Alora dove under the tree branch and ran toward the scout with dagger in hand. He turned with a shout and raised his sword, but he never had a chance to deal his blow. Alora’s dagger never struck him, and the soldier fell with an arrow in his back. Scowling, she lifted her gaze to glare up at the tree. “I had him, Wil.”
The archer, half-hidden in the green leaves, simply lifted a hand.
“That isn’t fair, and you know it!” she shot back.
She could barely make out the shrug of her ranged companion before watching as he jumped down from the tree. Grinning, she knelt and jerked the arrow from the dead soldier’s back and headed toward Wilhelm. As he approached, he held out a hand, and she set the arrow in his outstretched palm. He nodded his thanks and wiped the blood off on his leather vest before returning the arrow to his quiver.
“I cannot even fathom why the trolls of Gaburg would scout out this far,” Alora said. “We offered peace and sent them numerous caravans with goods to help their kingdom.”
Wilhelm shrugged and made a motion of someone striking down another with his hands.
“I know they are always at war, but that has usually remained within their own gates. Duylaece has always offered them help.”
He shrugged again and reached out toward a nearby tree, plucking a scarlet paper flower growing on its branches and handing it to Alora.
“Thank you,” she said with a smile, taking the flower. “Let’s return to Duylaece. These forests are frightening.”
Wilhem nodded and started toward their kingdom, and Alora followed quickly after him. Vrihm Grove was not known for being a dangerous place, but something about it always made Alora feel uneasy. She stuck close to Wilhelm, one hand resting on his arm as she glanced around at the leafy trees surrounding them. The paper flowers that grew in the world of Imageri managed to thrive even in the shade of the largest trees, and many of them even grew off of the trees. Alora loved every one of them even if they could leave tiny stinging cuts if handled improperly.
They broke through the grove, and Alora blinked in the blinding sun of Imageri, shining within the lavender sky. The kingdom of Duylaece could be seen in the distance, and Alora smiled as she and Wilhelm trekked toward it.
“Danger, danger,” a soft voice whispered. “Danger, Princess Alora!”
She stopped, and Wilhelm did as well, both of them looking around them. “What are the winds whispering about?” she muttered. “I see nothing.”
A sudden piercing noise filled the air with a pattern that seemed familiar to Alora. She reached for her dagger then stopped, her hands shooting up to cover her ears as the sound increased in volume. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Wilhelm readying his bow even as he flinched from the din. As if by magic, a creature shimmered into existence only several hundred feet away from them. The body of the creature had a grayish look to it, and its red eyes were luminescent as it gazed at them. Its mouth, or at least what Alora assumed was its mouth, gaped open, and the shrieking noise poured forth freely with no apparent need to breathe by the creature. Wilhelm loosed an arrow at the creature just as the world of Imageri began to waver in Alora’s vision. She watched the arrow bounce off the boxy body of the creature before her world went dark.
Amy woke with a start, gasping for breath. Her heart pounded as she shot up and slapped a hand down on the offending item shrieking at her from her side table. Groaning, she rubbed at her face and grabbed her glasses, sliding them onto her face. The luminescent red numbers came into focus to reveal the time. She let out a breath, gray eyes looking around her room. Above her desk were maps and drawings that made little sense to anyone save those who had read her stories. That happened few and far between these days, especially at home. Sighing, she pushed away the blankets and got to her feet. After a quick change to prepare for school, she sat down at her desk with pen in hand and began detailing her dream into a large leather bound book. The words flowed freely, and the world of Imageri and the situation she had just dreamed came to life on the pages.
A knock on her bedroom door made her jump, and she turned in her chair just as the door eased open. Her mother peeked her head in with a bright smile, but it quickly faded.
“Oh, Amelia… Didn’t we talk about how we were going to slow down on the writing for a little bit?”
Amy turned away, staring down at her book. “How can I slow down something that makes me so happy? It’s not my fault that the words come. If I don’t write it down, the ideas just crowd my head, and I can’t sleep.”
“Amy, you stay up so late at night trying to write those ideas down, and sometimes you still can’t sleep because you’re letting your mind wander all over those ideas.”
