By: Light Clark

Synopsis: Due to his mother’s work, Henry and his family are moving to New York, hoping to find a fresh start there. Not everything can be left behind by a move, however, just like not all new beginnings go according to plan.

Warning: This story is 'technically' set in the Whateley universe. It uses no characters or places from that universe; just borrows a few terms and general thematics. It is certainly not canon.

Chapter 01 - Day 1

“Mom! Greg’s poking me!” my little sister, Lindsey, whined shrilly from the back seat of the car.

“She kicked me first!” came my little brother, Greg’s, expected retort from his spot beside my sister.

In the front seat, I rolled my eyes at the childishness of my two siblings. Letting out a weary sigh, I looked off to the side, hoping to see some clue that we’d be at our destination soon, so that I could finally get away from the two brats. They really needed to hurry and grow up already.

Looking out the side window didn’t really offer any sort of clue as to my family's progress on their trip. All that I could was yet more of the seemingly endless urban tangle that was New York City. It had been nearly an hour since we’d entered the city limits, much of which had been spent in traffic. The only thing that had changed in that time was that huge apartment buildings had started to give way to small houses packed closed together.

“Both of you stop it!” my mother yelled, trying to keep order even as her shoulders sagged with weariness and dark circles hung under her eyes.

“But, Mom!” the two siblings whined in unison, showing an odd flash of solidarity in the midst of their argument.

“But nothing! It’s not much further, and I don’t wanna hear another peep out of you two until we get there!” my mother commanded, earning a respectful silence.

While the silence was appreciated by me, I knew that it wouldn’t last. Lindsey and Greg would start at each other again once they thought my mother’s attention had slipped from them, which it inevitably would. No only were there three of us for her to worry about, but also driving in unfamiliar city, the move, and the uncertainty of her new job. It wasn’t like there was anyone around to help ease her burden either. My younger siblings didn’t give me the same respect that they did her, and Dad … well if he was still there, then we wouldn’t have had to move in the first place.

Feeling a tightness in my throat, I shook away thoughts of my family and tried to focus on what lay ahead. It was summer, so I wouldn’t have to deal with a new school yet. That was certainly a relief. At the same time, though, it also left me unsure of what I was supposed to do in the coming months. I didn’t know anyone in New York, nor anything about the place. It seemed like I was going to be in for a rather boring summer.

“Ah ha! There it is!” my mother suddenly declared excitedly as she pointed off toward one of the little houses.

It was easy to spot which one my mother was pointing at. She’d showed us all a picture of it before we’d left our old home behind. It hadn’t seemed like much then, and in person it seemed like even less. It was much smaller than our old house, with an old, sort of worn out look to it. In spite of its obvious age and wear, it did look well-maintained, lacking the peeling paint, rotted front porch, or sagging roof, that I would’ve expected from a truly decrepit house. It might be a little cramped, but it seemed like something I could live with.

In the back seat, my siblings clambered forward to get a good look at their new home. Lindsey seemed quite excited by the place, smiling brightly. Greg, always the more serious and brooding, had a scowl on his face that showed his disapproval. That didn’t surprise me. He’d been the most obstinate about not wanting to move. He’d probably hate the new place even if it was some fancy mansion which it definitely wasn’t.

A few moments later, my mom pulled into the driveway of our new home. The moment the car stopped, Lindsey burst out of it, rushing over to get a closer look of the house. I joined my sister in getting out, though, not in racing off. I just wanted to stretch my legs after the long drive. My mom followed suit, groaning a little from her stiffness. Even Greg got out, though, only so that he could lean against the car with his arms folded in a pout.

After stretching, my mom ducked back into the car long enough to grab some keys from center terminal. “Greg, here’s the key. You and Lindsey can go in and look around,” my mom told my brother, tossing the keys to him. All she got was an annoyed sigh before Greg pushed himself off to walk over to Lindsey. Once that was done, she turned to me. “Henry, mind helping me bring stuff inside?”

“Sure thing, Mom,” I agreed dispassionately, turning toward the trunk.

For the next few minutes, all I did was carry the various luggage from the car into the house and set it down. By the time that was finished, Lindsey and Greg were already arguing again, this time about whose room was whose. As my mother went off to deal with that, I took the opportunity to wander about the small house.

