape. Beyond this was a barren and desolate land called the Dreamless Desert, made up of the dust of the dead. Beside it, a burning flood of fire glowed red with warmth beneath the crystal crust of a shallow surface where sunlight would never shine.

I wonder if somehow this is my fault.

Princess Alice looked around, realizing she was back in the other realm. This terrible place was nothing like the world of light. She got a strange feeling she had been there before, as if this nameless nightmare existed in her own mind and heart. She created this world to escape from reality – a place for those overwhelmed with fear to overcome it. She had failed and become part of it – stranded on this Island of Illusion. She needed to wake up from this dream and bring herself back to reality.

She came to a spot where jagged Cliffs of Confusion jutted out, forming a perilous precipice. When she reached the end, she peered over the edge. The Ocean of Oblivion didn't look very ordinary. Bloody waves splashed against a bay of black sand on the shore beside bones that came from the land of the living like so many shells that had once harbored mortal souls. It went on forever – deep, dark, and cold. A tide of terror lay on a horizon of horror. It couldn't be calmed, since there was no rest for the wicked, shipwrecked sailors – not even after life. She stood before a sea of lost souls, never to return to the life that she once knew.

Her hair whipped in the wind as she walked into the water. Sorrow swept over her, washing away worries deeper than the underworld itself. The weight was overwhelming. She started sinking into the shadows – drowning in the darkness. Death would devour her. Her pain would pass. The sleep of suicide would bring perfect peace in the stillness of her soul. Her footprints would be forgotten forever and erased from existence, left in the tides of time. Wicked waves and waterfalls of living darkness diverged here in Blood Bay. It wasn't just the wind whispering to her, but evil spirits calling her to come inside. No angels were allowed.

A storm surged overhead as rain fell hard. Wind whirled with such fury that even walking was difficult. Shimmering streaks of lightning slashed through the sky like claws, flashing forth in a brilliant blast. It came crashing down as the dirt shook, vibrating violently. The whole world trembled with thunder, as if trying to destroy her. The earth seemed eager to swallow her alive, like the ground could cave in any moment. She would surely die, unless she could find some way to escape. She felt almost frantic – panic-stricken by a disturbing sense of danger. She turned around, ready to run, but she didn't know which way to go.

2: HOLY HORN

Princess Alice caught a faint glimpse of a graceful creature through distant tree branches. It looked like a white horse with a horn pointing toward Heaven, spiraling toward the stars, but he was bigger – so mighty and noble a foal would feel ashamed in his presence. A mane flowed in waves along his neck. As a child, she had read about unicorns in books. She did not doubt the stories were true, but she'd never seen a real one before. He'd been frozen in place forever in a big block of ice, rearing on hind legs, standing like a statue, helplessly trapped. His glowing horn illuminated its surroundings, shimmering in the starlight.

Walking in a circle, she wondered if she could set him free. At her warm touch, the crystal cracked and melted away.

"Your heart is still beating!" She covered her mouth.

With quivering legs, the unicorn rose and opened his eyes. At this, she came forward to comfort him. She reached out to touch the tip of his horn, but he lifted his head and bolted away. The magic moment ended with one swift bound. He turned toward her with large, enigmatic eyes. He hesitated, watching from a distance until he was sure her heart was pure. The unicorn grew uneasy.

"Don't be afraid." She gently gestured. "I won't hurt you."

The magnificent mammal reared on his hind legs. The sound of hooves grew louder, pounding the ground until the very valley trembled. The unicorn came cautiously. He stepped out into the open and trotted toward her, tossing his snow-white mane.

He gazed into her mind with eyes that saw everything. The way he looked at her made her think he knew secrets he would never tell. She stared without blinking. She dared not move, for fear of frightening him away. He came closer; however, he hadn't yielded yet. He stood still until the peaceful moment passed. Then he tested her, pinning her in place. He lowered his head until his horn touched her heart, stabbed her, and thrust it through. His horn glowed white with light and sealed it shut. He healed her somehow, but he couldn't finish the job in this weakened state.

"What did you do?" she cried out desperately.

The unicorn knelt down and gently laid his head in her lap. Next thing she knew, the princess buried her face in his mane then rubbed his nose. A tear fell to the ground, sparkling softly. She deliriously drifted on the edge of a swoon and heard sweet strains of music in the distance. As the rain lessened to a light shower, she wrung out the ends of her hair.

"Come on… Let's get out of this rain."

After running into a nearby cave for shelter, she went back out to gather some sticks. She could hardly see through the dense trees; instead of coming to a clearing, they grew even thicker. She broke past branches to collect pieces of dry lumber, then tried to retrace her steps. She found an old path in the woods, but she ended right back where she started. Before she knew it, she'd gone full circle. Landmarks looked the same. Entering the enchanted Forest of Forgetfulness was easy; however, it was hard to get back out. This time, she walked very slowly to make sure she didn't turn around again.

Now how am I supposed to ignite this?

The unicorn kicked a flint rock, making sparks from friction. The pile of wood crackled and caught fire.

"Wow, you know what I'm thinking?" Then she sat down, leaned against a wall, and faced the fire. "Wait, what was that?"

Suddenly the ground shook. As they turned to leave, the ceiling caved in by the entrance. As the unicorn rushed past her, her hair blew in the wind. He nudged his head between her legs and tossed her up onto his back, consenting to carry her.

"You want me to ride you?" Alice asked.

Falling rocks swept a cloud of dust in her face, putting out the only light in the cave. The room gradually began glowing like a furnace. Liquid lava collected in crimson branches as it filled with molten magma. At first, they were few and far apart, but then she had to dodge drops as puddles formed into pools. The air blurred as a blast of heat rose from a river of fire. Running ahead, they came to a wide opening with a faint beam of light drifting down.

"Oh no! What are we going to do?"

Snorting and brushing his hooves in the dirt, he sprinted faster until he used momentum to keep his balance and ran alongside the wall. The princess had to hold onto his mane. Nearly slipping, his heels hooked onto a ledge and he pushed up with his hind legs. Once they were outside, they reached the edge of a deep chasm with no way to get down.

"You can make it! I know you can!"

Demonstrating his supernatural strength, the unicorn's muscles rippled as his hooves struck solid granite. He bounded on the chasm walls and skidded to a halt just before hitting the jagged rocks below.

"You're amazing! How in the world did you…"

Unable to support their weight, the ground beneath their feet turned soft. She grabbed a tree branch, climbed over to a safe spot, and then held it out. The unicorn bit the branch with his teeth. His head jerked wildly, but the quicksand held him firmly.

"No, don't give up! Not now…" Alice wept.

The princess pulled hard, but the stick snapped. She accidentally slipped and fell backward. Stuck in the muck, the unicorn whinnied desperately and tried to escape from the bloody bog; his sapphire eyes opened wide with utter terror. Finally, he stopped struggling and accepted his fate. She stood there helplessly as he sank in the sand, shedding a tear for her friend; it was too late to save him now. Hearing howling, she left and put some distance between herself and the wolf pack.

3: UNHOLY UNICORN

Princess Alice wandered through an enchanted wood alone. Tree branches swept her along as she stepped under them. She made up her mind to keep going. She came to an open clearing with a field of flowers and a clear, blue sky. The forest stood in flawless beauty, without sign of decay except for the fungi. Breeze strummed long blades of grass like invisible fingers on stringed harps. As she leaned against a tree and basked in the warm sun, a peaceful feeling came over her.

That wasn't there a moment ago. Was it?

A lovely rose lay in the middle of the meadow. When she touched it, the flower faded away. No matter how many she picked, there was always another she couldn't quite reach. The prettiest ones were farthest away from her. Withered petals lay at her feet. She chased after them, not noticing how tired she felt. Ever entranced, she went down into the valley, wondering what the trees hid there. Hearing a trickling stream, she continued to a thundering cascade.

Standing under a waterfall, a white unicorn soaked up sunlight beneath a beautiful rainbow. He was as wonderful as any childhood fantasy, yet something scary about him also. Then he ran off and she lost sight of him. She followed him into the forest, ducking under misty branches. Hiding behind a tree, she watched from a safe distance. He stopped beside a crystal-clear pool with a mirror surface; the reflection revealed the truth so she saw what he really was. Although he appeared white, the unicorn was black, for he was death in its fairest form wearing a deceptive disguise.

Slowly lowering his head, he touched the water, dipping the tip of his horn in it, sending liquid rings across the surface. The moment the monster began to drink deeply, the ripple turned red and stained his horn bright scarlet with blood. At first, the forest looked friendly; then she saw it was only an illusion. It seemed so real, but she knew better; even in a dream, this could never happen.

Stirred by the wind, leaves drifted down and changed colors, exposing bare tree branches. Ferns wilted into weeds. Day became night; the sun turned into the moon. Birds became bats. Skeletons lay scattered around the area; sticks on the ground became bones. Ghosts gazed down from the top of Suicide Falls before perpetually plummeting.

What cruel twist of fate could turn this nightmare real?

The black unicorn drank deeply from the liquid and then looked up from the bloody pool like he could sense someone was watching him. He turned his head until he found her and then stared into her soul. He glared at her with a hollow hunger she could never satisfy. He led her so far from the light. It was a trap.

The cursed creature was as black as night, like a living piece of darkness that absorbed light from the air around him. His eyes glowed like a lantern fire lit from within. She understood unspoken thoughts, though no words passed between them. Those red eyes gazed right through her until she was sure he must have known everything about her. Staring back at him, she saw an even deeper darkness in his empty eyes like black-holes – letting in the light, yet never releasing a tiny trace of it. His eyes were the windows of his soul, but when she looked in his, she saw nothing there, for he had none.

He snorted, pawed at the ground, beat the earth beneath his hooves, then tossed his head with an arrogant attitude; his ears shot forth. Nobody had ever been brave enough to look him straight in the eyes before, yet this girl wasn't very afraid. She shivered and then closed her eyes tight. When she opened them again, he was gone – before she could blink. She tried to remember what he looked like, for soon even the image in her mind would fade. It brought back terror she thought she had forgotten forever.

Princess Alice continued down the path, avoiding the twisted trees. He was still there, standing in the shadows. Just out of sight, hidden beyond the light, the figure appeared again. A sinister silhouette emerged from behind a boulder on the distant horizon. The unicorn proudly lifted his head, looking down as he stood there on a haunted hill with the moon behind his back. A bright flash of lightning instantly illuminated him, showing only a skeleton – followed by crashing thunder. He reared on back legs, kicked his hooves in the air, and pawed at the sky. Then he disappeared into the darkness, turning invisible.

The dark unicorn materialized right next to her and snorted when she passed by. She didn't see it at first, but looked up slowly. He stood still and never moved a muscle, like a stone statue. His black mane waved in the lunar light – the horrible horn on his head held high. Powerful muscles rippled beneath skin surfaces as he came closer. He never once hesitated. Slowly he stepped forward, as if not to frighten her. Uncertain, she reached out, imagining what it would be like to mount the beast and let him take her on a ride to remember. She felt an uncontrollable urge to get away. He patiently pulled and tugged at her temptingly.

"No!" she cried out and slowly backed away.

The unicorn lowered his head, pointed a long black horn at her heart, and charged after her. Turning the other way, the princess ran for her life. Her muscles burned and she started to sweat as she fled fast, but he kept coming. She could sense him following right behind her. Branches snagged her hair, tugging on her dress. Death would be merciful if only it could come soon. Instead, it let her think there was still a chance. If it wanted to take her, she wouldn't go quietly. She wasn't ready yet; she wanted to live. She spun around quickly, determined to face death with her eyes open, but nothing was there. The demon had disappeared. The dark unicorn had turned away from her. The nightmare that haunted her dreams would not leave her alone just like that.

4: CREEPY CASTLE

A lightning bolt allowed a brief glimpse of branches that stretched out to grab any fool who came too close. Trees spat and snarled, scraping across her shoulders. A wet vine shot out like a viper and grabbed her foot, slithering against her skin, leaving a slimy trail of sludge. It coiled around her waist for a while before slinking back into the underbrush.

Princess Alice came close to the forest edge and heard heavy panting. She stopped and listened. Sprinting swiftly, the beast vanished as quickly as it appeared. Nothing natural could have flown past that fast. Whatever it was, it wished to remain unseen. It kept chasing her, hot on her trail. Demons darted through trees, staying in the shadows. Wolves watched her, hidden from sight. They paced back and forth with fierce growls, searching for her soul. Their eyes glowed like embers from a fire as ears lay flat with heads down low. They waited for her to enter their territory, ready to strike the moment she set foot in it. They sensed her fear; it attracted their attention. Warm blood from a fresh kill painted their wet noses.

The princess looked back, expecting monsters to emerge. She scrambled to escape, almost slipping along the way on muddy ground. She stopped a moment to catch her breath with her back to a tree. The wolves gathered around to drag her down, but she wouldn't be easy prey for these predators on the prowl. She hit one with a stick, but the wolf bit it and broke it in half. They kept coming, snarling, and baring their teeth. She ran away, but they were faster and started to catch up.

A vapor-blanketed valley spread out below her. The land was dead. It was plain to see why. Radiant rivers of lava spewed ashes that danced dozens of feet in the air. Occasional bursts or fountains of fire spurted in glowing geysers, as if the planet were nauseous from poison – coughing up what it couldn't digest. It could consume her, if she let it.

She saw a creepy castle in the distance, covered in clouds. A formidable fortress wall rose until it defied all measure of mind. It climbed high into the heavens, casting a dark shadow on the land below. Spiked towers twisted forever into a swirling sky where no mortal eye could follow. It spiraled up into the stars until it turned upside-down. The black buttresses looked so old, like a lifeless skeleton. The bone bridge to the magma moat was already raised. Instead, she went around to the back gate.

With wide-open eyes, she stood and stared up at the huge, rusty gate bordered by stone columns; wind blew it open. Then she entered an old garden – now gray with decay. The black roses had poisonous thorns, possibly brewed in a cursed cauldron. Hedges formed a maze of gnarled, leafless trees. She tapped a finger on her front lip, staring silently at a faded flower. As she walked on the path, she wondered if she could find a way to restore this land to its former state.

Who could have done a thing like this?

At first, she was afraid to go on. She crossed a courtyard; hard stones met her weary feet. By the time she reached another arched door, the wolves were right behind her. Their fierce eyes flashed, glowing in the dark each time lightning crashed. The door wouldn't budge because webs covered it. She tugged and pulled until it swung open, then dashed through it.

"Hello? Is anyone home?" Alice called out, but only an echo answered. Not a soul could be seen. "Look at the time. I guess I'd better get going." Just as she turned to leave, the door slammed shut without a perceivable explanation. "Who's there?"

Taking a deep breath, she walked through an empty hall. While she wondered which way to go next, the floor fell apart. Stones below her feet couldn't support her weight, so she ran away from the broken blocks. Realizing she would never make it in time, she leaped, reached out, and grabbed the edge. The ceiling caved in as she climbed up. She stopped, looking back at the bottomless pit.

There were more twists and turns than she could remember, but she didn't want to go the wrong way again. At times, she thought she was getting somewhere, but it always turned into a dead end. The size made her dizzy as she lost all sense of direction. Ignoring her natural instincts, she hesitated, looking back, mesmerized by the magic. This uncanny urge to continue farther frightened her. Some strange unseen force drew her on and she couldn't stop; against her better judgment, she just kept going.

Wandering around, she assumed someone had planned this all along, leading her in the wrong direction. Life was a labyrinth – a maze of memories with many ways in, but only one out. Each emotion was another wall for her to hide behind. She built it to keep everyone else out, but then accidentally let somebody in. She had created it to guard her heart and protect her mind, but she couldn't remember how to get back through it. Another long passageway lay dead ahead.

On the far wall of the Great Hall, a dim light illuminated a golden figure eight. Many people from every lifestyle occupied the room, without movement or sound among them. Turned to stone, they stood still as statues with such fear-filled faces. It seemed they were trying to stop someone. The princess passed by each one, imagining their last moments of life. They ran out of chances or were trapped in time and frozen there forever. Some were on their knees, crying for help. Joyful music came from them, with children laughing; faint voices sang a beautiful song – only, in the past.

I bet this place is full of enchantments. I could feel it the moment I came in here. The magic has already begun to affect me.

Cracked hearts hung above her head. When she reached out to touch one, her hand froze; she withdrew it quickly. Timidly, she stepped forward. When her foot touched the floor, the broken hearts glowed warm with light for an instant with a faint flash, but then it stopped. After each step, it got harder to move. Her right leg froze; she tried to lift it from the floor, but it was just too heavy. A chill crawled up her neck until she couldn't breathe. Her body lay still in a trance-like state. With nobody to keep it warm, her heart grew cold and hard as stone. As a statue, she felt nothing but a faint whisper. Then finally, the magic holding her grew weak.

She found a floating key with strange symbols. Part of it looked like a miniature maze and she used it on a small door.

Skeletons with black hoods guarded a dungeon gate. No one could stand against these pagan priests, who preyed upon poor lost souls. The princess ducked behind a pillar, lying low. Then she waited to see what would happen, though tempted to interfere.

What would they do if they found me?

A dark priest lifted a stone staff as a little girl ran out into the open. His victim was a helpless young human child. Her long, flowing dress left her arms bare. She called out for help, but none came. Sudden silence followed her startled scream. Her feet floated an inch off the ground as she hovered in midair. Slowly she spun around; then she went faster until finally she stopped. He clenched his fist and she bent into a ball. He spread out a hand, extending his fingers; her legs shot out straight as her head rocked back. The life leech played with his new puppet, controlling her body's motions and testing to see if she still had any will to resist.