“But I sleep better when I write them down! It doesn’t matter how late it is as long as I get up in time for school, right?”
Her mother just shook her head, her blue eyes gazing at her daughter as she pursed her lips. “Your father and I want you to start pursuing other activities.”
“What other activities? There’s nothing at school that interests me.”
“Sweetie, make some friends!”
“I have friends.”
“Friends that exist outside of your stories.”
“My stories are my friends. They understand me! No one in this world does! I wish I could just live in Imageri!” Amy rose so quickly, the chair she’d been sitting in toppled to the floor. “You have no idea what it’s like!”
“Amelia Giles, stop it!” her mother scolded, stepping into the room. “Don’t act like you’re the only one that’s ever been a teenager. Your father and I went through the same things.”
“Yeah, right. Little Miss Popular, and her arm candy,” Amy muttered, arms crossing as she looked away. “It’s a little bit different on the other side.”
“You stop that this instant, and get downstairs. Your breakfast is getting cold, and you still have to catch the bus. Don’t you dare take that book to school with you.” Her mother turned and walked out of the room with Amy still glaring after her.
“Just try and stop me,” she whispered, picking up the leather book and sliding it into the pocket of her backpack designed to carry a laptop. She carried the backpack down the stairs to the dining room table.
She rolled her eyes as her mother glared at her, hand outstretched to take the backpack. She held it out and waited while her mother poked around inside. The older woman smiled when she found no leather book within the bag. Dropping down into her chair at the table, Amy mumbled a half-hearted greeting to the man hidden behind the newspaper. He responded with his own and didn’t even bother to lower his newspaper as he reached for a piece of toast. It and the hand that held it disappeared behind the newspaper, and Amy sighed.
Amy kept to herself on the bus ride to school, ignoring the idiots joking with each other and screaming insults. Now and then, a shoe would fly. She never understood these idiots and their desire to throw each other’s shoes. When the bus pulled up to the school, she was already on her feet and heading out the door. It helped to be in one of the first rows, and it allowed her to avoid the large mob of students that now exited behind her. Clutching her backpack strap, she kept her focus on her feet as she walked quickly into the gates of the high school.
“One more year,” she whispered, “then I can go off to college and be free of this hell…”
Dropping down into her seat, she pulled out her leather book, her class notebook, and a pen.
Mr. Jefferson, a tall graying man with bright blue eyes, paused at her desk and passed her a stapled stack of papers. “Great job, Amy. I can’t wait to read more about Alora and Imageri.”
She smiled up at him. “Thanks, Mr. Jefferson.”
He returned the smile before heading for his desk. Sitting down, his blue eyes scanned the room as other students began filing in. Many of the students were calling out loudly to their friends across the room or chatting to those beside them. Amy waited patiently for the room to quiet down. Mr. Jefferson never spoke while the students filed in, and even as the bell rang, he didn’t say anything. Instead, he watched and waited, and he locked eyes with any student that spoke too loudly. Within a couple of minutes, the room had quieted to the point where Amy felt like her own pounding heart was too loud in her ears. She watched and waited with everyone else.
Mr. Jefferson rose slowly from his desk chair then strode across the room to stand at the pulpit he had set before the white board in front of his classroom. “So, who can tell me what we did last week?” he asked.
His loud voice commanded the room, and there was the flurrying sound of papers as people began looking to see what they had done last week. Amy’s hand shot up, and she ignored the nearby whisper of, “teacher’s pet.”
“Of course, Amy,” he said with a grin. “What did we do last week?”
She lowered her hand even as she said, “We discussed the creation of fictional worlds and how they differ from our own.”
“Yes!” He gave her a thumb’s up before turning his focus back to the entire class. “Fictional worlds and how they differ from reality. Who can tell me what work we were reading last week? Let’s try and get that answer from someone other than Miss Jackson. We all know she’s been paying attention, but who else in this room has been, hmm?”
Amy wanted to raise her hand, but she waited while her classmates shuffled through papers and book. Then Mr. Jefferson pointed at someone. Amy didn’t turn around to look.
“We were reading The Lord of the Rings,” a male voice responded.