The inside of my family’s new home was much like the outside: old and worn, but well maintained. It was also very very empty. The movers wouldn’t be there until the next day, meaning there was no furniture or appliances – no memories either.

Once the short tour was over, I made my way over to the room my siblings had been fighting over. By then, my mother had separated the two to their own corners of the room. There, they were forced to just stand quietly in place while looking at the wall.

“Place seems fine,” I commented neutrally as I stepped through the door.

“Good,” my mom sighed, clearly out of energy. “You have any opinion on which room you want?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Whichever is fine with me.”

“Great, then this is your room,” my mother declared.

“But–” my siblings started to protest.

“No buts!” my mom cut off with a scream. “You guys refused to agree, so everyone gets their room assigned to them. Now come on you two. Time to get out of your brother’s room.”

With the decision handed down, my mother ushered my younger siblings out, leaving me alone with my new room. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it. It looked just like the other bedrooms that I’d seen when I’d walked around – empty. The view wasn’t terrible at least, as it was the one bedroom that had a window that looked out onto the street.

“Maybe that’s what they were fighting over,” I mused as I looked out the window at the neatly packed little subdivision. I highly doubted that was the case, though. One of them probably just decided that they liked that particular room and the other had insisted it be theirs instead. “Such children …”

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“Good thing I brought one of these,” I mumbled as I finished setting up a little, folding, camping chair. Currently, it was the only piece of furniture in my new room. “Otherwise, I’d have to just sit against the wall.”

Sighing, I plopped down in the chair, grabbed my book off the floor, and popped it open for a little reading. Within moments, I was lost in the story, following along on the daring journey of a group of adventures in a mystical land. Currently, they were in the middle of a fetid marsh that blocked their way to the villain’s stronghold. Naturally, it was a treacherous place, full of pitfalls and dangerous creatures that they had to be ever alert for lest something terrible befall them. Any slight sound or little blur of movement could be the sign of something about to –

A knock yanked me from the rising tension of the book, causing me to jump slightly in my chair. Jerking my gaze up, I spotted Lindsey meekly peeking into my room. “Oh … hey Linds. What do you need?”

“Nothing … I’m just … bored,” the girl murmured, glancing nervously back over her shoulder. “Greg’s using the laptop to watch some stupid movie.”

“What movie is it?” I inquired as I marked my page and set the book aside.

Lindsey shrugged with pretend indifference. “Just something about some stupid puppet.”

Even that vague description was enough for me to figure out what had sent my sister to my room. The only puppet movie I could think of that my brother might watch was definitely not something for little girls. Really, Greg probably wasn’t old enough to watch it either, but he’d been going through a phase where he liked things very dark and adult. Since my mom was out of the house getting dinner, that left only me for my sister to seek out for protection from something so frightening.

“Ah, yeah. That movie is stupid,” I remarked, mostly just to help put her at ease a little. “I can’t believe he’s watching it.”

“Me either!” Lindsey agreed, stepping into my room. “You should totally go take the laptop away from him so we can watch something good.”

That suggestion was one of my sister’s classic moves. After all, Greg was three years older than her, so she had no way of really resisting him by herself. If Greg wanted things a certain way, they were going to be that way, unless Lindsey got help from someone. When possible, she got that help from our mother, but when she wasn’t around, or wouldn’t side with the little girl, Lindsey came to me. At fourteen, I had the same three years on Greg that Greg had on Lindsey, making it easy for me to bully him, if I felt like it. I rarely did, since it seemed kind of pathetic to bully a little kid like that, but occasionally, my sister did manage to garner enough of my sympathy to get me to help her. This wasn’t one of those times.

“Well, it may be stupid, but we should probably let him finish it anyway,” I answered rationally. “You wouldn’t want him interrupting one of your movies, would you?”

“No …” Lindsey admitted reluctantly.

“I guess that means we’ll just have to play in here, instead,” I offered as an alternative. “A board game maybe?”

Mention of a game perked Lindsey right up. “Can I pick?!”

I nodded. “Sure.”