Her hair spread apart like lightning was about to strike. A blast of electric energy sprang forth and began to transform her. Chilling wind rushed by like a hundred howls. The skin on her face turned as pale, white, and cold as the moon. The dark priest drew glowing beams of color into his open hand, draining life from the delicate figure. He let her go when he was done, more dead than alive. The girl fell to her knees, unable to withstand the skeleton's wizardry. He buried her body in a pit underground.

Cloaked and hooded figures silently emerged from the walls in every direction and filled the room. They stared at her with black, beady eyes. The chamber grew dark as the evil spirits shuffled closer. Each garment they wore bore the same symbol, but they wore different colored crowns as well. They possessed elemental power over water, fire, earth, and air.

"Many fall and become slaves to the shadows. Few ever return to the land of light. You shall serve the Dark Lord, or we will punish you day and night." The evil spirits spoke in unison without opening their mouths, translating telepathically.

"Um, question?" Alice raised a hand. "It'd be nice if somebody explained what's going on here."

"Silence, say no more!" The empty room echoed with their harsh command. "Clever child… You speak only when spoken to. We have slain men for less than that. We spare you now because it's not the will of our Master to kill you yet."

"Why do you wear that symbol?" She pointed.

"The infinity insignia represents the goal of our Dark Lord, striving for what is unattainable and unreachable by limited and finite beings. He will destroy all those who doubt him. He is not to be questioned, but obeyed," the evil spirits said.

"I don't know who you're talking about, unless–"

"The Dragon King is not a mere mortal. He was here long before you. We are the Watchers, dedicated to doing his will alone. If the blood spilled before his throne rose up from the dust, it would outweigh the very oceans."

"And this is his fallen kingdom?" she asked.

"We had no strength to stand against him and now our names have been forgotten forever. We were once great kings of the Earth, blinded by our greed. We're only hollow shells of our former selves – phantoms of the past gaining far greater power in this strange state. We lusted for life, yet were denied death. That's how we learned to hate the light. Keep in mind all you have seen here. This is what happens to those who oppose the forces of darkness. You have been warned." Then the demons departed.

5: MAGIC MIRROR

Princess Alice thought she heard someone whisper her name in a faint, familiar voice. She could have sworn she saw a ghost. It turned out of view around a corner. She hurried down a dark hall to find out where it went. Torches lit themselves, leading the way. She followed it upstairs, trying to get a better glimpse. Was it her sister bringing her somewhere important?

"This way… Come to me," the voice whispered.

"Wait! Who are you?" the princess cried out.

The princess found herself in a familiar bedroom. It was well-furnished and set in order, like someone was going to come back soon. Then she realized it looked like her room, but she was trapped on the other side. If she listened carefully, she could hear a mysterious melody. A mangled music box played a haunted harmony. Webs held a chandelier in place; candles lit the chamber. A doll sat in a creaking rocking-chair. Shaking sounds came from the closet, but when she opened it, nothing was there.

I know this place. I've been here before.

A black funeral veil covered a neatly made bed in the corner with a webbed hammock. Webbed curtains glowed pale white in the moonlight. Walking to the window, she looked down below. A wilted garden grew by a bloody lake. Thorn bushes rose high, completely surrounding the castle. It was dark and depressing out, but almost alluring inside.

When you look out a window, other people can see you too.

In the mirror, she could see a prince. He slowly laid a hand on her shoulder, but when she turned around, he wasn't there. A diary lay on the dresser; the ink began to disappear from the paper before she had a chance to read it, as if missing memories were slowly fading away. A velvet vial filled with poison perfume and bloody lipstick sat beside a black bottle labeled: DRINK IF YOU DARE. It contained dragon blood. It seemed a convenient means of committing suicide. She picked it up and put it in her pocket.

If only I could get back into that beautiful garden…

Standing in front of the mirror, she looked through a window into another world. Her dreams were on one side of reality, but now she was lost in a nightmare. She reached out and pressed against it again, pounding hard on a polished surface, but she couldn't pass through the looking-glass. She cried and closed her eyes, falling on her knees. She hadn't received any answer to her prayer. She was so close and yet so far.

Will I ever be part of that world?

On the wall, there was a painting of a dragon and a knight in shining armor holding out a sword and shield. Behind him stood a lady clad in a flowing gown, covering her cheeks with her hands, yearning in youthful idealism. She walked around to examine exceedingly extravagant murals. It felt like she actually watched and experienced the events. Imagination overtook her senses.

The first picture portrayed the chronicles of creation. Angels flew around the Creator, glowing with glory; they went out into the world he made, but then came back to him. Tree branches grew down from Heaven to Earth. The universe was untainted.

In the second picture, two worlds used to be united. One looked like a peaceful paradise, but some cosmic chaos ruled the other realm. In the middle, a child reaching for a fruit stood under a giant tree. A serpent hid in shade cast by branches, looking down. Supernatural beings stood by. The trunk split and opened to reveal its razor-sharp teeth, surrounded by several bones. Roots grabbed the girl's wrist, ready to throw her into its maw, but she cut off the tentacle and fell.

The third picture showed the climax of creation. Countless souls were on a chaotic collision course, unable to escape eternity. People didn't seem prepared for the coming crisis. A star shone in the night, glowing bright with glory. It began to burn, but then faded away. Hollow inside, it collapsed and fell from within under the weight of the world from its own gravity. Its crust crumbled apart. The star turned supernova then became a black-hole. It absorbed all life instead of giving and sharing itself, forced to feed on other sources. Many more descended into the darkness, following the fallen star.

A meteor streaked through the sky, landing on a planet. It plummeted into the atmosphere, hit the dirt, and left a crater, but then burrowed deep down to the center. A sleeping serpent lay hidden within its womb. The dragon remained there until someone disturbed it. He woke up, spreading his wings to break the shell. Each piece of the shattered star drifted in space until it reached another world and spread its seeds. The sun was a golden dragon and the moon a silver one, curled into a circle. Each egg was a certain color – sapphire, emerald, ruby, and diamond – and each precious gem represented a different element.

The fourth picture was of a black dragon presented with human slaves. He gathered the material wealth of the world. Empires and armies were his alone to command. He worked false signs, miracles, and wonders to amaze all his followers. A twisted throne reached high into the sky, but stopped before it touched the stars, unable to break through some supernatural barrier.

In the fifth picture, the Prince of Peace held a bright sword. He rode past clouds upon a white unicorn as the sun set. It jumped out and pranced around the room. In fact, she could feel the velvet mane run through her fingers – the warm breath as it exhaled.

In the sixth scene, the Dragon King lay in a burning lake of fire, which glowed with lava that flowed like veins of blood. There he was tortured, along with those he had deceived, for he'd caused terror in the land of the living.

The seventh showed a wedding feast in a celestial city full of shimmering streets. A fountain flowed with living waters, held by trumpeting angels, in a crystal clear stream that came from the throne – an endless energy source for all those who lived in this land. The Tree of Life stretched over a riverbank. Rolling hills and magnificent mansions dotted the background.

A crystal ball rested on a marble pedestal in the center of the chamber, like some all-seeing eye. Hesitantly, she reached out; the strange sphere glowed as she touched it. The room grew dark and her vision faded. She quickly withdrew her hand and stepped back. She felt a sense of hopelessness, loneliness, and emptiness deep down inside; the very thought of it made her sick. Then she blew away the dust and translated several words written there, recognizing the Latin term for salvation.

I know something interesting is sure to happen if I touch it.

She found herself trapped in the Oracle Orb. As she began to float in the air, her hands slid over a smooth glass surface. She shouted and yelled. It was no use. She fell to her knees, closed her eyes, and cried until she passed out. The princess woke up in the haunted castle with her face to the floor. She pushed herself up, looking around, reluctantly trying to remember what happened. A dragon towered high above her, watching her. He stared straight into her eyes, gazed into her mind, and beckoned her to serve him. The dragon dragged her deeper into the darkness. She struggled, but he wouldn't let her go. He cast her in a pit and left her there.

Princess Alice cried out for help, but no one answered. Victims yelled and screamed, pushed and shoved, and smashed into each other. Heads rocked to some deafening noise. She plugged her ears and searched for a way out. People fought and practiced every kind of evil, but had no sense of self-control – lost in their lust. They spent their lives chasing after cheap reflections, not realizing these shifting shadows were like passing phantoms in a mere instant compared to eternity.

Then a bright white light appeared and a doorway opened. The frame glowed red, but the outer edge was black. Nobody else seemed interested. As she walked toward it, they crowded her, pulling at her dress. They linked arms to form a tight chain. Each time she tried to get past them, they pushed her away. Finally, she broke free, stepping into the open door's outline. The others made fun of her, pointing fingers and laughing. Some shook their heads, talking behind her back. The rest ignored her, yet they dared not set one foot in the light. They were afraid of it for some reason.

Despite this, she was determined to go on. A beam of light fell on her face; slowly she approached it. To either side there was darkness and death, but she took the straight and narrow path. When she walked through the door, she could see the crystal ball. Having witnessed this vision, the princess pressed against the walls to escape. The sphere briefly shattered to let her out.

What secret could it be hiding from me? Was it some kind of key or perhaps a riddle I had to solve?

Alice resumed her revelation. The door led outside to a dark forest; she went through it, ducking under gnarled branches. Someone stood there and leaned against a tree. They stared at each other momentarily, not moving. Nodding, she returned his respectful gesture. Taking several steps forward, he closed the gap between them. He offered a hand, which she quietly held. He led her toward the light, but then turned around and went back again. She got in his way to stop him from returning to that terrible place. He paid no attention to her and kept going anyway. Staying there, she wondered what would happen next.

Wolves waited for him. They attacked him with all they had, but they couldn't touch him. Suddenly, the dragon struck him in the heart. He began to bleed. Rushing to his side, trying to defend him, she held out a sword threateningly as it glowed bright with light. The wolves backed off. Somewhere deep inside her, there was still a small flame of hope, but her faith faded like a candle blown out by the wind. As the light left, she stood alone in the dark with the demon wolves.

The princess couldn't hold back the tears anymore. She fell on her knees and turned away. A hand rested upon her shoulder. She turned around and saw him standing there beside her. Then she saw the other prisoners trapped inside. She went to them, but for some reason she didn't reach them. They couldn't hear anything she said, not listening. He wanted her to go back with him and set all the captives free who would follow him. He gave them hope they never knew before.

He pulled her hand with a pleading look and she felt at peace for a moment, seeing their entwined fingers. She opened her mouth, but found she could not speak. He shook his head, knowing what she wanted but unable to answer though she could almost hear him. He touched her cheek, gently tickling her skin like a brushing feather. Her hand ripped through his form, dissolving it; it seemed solid, but was more like fog than flesh. It slowly drifted away, flowing with the wind. Then the vision vanished and she found herself back in the bedroom.

6: SHADOW OF MY SOUL

"Well done…" A calm voice came from the shadows, followed by clapping. The Prince of Darkness leaned against a wall with his arms crossed. "You won't make it."

"It's not over yet. No matter how powerful you are, I will find a way to stop you." Princess Alice slowly lifted her head.

Putting a finger to his chin, he almost seemed amused. "Tell me. When you look in the mirror, what do you see – who you really are or who you pretend to be? Are you brave enough to face the truth? Why not right now? The sooner the better…"

"What would you know about truth?" she asked.

"I'll introduce you to none other than yourself," he said.

Wind swept the silver mist away to reveal her reflection. Her eyes were windows into herself, but she was trapped in them. The strange girl in the glass stared back at her, but the image didn't look familiar at all. She was beautiful before; now she was ugly. Her dress was dirty – her hair a mess. Once she was happy and free, but became a prisoner of her own mind. This was not the little girl she used to know – all that remained of her reflection.

That can't be me! She shook her head. "Oh! I hate you!"

She grew madder every moment until she was so upset she hit it with her fist hard as she could. She cracked the case, only to find that each piece portrayed another flawed fragment of her – imperfect in every way. The mirror was broken, and so was she.

It's tearing me apart! She knelt in pain.

Someone whispered her name. The princess turned around, hearing a bizarre voice. The broken pieces put themselves back together again. When she looked back, she bumped into it. Then she noticed her mirror image wasn't moving. It stood still as a statue with an emotionless expression. As she looked closer, leaning forward, it blinked. She jumped backward, startled. Then she reached out to touch the glass, gasped, and opened her eyes wide. A cruel smile came over her shadow's face. Suddenly it grabbed her throat before she could even scream, effortlessly tossing her across the room and against the wall like a rag doll. Grabbing the frame with both hands, it pulled itself through, leaving claw marks behind.

"It's bad luck to break mirrors. They're the other half of ourselves and you just let me through," the strange voice said.

Somehow, Princess Alice had released her own reflection – the dark side of her soul. The demon dwelled in the mirror, trapped within the walls, and she had set it free. The shadow took shape, sharpening with each step as it came closer. Outwardly, Alice remained calm. The crystal heart necklace she wore turned cold and black. Then their eyes met and her heart skipped a beat.

"We meet at last. Don't bother getting up." The wretched wraith waved her wrist. She was pale as a phantom, yet attractive with long, black hair. "I've been expecting you. Are you surprised to see me?" As her shadow circled the chamber, the princess looked down in disbelief, but she seized her neck and held her chin up. "How pretty, yet pathetic…"

"I don't understand. Who are you?" Alice stared and tilted her head, mouth open.

"I'm your alter ego. I'm smarter and stronger. I'm free in every way you never were. I'm everything you could ever hope to be and so much more. Your worst fears have finally come to life. I am the Shadow of Death. I'm the Heartless Princess of Darkness." The witch introduced herself. "You never could've made it this far alone. Someone is helping you. The question is, who are you?"

"I'm the one who should be asking that," Alice said.

"Are you frightened, princess?" Shadow the Witch asked.

"No…" The princess frowned.

"Well, you will be. I'll show you the true meaning of trepidation."

"Oh yeah? What should I be scared of?" Alice asked.

"Yourself," the witch whispered. "You're the only one no one can save you from. Startled by your own shadow, princess?"

"What do you mean? That's impossible," Alice said.

"Anything is possible in a dream." Shadow rolled her eyes and sighed, as if trying to explain something simple to a child. "I don't know how it happened, but at some point, your subconscious thoughts became strong enough to rise to the surface and found a means of magically manifesting it here. In part, you simply needed to grow up. You were searching for a way to change, but you couldn't do it on your own. When you looked in that mirror, you saw the person you wanted to be. Every little black thought in that tiny brain of yours helped me take on a physical form in this place. Little-by-little, you're slowly letting yourself become me."

"If it's a dream, why can't I control what happens?"

"Sorry, it doesn't work that way." Shadow smirked.

"What do you want?" Alice asked.

"Oh, nothing much – just your soul…" The witch went on. "A small price to pay for your dreams…"

"Thanks, but I'll pass." Princess Alice backed away as the witch walked toward her. Images flooded her mind; she pushed them aside, keeping her head unclouded. She had to stay in control if she wanted to learn how to beat the witch.

"Do you remember me? No, of course not… You forced me out a long time ago and kept me locked away all these years because you were afraid of me. You have fought me and failed every time. I'll turn your faith to fear and destroy all you have ever held dear. Wouldn't want to get blood all over my new dress… Isn't it a shame how something so beautiful can be so weak?"

"Go away. I don't want to fight you," Alice said.

"An angel of light versus a demon of the darkness? This should be interesting," the soulless shadow said.

The princess grabbed a sword off a shelf and lunged, meaning to take Shadow by surprise, but when she swung, it passed through her. Shadow stuck out a foot to trip her. The princess fell on her hands and knees, breathing hard. "What the?"

"Did you miss me?" Shadow reappeared behind her, opening her arms to challenge her. "Here I am. Take another shot."

Princess Alice slashed her exposed neck, but the wicked witch was still standing there. In moments, her torn flesh crawled back together. Shredded skin grew again, fully restored. The wound completely healed like it had never been there at all.

"Why aren't you dead?" The princess gawked, confused.

Shadow just stood there. The witch leaned back as her hair tips touched the blade's edge. At the last moment, she leaped into the air and landed on top of the sword. She flipped, kicked the princess in the face, and then squatted on the floor.

"Oh, is the poor baby going to cry? Don't get mad or I'll just grow stronger!" Shadow shouted.

As the witch raised her hand, the princess floated in the air. Shadow flung her wrist and sent her flying. Her body slammed against a wall; then she fell to the floor. The princess tried to push herself up again, but was too weak. Lying on the ground, she looked up slowly. The witch stood waiting to finish her off. For the first time, Alice was fighting a losing battle. This enemy was unlike any she had ever fought before. Her hair hung in front of her face, soaked wet with sweat. She shoved the sword tip down, struggled to her feet, and then gripped the hilt until her knuckles turned white. She lifted it swiftly, wielding the weapon like a master, spinning with amazing agility. This girl was a true warrior – one who would not lie down and die.

"Bring it on, *****!" Princess Alice swung again.

Her enemy had a will as strong as her own. The witch evaded her attacks effortlessly, stepping aside. She knew each thought the moment it entered her mind. They were so evenly matched resisting seemed useless. Each time the witch taunted her, the princess wanted to defeat her even more. By this time, they were both panting hard, but the witch recovered more rapidly. Soon Alice ran out of breath, making her actions slow and careless. Her strikes were no longer strategic, but driven by desperation.

"Done already? I know you have much more than that." The witch walked over to her weary opponent and knelt beside her. "Or perhaps you're the inadequate imitation, who can't even pose as a convincing copy of me?"

The princess charged forward and tried to end the battle before she was too tired to go on. Shadow flipped to avoid the attack before the blade could make contact and landed safely behind her back. The sound of clashing metal pierced the chamber. They stood, pushing hard. Then the witch gained enough leverage to send the sword flying from her hands.

"Don't be a fool. You can't fight me," Shadow said.