“Yes, very good! We actually have some people paying attention in here!” Mr. Jefferson shot away from his pulpit to grab a white board marker and began writing. “Now, who can tell me some of the differences between our world and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth? Just shout them out as they come to you!”
Students were finally finding their notes, and Amy was not the only one calling things out for Mr. Jefferson to write down under “Differences Between Reality and Middle-Earth.” He wrote down a second header, “Similarities Between Reality and Middle-Earth” and called out for answers once more. He wrote down everything he could hear in the cacophony of student voices. He returned to the pulpit and grasped it, watching the students. One by one, they began to quiet down.
“As I’m sure you’re aware, your assignments lately have been short stories that can be based on any world you pick. Many of you chose to use reality. A select few of you chose fantasy worlds. Now, to wrap up our lesson on fictional worlds, I want all of you to create a fantasy world. You can base it off of reality and have similarities to reality, but I want it to be a completely fictional place. Pull up a map of Europe, and call it Dormath, the Dragon World. I don't care what you do, but I want maps of continents, not streets. Your worlds must be unique. Find a map of Hesperia’s borders, and create a world based on that. For God’s sake, please don’t give me maps of Main Street, though.” He strode back over to his desk and pulled up a stack of papers, handing a smaller stack to each person at the front of a column of desks. He grinned at Amy as he handed her a stack. “I want to know every detail of your fictional world, as many as you can come up with by Friday. Religions, cultures, societies, military, and government! Create characters to put into the world. You’re going to hold onto this too because by the end of the year, many of you will have a completely prepared novel plan.”
Many of the students groaned, but Amy was very excited. She’d been turning in stories about Imageri her entire English and Language Arts education. Now, she had a teacher that really loved her fictional world as much as she did, and he was going to allow her the chance to truly reveal it to him. He would be the first to ever really see Imageri like she did.
Alora’s eyes snapped open, and she sat up with a gasp, looking about her. The strange creatures were gone, and she lay in her bed surrounded by the stone walls that made up her room. Her lavender curtains had been pulled to cover the window. Pushing the blankets aside, she got to her feet and stripped off her nightgown. She went to her wardrobe and pulled out a tunic and leggings, tugging them on. She grabbed her dagger from the wooden side table beside her bed and strode to her bedroom door. Opening it up to step out, she stopped short.
Blue eyes gazed at her, a soft smile crossing his lips. “Alora, darling. I am so glad to see you up and about. How do you feel?”
“I feel fine, Father.” She stepped back, and her father strode into her room.
“Good, I am glad. Wilhelm carried you back after you fainted. Of course, he could not tell us what had happened.”
“There was a creature…” Alora shook her head. “I have never seen this creature before. I do not know what it was, but the shriek it made…” She shuddered.
“Wilhelm appeared rather dazed when he arrived. The healers say his ears are fine, however. He was worried about you. It took me quite some convincing to prevent him from spending every moment waiting by your door.”
Alora shook her head, cheeks pink. “I do not understand why he is so concerned. It was nothing, just a little faint. He acts as though it happens all the time.”
“He is your knight. You chose him. Of course, he worried for you,” the king said with a smile. "Is that not his duty?"
“King Reth!” A soldier rushed up to the door and bowed low, panting and gasping for breath. “My king, my princess, I apologize for the interruption." He looked up at them. "A caravan from Gaburg has returned… There is only one survivor.”
Reth frowned, turning to his daughter. “Alora, come with me. Perhaps you can tell us if this is the work of trolls or those creatures you saw yesterday.”
She nodded, sliding her dagger into the pouch on her belt as she followed after her father.
They walked quickly down the stone halls toward the entrance to their castle. Wilhelm already stood outside near the caravan, but he immediately strode toward Alora the moment his gaze fell on her. She managed a smile and reached up to touch his hand as he set it on her shoulder. He nodded then turned away and back toward the caravan. Alora approached the caravan, her father already speaking to the guard standing beside a person huddled on the ground. The survivor, a young boy who appeared to be no older than thirteen, sat shivering under a blanket. His eyes were wide and wild as he looked up at the royalty approaching him.