Immediately, the little girl spun to race off, only to skid to a stop a step later and turn back to me. When she did, she once again had a nervous look on her face. “Uhm … I don’t know where mom packed the games ...”

It was an obvious lie, but I saw no reason to not let her save face. I probably would’ve been scared too if I’d seen some of that movie at her age. Besides, I was already wasting my time playing a game with her.

“I know where they are,” I told her, rising from my seat. “Let’s go together.”

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Chapter 02 - Night 1

An involuntary yawn escaped my lips as I tried to finish off the book in my hands. I still had a few chapters to go, but the yawns were coming closer and closer together, interrupting my flow every time they did. Worse, my vision was starting to blur whenever I blinked, and sometimes I’d even zone out while I was reading, going through a whole paragraph without remembering any of the words that it contained.

“I guess, I’ll finish it tomorrow,” I mumbled responsibly. There really wasn’t any rush, and it was getting late. I was supposed to help my mom and the movers early the next morning, too.

Sighing in disappointment, I marked my page and set the book aside. Flipping off the flashlight I was using to read, I snuggled down into the sleeping bag that was going to serve as my bed for the night and closed my eyes. A few moments later, I was already drifting off to sleep.

I woke with a start, unsure what had even caused such a reaction. All I knew was that I’d been lying there asleep, and the next moment I was lurching upward and opening my eyes. I couldn’t even find the faint impression of whatever dream had caused such a startled reaction.

Even as my actions confused me, the room I woke into confused me even more. It was not pitch black, as the room had been when I’d gone to bed, nor was it lit by the morning sun. Instead, there was a weird silvery light to the place that was bright enough to see by, but still dark enough to imply that it was nighttime, a fact that was confirmed by the dark sky that was outside my windows.

The odd lightning was not the limits of the confusing sights awaiting me. The room was every bit as sparse as I remembered, but the bare walls were not white but purple. They didn’t have the flat finish of normal walls either. They were glossy and smooth with an almost fleshy quality to them that made me think that they would feel spongy to the touch.

The floor seemed to match the walls, made of the same glossy purple material. A quick feel with a hand confirmed my earlier suspicions. The stuff was firm but spongy texture under my fingertips. Something about the sensation was familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember what the material was.

“What is this place?” I mumbled as I looked around, trying to piece things together. I didn’t have enough information to go on, though. I needed to go find more. Luckily, whoever or whatever had brought me to this strange place had not bound me in any way, so I would be able to explore freely.

Suddenly, I was on my feet, walking over to the door. Trying to stay quiet so as to not alert anyone that I was moving around, I reached out for the door. Carefully, I turned the knob before inching it opened.

Outside my room was an upstairs landing that looked much like the one in my new home. It had the same five doors for the four bedrooms and the bathroom. It had the same stairs leading down to the floor below. Yet, it was all different, made from the same weird purple material as the room that I’d come from and lit by the odd silvery light.

“Where is that light even coming from?” I questioned, glancing around. It seemed to light all things equally, regardless of position or angle. There was no light outside that could do that, nor any lamps in the house that were on.

As I looked around for the light, I suddenly found myself in front of a door, the door that would’ve lead to my sister’s room if this was my family’s new house. Perhaps, she’d been in there like I’d been in my own room. It was certainly worth a look.

The next moment, I was in my sister’s room which was as bare, purple, and oddly lit as my own had been. There was a girl laying in it as well, but it wasn’t my sister. This girl was about my age, blonde and very pretty, looking nothing like my rather plain, brunette, little sister. She was also dressed in a fancy, pink dress that looked very much like it must belong to a princess.

Far more disconcerting than the girl’s appearance was what surrounded her. It looked like an aura of black mist that writhed about as it clung to the girl’s prone form. Whatever it was, it was decidedly menacing looking.

“Uhn … no …” the girl mumbled, twisting and jerking her head around.

Worried, I stepped forward. The next moment, I found myself kneeling beside the girl, calling out in concern. “Hey? What’s wrong? Hey!”

The girl didn’t answer, seemingly sound asleep in spite of her clearly tormented expression and movements. Words didn’t seem to be able to reach her. Perhaps shaking her would work, but then I’d have to reach through the writhing black mist.