The witch was playing with her; she wasn't even trying. The princess had to think of something – anything. Taking a torch from the wall, she flung it and set her on fire. The witch shrieked and stumbled backward.

"Oh no! I'm melting!" Shadow shouted, dripping down.

The princess stood facing the flames, staring at the smoke. Wiping the sweat off her forehead, she stopped to rest a moment.

"Is it just me, or is it hot in here?" Alice fanned herself off.

Flames faded and ashes whirled away. Wind blew through the room as fumes filled the air. The fire rose higher. The witch stepped out from the wreath of flames as if it were merely a mirage. Her black hair flew wildly around her head.

"That was just a warm up!" The wicked witch laughed. "This is the sort of entertainment I'm after. I love a mortal with a good sense of humor. You aren't making this much of a challenge. Physical attacks are useless."

"No, I'm not listening to you!" Alice covered her ears and denied what her senses were telling her. The horribly lovely voice seemed to come from somewhere inside her head. "You're not really there. It's just an illusion."

"You're so predictable, princess. That makes my job even easier. There's nobody here. It's all in your head."

"I've lost my mind." Alice rubbed her eyes.

"Can't lose what you never had," Shadow the Witch said. "You're not going crazy. The bad news is, I still have to kill you."

"Without me, you wouldn't be here," Alice said. "If we don't stop, we'll eliminate each other."

"Unfortunately, there can only be one of us. If you don't join with me, I'll be forced to destroy you," Shadow said.

"You don't even exist. It's just my imagination."

"I'm facing a very complicated conflict. I feel killing you will solve my problem. I'm just trying to make sense of this warped world. I was born to bring death. I assume my life is meaningless if you're still alive. My voice will echo through time long after yours extinguishes. I know your thoughts, memories, feelings, and emotions. I can turn your dreams into nightmares and use them against you. Soon you'll learn to serve the Dragon King and call him master."

"You might know what I'm about to do, but it won't help."

"I am a shadow. I've never known fear. I feel no pain. You can't stop me."

"We'll see about that." The princess stood up for herself.

"There's a fine line between life and death. It won't take much to push you out of the light and into darkness." The witch casually cracked her knuckles. "Let's make some magic!"

Shadow swirled like a dark mist and floated in midair. Her hair whipped wildly, waving in the wind. Thrusting her arms out, she opened her hand and extended her fingers. The witch could control the forces of nature. Princess Alice darted side to side, hopping nimbly, trying to dodge the lightning bolts. Ashes charred the ground where she stood a moment ago. Then one hit her; the raw explosion of energy struck her senseless. Fortunately, the effect was mostly temporary. Then she looked again and saw a transparent outline in place of her face. No doubt about it, she was starting to fade away while her worst nightmare became real.

"Huh… What?" Blinking twice, Alice regained her senses.

"You brought all this upon yourself. I've made you into a monster. You aren't an angel anymore. You're one of us now."

"What's happening to me? What have you done?"

"You're just a reflection. I'm the one who's real now." Shadow sighed. "Life is full of tough choices, isn't it? The solution is simple. You have to learn to live with death and let it go. Forget what you think you know. Losing hope is freedom. Stop struggling to survive – trying to control things. To find true peace, first you must accept that you can't change the way things are."

"Get out of my head! Make it stop!" Alice yelled.

"How do you expect to win like that? It's no use fighting. What's the point? You're only delaying the inevitable."

"I have nothing left to lose." Alice argued.

"You'll never beat me, but to be fair, I can give you a hint. At least you'll die knowing that you tried your best," Shadow said.

"Wait, what?" A bead of sweat dripped down Alice's neck.

"Let me put it this way. Are you afraid of the dark?"

"Yes, why?" Alice whispered.

"You wouldn't want me to spoil the surprise, would you?" An evil smile spread across the witch's face. "I'll take you on a tour of Hell. People are just dying to get down here. Be sure to stop by the gift shop on your way out. Oh yeah, I forgot you're trapped here forever. On our left, we have some lost souls in the smoking section. They used to be good people like you. In fact, this one is your older sister. Once she allowed envy to consume her thoughts, her mind became mine. Her naïveté only made her more amusing when she arrived. Isn't it ironic how the power people hope will save them can lead to death in the end? Hold onto your halo!"

"You can't have her!" A lost soul reached out for Alice's hand, but fell back before it could even touch her fingers.

"Stand aside. Death has not come for you. I'm afraid it's already too late. Business hours are over," Shadow said.

"Ok, now it's personal." The princess rolled up her sleeves.

"In my father's house, there are many fires. I go to prepare a place for you. Your name's next on the list. I checked it twice."

"Hold that thought." The princess turned to run.

The witch vanished in a swirling flame then reappeared in a puff of smoke, holding a finger to her lips. "Do you hear that?"

"I don't hear anything." Alice shook her head.

"Exactly! No one praying… Isn't it great? The perfect little puppets have lost hope. What were your dreams?"

"You don't know my future. I'll never be like you."

"You will. You can't change who you are."

"I know someone who can," the princess insisted.

"Truth lies in the beholder's eyes. Reality is for those who can't create their own world. Everything that has a beginning has an end. I can already see it coming. This is getting boring." Shadow yawned then snapped. "Would you like to play with my pets? They like it when I use live bait. They just can't wait to get their claws on you. I'd like to see how this turns out. Honestly, I'd love to stick around and watch you suffer, but I have souls to steal and dreams to destroy. You wouldn't be interested."

"Isn't there any way out of this place?" Alice asked.

"If I let you return to your reality, perhaps you could bring me along. Your world needs someone to watch over it. It might as well be me." The witch waved goodbye, using a moonlight medallion to turn herself invisible. "Have fun in Hell!"

7: DON'T FEED THE DRAGONS

Glass cases filled a long hall. Dragon statues stared down at Alice as she walked by. Each one was made of a different element – sapphire, emerald, and ruby; these three enclosed a diamond one. Combined colors shaped a spectrum of primary pigments. One had moved and changed position, coming closer – right behind her now. It turned its head; its evil eyes glowed. Hearing a scratching sound, she watched as a statue came to life. Awakened by her anxiety attack, it sensed her sorrow and fed on her fear. Its breath moisturized the glass surface it shattered. Others emerged from their places in the room. They circled like vultures, opening their jaws and spreading out their wings. As they advanced, she curled up into a fetal position and screamed.

Maybe if I stay very still, they won't notice me.

Princess Alice woke to the sound of breathing; she felt air vibrate each time they exhaled. As she tried to sneak away, a hideous shape moved in front of her. She froze with fear, hoping it hadn't seen her yet. In a pile on the ground rested several glowing spheres the size of skulls that shimmered like stars – sapphire, emerald, ruby, and diamond orbs. Serpents swooped down, screeching, and kept assaulting her as if protecting something. She couldn't get a good look at it. Lying on her stomach, she crawled closer and realized what they were. Their bright skin colors got darker as they grew older.

Approaching an abandoned nest, she reached out to rub a glowing gemstone, feeling its smooth surface. The egg lay still; it was hard and cold to the touch. As she rested her palm on the shell, it grew warm until a membrane began moving. The princess put a hand over her mouth and held her breath. She covered her eyes, backing away very slowly.

By now, the other dragons watched in anticipation. One egg began to rock back and forth then started to shudder. A small body pushed at the thick crust. A faint tapping sound came as cracks appeared on the shell's surface. It rolled and fell, hit the ground with a thump, then split straight down the center. From the broken halves came a tiny creature, swaying its head and tottering forward with an awkward step. The dragon spread out its wings then flapped to dry them off. It practiced pumping in an unsuccessful attempt to achieve flight, using its tail for better balance, and then folded them back again.

Other orbs popped open. Bright rays of light flashed in all directions as the shells split. Ugly creatures flopped forth, crawling from the crystals with their tails tangled. One by one, they emerged from the eggs serving as their seeds.

Elder dragons took their offspring on a hunt; not hindering any development, they would infrequently interfere. These perfect predators could afford to play with their prey. The first victim was a poor little girl. Newborn nightmares pecked at her face as she sheltered her head with a hand. She felt a painful prick on a shoulder. Their sharp teeth tugged at her tender flesh. One sat on his haunches to strike her. He wrapped a long tail around her waist, flew to a corner, then landed on the rocks with her limp form in his claws. He ripped her apart, shredded through soft skin, and tore her body into bits. The girl was gone.

The princess didn't dare intercede at this point. She closed her eyes to save what was left of her stomach. She turned and gulped, breathing hard, scared stiff. Her heart pounded rapidly and skipped a beat. She slumped and cried like a frightened child.

How horrible… Kill or be killed – anything to stay alive… I'll smuggle an egg and hold it hostage. Not so tough now?

Gold coins and gems lay scattered all over the ground; these treasures served as bait for ambitious adventurers. Males filled their nests with decorations to lure a mate by presenting females with precious jewels. Dragons were very vulnerable to attack while asleep, but could sense danger from a great distance. One serpent woke up from slumber and stirred. He stretched, yawned, and then twitched his tail. The tiniest slit of one ruby eye opened, gleaming like a gemstone. With an unblinking glare, he regarded her closely and then turned away. The dragon lay down as if he didn't consider her a threat.

A giant dragon slept nearby, guarding a gate. It was the only way in or out, but she wouldn't risk dashing for the exit. Far above, perched precariously, another one curled around its eggs. The princess ducked out of sight. While it was around, she couldn't go higher. She couldn't escape by climbing away from a creature that could fly. Instead, she threw a stone against the wall. The serpent rose to investigate and sniffed suspiciously. The princess hid from sight until it left.

Taking a deep breath, she began to climb. If she slipped now, it would break every bone in her body. She carefully placed her foot down and tested the ground, making sure it was strong enough to support her weight. The slope was too steep to stand on. Loose rocks tumbled down, showering her with dirt. She accidentally let go then tried to find something to hold onto. Luckily, she managed to grab a ledge with one hand. She covered her face and coughed. She clung to the cliff wall, rubbed her eyes, and then gulped to gather enough courage to continue.

After reaching the nest, she tried lifting a little egg. She wrapped her arms around it and braced her legs, trying to carry it, but lost her balance. For something so small, it was very heavy. She must have given them enough energy to wake sooner. She had to hit them where it hurt the most, destroying the dragon eggs before they could hatch, leaving no witnesses to warn the others of her presence. She rolled the orbs, pushing them over a cliff edge to dash them to pieces on sharp rocks. Shattered shells littered the level below. Delicate wings glistened with embryo fluid.

Somehow, one of the orbs survived the fall. The ball bounced on the ground then stopped. The baby broke free, looked up at her, then hollered for help with a sharp screech. She climbed down, trying to shush him up, clamping his mouth shut, but he snapped at her hand; she snatched it back before he bit it. She ran away as fast as she could. The noise was sure to attract the other dragon's attention. Perhaps she could use this diversion to escape.

When the mother returned, she found her babies lying dead and then nudged the bodies with her nose. Expressing enragement, she called out for the others. Suddenly a serpent came toward the princess and prevented her from escaping. Thinking fast, she ducked into a narrow crevice. The dragon lowered his huge head then stopped beside her to sniff the air. Just beyond his jaws, she leaned against a rock wall as he growled and made passes. When he finally left, she peered from a hiding place.

Something blocked off a column of moonlight in the cave. She jumped back and looked around for a while, but saw nothing there. She trembled, as though expecting to be eaten any moment. Dragons hissed with hatred, unable to save their unborn spawn. A swarm of serpents swiftly soared after her, twisting through the tunnel. She didn't dare look back over her shoulder; the sight would stifle the breath she needed. She shifted her stride to compensate for the uneven ground – if only she could run fast enough to stay out of reach. It wouldn't do to break an ankle at a time like this, yet youth was on her side.

A dragon dived toward her with startling speed. A flashing flame singed her hair; smoke hovered in midair for a moment then floated off. Slowly she backed away, only to find another had landed behind her. She got between them. The dominant male dragon claimed her as his rightful prey. The other one slapped him with a tail. They rolled and curled up into a ball, wrestling with each other. While they fought, the princess quietly slipped away trying to get outside.

The first serpent picked her up, grasping with giant claws, and flung her in the air. Muscles tightened in anticipation as she fell faster. Another serpent swooped down and snatched her just in time. Momentum forced the air out of her lungs as she hung upside-down. The creature carried her away past mountains back toward the black castle and then let go.

Princess Alice screamed and hurtled toward the ground. Her dress opened like a parachute or umbrella to slow her down, but then flew in her face until she landed in a web. Her life hung by a thread; she dangled as it bounced up and down. The nasty net snapped. Dirt caved in below, sending her plunging into a pit. She brushed herself off and stood up, coughing. At first, she mumbled a complaint, but then heard a low rumble. Another dragon reached its claws through the bone bars keeping her safe, but she lay against the far back wall until it finally left. Above, she saw the hole she fell through.

8: WELCOME TO MY WORLD

A lake of fire burned like the sun. Everything near it evaporated. Rivers of magma flowed between mountains of brimstone. A flood of blood rained over a sharp cliff edge into lava pits below, where demons drank it. Dead bodies floated just above the crimson cascades. A stream carried the corpses along in a boat made of bones. In a flurry of rippling bubbles, red liquid crawled up the cartilage, coating it in crimson and tying it together with ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

Many mortals rotted here, barely recognizable as human. The sickening stench from burned remains filled the dungeon with noxious fumes. They fought, dragging each other down to keep from sinking. Others held up hands, gasping for air before they became food for the slimy worms in the mire. Skeletons lay scattered everywhere. Some were buried alive.

Hounds came after a prisoner who played dead. When the wolves caught his leg, he hung onto a wall's edge. The demons dragged him back into the darkness. He screamed, but then everything became silent again – followed by a spray of blood.

Every monster masqueraded itself. Evil spirits could take on the likeness of any shape they chose. Familiar voices of family members called out like sirens to lure men from hiding, drawing them toward death. They isolated and sacrificed the weakest among them, released to use for hunting practice in carefully coordinated attacks. Demons watched from a distance, ready to seize any soul who strayed from the safety of the others. Predators picked them off one at a time.

The princess poked her head through the bars. The dungeon was laid out like a pit. The helpless expression on prisoners' faces was unbearable. She could offer the others no encouraging words. The screaming never stopped. They had no hope.

Her thoughts drifted back to a particular passage from an ancient text, speaking of a prince who defeated those dragons. She heard it all her life, reciting it from memory, but never understood that part of the prophecy. Someday the light might return to her world. Until then, she could only pray that this nightmare would end soon. Her dreams were her only refuge from reality.

It felt like she had always lived there and nothing was ever going to happen again. Her mind went blank. Over time, she grew used to her sunless, moonless prison. Time seemed twisted here; she couldn't tell how long it had been. She turned her face, fell to her knees, and cried, yet tears couldn't quench the flames of Hell. Darkness craved to control every part of her heart; it came to infect her innocence and turn love into lust. It took her life to be full for one moment, even though emptiness couldn't be complete.

At first she fought, but then gave in to doubt. She felt herself fading, slowly losing her sanity. Her life was like a candle; the light disappeared into the darkness, but never came back – without even an echo of truth. Evil laughter ebbed through the Halls of Hell. She sat alone in a dungeon with her knees pulled up to her chin – staring at the shadows – into the endless emptiness of an eclipsed eternity. Unable to remember a time before it began, she could never imagine a prince longed for her love.

How could he love a monster like me?

After a few days, if there was such a thing in Hell, the Prince of Darkness came to visit Princess Alice in her prison, holding a black bouquet and a crystal chalice. He went down into the dungeon, followed by a group of guards.

"On your knees, slave!" A guard pushed her.

"That will be all for now." The Dragon King gestured. He chained her to the wall and bound her wrists with her hands over her head. "It'd break my heart seeing you like this – if I had one."

"So you're the one behind this!" The princess tugged hard.

"Did you figure it out all by yourself? I'm impressed!"

"I knew that I couldn't trust you, liar!" she shouted.

"Liar? Why, the better to steal your soul, my dear… By mixing a little truth with my lie, I made it immune to the real thing. After all, it's based on a true story." The Dark Lord laughed. "Don't take it personally. I lie to everyone."

"I wouldn't come willingly so you brought me by force?"

"Your soul is mine." He grasped thin air.

"Get your own soul." Alice crossed her arms.

"Sorry, I lost mine. Could I borrow yours?"

"Are you really lonely or something?" Alice asked.

"Take a look around. This is my kingdom." He raised a hand. "Welcome to my world."

"So this is Hell? I hate what you've done with the place."

"When will you realize that resistance is futile? Don't entertain any thought of escape. No one can save you now. Make yourself at home, because you're going to be here for a long time."

"It's not that impressive." She rolled her eyes.

"Well, it will be after I acquire yours," he said.

"Why did you take me here? What do you want from me?"

"Oh, is that what you thought? I'm not after you. You were part of my plan all along, but I use fools to do my bidding."

"Please, don't do this. Just let me go." Turning away, she closed her eyes and cried. He held her chin, making her look up.

"How human of you… Mortals are so linear – always in the here and now – running for their lives and begging for mercy. Maybe you're just upset. Satan got your soul? Cheer up. I know. You don't want to be my slave anymore. Your plea moves me. Oh, I'll let you live for a while before I torture you like the rest of these poor lost souls, which is less than you deserve."

"I'll never give in to your demands, no matter what you do. I'd rather die first." Princess Alice turned away.

"If that's the way it has to be, it's fine with me," he said.

"Why can't you see the monster you've become?"

"This is only a taste of the terror to come," he said.

"Whatever you think I'm gonna do for you, you're wrong."

As he started speaking, a prisoner went crazy to interrupt their conversation. He paused long enough to silence the screams.

"That's better. Now where were we?" he asked.

"Something about eternal torment," she said.