“There were so many…" he whispered, rocking back and forth, "so many of them. Nothing could stop them. I could only hide beneath the wagon. It attacked any person who wielded a weapon." He started crying, shaking his head even as he continued to rock back and forth. "Their eyes… their eyes.”
Alora shuddered, reaching up to rub her arms. A hand touched her shoulder, and she looked up at Wilhelm standing behind her with concern in his eyes. “I’m all right,” she whispered. She looked at her father and the guard who were both watching her. “The creatures we saw had red eyes - luminescent red eyes. They gazed at you without sight, as if piercing through you.”
“Yes!” the little boy suddenly cried, leaping to his feet. “Their eyes without sight, yet they had sight. Glowing red eyes that caught us even in the dark of night." He shot toward Alora, grabbing her arm.
“You're hurting me!” Alora cried, clawing at the hand that clutched her arm. Wilhelm shot forward and grabbed the boy's hand, pulling him off of her as the guard that had been standing with them leaped toward the boy.
“Alora! Alora, they screamed!” he shouted as the guard dragged him back. "They screamed for Alora! It's the princess they're after!"
“Why me?” she whispered, shaking.
Wilhelm stood beside her once more, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her back against his chest. She closed her eyes as she reached up and grasped his arm with her hands, focusing on the rise and fall of Wilhelm’s chest and bringing her own to match his. The shaking subsided, and she opened her eyes. Turning her head, she looked up at her father who was gazing at her with a frown.
“What do we do, Father?” she asked.
"I will send out a small squadron of guards to scout the surrounding area," he said, shifting his gaze to Wilhelm who still held her. "You are not to let her out of her sight. Do you understand?"
Alora didn't have to see Wilhelm's nod to know he had answered her father. However, she didn't fully agree with his decision. The strange creatures were after her, so what good would it do to send out more of the kingdom's men to die?
Amy didn't come down for dinner. Imageri needed to be revealed, and Mr. Jefferson had given her the perfect opportunity. Maybe now, her parents would understand. She jumped at the knock on her door, turning in her seat as it opened.
"Amy? We brought you - " Her mother stepped into the room holding a plate then stopped. "Amelia! You said you were working on homework!"
"But this is homework. Mr. Jefferson - "
Her mother gasped. "Mr. Jefferson! I thought we pulled you out of his class months ago!"
Amy snorted, crossing her arms. "You tried."
"Well, this stops now," her mother said. "George!"
Amy saw her father appear in the darkness of the hallway, a nearly gray shadow as he stood just out of the light. He stepped closer, following his wife into Amy's room.
"What are you doing?" Amy asked, slowly standing.
"This is for your own good, Amelia," her father said as he began to remove tacks from her cork board.
"No!" Amy cried as her mother began to collect the papers he set on the desk. "Stop it! Those are mine!" She snatched up the leather bound notebook from her desk, clutching it to her chest. "No! Mom, where are you taking them?"
Her mother didn't answer as she left the room, walking down the hall. Amy chased after her. "This... insane addiction to your writing needs to stop. If this is the only way to get you to understand, then that's what I'm going to do." She made her way downstairs to the living room, and Amy's heart leaped in her throat as embers cracked and popped in the lit fireplace.
"No... Mom. Mom, don't. No!" Amy screamed as her mother threw the pile she carried into the fire. "No, no!"
The book in her arms dropped to the rug as she shot toward the fireplace, reaching out to snatch a piece of paper that had just begun to burn. Even as she began to stomp out the flames, her father brought down another stack and tossed it onto the growing flames. Her mother snatched up the leather bound book just as Amy turned around.
"Mom, no! Please!"
"It's the only way you'll learn, Amelia." Then her mother tossed the book into the fireplace.
"No!" Amy screamed, launching herself toward the fire.
Her father caught her around the waist as the red and orange flames danced around the edges of the leather. Tears blurred her vision as the cover began to curl, and she watched as the pages of her notebook turned orange and yellow. Wrenching free of her parents' grasp, she looked at them both with the image of her life's work burning in her eyes.
"I hate you," she whispered, "so much." Then she fled.