“No ... Please … “ the girl begged desperately of some unseen terror.

Spurred on by that plea, I reached out for the girl, hands meeting with the black mist. When they did, a sharp chill ran through me. Shivering, I tugged my hands back and tried to shake it off, rubbing at my arms for warmth until it passed.

Even as the chill faded, a cool wind blew across my face. Confused by the out of place wind, I looked up only to find that I was no longer in the purple room. Instead, I was in a dark forest filled with scraggly trees devoid of leaves. In the sky, there was a huge moon, red as blood, casting its eerie light across a land of deep, red-tinged shadows.

A shriek of terror cut through that night, followed by a girl screaming. “Stay away from me!”

Jerking around, I saw the source, the same blonde, princess girl that had been laying in the room before. She wasn’t lying down now, though, but was running along through the woods in a wild desperate sprint. Her long, blonde hair flew out behind her, wild and whipping in the wind. At the same time, the clothes she wore were in tatters, especially the skirt, seeming to have been torn apart by some clawed beast.

Even as I took in the fleeing princess, a malicious cackle echoed through the night. Its owner appeared a moment later, a little, porcelain faced puppet with a terrifying visage and a malicious red glow to its eyes. On its arms, instead of normal hands, there were metal claw-like fingers that glinted red, but whether it was from the moon or blood soaking the blades was hard to tell.

“We’re coming for you!” the puppet spoke, only for it to be followed by an echoing chorus of dozens of the same voice. “We’re coming for you!”

A moment later, a whole horde of the puppets joined the lead one, bursting out from behind trees and bushes to join in the chase. They were small, but very fast, grinning and cackling as they ran. They were also closing in on the helpless princess, cutting the distance between them with every moment that passed.

“No! Please! Help!” the princess screamed, but her pleas were meaningless to the puppets, drowned out by their cackling glee.

Before I could even really think about it, my courage made me act, lunging me forward to the princess’s defense. An instant later, I stood between the girl and the horde of puppets, hands raised to ward them off. The next moment, the little beasts were upon me.

The first puppet leapt at my face, trilling out a shrill war cry as it came. Before it could slash its claws across my face, however, I snatched it out of the air by one of its arms. Whipping it about, I brought it around in time to smack into the next of the leaping devils. When they struck, they burst apart like miniature bombs, leaving behind nothing but wisps of black smoke. I didn’t even have time to celebrate before more were upon me.

Another puppet charged at my ankles, earning a kick from me that sent its head careening through the mob, taking out another two along its way. Yet another leapt toward my face, this time eliciting a head butt from me to splat it back to the ground. The reason for that was that my hands were already busy snatching a third one from my waist before throwing it hard against a nearby tree.

Even destroying five within moments, I did little to slow the advance of the horde. While I fought, the others swarmed around me, moving past me toward their original quarry. There were just too many to stop.

As I battered yet another to the ground, I glanced back over my shoulder to see the princess pressed up against a tree. She was surrounded on all sides by grinning little puppets, who were clacking their claws against one another, creating a terrifying din. All the poor girl could do in response was scream in terror.

“Go away! Leave her alone!” I yelled, desperate to save the girl. Even as I called out, I tore free of several of the puppets to try to dash over and help her.

The puppets around the princess scattered as I closed in, dashing off behind bushes and trees to evade my efforts to crush them. Much to my surprise none of the many behind me took the opportunity to slash me. In fact, when I spun back toward them, I found they had fled as well, vanishing into the dark forest like shadows chased away by a light.

“Thank you, your majesty!” the princess squealed happily from behind me, just before I felt her arms wrap tightly around me. “Thank you so –”

Suddenly, I jerked upright, wide awake. A damp chill coated me as I gasped for breath that seemed in very short supply. Even as I did, the memories of the terrified fight in the forest replayed through my thoughts. It had seemed so real, so true, and yet looking back it had clearly been a dream – an absurd one at that. At the same time, I felt so worn out that it seemed like I had really been in a fight with a horde of demonic puppets.