"Ah yes, so sorry… It's all fun and games until someone loses a soul." He raised a finger. "I really hate to say this. Actually, I couldn't be in a better mood. You're mine to do with as I please."

"You've gotta be kidding! Give me a break!"

"I don't make the rules. I just play by them."

"I'm tired of guessing games," the princess said.

"You think this is a game? I'm playing for keeps."

"Sometimes the only way to win a game is not to play."

"If you want to play the game, you have to go by the rules."

"How am I supposed to play if they keep changing?"

"I'll be a better host if we agree." He poured out a bottle of nightmare nectar. The devil offered her a drink. "Care for a cup?"

She shivered as he held the wicked wine up to her lips. She took a sip, careful not to swallow, and then spat it back in his face.

"Have it your way. I'm out of patience."

"What did I ever do to you?" The princess wondered.

"Think this is confusing? When I'm done, you won't even know who you are. I'll let you come to your own conclusions. You aren't even close. Instead, I'll allow you to live in the naïve nightmare you've created."

"Could you give me a clue?" Alice asked.

"I am the future. You no longer matter. Unfortunately unavoidable, a few must suffer for the sake of the many. It's a necessary evil. That's just nature's way – survival of the fittest, superior species. Now we've reached a new era of evolution."

"It's not like the universe revolves around you," she said.

"Well, actually it does," the evil prince replied.

"What part of eternity do you not understand? What good is it if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul?"

"Hey, I'd rather conquer it and then ask questions later."

"What if the prophecy is true and the prince really is alive? If you're so tough, then how did he defeat you?"

"If you're looking for weaknesses, you're wasting your time. I have none." The Dark Lord leered.

"I guess you've got nothing to worry about," she said.

"Where is your savior now?" He taunted her.

"He'll be here soon." The princess tried to sound confident, but the expression in her eyes did not match the tone of her voice.

"Oh really? Perhaps you could introduce me to him when he arrives. You can tell me all about him just before you both die. I'm convinced he's a complete coward, since he failed to show himself. Maybe he's finally met his match."

"I know he'll return. Then you'll be sorry."

"You can't honestly expect me to believe you still trust in him. You're not very good at lying," he said.

"Well at least I can lie better than you tell the truth."

"Don't give me excuses. If he loves you, then why hasn't he come back for you? Do you really believe anyone can rise from the dead? The fool – he gave his life for you. How noble of him, as if that could make up for everything… I watched him die with my own eyes. I'll cherish the memories. It was the happiest moment of my life. Fate has such a nasty habit of getting in my way. I've worked hard to make sure he never returns. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it."

"How could you be so cruel?" Alice asked.

"Why ask a question if you already know the answer?"

"I want to know the truth. That's all."

"I'm tired of truth. I've grown weary of the word," he said.

"Come on, tell me. I must know more."

"Ages ago, a king brought everything into existence. However, he was irresponsible, leaving us like a father forsaking his family. This experiment is the terrible tragedy of a careless creator making an unnecessary universe. A world is a terrible thing to waste. Let's just say God works too slowly for my taste. All I wanted was to control part of his kingdom, but he refused me and couldn't find it in his heart to give us another chance. Since then, we've dwelled in darkness we learned to love. Seeing I could not defeat him, I took over your world instead. You are an accident. You would've inherited what I failed to take by force or fraud."

"So that's why you hate him so much. I can't believe it."

"Ah, but you give me too much credit. You remained silent at his screams. You let him die. Your kind always feared what it couldn't understand." The evil prince grinned. "You're in trouble again, but this time your hero isn't around to save you. It would be a pity if he arrived too late. In Hell, no one can hear you pray. Heaven is a dream. You must accept reality for what it is."

"I'll do whatever it takes to stop you!" she shouted.

"Well you don't have to yell. Personally, I prefer screams."

"I'll tell everyone what you did," she said.

"Even in the end, you make me laugh. Where will you go? Who would listen to you now that you are one of us? I hate being human. Nothing personal… It's just that every time I look at you I see his repulsive reflection. I was going to be gentle, looking forward to feeding you tonight, but I won't have to now. If you serve me, I'll set you free. It beats making minimum payments on an infinite debt for the rest of eternity. You have a day to think it over. It's only forever so no pressure, of course."

"Yeah, right…" She frowned at him, obliviously obstinate.

"Have a nice life – what's left of it. I'd say a prayer for you, but one never knows if anyone up there is listening." The Prince of Darkness left her alone to consider the consequences of her actions. So many souls, too little time…

9: THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS

King Richard stood triumphantly in the castle courtyard. After years of planning, he had finally gained control over everyone on Earth one soul at a time. They were willing to do anything for him. At any slight suggestion, they would even walk off cliffs and die. He defeated their mighty warriors in physical combat. Though he did not create it, he wanted to rule the world.

The Kingdom of Illumina prospered for a season at the cost of certain privileges. Soon they were starving; he let them slip into debt and poverty. They went to work constructing monuments and erecting magnificent statues of him. He taught them how to design deadly tools and technologies. Violence filled the land, but he pretended to protect them. They depended on him, even when it went against their uncommon nonsense. He claimed to be their savior, whose coming had been prophesied from ancient times.

My patience paid off. I'm back on track.

Spying on King Richard, disguised as a monk, Mark witnessed several murders with his own eyes. Ninjas ambushed the remaining Royal Guard members in the night. Prince Richard couldn't rule a kingdom by fear and threats alone, but no one held him accountable for his actions – wielding power without pity. When the time was right, Mark paid him a visit.

"Why do you still refuse to serve me?"

"I have sworn my allegiance to another king," Mark said.

"No ruler would willingly release his own subject."

"No man can serve two masters," Mark said.

"Name your own price." King Richard waited patiently.

"I'm not for sale. Money can't buy everything."

A curious look came over King Richard's face. Instead of appearing angry, he took on a light tone. "Benevolence makes me a bit nervous. I can restore you to a high position of power."

"No, I'll never join your side," Mark replied.

"Very well, but my generous offer will only be good a little while longer." King Richard left him.

Leaping onto a balcony, a wolf demon delivered his report. "We were certain that he was dead, but Paladin is alive again."

"What did you say? You know the law!" King Richard held him up by the throat. "Never mention that name in my court again. I swear you won't be hard to replace."

"I was only pointing out a slight change of hats."

"After I went through all the trouble to get rid of the only one who could stop me, you have the nerve to inform me he's still alive? Tell me you're lying and even now I'll forgive you."

"No, of course not… What I meant was…"

"You've failed me for the last time. Get out of my sight."

"It's no lie, Master!" The wolf knelt nervously with his ears bent. He bowed low to the ground in submission. "Ask any of us."

"He can't come back, especially after that eulogy I gave. Apparently, I've underestimated him. In the grand scheme of things, he's a minor inconvenience. Don't let any of the slaves get away. If any prisoner is missing, you will take his place. Got it?"

"We don't have complete control over them yet."

"Slay any who refuse to reveal his whereabouts. This could be our only chance for revenge and it's all that matters to me now."

The Dragon King required retribution at any cost. Thinking that he could determine his own destiny, he would challenge fate, changing its future course. Perhaps the prophecy would not come to pass. Ever-present evil took root in men's hearts and minds.

This girl is more trouble than I thought.

Aggressive arguments went on in the throne room. King Richard took out his anger on his own attendants. Even from the courtyard, guards heard him curse. He shouted at servants, threatened and insulted them, and accused them of being traitors.

"I beg your pardon, but an inmate wishes to speak to you of an urgent matter. He claims to know how the prince escaped."

"Send him in then." King Richard gestured to a guard. "Let's begin the interrogation. Just tell me what I want to know. Come forth and your crime may be forgiven. I shall spare you and reward you handsomely. Nothing to say now? Next please!"

"Wait!" The prisoner begged and kissed his feet.

"Get on with it." Richard waved a hand.

"An ancient scroll speaks of a prince being resurrected because death has no power over him. There's a way to cross over the bridge to the land of the dead and come back again. All who enter willingly may leave without loss. Those who come against their will cannot depart unless an innocent sacrifice perishes in their place," the prisoner told him.

"No one has ever returned from the underworld."

"I take it you never believed this story? Prophets predicted every event before it ever occurred."

"I loathe logic when it thwarts my sinister schemes."

"I won't let it happen again, your highness."

"You have my sincere gratitude for your service. However, I can't trust anyone telling the truth these days," Richard replied.

"Hey, you said that I would be forgiven!"

"You might, but that's between you and God."

"You swore you'd spare my life!" the poor man cried.

"Did I? Darn, I must've forgotten." He snapped his fingers. Then his frown turned into a sinister smile. "I'm a man of my word. I'll just have to get someone else to do it. As I always say, good things happen when bad people do nothing." King Richard addressed the personal assistant beside him. "Have his head on my desk by morning. I've got a deadline to meet."

"Sorry Sire, but the guillotines are on backorder."

Every enchanted mirror in the kingdom was broken – except one. Some served as portals; a person could enter one and exit another. That evening, a servant haphazardly stumbled upon a hidden mirror. He came to report about the recent discovery.

"I spoke with nobody. I came straight to you, sir."

"In all your years of steadfast service, you never made a mistake. Perhaps now I should give you that promotion. Step into my office and have a seat." King Richard stabbed his servant in the back. "Make sure no one finds out about this."

"Even the priests, master?" the wolf demon asked.

"Dispose of this corpse. Then get back and clean up the mess. We can't leave dead bodies lying around. It creates a bad impression. If we're going to cause chaos, at least be organized about it. I've grown rather accustomed to the mortal realm."

10: DEAL WITH THE DEVIL

King Richard invited his inner circle of advisers to dinner that day. There was a traitor, but he didn't have enough evidence to convict anyone yet. Mark came to a meeting prepared for trouble. He headed to the banquet hall to find a feast waiting there for him. The food smelled fantastic, making his mouth water. At the end of the meal, servants poured pitchers of wine into golden goblets.

King Richard stepped into the room. He proposed a toast, holding up a cup. "This is your blood. Drink in my remembrance."

The others drank together, but Mark faked it, lifting the glass to his lips. He knew it represented a covenant with death.

"One of you is bound to betray me. Someone sitting in this room has been intoxicated. I won't say who. Those loyal to me have nothing to fear," King Richard told them.

Nobles froze in their seats, spitting the food back out. Everyone exchanged nervous glances, wondering who it was.

"Surely it isn't me," the head chancellor said.

"You would never notice the odorless, tasteless liquid. It should be painful, but also quite entertaining." Richard set a glass vial on the table. "Here is the antidote. The poison works quickly. If you don't drink it soon, you'll die. Act now, before it's too late."

Even a clever spy would find it confusing. Mark did not speak, fearing his very voice would give him away. Sweat beaded his forehead. His face remained firm, concealing his true thoughts. A fat man grabbed the vial. In a few moments, it was all over.

"You don't think I did it. Do you?"

"I couldn't be certain. I had no idea." Richard shrugged.

"Then may I leave?" The fat man bowed with relief.

"On the contrary, councilor… Clearly, you need convincing. I didn't poison you. You have taken your own life."

The illusion was ironic. The glass vial contained the poison all along. The fat man fell. After that, King Richard went on as if it had only been a game. No one said anything more about the murder, fearing he would be the next to go.

Mark wanted the respect King Richard promised him. Perhaps he could pose as a double agent, but was it just another excuse for his selfish ambitions? In this perfect position, nobody would suspect sabotage. He began making a new life for himself.

"What can I do for you?" King Richard addressed him.

Mark cleared his throat. "I seek to enter your service."

"What makes you think I need your help?" King Richard turned away and gave an impatient wave of his hand. "Love is like war – easy to start, hard to end. Is this how you demonstrate devotion to your faithful friends? Just where do your loyalties lie?"

"You left me with little choice. I'm looking out for what's in my own best interest," Mark said.

"Mark, I guess we've got much in common. There's hope for you yet, lad. With your military experience, you'll make a fine commanding officer. Stay here with me. I want you on my side. Join me and we'll rule the world together."

"I accept your offer." Mark saluted. "I'm officially reporting for duty, sir. What are my orders?"

"Invasions from other lands are tearing us apart. We must strike now, while we still have the element of surprise. You'll keep infidels from leading the masses astray. I've been taking care of these cult members one at a time and yet they continue to thrive."

"You brought me here to crush a rebellion?" Mark asked.

"You've lost family, right? That's why I can trust you. We'll force the court to act. They need a push in the right direction. Let the enemy invade a town or two. Then soon they'll be at our feet begging us to do something about it."

"That's a suicide mission! We'll be letting the enemy inside our gates." Mark objected with a worried wrinkle.

"Exactly, lad… There are some fine men under your command, but I assure you they won't die needlessly. We'll have traps set and deal with the threat before another breach. When this is all over, we'll be heroes. They'll turn to us for guidance and protection. It will establish unity, ensuring this empire's future."

"I was just thinking–" Mark got cut off.

"Not your strong point, is it my boy? Just relax. It's for a bigger cause than you could ever imagine. Ends justify the means. We must put aside our feelings for now. In any battle, innocent people die. Let's purge all the parasites from this planet. It's off to war we go. Gather a group of your most trusted men. This is on a need to know basis. We have so much to do and so little time. Soon, I will have the world bowing on its knees."

"Maybe we could let them have some unused land instead."

"If you value your life, leave right now," Richard replied.

"Hey, you don't have to tell me twice!" Mark said no more.

His armor, once white, turned gray then black. He fell prey to the promise of power and other tainted thoughts.

Damn your stupid orders! Blood under the bridge…

King Richard took on his first mortal apprentice. He officially introduced Mark as the protector of the people.

"Though I'm pleased with the progress of my loyal subjects, there's far too much fighting and little planning to prepare for it. I no longer expect civilians to combat enemies. For the greater good, I have seen fit to reinstate a former ally into the office of the Royal Guard. He is one of its most eminent members and has more than enough experience to do the job. Mark is an honored hero who has returned to active duty after his recent resignation to help us through these troubled times."

"Sir, scouts report an army is approaching," a soldier said.

"From where?" A general glanced over his shoulder.

In a distant kingdom, the ruler heard a military march with a crude catapult. He tried to see it from a tower, but his heart sank and he clutched a castle wall in dismay. Hundreds of torches flamed on a bald hill, advancing toward the gate. Could he defend it with the handful of men available? The majority of these marauders occupied the border. How did the enemy get past his patrols? His face turned pale as memories of ancient prophecies came to mind. If they were true, his dynasty was doomed. To ensure their survival, they tried to form an alliance. Instead, the invaders rudely rallied for more reinforcements.

King Richard led forces to pillage the village. At first, he simply killed anyone he saw, laying waste to whoever stood in his way. Then he turned toward the castle and opened the gates with a wave of his hands. He transformed his flesh into the Dragon King.

Soldiers continued to charge, yet in their hearts, they knew this would be their last day. He walked toward them; the ground shook with each step he took. Most of the men were too afraid to move now. They could only stare in confusion.

"Is anyone brave enough to prove his valor, puny peasants? Step forth now and I'll seal your fate. No? Hmm… So be it then. I can't allow your uprising to go unpunished. The dark hour of my wrath draws near. Apparently, pride and folly go hand-in-hand."

The Dragon King fought an entire army alone. He was the most powerful of his kind with claws that could pierce armor. He spread his wings and soared into the air, evading their attacks. Then he circled around, glided to the ground, and burned their bodies, breathing fire upon the unsuspecting victims. The men ran away, dropping the weapons they intended for his defeat. With a sweep of his tail, he knocked dozens down. He lifted them high and then let them fall to their deaths.

"Die, you foul dragon!" a shirtless executioner yelled.

Leaping from a tower, the man yelled and hurled an ax at its neck; it bounced against the armored scales without inflicting serious damage. Landing on the ground, he barely kept beyond reach of its claws. He picked up a broken blade, lunged forward at angles, and thrust the sharp shard into its stomach, slicing the beast's belly. A trickle of black slime oozed out of its abdomen, dripping down. The acid blood quickly dissolved the man's flesh. Much to his surprise, the wound healed fast. Far from being fatal, it provoked the monster into a furious frenzy. He no longer found their terrified reactions amusing, but ate them all.

After a while, he resumed a human form. He continued his rampage, burning all the buildings. It went this way until morning. Ashes filled the air, making it hard to see anything. The warrior stood in a ring of fire, remaining unscathed amid all anarchy. Ceasing his attack, he admired his work among the strewn bodies of soldiers he'd slaughtered in the streets. With his face hidden under a black hood, his gaze swept the regal ruins of what was once a city. He smirked with approval and saw that it was good. Then he lifted his eyes to the sky. Black clouds loomed overhead. The rain fell softly then came down harder.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – we all fall down…

The Prince of Darkness marched through a cloud of smoke without hesitating. Whenever armed sentries approached, he threw them aside, leaving them bleeding on the bricks. Lightning bolts leaped from his fingers, electrifying the metal equipment. He stepped over the dead bodies as if they'd never been alive at all. As the last guard finally fell, he seized the throne. He cut off the king's head with a single swipe and murdered the monarch. A crown fell to the floor, rolling like a ring or coin.

King Richard officially declared war by humiliating the ambassadors sent out by surrounding provinces, bringing them home bandaged with a demand for unconditional surrender. It was the perfect occasion for an invasion. How long he'd been planning this no one really knew, but when he struck, it was without mercy. The war did not last long, but was the bloodiest of all. His armies swept aside every rebel that resisted and cut off supplies to whoever would not join him. He had the whole world on his side.

One by one, the surrounding kingdoms fell to his forces. Instead, rulers signed treaties, placing their seals on official documents. Guards arrested and executed anyone who refused him. His fame spread far and wide; mighty men paid tribute to him. After wiping them off the face of Earth, he sold their kindred as slaves and lent their lands to more loyal liaisons so they could till the soil. He formed a tyrannical triangle of politics, military, and religion – essentially a despotic dictatorship.