Dark violet storm clouds gathered overhead. No word had yet been received from the soldiers that had been sent out. Chewing on a nail, Alora gazed out over the kingdom from the pavilion she stood on. She heard footsteps on the stairs, turning her head.
“Will.” He approached her, resting a hand on her shoulder as he stood behind her. She sighed, reaching up to touch his hand. “I’m worried.” He drew her closer, wrapping an arm around her shoulders while her back rested against his chest. “We should have gone. The creatures are asking for me, and yet we sent more of our people to their death.”
Wilhelm only gave her a gentle squeeze. His inability to speak had never bothered her before, but today, she longed to know what her guardian thought. She didn’t move even as the rumbling of thunder could be heard in the purple sky overhead. Rain drops began to fall, and Alora closed her eyes as each falling drop began to speak softly.
“There are monsters lurking in Imageri,” the drops whispered. “Alora, they cry. They look for the princess. Beware! Beware! You have sent soldiers, and the monsters know of them. Your people are being hunted.”
Alora’s eyes snapped open, shivering. “No!” She tore away from Wilhelm, running down the steps of the pavilion. “We have to tell my father!” she shouted over her shoulder.
She slid on the slick stones of the path below, and the droplets cried for her to tread carefully. She refused to slow down, uttering a cry as her foot slipped beneath her. A hand caught her arm, and a strong arm wrapped around her middle. Wilhelm drew her back up on her feet, and she looked back at him, struggling to ignore the racing pounding of her heart.
“We have to help them!”
He shook his head, lifting his head to the sky. He closed his eyes. Alora frowned, glancing toward the sky. Then she closed her eyes.
The droplets began to speak once more. “The monsters have found them. Their red eyes are so bright. They blind us. We can hear screaming, so much screaming.” The drops were silent for a moment. “The monsters are gone. Everyone is dead. Princess Alora, the monsters cried. They search only for the princess.”
Alora opened her eyes, chest aching. Her legs shook, and even with Wilhelm holding onto her, she dropped to her knees. “We could have helped them,” she whispered, voice breaking.
Red eyes stared back at Amy as she gazed into the mirror. The dark hole in her chest only grew as memories of last night flooded her mind. She sucked in a breath, tears sliding down her cheeks. She stepped away from the mirror, her back falling against the wall. She slid to the ground and pulled her knees up to her chest. Sobs tore through her as she slowly rocked back and forth.
The door opened, and Amy lifted her head to stare at the monster that entered the room. “Oh, Amelia… stop this,” her mother snapped. She folded her arms across her chest as she stared down at her daughter. “Your breakfast is cold now, but it won’t even matter. You’re going to be late. Get up now, or you’ll miss the bus.”
Amy’s jaw clenched, and her hands fisted. A roaring in her ears flooded her as she slowly rose to her feet. For a moment, she relished in the image that crossed her mind of this beast burning just like her papers had done last night. She lurched forward, and her mother stepped aside as she made her way out of the room. Amy reached out to grab her backpack and pulled it on. She made her way downstairs, well aware of the creature’s presence at her back.
It followed her all the way to the front door, stopping there to watch her as she made her way to the bus stop. Before she reached it, she took a left and made her way down the street. She wouldn’t be going to school today. Nor any other day after this if she could help it.
He looked over the report, shaking his head. "This is impossible," he murmured. "Twenty men dead in nearly an instant. What are these creatures?"
Alora sat in a sofa nearby, hands folded in her lap. "Do you understand now, Father? I must be the one to go. If I do not, more of our men will die needlessly."
"My child, if you go, you will die," her father said, setting the report down. "I cannot risk losing you."
She looked away, biting her lip. "Father... Whether I am heir to this kingdom or not, it is I that the monsters demand." She looked up at him. "Is it not my duty to protect Duylace?"
"You are not yet queen, young one. Until such time as you are, it is my responsibility to protect our land." He rose, striding to the window to gaze out over the open courtyard below. "I will send you to your mother's people in Gresal."
She shot to her feet. "Father, no! Sending me away will only leave Duylace helpless!"