Sighing, I flopped back onto my sleeping bag and stared up at the ceiling. There was no strange silvery light this time. There was just the black of night and the very faint yellow of a streetlight bleeding through the blinds of one window. Everything was solid and normal again.

“What a dream … “ I breathed, memories of the dream still playing vividly in my head. If nothing else, it had definitely been intense, enough so for my heart to still be pounding. I was already starting to relax, though, as my body tried to draw me back to the sleep that it still needed. “At least I got to save the princess ...”

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Chapter 03 - Day 2

“Henry! The movers are here!” my mother’s voice called out from downstairs.

Pulled from sleep, I opened my eyes to the bright light of morning. Groaning, I reached up to rub at my eyes groggily as I fought off the sluggishness of sleep. It didn’t quite want to release its grip on me, though, leaving me feeling tired and stiff as I sat up.

“Be right there!” I yelled back to my mom to let her know that I was awake. That way, she’d be able to focus on directing the movers while I got up.

Rising from my sleeping bag, I quickly threw on the same clothes that I’d worn the day before. Undoubtedly, I was going to get very dirty today regardless, so there was little reason to bother with fresh attire. After I was dressed, I hurried off to the bathroom to relieve myself and grab a drink of water, all while thinking about my tasks for the day.

For the most part, the movers would be doing to real work, unloading all the furniture and boxes from their trucks. My mom would be busy directing them, making sure that everything went exactly where she wanted it. That left me in charge of the munchkins, and we had our own job to do. First, we had to get the camping gear that we’d used the night before out of the way. Then, I was supposed to help the two younger kids unpack their things and get it all properly put away in their rooms.

“Alright, time to go find the brats,” I mumbled to myself as I left the bathroom behind. A quick check showed neither were in their rooms, so I headed downstairs. Unsurprisingly, I found the pair out front watching the movers work. “Who told you two that you could stand around gawking?”

Greg looked over his shoulder at me in disdain. “No one tells me what to do.”

“Well, today they do,” I retorted commandingly. “Mom’s put me in charge while she’s working with the movers, and first order of business is to clean up. So back up to your rooms you two. Clean up your stuff and put it all in the closet so it’s not in the movers’ way.”

“Whatever,” Greg muttered, rolling his eyes as he started off toward the house.

Lindsey did not start moving so readily as she kept glancing back toward the truck which was packed with a jungle of furniture and boxes. The look on her face said she wanted to go play in that tangle. That was definitely not something I could let happen.

“Come on, Linds,” I instructed, walking up to put a hand on my sister’s shoulder and guide her back toward the house. “The sooner we finish, the sooner you can build a castle out of the empty boxes.”

Just the mention of getting to build a castle brought a bright smile to Lindsey’s face. “Really?”

I nodded in confirmation. “We’ve gotta hurry, though, because otherwise Mom is going to make us break down all the boxes as punishment.”

The smile on my sister’s face immediately swapped to a look of concern. “Then let’s go already!” she declared, grabbing my hand to drag me toward the house and the work that waited for us.

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“No! That one goes on the dresser!” my sister whined, glaring at me angrily as she pointed toward her dresser.

Rolling my eyes, I sighed out a little, “Alright dresser it is,” as I walked over to set the stuffed bear over on the dresser.

Even as I did as my sister asked, I couldn’t figure out what criteria Lindsey was using to decide which of her stuffed animals went where. They weren’t organized by type or size or color or anything else. Looking at them, they seemed to have just been tossed around haphazardly, and yet if one wasn’t in the right spot, my sister would immediately notice it. It was weird.

“Alright, that’s the last of the animals,” I declared as I returned to the box to find it empty. “Think you can handle putting away the clothes on your own?”

Lindsey nodded confidently. “Sure.”

“Alright, great. I’m gonna go check on Greg. Let me know if you need me again,” I told her.

“Bye!” Lindsey chirped as she hurried over to the next box she planned to unpack.

Letting out a weary sigh, I left my sister’s room behind to check on the next room over – my brother’s room. The door was closed, but I didn’t care about his privacy and just shoved it open without a knock. What waited for me on the other side was a room full of boxes that hadn’t been touched yet and my brother sitting on his bed’s bare mattress with the laptop.