Equipped with new armor and weapons, guards stole from anyone they wished. They spent the spoils at pubs, getting drunk. King Richard taxed the heart and soul out of his own subjects, throwing whoever couldn't pay into jail without a fair trial. Those who didn't conform became outcasts. Outlaws roamed the streets. Even little children starved. Refugees came in search of food and shelter, but he turned them all away. Mobs armed with pitchforks threatened the castle itself, but he crushed them. Reports came in of burned crops and cities under siege. Charlatans replaced religious leaders. It was all part of his evil plan.

Mark once longed for that kind of power, but he had never wished harm on others. Nevertheless, he regretfully accepted the burden and obeyed his orders. He did his duty, as any warrior would. He simply watched on.

11: LIFE IS BUT A DREAM

Princess Alice looked for a way to leave her prison. They would come for her soon, but she didn't want to wait until then. Hesitantly, she pulled out a potion and lifted it to her lips. Tilting her head back, she planned to commit suicide – an appropriate way to end her wretched existence – but she couldn't go through with it. A little poison was left in the small glass bottle. She put it back in her dirty dress, saving it for later, but her pocket had a hole. It fell and spun toward the bone bars. She dropped to her knees and tried to grab it, but it rolled away. A guard came to her cell, stepped on the vial, and bound her wrists.

"Where are you taking me?" the princess asked.

"To the trial…" He grinned, showing off his yellow teeth.

"Let go of me!" Pulling at the chains, she tried to escape.

"This world wants you. No one ever escapes."

Princess Alice came to a cathedral shaped like a coffin. As she passed through an arched double door, she wondered what they would do with her. Not watching where she was going, she bumped into a hooded skeleton. It stood there for a while, but then slowly turned its skull and empty eye sockets when she went by. Words were written in blood on the wall: YOU'RE NEXT.

White candles rested along the walls, giving an eerie glow. The windows were stained bright red with blood. Some showed bats, webs, and flames. Others displayed violent images of death, adulterous abominations, and immeasurable immorality from every recorded era of human history. The main mural portrayed the fall of creation and depicted eternal torment – souls stained with wickedness and tainted with temptation. Gazing at these scenes, she felt overwhelming sorrow. Among the demonic decorations was a witchlike image. Her face looked cold and cruel. An unholy unicorn stood before the birth of a black-hole. He shattered the stars with his hellish horn. They swirled around until it sucked them up. Darkness devoured the light until nothing was left.

A girl wearing a black cloak slowly raised her head, though her eyes remained hidden under the hood until she removed it. "Welcome to Hell. I'll be your tour guide." The Princess of Darkness nonchalantly nabbed her arm. The witch stood by the door, clad in a charcoal colored corset. "Look who woke up on the wrong side of eternity! Did you have a nice nap?"

"Why are you here?" the princess asked her twisted twin.

"I work the night shift at the graveyard," Shadow said.

"Why are you dressed like somebody just died?"

"We don't get visitors very often – not live ones anyway." Shadow stuck a black rose in her hair. "I guess I'll wear this dress for now, until there's something darker. You know why black is my favorite color? It doesn't get dirty because it's already black."

"Thanks for sharing that. I just love show and tell."

"Here for an execution? Take a number please. How do you like our motto – trillions served? Here's a death certificate."

"Am I dead?" The princess frowned.

"Please try to be more patient."

"Am I in Hell?" the princess asked again.

"Not yet…" Shadow shook her head. "I'd like to tell you it will be over soon, but that's not true. I'll make you miserable."

"What is this place? Why am I here?"

"You still don't know? I figured as much. Your prison isn't physical. It's your own heart and mind – the world within you."

"You mean all this exists in my head?" Alice asked.

"In a way, yes… This world is part of you, and if it dies, you'll die with it. Now let's get this witch trial over with."

Demons bound the princess in chains and brought her before the judge. A column of moonlight fell upon her face. The Dark Priest wore a black hood over his head that hid his visage. When his eyes fixed on her, she wished she were back in her cell.

"What brings you to the Court of Chaos? It's no concern of mine if you have…" He turned to whisper. "What was it again?"

"Salvation?" The witch shrugged.

"You should have thought about that before you became a lost soul." The skeleton pointed with a long, bony finger.

"Wait, there must be a mistake. I shouldn't be here."

"Excuse me, your Dishonor. Can't we have a trial first?" Shadow suggested, holding up a finger. "Just a short one?"

"We know she's guilty. The accusations are justified." The judge condemned her. At his silent stare, she couldn't block all the bad memories from her mind. "It's time to pay for all your crimes against creation. Now then, are you ready for your sentence?"

"May I say a few words in my own defense?" Alice asked.

"Frivolous formalities… Who will be the first witness?"

"I will! No one knows me better than myself, right?" Shadow quickly stepped forward and raised a hand.

"I don't really need anyone to represent me. It's not like I did anything wrong anyway," Alice said.

"So tell me, what was your life like? Do you have any excuse for your existence?" Shadow the Witch asked.

"I've lived a pretty good life," Alice had to admit.

"I know your secret sins and darkest dreams. For example, you ran away from home once."

"So what? Big deal!"

"Does the word murderer mean anything to you? If you weren't such a stupid little girl, you could have avoided all this. Your mother and father would still be alive, but now they're dead. Your parents are no longer among the living."

"It was an accident. It's not my fault. How could I have known that would happen? I didn't mean to hurt them!"

"Pure evil…" The witch folded her hands and looked up. A halo appeared above her head; then it caught fire as she turned and gave a wicked glare. "Ignorance doesn't mean innocence. Sincerity is no substitute. Besides, you've done things far worse than that."

"That's where you're wrong." Alice shook her head.

"On top of that, I watched when the Dragon King killed the Royal Guard. They lost their lives because they followed you."

"Shut up! That's enough!"

"Your stupid sister hanged herself when you left."

"I said shut up! Can't you be content?"

"That's your witty comeback? Don't be so dramatic."

"What about all the good things I've done? I might be a princess, but I never said I was perfect."

"You won't get any sympathy from me, dear. If you're looking for forgiveness, you won't find it here."

"Look at what you've done to this world! Don't you want it to be bright and beautiful again?"

"Sorry, I don't know what you're talking about."

"Who do you think is responsible for this?" Alice asked.

"You're the one who turned this world into a nightmare. You created it, yet care nothing for us. Your own tears made the river right outside and one day you may drown in it. Better hope that you lived a good life, because judgment is final."

"The charges brought against you this Hallowed Evening warrant wrath," the skeleton judge said. "How do you plead?"

"Not guilty?" Alice gulped nervously and glanced around. "Um… Maybe I should get a second opinion?"

The jury grew furious. They raised their voices and accused her relentlessly, but the judge went on to review her life story.

"Is this really who I am?" The princess gasped as she saw her shadow was becoming more solid with each passing moment.

"That's right," Shadow said. A well-timed smile could be more terrifying than a lethal glare. "You and I are one and the same. The sooner you accept that, the better-off you'll be."

"Only one punishment fits this heinous crime – death!" The Dark Priest swung a gavel, announcing another execution sentence.

Although Alice asserted her innocence throughout the trial, the evidence against her was simply too overwhelming to ignore. Her past had come back to haunt her. The verdict was unanimous. The princess confessed she was guilty as charged. The skeleton decided she wasn't fit to live any longer. They brought her before the altar to execute her as an example for others.

"Why are you in such a good mood?" Alice asked.

"I always cry at executions." The witch wiped away a tear. She nodded in approval, congratulating the newly dead. "Hey, my heart shrank a size. I'll keep it off this time." Shadow shrugged. "I don't know why, but I just like to watch things die. Something about death makes me feel so alive. I wanna watch the spark of light leave your eyes. Gotta have a hobby…"

"I bet you say that to all the lost souls."

"No one will miss you when you're gone," Shadow said.

"I'm not going to give up. You need me, remember?"

"So young and naïve… You make me sick! How can you live with yourself after the terrible things you've done?"

"I was afraid to die." The princess gulped.

"You should've been more worried about the afterlife."

"I can't go on like this – not after realizing I'm not who I thought I was." The princess put a hand to her head.

"In the light, you can see things as they are. Life looks different in the darkness. Evil takes many forms, but the worst deception comes from deep within. You fled from reality because you were afraid to face the truth. Finally, you found shelter in this spooky sanctuary. You'll be safe in the shadows at last, hiding from yourself here. Peace is simply a state of wanting nothing."

"I'm so scared. I don't want to die," Alice said.

"You're already dead, dear. You just don't know it yet. That tombstone has your name written on it." The psycho princess pointed. "Without death, life has no meaning. Light and darkness can't exist without each other. It would bring imbalance to the whole world. Creation comes through the purifying powers of destruction. You're experiencing premature enlightenment. This is the greatest moment of your life and you're missing it. Never know what you've got until it's gone… We've come one step closer to being complete. Join me and together we will be unstoppable, not restrained by reality. Isn't this what you always wanted?"

"I object!" The princess held up a finger.

"Overruled!" the judge shouted.

"Don't be afraid, dear. It won't take long. If you're dead, you'll feel nothing at all. Wouldn't you like that?" Shadow took her hand, speaking softly in a calm tone of voice. "You just had a bad dream and woke up early. Go back to sleep."

"Show me no more! What must I do?"

"Kill yourself in an act of blind faith. It's the only way to save your soul from a fate worse than death."

"Then make it so." The princess nodded blankly.

"Now is the chance to say your prayers. Time's up!" Shadow shouted. "How disappointing… Our relationship is over after so many adventures. Where will I ever find an equal adversary? Too bad it had to end this way. I almost regret it."

"Prepare the sacrifice!" The Dark Priest pointed again.

"It might be better to keep her to bargain with." The witch took out a piece of parchment. "Never mind… Just kill her now. Let's go over the list again. Knife, victim, candles? Check!" Shadow snapped. "Darn, I knew I forgot something."

Princess Alice hated the thought of taking her own life, but believed the prince was dead. Now she had nothing left to live for. She couldn't stand the fearful images that flooded her mind. For a moment, she couldn't hear herself think. She would hide from the light forever in the dark. Life was too hard for her to understand, so she would escape from this nightmare into another world.

"Drink this cup of blood, for it is your own," Shadow said.

"You may now kill the tried." The Dark Priest gestured.

Hooded skeletons forced the princess to her knees before a bloody altar and then threw her into an open coffin on top of it. She lay there with her arms crossed together, holding a red rose.

Horridly discordant music played on harps from Hell, followed by solemn silence like a civilized ceremony. The witch walked down the aisle, holding a black rose. Dressed up as Death's suicide bride, the gown she wore glistened in pale moonlight. Shadow lifted the spider-web veil hiding her face, revealing her bloody lipstick. She stood, looking down and laughing at the princess again. She admired a simple, yet deadly weapon of stealth and treachery that left targets no hope. A gnarled, wooden handle and stone frame composed this primitive piercing instrument. Moonlight exposed a blade made from a broken mirror shard.

The princess stroked the edge like it was the solution to all her problems. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and prepared to drive it in her heart – betraying her own body. Her necklace turned cold and black like a dying ember. With her last breath, she whispered something to the prince, wondering if he could hear her pathetic prayer, though she didn't expect an answer.

I need you now. Save me from myself.

12: BRING ME BACK TO LIFE

Riding to the rescue, the valiant prince clenched his jaw and drew his sword. Even the bodies of heroes who had fallen and failed before him didn't stay his steps. A unicorn kicked down the doors with its front hooves. Then he cut all the skeletons in half.

"Mind if I borrow your body?" Shadow raised an eyebrow.

Princess Alice couldn't see it clearly, but the witch came like a black cloud of mist. First, she felt a sudden surge of cold, then a warm sensation. Her eyes rolled back up into her head, but then snapped open. Alice watched helplessly as Shadow controlled her body like a puppet used solely for her pleasure. The witch was going to do something dreadful, despite all her efforts.

"Leave now!" Paladin shouted in an authoritative voice.

"You can't harm me while I possess her. This shell is of no use to me. If I lose it, I'll just have to find another," Shadow said.

As he held up his sword with a bright flash of light, the prince called out to the shape-shifting spirit, commanding it to retreat. The cold-hearted creature in her body waited to take over when the opportunity came. The prince fought hard and fast to get to her, only to find out he was too late. Seeing it wouldn't let her go, he swung his sword. The blade of light passed through the princess. The demon leaped from its latest hiding place, but before it left, it finished the job.

The princess hesitated for a moment, but the witch struck. Time slowed down as the knife came near. Her eyes focused on the blade as it flew toward her chest and pierced her heart. A tear rolled down her cheek, but it didn't hurt.

"There's nothing you can do now. I'm sorry." The princess calmly closed her eyes. Her head rested still.

The prince knelt down and took her hand. He had come all this way for nothing. By the time he reached her, there was little left to save. Lowering his gaze, the prince held her in his arms. He shook his head and closed his eyes, shedding a single tear. Then he opened them and stood up again. In a deep voice, he cried out into the sky. Then for a while, there was simply silence.

The princess fell into a state of death, yet was only sleeping. Then she woke up, lying on the ground. A column of light fell down on her. At first, she was afraid to look up at it because it blinded her. She'd been lost in the dark so long she forgot what it was like. Falling on her knees, she began to pray. She stood, raised her head, and spread out her arms. She floated in midair and felt a strange weightless sensation. Her hair waved in a blast of wind. Her crystal heart necklace glowed bright with light.

"Wake up," the prince whispered. "I know you're still in there somewhere." Leaning forward, he gave her a gentle kiss.

In that moment, a miracle happened. The black rose she held began to bloom. The color came back. Her heart started beating and she took a deep breath. The princess sat up straight and rubbed her head with a sigh. Her eyelashes fluttered open.

"How long have I been sleeping?" Alice asked.

"Your whole life…" The prince smiled.

For a moment, she forgot who she was. She looked up and saw him standing there, but then crawled back and shook her head.

"No, you're not real! This can't be happening!"

"Is this real enough for you?" He showed her the scars on his hands. "I mean you no harm." He laid a hand on her shoulder.

"I saw you die!" She rubbed her eyes.

"I rose from the grave. Stop looking for me there."

When she saw him, she started to remember. It made her happy and frightened at the same time. It felt like she was about to find something she wanted badly, but she wouldn't get her hopes up yet. She had been disappointed so many times before.

"What is this, some kind of sick joke?"

"If you stay here, you'll die for sure," he said.

"I don't want to be saved. I don't care what happens now."

"Leave this place. Come with me. We can go together and never look back. There's nothing for you here now," he said.

"I can't go back. I don't deserve to live anymore. Just let me die. Please end my pain."

"Do you trust me?" he asked her apprehensively.

"I'm too afraid to trust anyone – even myself," she said.

"It's ok. I'm here." Prince Paladin comforted her.

"No, you don't understand. Look, you might think you know me, but you don't. You still love me after all the mistakes I've made? How could you possibly want me the way I am? I'm not worth it. I don't know what your game is, but it's over. So stop torturing me!" She tried to hide her tears from him, not daring to look directly in his eyes. It had been too long since she hoped. "I wish I could be with you forever in a castle in the clouds just like a fairytale. You were the only one there for me. I left when you needed me the most. Don't you get it? I ruined your life! Because of me, you have nothing."

"I see who you are deep down inside. Ever since you left, it felt like part of me was missing. I swear by all the stars in Heaven. I'll love you forever. Will you let me in your heart now?"

Yeah right, I've heard that before. So cliché…

At first, she gave him a skeptical glance, but then she changed her mind. He loved her despite all her flaws, weaknesses, and imperfections. Hope filled her heart; the joy was almost too much to bear. Tears welled up and spilled from her eyes.

"It really is you!" She lifted a hand. Then she hugged him. "You came back for me. I thought I'd never see you again. I didn't realize how much I needed you until you were gone. I'm nothing without you. I know that now."

"Do you love me?"

"With all my heart…" She nodded and smiled.

"That's all that matters."

"I've been waiting for you my whole life," she said.

"This isn't the end. It's only the beginning."

"I'm such a fool. Can you forgive me?"

"Forgive you for what?" He had forgotten already.

"I don't feel good. Did you stop Shadow?"

"Only temporarily," he said.

"How did you manage to pull it off?" Alice asked.

"Let's just say I have some tricks of my own."

"What about the others? We have to set them free!"

"There's no time now. Your life is in grave danger." Paladin paused. "The dragon could come back again any moment."

"Sorry, I'm bad at being rescued." She shrugged.

Something big and heavy pounded the gravel ground, coming closer. Above the dark altar, the shape of a shadow halted on a window depicting a dragon. Suddenly the pane shattered. Broken glass rained down, flying over their heads. Then claws ripped right through the stone wall. The Dragon King stood looking down at her.

"Come on, let's go!" The prince held out his hand.

"I'm a little tied up at the moment!" she shouted.

It's true! He's back! How can it be? He should be dead and buried, but here he stands like nothing ever happened. The Dragon King seemed surprised to see his enemy alive and well. "The prisoners stay put."

"They're no longer under your charge, though you refuse to release them." Paladin pointed.

"When people lose their dreams, they wander through life without knowing where they're going. They can make fools of themselves for all I care. I'll let them enjoy their delusions for now. I only have you to thank for it."

"Is he saying you allowed this to happen?" Alice asked.

"Oh, she doesn't know? Well, go on," the dragon said.

"Yes, I let him trick you, which set him free," Paladin said.

"Why didn't you just tell me the truth?" Alice asked.

"It wasn't time for you to know yet."

"And who decided that?"

"You did," Paladin said.

"A storm is coming that you can't stop. Fitting that we should face the end together," the Dragon King said.