"No," he turned toward her, "it would leave me to rule and protect our lands while you remain safe from these unknown creatures." He strode toward the door of his study and opened it. A guard standing across the hall approached and bowed low. "Ulisse, find Wilhelm and bring him here."
"Yes, my lord." The guard turned and headed down the hall.
Alora frowned, arms crossed over her chest. "You cannot make me go."
"I can, and I will," he said, turning back toward his daughter as he closed the door. "Wilhelm is honor-bound to obey his orders and to protect you. If that means forcing you to leave for Gresal, he will do it." He sat down behind his desk, gazing at her with a frown. "I will ensure our kingdom is safe. In the meantime, Gresal has an extensive library. Use it to your advantage, and see what you can discover about these monsters before you sacrifice your own life for nothing."
Gritting her teeth, Alora sat back down on the sofa. "Yes, father," she whispered.
Sitting in the principal's office, Amy stared down at her hands folded in her lap. Her parents sat on either side of her in front of the principal's desk. She could hear the voices of the adults around her, and she struggled to focus on them as her name was mentioned.
"We are very concerned about Amelia, Mr. and Mrs. Giles," the principal said. "Did something happen at home?"
"No, of course not," said the beast sitting to her right.
"Mr Jefferson said -"
"We asked that she be removed from his class," snarled the monster to her left.
The principal sighed. "As I explained to your wife when she came in to make the request, Mr. Giles, you can't remove a student from a class for no reason. Mr. Jefferson has said that Amelia is a wonderful student, and her grades have never fallen like this before. He even said that she had a project due a few days ago that she was very excited about. The very fact that she has been missing school and hasn't turned in assignments is very unsettling."
"Mr. Jefferson has been encouraging our daughter to day dream," said the creature on her right.
Removing his glasses, the principal rubbed his forehead. "Mrs. Giles, I find that very difficult to believe considering Amelia's grades were at the top of her class."
"Oh, her grades have always been wonderful, but she has no friends, no interactions outside of her studies."
"Are you not aware that Amelia is a quiet student who has been bullied by a number of students at this school here? She has never allowed their behavior to affect her grades or mood before. Have you ever considered that she might not have classmates who share her interests?"
The beasts were spared responding at a knock on the door. Amy turned her head as the door opened, and Mr. Jefferson stepped inside carrying a large manila envelope. Her heart leaped in her throat, and she hoped and prayed he carried the work she had turned in about Imagery. Not all had been lost after all.
"Amelia," he said, stopping in the doorway and staring at her. "What's happened to you? You look terrible."
Amy opened her mouth to respond, but the creature to her right shot to her feet. "There is nothing wrong with her except that you've encouraged her to keep living in the dream world," she snapped. "What's this - more of that nonsense that she wrote?"
Her claws reached for the file, but Mr. Jefferson held it away from her even as Amy let out a cry and lurched out of her seat toward her teacher and the files he carried. The claws of the beast still seated beside her dug into her arm to pull her back into her seat.
Mr. Jefferson's gaze remained on Amy even as he spoke to the creature standing before him. "Mrs. Giles, I was addressing Amy. As for this folder, these were given to me as assignments, and as such, they are my property." He took a step forward, but the beast stood between him and Amy. "Amelia, tell me what happened. Where have you been? Why haven't you turned in anything?"
She wanted to tell him. She even opened her mouth to tell him everything these monsters had done to her. Instead, she only let out a strangled sob, burying her face in her hands as she started to cry.
"This is ridiculous," said the monster still seated beside her. He rose to his feet, his claws still clutching Amy's arm as he dragged her up to her feet. "We are leaving, and our daughter will not be returning to this school until she is removed from Mr. Jefferson's classroom."
"Why? Is it because I encourage the creativity you have obviously tried to stifle? Have you even looked at your daughter - really looked at her? She doesn't even look like she's been eating. What about the work she's done? Did you ever pick up a page and read through it?"
A loud buzzing developed in her ears as the beasts continued to argue with Mr. Jefferson. She thought she heard the principal's voice join in, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't focus on any of it. The room tilted in her vision, and she thought she saw Mr. Jefferson dart toward her with a shout. Then everything went dark.