“Hey!” Greg protested as I barged in. “Don’t you know how to knock?!”

“Don’t you know how to do what you’re told?!” I retorted. “You’re supposed to be unpacking, not watching movies.” To punctuate my point, I stomped over and snatched the laptop from the smaller boy.

“Give that back!” Greg growled, swiping at the laptop as I pulled it out of his reach.

Rolling my eyes, I shook my head at him. “Not happening, squirt. You’ve got work to do.”

“Screw that!” Greg spat. “Mom’s the one that wanted to move, not me. She can unpack everything.”

“So you’re not gonna do it then?” I questioned, setting up the trap.

“Nope,” Greg answered acerbically.

I shrugged. “Fine. Since you won’t do anything for Mom, then she shouldn’t have to do anything for you, like let you use her laptop. I’m sure Lindsey will be thrilled to get to watch some of her movies for a change.”

“What?! You can’t do that!” Greg whined.

“Sure, I can,” I declared as I folded up the laptop and stuffed it under one arm. “Watch.” With that, I turned and walked out, closing the door behind me. “Now, unpack!”

From within the room, I heard an aggravated huff from my brother, but I ignored it. It was just him throwing another tween temper tantrum like always, so he could pretend he was all rebellious and grown up. I didn’t have to patience to put up with that nonsense like our mother did.

“Hopefully, he’ll work now,” I muttered, before letting out a weary sigh. After all, I still had my own boxes to unpack, since I’d spent all morning helping Lindsey with hers. Being an adult sure was a pain.

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“Hey, Mom,” I greeted neutrally as I came into the kitchen.

My mother pulled her head up from being shoulder deep in one of the many box scattered about the room to smile wearily at me. “Hi, Henry. How’d things go with your brother and sister?”

“Linds was good. We got her all unpacked pretty early, so I let her play around with all the empty boxes,” I reported as I pulled the laptop out from underneath my arm. “Greg, though, was just watching movies, so I had to take this from him.”

“Alright,” my mom sighed as her shoulders slumped. “Just … uhm … set it on the table, I guess. I’ll talk to him about it later.”

Immediately, I did as asked, setting the laptop down. “My stuff is all unpacked as well, so I’m free to help down here if you need me.”

“Huh? Oh, no. That’s alright,” my mom mumbled distractedly.

“I really don’t mind,” I assured my mother in case that was her concern. After all, if I didn’t help her, she’d have to do like seven rooms worth of boxes all by herself.

My mom shook her head. “No, actually, we should probably go get something for dinner before I end up forgetting. Can you go up and get the other two for me? I want to finish this box before we go.”

“Sure thing, Mom,” I answered helpfully before turning to get started on the task.

Jogging up the steps, I stopped at Greg’s door. Before I knocked, I listened in to see if I could hear him unpacking. There wasn’t much noise, but I did hear a little scuffling. Figuring that would have to be good enough, I knocked, and called out, “Dinner time, squirt!”

The only response I got from Greg was some kind of mumble which I took to mean that he was coming. That freed me up to head next door in search of my sister. There was just one problem with that goal – her door was open, but the way through was blocked by a wall of cardboard boxes with only a small gap at the bottom to crawl through.

“Damn it, Linds,” I grumbled in annoyance. There was no way I was crawling into whatever tangled maze that girl had built. “Button!” I called out, using one of Lindsey’s nicknames. “Dinner time! Get out here!”

“As if I would fall for such an obvious trick! If you want me, you’ll have to come in and get me, ruffian!” Lindsey yelled back defiantly.

Rolling my eyes, I shook my head at the barrier of cardboard. “If I have to come in there and get you, I’m going to knock it all down and take it away.”

“You wouldn’t!” Lindsey gasped, sounding horrified at the idea of her castle being ruined.

“Try me!” I dared her as I reached out to rattle the precariously stacked boxes with one hand. “Better hurry!”

“Alright, alright! I’m coming!” Lindsey caved easily to the threat. Almost immediately, I heard some scuffling as the stack of boxes shook some more. A moment later, a blonde head poked its way out from the hole at the bottom of the stack.