Stained-glass windows on both sides of the altar exploded into broken pieces. Wolves landed in a shower of shattered glass. The princess stood defenseless amid all the mayhem. The prince pushed her out of the way. He mounted the unicorn and pulled her up behind him. Not wishing the conversation to continue any further, the dragon swiped at them with his claws. The cathedral crumbled apart. He lunged forth, hurling a fireball out of his maw. After evading the attack, the prince and princess quickly rode on the white unicorn through the open doors, which had fallen to each side. They had to escape from this evil place.

"Trying to run away? I'll follow you wherever you go! I won't rest until I get my revenge. I'll stalk your soul to the ends of the Earth. Even if you climb to Heaven, from there I'll drag you down. Until then, look for me in your nightmares."

The Dragon King watched as they rode away. He grew jealous when the prince came to rescue her, but not because he loved her. He had worked so hard to get her; now he was about to lose her again. He let her go, but then decided to destroy her.

Wolf demons raced past their master, rushing like the wind. Tree branches swayed in the breeze they made.

"After her!" The Dragon King pointed. The fools fell right into my little trap. Even now, they are surrounded on all sides.

13: THE PRINCE OF PEACE

The princess could see nothing ahead in the forest until the unicorn lit the way with his horn. The prince knew they were headed in the right direction, but they had far to go. Her lack of faith limited his influence here. He noticed her face looked a little pale. Those bright eyes seemed sad somehow. She had a way of appearing even more beautiful in evil times and places.

"I'm vanishing!" Princess Alice held out her hand.

"We must find all of the Soul Shards. Our only hope of keeping you from fading into nothing is to return you to reality."

"It's a never-ending nightmare!" The glow around her body grew fainter with each heartbeat.

"To speak of nightmares here might make them come true. I'll enter your mind and guard your heart if you will dream of me."

The princess realized she was staring at him. Then she turned away as if she had been looking somewhere else. She switched the subject. "Where did you find my unicorn?"

"He's lucky. It's only by chance I came across him. He isn't your unicorn any more than you're his human," Paladin said.

"I never thought of it that way before," she said.

"Well, perhaps you should. He's wild, not tame. He never let anyone else ride him before, but he seems to be fond of you."

"They're coming after us!" She glanced back nervously.

"They will never rest until they have hunted you down."

As they rode into an open clearing, ruby-red eyes blinked. High-pitch shrieks echoed as bats swooped down, flying in circles. The edges of their wings were on fire. Paladin smacked a bat with the side of his blade. Sharp teeth swiped past his neck as he sliced off its wing. He hacked at the flying rats until they fell to the ground with splats.

The forest grew thick. The prince chopped off branches that got in their way. The unicorn made plain marks in the mud pointed the wrong way to throw the wolves off track. Then he turned off his horn so nobody would see. He waded upstream along the River of Remorse and emerged on a rocky bank that left no footprints. With water running off his back and pebbles crunching under his hooves, he safely reached the far side. In his weakened state, the wolves were faster. At least he slowed them down a bit.

They came to a mountain ridge that climbed up in the sky; rivers of lava flowed down and surrounded it. Jagged cliffs blocked off either side of the narrow path. Storm clouds sent bolts of light in all different directions. As they came closer, thunder cracks got louder. The unicorn never grew tired or stopped until he reached the peak. The princess hopped off. It was so steep she could barely see the bottom. She gazed down, getting dizzy just by looking at it.

Wolf demons ambushed them. The creatures closed in, bounding down from branches – leaping onto tree trunks. The unicorn backed off, lowering his horn to take a defensive position. They could never fight their way through this.

"You're not going to do what I think you are. Are you?"

"We have to get you out of here." Paladin nodded.

"This is right where I draw the line." She shook her head and crossed her arms, refusing to take one more step.

"Would you rather go back there?" He pointed behind her.

"Well, not when you put it that way!"

Paladin offered his hand, pulling her up onto the unicorn. He glanced back, making sure she was secure. The unicorn backed up and prepared to charge toward the mighty mountain's tip-top. The summit touched the other world's orbital trajectory. He began running faster. His hooves struck stone, sending sparks flying out. Hurling himself with a great surge of strength, he left the ledge with a powerful push. The unicorn leaped into the air, hovered for a moment, and then fell upside-down.

"Have you ever done this before?" The princess slowly opened one eye.

"No, have you?" The prince glanced back. "Hang on. We're almost there!"

The princess wrapped her arms around his waist. She tried to let go a little bit, but found it difficult. Color flushed her cheeks. Too terrified for words, she shut her eyes tight and tucked her brown leather boots together, bending her thighs back. Looking up, she could see how far the mountains stretched. The prince directed their fall, guiding their descent. Then the billows broke.

Gravity was evenly balanced between the two worlds. Their fall slowed to a gentle, floating sensation. Gliding felt more comfortable. The princess leaned back and sighed with content. Then she tried pointing the toe of her boot down and letting the air stream through her hair as the wind blew it around. A puffy white cloud came rushing toward her, soaking her clothes wet. She shot through the middle of the mist. Sneezing and catching cold, she came out the other side and let the sun dry out her dress.

Then the princess panicked and closed her eyes. The land far below grew nearer, coming closer. The sounds got louder. Waves clapped with smacks; foam sprays shot up between them. Unless they hit the surface smoothly, it would be like landing on solid stone. Air resistance played an important role, so they spread out their arms.

They dived down and splashed into the water, which absorbed most of their momentum. The wind must have cushioned their fall somehow. Before she could find her balance, another wave surged up around her and swept her off her feet. Spitting out saltwater, she kept her head above the surface. Long miles of waves broke upon the beach, slapping onto the shore of Bliss Bay near Crystal Cliffs. A cool breeze carried the sea's salty scent. Vapors swirled away from their feet as they reached dry land and stepped onto white sand. The princess was grateful to be standing back on solid ground again. Hope Harbor awaited again.

14: BREAKING AND ENTERING

A wolf demon returned to the Dark Lord. "Master, they got away. We couldn't catch them. They were too fast."

"How could you let them escape?" He fumed.

The wolf cowered in the corner with his tail between his legs. This wasn't a report he wanted to make.

"We've searched everywhere, but we can't find them."

"Never mind! Forget it!" The Dark Lord scowled.

An angel approached him. Demons made way for her and parted from their places as she walked down the aisle toward him. They left a path and let her through, standing aside. They hissed and hid. They couldn't stand the sight of bright light. As always, her movements were fluid and flexible. With a graceful gesture, she kept perfect balance. Never showing any sign of hesitation, she didn't even glance at them. Her name itself struck horror into their hearts. She knew they were terrified of her, and loved it.

"It's me, you morons." Shadow the Witch sneered.

They all flinched back in fear, but she felt a momentary sense of satisfaction and found herself enjoying their enragement. Among the fallen angels, the Princess of Darkness stood before an obscenely ornate throne of terrible symbolic significance.

"Why have you summoned me from my blood bath, Master?" The witch put her hands on her hips, waiting impatiently.

The Dragon King turned around, curling a long claw for her to come closer. "I'm very disappointed with you, Shadow."

"Hey, don't blame me. It's not my fault," she complained. "If it hadn't been for that stupid ceremony–"

"That's besides the point!" he yelled at her.

"Got away from you too, huh?" Shadow smirked.

"We have common objectives. I wish to bargain with you to achieve them faster because it's in our mutual interest."

"Ok fine, but it's going to cost you," Shadow said.

"I want you to deal with the princess. Slay her on sight. Forget about capturing her. You'll rule instead while she's gone."

"Why is she so important to you anyway?" Shadow asked.

"You are not your own master, but what would you do if you were? I'm sure you'd prefer some payback instead of ending your own life. You'll never be free until you kill her, but if she dies then you'll become real. Here's your new partner."

"I wouldn't work with that thing if he were the last dark unicorn in the underworld," said Shadow the Witch.

"My name is Nightmare. Why don't we team up for a while?" The black unicorn threw back his midnight mane, holding out a hoof to shake her hand.

"In your dreams, Night-Mare…" Shadow crossed her arms.

Nightmare charged, but she sidestepped his lunge like the wind blew her out of the way. Then she vanished into thin air; he passed right through her like she wasn't even there. The witch grabbed his horn and swung her legs onto his back, but he bucked and sent her flying off. The air grew dark as they stopped arguing.

"Enough of this nonsense! I'm ordering you to get along," the Dragon King said. "The princess might pose a problem for you. Your first mission will be to find the Angel Armor. It's hidden somewhere on the world of light. Use it as the bait for your traps."

"Sounds fun… So what's in it for me?" Shadow shrugged.

"I will grant you magic power in exchange," he said.

"Now we're talking!" Shadow rubbed her hands together. "Hold on. If we're so weak, then why do you need us?"

"Normally I'd say it's none of your business. I know it's hard, but use your brain. Open your mind and take a wider view. I work best through others, rather than directly. I tried to oppose the prince once before and lost." The Dragon King shuddered. "I had the princess in the palm of my hands. Her desire to prove her devotion is exactly what I'm counting on."

Each piece of the Armor of Darkness had a unique magical property. Its negative power could protect one from light and truth.

"Here's the latest line in fashionable fear of dark design." He pointed to a special suit lying on a pedestal near him; beside it was a magic mask that allowed whoever wore it to take on any form. "This blade was forged in the fiery pit of Hell from fragments of a deeper darkness contained in the crystal. It came from the first star that fell from Heaven."

Few knew the Shadow Saber existed by its obscure origin; less could be considered worthy to wield the whimsical weapon. With the sword, no one would stop her; the blade she held was the most powerful weapon in the world – except for its equal.

Legends spoke of a sword made of teeth with a bone hilt that had an ethereal eye in the middle that closed during combat, instead of a gemstone. It started as a seed then evolved into an embryo. The Oracle Orb doubled as a crystal ball, displaying the memories of anyone who had ever brandished the blade before. The living creature actually drank the blood of its victims and grew stronger with each kill. Every person she struck down with it would become part of her; their experiences would make her even more powerful. When the witch pressed her thumb to it, the eye opened and a sword slid out.

"What about the Sword of Light?" Shadow asked.

"It's useless to me. I couldn't destroy it. Perhaps it will lure the princess right into my hands. I'll hide it somewhere safe just in case she ever decides to come back."

"What if she's with the prince?" Shadow asked.

"Then you'll just have to separate them somehow."

"I will find her, and when I do there will be Hell to pay!"

"I'll come with you to make sure nothing goes wrong. By the way, this is your last chance. I will not forgive you if you fail. Now go, but remember your promise. Let no one see you and neglect nothing," the Dragon King said.

15: CRYSTAL CASTLE

The prince and princess finally arrived at Avalon. The sky and sea merged, leaving no mark on the heavenly horizon. Angels stood waiting for them on the shore. Some sat in hollow crystal boats beside a craggy coast. Radiant figures helped the two weary travelers to their feet. Their transparent wings looked like glass.

"Greetings, I am Gabriel." The holy harbinger waved.

"Are you an angel? Am I in Heaven?" Princess Alice squinted and used her hand like a visor. She could not gaze steadily into the sky. Her eyes had to adjust again in order to focus. Her golden blonde hair glowed in the sunlight.

"Shield your eyes, child, before you go blind." Gabriel reached into his robe, pulled out a tiny bottle, and then handed it to her. "This crystal vial contains the Waters of Wakefulness, which will restore your sight with one drop. This leaf will heal any wound or illness you have. If it stings for a while, that means it's working. The side effects won't last long. Take it with you."

Princess Alice raised the liquid to her lips. She couldn't help making a face at the sour taste. She drank some of it then, but saved the rest for later. She could stare straight at the brilliant sun without blinking. It would take a while getting used to, but she felt better than she had in a very long time. After just a taste of this divine delight, she forgot all about everything else.

"My name is Michael, the captain of the Angelic Alliance and the guardian of the gateway. Gabriel is our messenger."

"I thought darkness destroyed the world of light," she said.

"Our secret sanctuary was under siege by shadows, but the king restored this realm to its original order."

"There's something I need to tell you all. Now that you know I'm responsible, I must ask for your forgiveness," she said.

"You may have it," Michael replied.

"Is there enough room in your kingdom for one more?"

"Of course you can join us." Gabriel nodded. "I think it's time you learned some things. Before you were born, there was a war. Michael and his warriors drove off the demons. They had their place and we had ours. We have lived in perfect peace for as far back as we can remember, until this impending invasion. The forces of darkness broke through the barrier. We are still in the midst of war. The victory is certain, but it's your job to make sure that as many as possible share in our success."

"You must have the wrong person," she said.

"He has chosen you for this." Gabriel grimaced.

"Don't you see? I can't go back there!"

"Indeed, you are weak and powerless – without him."

"You can stop any time now," she groaned.

"You can do all he asks of you. You're their only hope."

"It seems I've been blessed with a curse." Princess Alice sighed, turned her back, and crossed her arms.

"Only a sacrifice could complete the broken ring. That person had to give up his life. Now you must finish what he already started. When the circle is complete, the unbroken unity will go on forever in an eternal equilibrium. The balance between the Creator and creation will be restored." Gabriel gave her time. "This is your quest. Will you accept it?"

"Well, I don't know. Do you really want my help?"

"Certainly…" Prince Paladin nodded.

"Ok then, I'll try. We've got a lot of work to do."

"You must be weary from your long journey. Come to the castle and spend the night as our honored guest." Gabriel gestured for her to follow as angels escorted her. "We will prepare a place for you in the mansion. As for the unicorn, we'll feed him well." He instructed servants to offer additional heavenly hospitality. "Provide a bath and clean clothes for her in a timely fashion."

"Some have never seen a human," Michael mentioned.

She closed her eyes and let them lead her by the hand. When she opened them, she didn't see anything.

"We're here. Well, where is it?" Alice asked.

"The castle is invisible until sunlight hits it from the right angle. There it is on the horizon." Paladin pointed.

"Now I see it." She looked up slowly and stopped to stare.

A tower climbed toward the sky, glowing bright with light. The mansion looked like a star resting on the shore. Her castle seemed like a quaint little cottage in comparison. The floor, staircase, and walls were solid diamond. It was white, symbolizing purity, holiness, and innocence. Windows reflected the sun's bright rays with a prismatic effect by creating colorful rainbows from the precious gems placed in decorative patterns. Crossing a crystal bridge, the prince led her to a hidden chamber and then showed her how to open it. Mirrors lined the walls of the angelic armory. Each finely polished piece floated in midair above a pedestal.

"This is for me?" Looking around, she spun in circles.

"Michael will train you, for it is unlike any suit of armor you've ever seen before. I will leave you in my servant's hands."

In moments, servants became frantically busy, running in different directions. One angel gave the princess a gentle push. Despite her occasional objection, they put cushions under her head. It felt wonderful to sit down and rest after such hard travel. They fussed over towels, rushing back and forth as if putting out a fire. Then she took a long and luxurious bath. She removed her dirty, torn dress and chose a white one to wear instead, made of a fine linen fabric.

I had nothing but rags before these robes.

Then they gave a grand feast in the Great Hall. A beautiful glass chandelier hung from the ceiling. The princess already had a big appetite by this time, so she politely took her place. Food filled diamond dishes on the banquet table. The courses kept coming until she couldn't eat another bite – except dessert, a delicacy reserved only for royalty. She consumed a special type of honey produced solely for queen bees and bread made of manna from spiraling stalks of a rare tree. It was the best meal she ever had.

After supper, Princess Alice wandered around the mansion, walking down a hallway leading to a very vast library where knowledge was kept. The open, organized room had every kind of encyclopedia imaginable. Leather-bound books littered the shelves lining the walls with nearly limitless topics, crowding it from floor to ceiling. A book lay near her on a desk, written in some strange language she couldn't comprehend. She laid her hand on the front cover; her fingers tingled at the touch. It opened by itself, showing its crisp paper. The things it described were happening right then. Her thoughts appeared on the page the moment they came to mind. The longer she looked, the more real the pictures seemed. She couldn't tear herself from the first page of her life story.

The Halls of Heaven displayed a divine Tapestry of Time, depicted in decorative stained-glass windows. On the far floor, a single line seemed to go on forever. A small dot sat somewhere in the middle. An infinity symbol encircled two giant globes with the ancient Latin words for Heaven and Hell. She witnessed images from past, present, and future. In the center of this room of remembering, a spherical model of Earth showed spreading shadows. Certain areas lost color and were now gray. Memories melted away again faster than they formed. This was too much to take in all at once. It perplexed the princess.

16: KEY TO MY HEART

The night, if it existed here, was almost over already. The sun rose over a mountain peak, bathing all in a lovely golden light. The veil of mist hiding the hills vanished. Princess Alice walked across a diamond drawbridge and strolled toward the stables.

"Hello, is anyone there?" Alice walked up to the unicorn and stroked his mane. "I sure wish you could speak."

"Who said you could touch me?" somebody said.

"Hey, this isn't funny!" For a fleeting moment, she imagined hearing him say something. She had long felt certain he could speak, but it was still a shock when he finally did. Her mouth dropped open. "You can talk? What's your name?"

"It's Starlight. I'm the guardian of this galaxy. You may have heard about my healing powers. I'm faster than light, but I can only travel that fast under certain conditions by absorbing enough energy."

"Are any other unicorns out there like you?" Alice asked.

"Legends tell of a black unicorn laying waste to worlds. Another speaks of a horned horse with both wings and fish fins. I never minded being alone before. Still, I set off to search for them. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the last of my kind. And who are you?"

"I'm a princess." Alice curtsied modestly.

"Are you absolutely sure?" Starlight snorted.

"Of course I am!" The princess put her hands on her hips.

"Well, you don't look like one to me. I don't suppose you know how to ride. Unicorns are noble creatures. Not even a king, except in emergencies or on a special occasion, would ever dream of riding one. It's a great honor. Now that I think of it, I've never heard of anyone doing it before. I'll make an exception, since you did save my life."