Startled by the unexpected hair color, I fell back a step, blinking in surprise. In between blinks, the blonde disappeared, replaced by the normal brown of my little sister. The change was just in time for her to look up, peering at me in confusion.

“What’s wrong? Something on my face?” Lindsey asked, wiping a hand along her cheek.

“No … I uh … had something in my eye/,” I mumbled uncertainly while rubbing at my eyes with one hand. It had to have been something like that.

“Get it out?” Lindsey inquired as she scrambled to her feet.

I nodded. “Yeah, I think so. Now, let’s get going. I’m hungry.”

“Me too!” Lindsey chirped in response. “Hope we’re getting pizza.”

“Pizza, huh?” I mused as I started off toward the stairs, putting the weirdness behind me as I did. “Sounds good to me.”

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Chapter 04 - Night 2

“Here again?” I questioned the room as I peered at my surroundings.

Once again, I’d ‘woken’ to a room with purple, fleshy walls and strange silvery light that defied science. Looking at it for the second time, it struck me as more like the kind of lighting one would expect from a night scene in a movie. It was bright, omnipresent, and clearly artistic, designed to make everything in the world clear while still creating an ambience of night time.

There were differences to the room as well. Most noticeable was that it was no longer completely empty like it had been the night before. There was a bed, a dresser and a desk, all placed like they were in my real room. They were not my furniture, though. The bed was made of a red and white speckled mushroom with sheets laid on top of it. The desk had legs made from stacks of books and a surface that was a single giant book laid atop the smaller stacks. The dresser was the most normal looking of the three, but I could’ve sworn I heard a slurping sound come from that direction at one point when I’d been looking the other way.

As weird as the place was, it was weirder for me to be there. It wasn’t the first time that I’d had a dream that I was aware was a dream, but this didn’t quite feel like that. The place was more detailed, more … complete than I would have expected from a dream. Furthermore, there was no driving action to the dream. It seemed to just be there as if waiting for me to take the first step.

Shrugging, I turned toward the door. “The last dream wasn’t so bad.”

Outside, I once again was on the landing that mirrored the one in my home. Next to my room was my sister’s room, the one where I’d found the blonde princess only to have to save her from evil puppets. Thinking of that made me wonder if she was still there.

Deciding to check on the princess, I opened that door, only to find a wall of stone blocking my way. At the bottom of the wall was a small door made of wood that had been painted pink and bound with gold bands. Upon the door were flowing, white, cursive letters that proudly spelled out the name ‘Princess Lindsey,’ for all to see.

“Well unless there’s a bottle marked drink me around here, I’m not squeezing through that,” I joked as I looked at the door that was definitely too narrow for my shoulders to squeeze through. When no such bottle appeared to shrink me, I decided to just move on.

A moment later, I stood inside Greg’s room, glancing around with trepidation. It was far different from the room that I’d woken in. There was no clear silvery light, nor the vibrant purple walls. Instead it was a dark, muted room full of shadows and contrast. A pale light leaked from the window, creating a single keyhole of light in a room that was otherwise little more than vague shapes in the dark. Luckily, that little bit of light rested upon a lone figure.

The room’s occupant was a good looking, older teen with stylish hair and just a bit of scruff on his handsome face. He was dressed like he was ready for a arduous trip that involved braving a zombie apocalypse or some ancient tomb. There was dirt and grime on the clothes, as well as a few snags and tears – there were even a few blood stains in the mix. The bed that he slept upon was in no better shape than his clothes, a ratty, broken thing that looked neither comfortable nor clean.

In spite of the creepy appearance of the room, I drifted forward to get a closer look at the boy on the bed. Unlike the princess from the night before, there was no black mist around him, nor were there any signs of distress. He seemed to be sleeping quite peacefully.

Raising a hand, I glanced between it and the sleeping teen. If I touched him, would he wake up? Would I be sucked in, even though, there was no black mist? Would nothing happen at all?

“It’s just a dream,” I told myself as I reached forward.

From behind me, I heard a loud, throaty gurgled. Spinning around, I spotted a shambling figure moving through deep shadows cast by the combination of a setting sun and dilapidated buildings. In spite of its hobbling walk, the figure moved quite quickly, cutting across the shadow and into the orange light. Only then could I truly see it, the disgusting rotting flesh and tattered clothes.