"What did you think I was doing before?" Alice asked.

"I will not have you grabbing my mane." The unicorn insisted indignantly and flicked his tail as she mounted him.

"Well, there was nothing else to hold onto," she said.

"I'll show you. Use your knees. That's better. Now sit up straight." Starlight sighed. "Not bad for your first try, I suppose…"

"Wait, I'm not ready!" she yelled as he bolted off.

The unicorn seemed unconcerned. Instead, he only laughed. It frightened her how fast they were going. Though she grew up riding the finest horses, she'd never experienced such an exciting thrill before. Shafts of morning sunlight dotted the forest floor. Bright rays broke through the branches, revealing the splendor of their surroundings as they passed through warm patches and into cool thickets. The sky was a furnace of melted gold, getting in the way so they couldn't see.

The princess smiled, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, inhaling fresh air and lifting her head to soak up the warm sun. She spread out her arms as if to fly away, soaring through the sky with the wind in her hair. The unicorn's powerful muscles moved in rhythm under her knees as she bent low to shift her weight, breathing to his heartbeat.

"For every unicorn there's one rider, and I am yours."

Suddenly the unicorn stopped and flung her into the air. Rolling in the dirt, she coughed from the dust he kicked up then lay there on the ground, not moving. Starlight whinnied and snorted; he nudged her cheek with his nose and pawed at her with his hoof until she turned over. The princess pretended to be dead, but then she groaned.

"I'm so sore all over I can't move. I could never ride you and no one ever should." Rolling up her sleeves, she formed a fist. "Is that any way to treat a princess? Ok that's it, mister! I don't want to get rough with you, but you can't say I didn't warn you."

A mad chase began. Starlight led her around in circles, prancing away. He ran through meadows, calling her to come and play as he frolicked in the field. Letting her mount him, he leaped, tossed her in the air, and then caught her on his back.

"Run as fast as you can!" she whispered, leaning forward.

Starlight shot off into the wilderness, racing faster than any horse could ever hope to go. Galloping gracefully, he wove past rocks and trees. They soared across streams and climbed majestic mountains, then came down again. The forest sank out of sight behind them. From that open space, they looked down on a lake that spread in every direction as far as the eye could see. A cloudy cliff barrier protected the peaceful valley, surrounding it with mist. Together they raced rainbows and bounded past boulders. He led her to the hidden Unicorn Utopia near the Veiled Valley. Its location was a very carefully guarded secret.

The air came alive. The wind blew away bad memories. Breeze scattered dewdrops from swaying branches, gently ruffling the grass. What appeared to be a field of flowers erupted into beautiful butterflies with gaudy glass wings.

All around was the sound of bubbling streams. Angel Falls roared in the distance. The unicorn did the most natural thing in the world. He trotted over, stooped down low, and then drank from cool water, quenching his terrible thirst. The healing stream had curative properties. It tasted like dewdrops with a sweet flavor of flowers. He tore up a mouthful of fresh grass. Plunging into Paradise Pool, he cleaned himself off, taking a shower under the waterfall. The point of his horn divided a curtain above his head into a rainbow-colored mist. He rubbed his horn against a giant gemstone, sharpening it.

"That was so refreshing. I forgot to neigh." Starlight tapped the ground with a hoof and bent his neck back.

"It doesn't get better than this!" She laughed.

Unicorns and their riders shared a special bond even closer than friendship, called a life link. The princess practically fell in love with him. He was the gentlest creature she'd ever seen. She believed how terrible he could be in a battle. Unicorns were fierce fighters. Their enemies had to deal with hooves and horns simultaneously. They weren't afraid of anything and never turned back from the sword or fled any foe. They pawed at the dirt and rejoiced in their strength.

Leaning back against a tree beside a brook, she took a deep breath of fresh air. At last, she lay down in the grass and almost fell asleep relaxing in the shade and the soft breeze. Putting her hands behind her head and crossing her legs, she gazed up at a clear blue sky. A hummingbird stole a sip from a honeysuckle. Then she sat up and stretched, rising from a flowerbed.

"Why didn't you say something back in the other world?"

"There wasn't enough sunlight. I could barely walk."

"How did you end up in that awful place anyway?"

"Where should I start? It's a long story," Starlight said.

"All the better…" She sat down to listen.

"I did as my heart desired, free to go wherever I wished until a swift shadow flew past, but I couldn't make it out. A black dragon landed in front of me. He picked me up and brought me back to that fallen world where he trapped me until you came along. I would have been stuck there forever if you didn't free me. I'm never going back there again," Starlight said.

Princess Alice wrapped her arms around his neck, softly stroking his mane. He glanced at her then turned away again.

"What happened to the dark unicorn?" Alice asked.

"He used to be a unicorn, but acted like an ordinary horse. Once he ran wild and free, but men captured him and sold him off into slavery. His cruel masters tried to tame him, but they couldn't break him. He wouldn't let anyone ride him. They tied him up one night and left him out in a cold storm without shelter. The drunks laughed and began to beat him. When he couldn't stand it anymore, he broke his chains and fled. They went after him, caught him, and buried him alive, but then later he burst from the ground and came back to life again. Rearing up on his hind legs in rage, he killed them all until his hooves were stained wet with blood. He left their bodies lying in the mud.

"Demons led the undead unicorn to their master on the fallen world. He sold his soul to the Dragon King for the power to extort retribution from humanity. That day he vowed not to bow his will to any man. He never forgot what they did to him. His horn grew longer as he grew stronger, spiraling every thousand years. To this very day, he's blinded by bitterness, possessed by pride, and driven mad with anger, which never solved squat. A hateful heart will do anything to ease its agony. He's free now, yet he's still a slave as his own master." Starlight slipped away into his own thoughts again.

For thousands of years, the hidden Unicorn Utopia of the Veiled Valley remained untouched by evil. A circle of cliffs, mountains, and mist vapors surrounded it. There was nothing to worry about in that perfect paradise, guarded by the elements. They believed no harm could come to it and they'd always be safe there as long as they never left the forest.

Then one day a black unicorn was born, which never happened before. Youngsters wanted to know what was going on, but the elders kept them away. They met together and stood in a semicircle. At first, they agreed he was a threat. However, the herd's leader felt obligated to offer a less inadequate intervention and decided to spare his life since he had done nothing wrong.

The strange black stallion grew up with a clouded past and an uncertain future. All the other unicorns hurt his feelings and called him names like Demon Horse. They wouldn't let him play any unicorn games. Bending over a pool, Nightmare gazed sadly in the water, staring at a reflection. A falling tear distorted the image. He closed his eyes and shook his head, running away.

Jewels glowed in the streaming sunlight by a rainbow river. A little baby unicorn played happily by himself. He was so cute and full of energy. With one bound, he leaped into a pool under the waterfall with a splash. Then he rolled around in soft green grass. His parents were the leaders of the herd; his father had a gold horn and his mother silver. They just stood there and shook their heads.

When nobody was watching, Starlight ran far off. Then he looked around, realizing he was lost. The sky grew dark and wind picked up. Black clouds gathered overhead. He came to a sudden stop, skidding on the ground. He slowly glanced up with great fear in his eyes, breathing heavily. A black dragon stood before him, towering over his head. Birds fled from trees. A field of flowers withered into black wreaths of flame in the scorching heat of his fiery breath. Where Heaven once was, now only Hell remained.

Demon wolves chased Starlight. He turned around and ran the other way. He stumbled and fell, but got back up before they caught him. He made it home, thinking he was safe. He found his parents and they nuzzled him, sensing something was wrong. They formed a circle, protecting their young ones. Wolves growled and crouched low to the ground. Striking with sharp horns and kicking their hooves, they sent the beasts flying through the air, slamming against hard rocks. The wolves ran off to lick their wounds.

Nightmare the Dark Unicorn betrayed his brethren by leading the dragon there. The other unicorns felt sorry for making fun of him. He walked on, paying no attention to them. He snorted and lifted his head in pride.

As the Dragon King stepped out into the open field, the plants near him curled up and died. The unicorns stood united, telling their little ones to run and hide in a cave behind a waterfall. He promised them power, granting some special gifts. He would spare whoever followed him; whoever refused to join his side would die. After turning them against each other, he attacked. Some simply ran away in a small stampede. Others resisted and rebelled in a bitter battle. Those who remained tried to defeat the dragon. Teeth tore them apart, devouring every living thing. His tail lashed like a whip, keeping them from escaping.

The little unicorn watched as the Dragon King crushed his parents under his claws, tragically triumphant. He wanted to help them, but instead he hid behind a boulder, staying out of sight. When it was over, the wolf pack came back to feast on their flesh. Picking up his scent, they came even closer. At first, he was afraid he might have to fight. Then the wind carried it off with a soft breeze. Before they could begin, it hailed so hard the wolves went away. When they were gone, he found his mother. Laying his head down, he shed a tear. Then he ran away and never looked back. Where the tear fell, a glowing rainbow rose grew in its place.

"I love it here, but for some reason I can't stop thinking about that other world. It's like a part of me belongs there."

"That was a world that might have been – the projection of a possible future they wanted to turn into reality. The closer we get, the harder they will try to stop us. The enemy is everywhere. This world's falling apart, but it starts in your heart," Starlight said.

"What does that have to do with me?" Alice asked.

"Who knows? Those legends were lost in time long ago."

"No, please tell me," she said.

"In a time before time began, there was simply silence. Then everything came alive. The stars sang together and all was well. At one time, the world was at peace without fear of death. It's hard to believe it was ever real. Then something went wrong. The brightest star turned its back on the source of the light. It lifted itself above all of the others. They say that pride comes before a fall. The unity of the entire universe was lost. The balance was broken. The glory was gone.

"The Creator has always been there, of course. He is at the center of the circle and we need him in order to operate. The Dark Lord seeks to bring death to all life. The evil one wanted to steal the glory, but it couldn't be. When the scattered shards of this shattered star come together, they'll form an incredibly powerful weapon. Light shines in a lot of strange and peculiar places. Without it, we'd die. This reality, as we know it, would cease to exist. It would be the end of everything in the world."

"Why couldn't it last? What were they thinking?"

"Let us hope you'll never have to know. This glimpse is all I can give you."

"I wish we could just stay here forever," she said.

"Let's run away together," Starlight suggested.

"The prince died to save me. It's not like we don't deserve a break every now and then, but do you think he needs our help?"

"It's hard to say, but you are allowed to relax once in a while. Learn to enjoy life. Loosen up a little. The world can wait."

"No, I want you to take me back." She changed her mind.

"Well, I guess we should go." The unicorn was uncertain.

Still concerned about her, he looked over and tilted his head to the side, as though it might shed some light on the situation. There were too many questions in her mind and if one moment could help answer them, he would let her have it.

That evening, they returned to the Crystal Castle. Angels built its walls upon a holy hill. The princess had done enough exploring for now. That ride was wonderful, but she couldn't go any farther. When she finally dismounted, she was glad just to stretch out her stiff legs. Her kingdom back home was waiting for her, but she wasn't sure when she would return.

17: ENCHANTING EVENING

Princess Alice had been waiting for a chance to be alone with Prince Paladin over at Peace Point. They had come so far in such a short time. Their friendship slowly turned into something more serious. The bond was growing even closer each day.

Events followed too fast. Questions came too quickly, complicating thoughts with many confusing emotions. There was still so much she didn't know. Maybe if she could understand the little things, the big puzzle pieces would eventually come together.

Walking alongshore, cool water splashed over bare feet. She stopped, listening to the calm rhythm of waves crashing against cliffs. Breeze blew a misty spray into her face. Playful silver dolphins echoed songs to each other from the ocean depths.

"I'm home at last, back where I belong. This is the place I've been looking for my whole life, but I never knew it until now." She looked around again. "I've waited an eternity to be with you this moment. One day there is better than thousands elsewhere. I couldn't feel frightened even if I tried. Everyone is happy here. Why would anyone ever want to destroy it?"

"It's not darkness they're afraid of, but light," he said.

"How so?" she asked. "What inspired this insanity?"

"The mind can make a Heaven of Hell. Things always work out according to their nature. The truth terrifies them. This land of light and life is darkness and death to the Dragon King. He walked through history under many different names. He's probably the most powerful and incredibly intelligent created being, thousands of times stronger and smarter than you. If he knew my true intentions, he would've killed you right away. Fortunately, nothing would do for him but an elaborate execution. As long as his secret was safe, you were just another obstacle to overcome. He made you think all hope was lost. His plan almost succeeded."

"I saw what they were planning to do. Once they destroy a world, they move on, leaving only an empty shell behind."

"You're the one responsible for releasing the nightmares into reality by opening your heart and mind to an internal war. A smart enemy hits you where you think you're safe. The darkness desires you, but you must rule over it."

"Reality is too painful. Truth hurts too much."

"It's dangerous to dream." The prince warned her.

"But why?" The look on his face frightened her somehow.

"For every dream, there's a nightmare," Paladin said.

"I've been running from reality ever since I was born."

"We must return to your world, but before we go, I should teach you some things. Meanwhile, you must prepare for what lies ahead." Just when they were getting to the good part, the vacation ended. "I'll take you there so you can continue your task."

"What task?" she whispered.

"The one I called you here to accomplish. You knew we had to go back eventually."

"Well, I don't see what I can do. I've lost my way."

"That's not what I asked." The prince pointed.

"What if I don't want to go back?" She sighed.

"I know you better than you know yourself. I searched your soul. Your heart is pure. You have the makings of a true princess."

"Well maybe I'd rather not be one anymore!" Princess Alice narrowed her eyes and turned her face to the wind. "How can I do anything right when I'm so weak? I'm not strong enough."

"Honor comes from the way you use strength."

"I'm not brave either." Alice crossed her arms.

"Being brave doesn't mean that you aren't afraid."

"I can't do this." She shook her head.

"You're not ready yet. That's all. You have forgotten who you are. You must let me take the throne of your heart once more."

"I know you'll finish what you started in my life, but I'm so worried." As much as she hated to admit it, she was still afraid.

"I have much to teach you, but time is short. You don't have to face your enemy alone. The battle doesn't belong to you. I'll be with you, wherever you may go."

"I want to follow you, but I'm not sure I can handle this job any more than the one I had before." Tears filled her eyes.

"Some things never change. Good always triumphs over evil in the end. Don't trust in the way that things appear, never seeing past the outer surface. That pattern of thought led to the fall in the first place, back in the cradle of civilization."

"What do you want me to do now?" Alice asked.

"If you love me, then obey my commands."

"Easier said than done…" Princess Alice looked away.

"Just open your heart and let me in."

"My heart is mine to confer to whomever I choose. I'd rather share one moment with you than live an eternity alone."

"Once there was an artist who painted the mountains and the sky, placed leaves on trees, and sculpted all sorts of creatures, but he still felt like something was missing. He made a masterpiece treasured above everything else, but someone stole it before he could finish. He risked it all to pay a ransom required by the thief. You are my masterpiece."

"I could lose myself forever in your eyes." Her stomach came alive with butterflies. "You know what I like most about you? You love me for who I really am. You're right here now, but why does it seem like you're so far away?"

"I'll always be there for you, standing by your side until the very end of time. Open your hand and I will take it."

"Why did you bother returning to rescue me?"

"It just isn't Heaven without you," he said.

Trembling at his touch, she started to cry. She bit her lip to stop the tears and tried to ignore all of the pain. Still, she couldn't forget the way she felt. She bowed, not willing to accept what he told her about leaving. Slowly lifting her head, she gazed up at the prince and smiled. The glint of a tear on her cheek sparkled like a star. In his eternal eyes, she saw her future. He took her hand as if to never let it go again and gave it a gentle squeeze of encouragement. Her deepest doubts disappeared and darkest fears fled. He held her in his arms, running rough fingers through her hair. His soft palms caressed her like a cloud.

"By the way, what happened to your hands?"

"These scars will be a sign of my love for you forever."

As he spoke and taught her many things, she listened intently to his instructions as he unraveled intricate mysteries of the universe. He was always approachable. Her crystal heart necklace turned a rosy shade of pink. As the sun set, fuzzy clouds changed colors. Palm-trees swayed in the cool breeze. There was something altogether majestic about that moment. The memory of that enchanting evening would stay with her for the rest of her life. She would never forget the intensely intimate feeling.

18: THIEF IN THE NIGHT

At night, Princess Alice dragged herself upstairs yawning to the Topaz Tower. The sleepier she was, the longer it took her to settle down. The warm bed was so comfortable she sighed and sank into a soft blanket. Her pillow had fine feathers from a swan. Once she lay down, she couldn't get back up again. The princess slept peacefully, dreaming of what the future held for her. It would all make sense in the morning. Stars shined like little diamonds in the sky. An angel stood guard outside by the lake.

Mysterious moonlight drifted down through an open pane. White curtains danced in the wind. Something horrible was about to happen in her disturbing dream. Reduced to rags and dressed up in a doll costume, she looked at the woven threads that were her hands then noticed she was normal on the other side of the mirror. Even the floor was made of stitched fabric. She had to break free before the patchwork became permanent. Suddenly she woke up. Her eyes opened and she sat up straight, breathing hard.

Still, for some reason she just couldn't sleep. Perhaps her wandering thoughts would not permit it. She stood, glanced around the room, and then walked over to the window. She gazed up above, looking for a sign. She wearily headed back to bed, but stopped. Though she could see nothing wrong, she sensed a peculiar presence in the room and it felt familiar.

She wasn't sure what made her turn around, not knowing exactly who to expect. After spinning full circle, she jumped in surprise when she saw him standing in the shadows, waiting right behind her like a serpent about to strike. He broke into her heart and entered her mind just like a thief in the night. She noticed a new faucet to his form. He seemed taller somehow – more muscular and handsome. Unfortunately, this impostor had an uncanny resemblance to the prince who actually loved her.

"Alone again at last," the Dragon King said.

"Don't you ever knock? You're trying to kidnap me again, aren't you? You want me back? Too bad!"

"You gave yourself to me at the altar. Make up your mind."

"I already have. I'm not interested," she said.

"Ah, the princess never doubts her prince. How long do you expect this love to last? This kind of affection is fickle and fleeting. It will wane once the honeymoon is over. What a naïve notion! Do you really think he could love someone like you? Can't you see he's using you? It will only get worse from now on."

"I still don't know why he loves me. I don't deserve it. To be honest, I doubt I'll ever figure him out. I won't stop trying."

"So you think it's that easy? You've finally found your happy ending after being lost for so long. Oh, he said you were important, did he? He'd trade Heaven itself for you. He said something like that to me once. So full of light, yet I still couldn't shine on my own. I'd give anything for a chance just to start all over again."

"That's not my problem." The princess shrugged serenely.

"You claim he cares, but he sure has a strange way of showing it. You never really mattered to him at all. He doesn't love you. How could he? Look at yourself! He just felt sorry."

"That can't be true. You're not telling the whole story." She shook her head. "He promised he'd always be there for me."

"Maybe for the moment he's concerned about you, but I'd hate to be there when you slip up. You'll have your chance at life, but after that, you might never get another."

"Quit playing games with my heart," she said.

"Princess, don't you realize what I'm offering you? I can make all your dreams come true and turn your fantasy into reality. The choice is yours. The world is mine to give to whomever I wish and I ask for so little in return."

"Tempting, but it's temporary. What's the point if it won't last forever?" She realized a certain charm cloaked his words.

"I would do anything to win your affection. Who cares if this is real or not? Here you can have whatever you want, dear. All you have to do is let go. If nobody is harmed, do what you will."

"You can only fulfill my fate by destroying other dreams."

"I have offered you the world, yet you refuse me. It would be wrong to deny your dreams. Instead, you turn away. You don't know what you want, but I recognize your deepest desires. In your mind, you've already surrendered to seduction."

"You have no power over me, because I already have everything I'll ever need," the princess told him. "The prince is alive. That's why I live. I gave up on myself a while ago, but he never did. You'd better watch out when I get the sword back."

"That's a good one, yet not even your blade can banish me. Besides, even if you found it, the armor is useless unless you know how to focus your faith. I can see straight through you. We'll see how tough you are when you're put to the test," he said.

"I can't live in your world. If I go back with you, I'll die."

"You will be mine. I won't be leaving without you."

"Don't waste your words. I'm not going anywhere."

"And who's going to stop me?" He lifted an eyebrow.

"Let's see what the prince has to say about this!" She lifted her voice, trying to act confident.

"No sanctuary can keep you safe from me forever now." He took a step toward her and tried to stare her down, hoping he could keep up his charade longer. His power over her was gone, but he still saw fear in her eyes. "Don't fall asleep, princess. You may never wake up again." The Dragon King laughed in a deep voice before his presence passed out of her mind. He left her alone.

19: MYSTERIOUS MOONLIGHT

The Dragon King had little trouble getting past the guards – the angels who always kept watch. When the sentinel seraphim woke up, they would find he'd tied their wings together, binding them with rope so they couldn't fly. He easily evaded them and swooped through an open window. Shadow the Witch and Nightmare the Dark Unicorn followed behind. Somehow, the princess felt their presence, waking up. He distracted her while Shadow the Witch stole almost the whole suit of armor.

Though it was night, Shadow could still see clearly in the moonlight. She had reached the amethyst armory door undetected. Normally she could walk through walls, but she bumped into them this time instead. She slipped underneath a crack in a door, since she could reappear wherever a shadow was. Her dark magic didn't work on this world. She didn't have enough time to get the last piece, not pressing her luck. Then Shadow and Nightmare fled through the forest as she rode the beast bareback. The Dragon King returned to pick them up, carrying them both in his claws.

Princess Alice ran to brush a curtain aside, watching from the window. The shrubs grew shady, as though a thick cloud had passed in front of the moon. Stepping outside, she leaned against a glass balcony. She waited there for a moment, looking across the land, and stared up at the stars. In their gentle glow, she almost looked like an angel. Here she was safe beyond the enemy's reach.

Still, she wasn't sure whether she could trust the prince after what she heard. In her heart, she began to wonder if he ever loved her at all – even after everything they had been through together. The seed of doubt had already been planted, taking root deep in the mind of a confused child. The damage was done.

What if he doesn't love me? I'm such a fool!

Leaving the bedroom behind, the princess dashed down to find the secret armory entrance. Standing by a pedestal, she took the remaining piece of Angel Armor and put it on. Then she looked at herself in the mirror. Although the armor was visible before, strangely, it no longer seemed to be there. An aura of light went around her head. The haze shimmered with different hues, including sapphire, emerald, ruby, and diamond. The Helmet of Salvation provided protection against the dark power of death.

The crystal heart jewel draped around her neck glowed like a rainbow; sometimes it could even change elements, depending on her mood. The Dragon King was in such a hurry he accidentally dropped another missing piece he'd kept from her.

Princess Alice walked through Grace Grove, heading to the Forest of Forgiveness. Rows of hedges went in different directions like a maze. A rose with pretty, jeweled petals opened when she touched it in the Lake of Light. The glass rose glowed and changed colors rhythmically. Fascinating flowers produced sounds like musical instruments when wind blew through them. Even the fish below the water looked fantastic. She wandered around outside, hearing the heavenly, silent symphony of stars in the sky.

In the library, she read about a prince who escaped from an enchanted forest by listening for the sound of a flute. He knew the tune it played by heart, in spite of all the noise near it.

A cool, night air swept through the trees. She probably should have gone back to bed, yet here she was. Her crystal heart necklace flashed warningly; she clutched it in a hand. Her heart began pounding. She panicked, breathing heavily.

Oh no! Can I get away in time?

While she looked around, a wolf demon crawled onto a branch right behind her and growled. Just as she turned, it leaped out of the tree and landed on top of her before she could run. It hit her fast and hard, knocking the wind out of her. It swiped and pinned her to the ground then stood over her. She cried out for help and struggled to break free. Its powerful muscles rippled.

"I'd rather you don't run away. I prefer not to chase after my prey. Stay still, or I'll make sure you never move again. I'll kill you now, unless you come quietly."

"No way! Forget that!" Princess Alice got mad.

"I'll devour everyone, starting with you!" The bloodthirsty beast snarled, bringing its claws back down to maul her.

The princess raised her arm to cover her head and fend off the blow; fortunately, she had part of the Angel Armor. Despite her helmet, it wounded her spirit somehow. The wolf marveled at the armor's protective power as shimmering sparks and embers of light flew out in every direction like beads of blood. Thinking fast, she rolled and kicked it off. It crouched and snarled, but then fear filled its eyes. Its ears lay flat and it ran away. Slowly, her eyes opened. She turned around and saw someone beside her.

"Now that's what I call a hard hat," Paladin said.

"You were standing right there the whole time?"

"You shouldn't have been wandering around like this."

"I'm sorry. You're right." The princess agreed again.

"If he tries to come after you again, I'll be there to protect you." The prince put a hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing… I'm ok. It's just a scratch." The princess turned away. She didn't want to face him because he would be so disappointed with her. She shook her head, trying to hold back a tear. Hesitating in her heart, she remembered what happened – like the last time. "Um… Did I do something wrong?"

"Why are you crying?" the prince asked patiently.

"Once I gave away my heart's key to a stranger, but he took everything. I thought I lost it forever, but then you found it again. And now, I don't know what to think." Her crystal heart necklace turned blue and froze into ice.

"Do you love me?" he asked her again.

"Of course I do." She tried to smile, but she was scared. She shrugged. "I'm afraid you're going to forget about me."

"Who told you that?"

"The Dragon King did."

"And you believed him?"

"Well, yeah – sort of…" She lowered her eyes. She looked stared at the ground, feeling ashamed. Then she looked up.

"True love isn't temporary. I'll always love you. I see you not just as you are now, but who you will be. Did you know that?"

"Then I'm all yours. There's no one in the world I'd rather be with." The best part about breaking up was making up again. Her necklace turned yellow, representing warmth and friendship.

"This was your test – not mine. I had to see what you would do. Some lessons you must learn on your own. At times, pointing you in the right direction may cost even more than letting you make a mistake. Knowledge can be taught, but only the patient ever gain true insight. I won't force anyone to accept the truth. I don't want puppets. That's why I gave each person free will."

"I remember the world from the eyes of a child, but I've grown up. I don't see any hope for my kingdom."

"It was always here. Just believe in it. You aren't far from fulfilling the ancient prophecy, but you still have a lot to learn." He headed back to the castle with her. "To get the Sword of Light, you must go through the darkness. I shall show you how to use it."

"The Dragon King stole the sword! Didn't he destroy it?"

"It can't be broken. It's a shard from the first shining star in Heaven. It's so sharp it can even pierce hearts and minds. You must master it. It's the only weapon that can hurt him. However, the time has not come to face him yet," he said.

"So what do you know about this armor? Looks like there's a place for a sword to slide into the middle of that shield…"

"The Dragon King is looking for his lost third eye, which would give him the depth perception to watch from a distance, perceive the past, and view the future fate of victims. Find the missing pieces he stole and hid from you being kept well-guarded somewhere in the dark dimension. Use the pieces you've already attained to recover the rest. Anyone wearing this armor will gain special skills they'd never normally have. You will be faster, stronger, and smarter than you've ever been before. The more your faith is focused, the more effective it will be. Your body, mind, and soul can control it. By exercising your abilities, you will acquire experience. It will protect you and guard your heart and mind. No weapon that's fashioned against you shall stand."

"I've been thinking about what you said earlier. If you're allowing this to happen, can't you stop it any time you choose?"

"By granting the darkness its hour of power, evil will be exposed for its true form. Soon it will be too late for them."

"Where did the Dragon King first come from?" she asked.

"Once Lucifer was one of my chief servants. He was the brightest star of them all. Even in this position, he couldn't be content. Eventually, his pride grew so great he sought to place his throne higher than the heavens. He rebelled against me with the warriors under his command. I cast down the fallen angels, holding them in chains until the final Day of Judgment. They took out their wrath on mortal men. Merely weakened, he waited until he could grow strong enough to challenge his creator."

"Why did they obey your command and leave?"

"My power was greater than theirs," Paladin said.

"Why let him go? He'll just come back again later!"

"It's not the order of things." Paladin walked and talked, explaining the outcome of future events. "For now, people are learning who I am and who they are. Those who've rejected me aren't aware I'm patiently giving them a chance to repent."

"What about the stars? How did they fall?" Alice asked.

"You can only behold images from the past that travel through time. If you'd seen the sky before, there were many more. Some stars fell out of orbit and lost their light. The Dragon King seeks to devour them until there's no light left."

"He can't do that." She shook her head. "I won't let him."

"A star shines brighter on a dark night than in the daylight. All it takes is one spark to light a candle seen from far away."

20: DREAM THE DARKNESS AWAY

Early in the morning, the sun rose on the horizon, promising another chance to right what was wrong. Windows reflected bright rays that filled the bedroom with a golden glow until the warm light on her face woke her up. She laid still there, her body not responding. Princess Alice yawned and slowly opened her eyes. Then she stretched and shook out her hair.

Maybe she's still meditating, withdrawn from the world.

An angel walked up the long, spiral stairway and knocked on her bedroom door. "We're having a meeting."

Thousands of servants gathered in the Great Hall. Gabriel filled her in on the details of the discussion she missed. It felt awkward standing among so many strangers. She sat next to the prince at the table head as the conference closed.

Michael, leader of the Angelic Alliance, began speaking. "Concealed in his castle, the Dragon King has secretly been building up his forces. Soon he'll be able to launch another assault. We shall adjourn this session until further notice."

"The prince hasn't dismissed you yet. Go on," Gabriel said.

Princess Alice rose from her seat and followed Paladin outside. He turned and walked past her. She swallowed, approaching him. The angels left them alone for a while.

"Can you tell me what's going to happen?" Alice asked.

"Few people are willing to accept me for who I really am. Most men would rather recreate me in their own image – into any form they deem fit. In the end, true change comes from within. They must be reborn with a new nature."

"There's so much happening at once I can't keep track of it. I need to take it easy for now until I have all the armor."

"If you're not careful, you'll make the same mistake your sister did. The Dragon King will do all that he can to stop you."

"Then how am I supposed to follow you?" Alice asked.

"Trust in me instead of your own power. I have chosen the weak and foolish things to put to shame the strong and wise."

"I want more than anything to be free," she said.

"Faith sets you free. The truth is above and beyond your reach. Look at the stars. To travel through space, you need to know how far they are. If you miscalculated by one degree, you'd miss your destination by millions of miles." The prince didn't have to explain everything to her now. "My servant shall address any further questions you may have."

"Come, with me child…" Gabriel walked beside her. "Vigilance is a virtue. If you fall down, get back up and try again."

"I wouldn't mind so much if what he told me wasn't true."

"Truth can show you things you never wanted to know."

"I wish I could see life his way. Then maybe I would make the right choice," she said.

"He may only give you enough light to take the next step."

"I don't understand." The princess shrugged.

"It is not necessary to understand in order to obey. At times in life, very little makes sense, but when you look back later, you'll see they were turning points. Leave the past in the past. Focus on the future, trusting him for tomorrow."

"Going back home won't change anything. What difference would it really make? I try so hard. Why does everything I do turn out wrong?" She crossed her arms and turned her back on him. "I'm the last line of defense. Unless I warn them, they're doomed."

"Then perhaps it's time to trust the prince. He never gave up on you, even in the face of death. You have to let him handle this now. He gave you his word that he would."

"If he's so powerful, why would he allow all the problems in the world to continue? How could he let it happen?"

"There is a reason – a season for everything."

"I wish none of this had ever happened to me."

"Be careful what you wish for. These changes are all part of a process. If the prince broke you then put you back together, you'd be torn apart. The evil in your heart is tangled around the good. He can't pull it away while it's still twisted together."

"Wake me up when this is all over," she said.

"Destiny won't let you deny who you are. Your training is complete. One final test remains. You must face yourself."

"I can't save me from myself." She shook her head.

"Then the witch has already won this battle."

That thought was unbearable. She pushed it away to the back of her mind. As her shoulders drooped, her crystal heart necklace turned gray as stone. "What if I fail?"

"Then your world will suffer the same fate," Gabriel said. "If you don't fight evil, you'll become it. As the night turns to daylight, shadows of the past fade into the future. Your past is dark, but your future is still bright."

"Does the prince have a shadow like me?"

"A shadow is the lack of light, not the opposite of it."

"So she never existed because I never became her, right?"

"You're the only one who can stop her."

"But how?" Alice asked.

"You must trap her on the other world, but soon they'll separate from each other forever. The barrier between them is like a mirror. When gray is gone, all shall be seen in black and white. Light and darkness, life and death, and good and evil can't coexist. You can't have the best of both worlds, being in two places at once. Whatever part of you isn't in the light, that's where she'll be. When you are weak, your shadow grows stronger. If you come closer, the light will live inside you until the darkness disappears."

"Well, what comes next?"

"You ask a lot of questions." Gabriel grinned.

"How else am I to learn?" Alice asked.

"Sometimes it's better to say nothing and listen."

"I know what I have to do now. I'm just afraid to do it."

"You have learned much about yourself after having been assaulted physically, mentally, and spiritually. The day will come when you must risk everything or run away. Time will test your mind and heart like never before. I wonder if you have what it takes. We'd better get back to the meeting now. I'm afraid the answer will have to wait." Gabriel guided her home.

Princess Alice headed over to the main hall. Taking a seat, she wrestled with matters in her mind, finding courage to face the crisis and reclaim her reality without any regrettable repercussions.

"I have summoned you here to face a terrible threat none of us can escape easily. Yet the Dragon King lurks in his lair. Though we're busy guarding this world, we can't simply watch while he deceives humanity. The enemy won't give up without a fight. Unfortunately, we can't afford to spare any reinforcements. Someone must step forth, volunteering to warn Earth before it's too late. Who among you will rise to the occasion and take my place?" Michael assessed his audience then waited a while.

For a moment, no one spoke; they knew how dangerous this quest would be and how crucial it was to their success. The prince expected the princess to be brave, but he would never force her to go. She sat there uncomfortably, but then nodded wistfully. Before she even knew what she was doing, she coughed and cleared her throat to address the congregation. She stood to make a statement, interrupting their important meeting as her voice broke the silence.

"I'll go! Send me!" She found it a bit frightening that everyone's eyes focused on her. "With your help, I'll return everything to the way it was supposed to be. I'll do anything to prove I love you. I'm in your hands. It's now or never."

"Change your mind?" the prince asked.

"Actually, it's more like a change of heart." She winked.

"Finally you are ready to complete your calling. From this moment forth, you shall be known as the princess of the angels."

"Let's do it." She smiled and nodded, making eye contact.

"I'm leaving you in charge until I return." Paladin pointed.

"My lord, there would be no higher honor," Michael said. "If anything happens while you're gone, I'll take care of them all."

The noble prince had to restore order to his realm as his divine duty. He wouldn't return without setting things right and fighting any evil he encountered in the land. They were confident he would win the victory. Now it was only a matter of time.

That was the end of their stay there at the Crystal Castle. Heaven would be waiting after they saved Earth. Just before she left, the princess looked back, preparing herself for what lay ahead. With a heavy heart, she took his hand. They vanished from the dream dimension and returned to reality, passing through the portal with a bright flash of light. The unicorn followed after.