“Get down, Greg!” a male voice shouted.

After that shout, there was more noise. I could faintly hear it in the background of my mind, but it didn’t register. All I could hear were those words in crystal clarity. Moving so slowly I felt like I was trapped in slow motion, I turned to the voice and just stared in stunned silence.

Standing there before me was a man, rifle in hand as he shot over the ducking form of the boy from the previous room. Like that boy, he was dressed for an apocalypse in tattered dirty clothes. He hadn’t shaved for days, and even had a belt of magazines thrown over his shoulder, but even in the strange attire it was still obviously him.

“Dad …” I breathed in absolute disbelief.

“Dad! Look!” the teen yelled to warn my father. “It’s Henry!”

A moment later, a new shambling figure approached. It was different from the first one, though, larger and faster. It had to be at least seven feet tall while also being broad and bulky. Every step it took caused an audible rumble as its great weight slammed into the ground beneath its feet. It certainly bore no resemblance to me.

“I’m sorry, son,” I heard my father say as he reached down to grab a grenade from his waist. Pulling the pin, he chucked it at the approaching hulk. The next thing I knew, the thing was engulfed in flames as it shrieked out in a tortured shrill voice.

Suddenly, I was once more in the dark brooding room, stumbling back from the sleeping teen. Even though it was a dream, I felt strangely out of breath in that moment, gasping for air as my heart raced in my chest. Only after several moments, did I finally start to calm down.

As my breathing slowed, I stared at the sleeping teen. In the scene before, my father had been there, and he’d called this boy Greg. For some reason, that hulking zombie had been called Henry. It didn’t make any sense. Why would I have a dream about something like that?

“Alright, no more touching people,” I told myself as I turned to leave the room.

Back out on the landing, I glanced toward the last of the bedroom doors. It belonged to my mother, and if the trend continued, there would be someone sleeping in there as well. I couldn’t help but wonder who it would be.

Passing through the door, I found a room that was more like the one that I’d started in, with the same fleshy purple walls and silver light. It even had a mushroom bed, though, unlike mine it was a canopy bed. It, and the other furniture as well, looked much nicer overall as well, obviously expensive even with their odd appearances.

A step later, I was by the bed, pulling back the curtain to see who slept there. Curled up on her side was a pretty, brunette woman in her early twenties with a faint smile on her sleeping face. Unlike the previous people, she was dressed more normally, wearing a fancy, silk nightgown to go with her soft, expensive sheets.

Drawn by the girl’s smile, I started to reach out, wondering what made her smile so. I managed to catch myself, though, yanking the hand back. “No touching,” I reminded myself. Whatever the woman was smiling about, I didn’t want to get dragged into it.

Even as I resolved myself to staying out of it, I struggled to take my gaze off the young woman. I just knew there was a whole world waiting for me if I just reached out my hand to her. I could see not just what made her smile so, but so much more.

Shaking my head, I forced myself away from the temptation. By the time I truly shook it off, I was already out on the landing with the door to that room closed behind me. Even then, I still felt an empty longing for what might’ve been.

“This is such a weird dream,” I mumbled as I started down the stairs to see what else waited for me in this fantastical place.

Like the upstairs, the downstairs of the house mirrored the lay out of my real home. At the same time, it held many of the same oddities as the bedrooms. The walls were fleshy and purple, the furniture was wacky, and the whole place was lit up like a movie set, allowing me to see with ease even in the dead of night.

For all of its oddity, there wasn’t really anything else within the house of interest. Room after room flitted by quickly with nothing grabbing my attention. As odd looking as it was, the place was just an empty house. If I wanted to find anything interesting, I’d have to try somewhere else.

After seemingly no time at all, my search of the house ended, and I found myself standing out on the porch looking out upon the neighborhood. Along a street seemingly paved with asparagus were the neat, little, tightly packed houses that I’d seen during the drive through the city, except they weren’t houses – at least not normal ones. Each was instead a giant vegetable that had been carved into to create windows and doors, making bizarre facsimiles of houses in the process. My own home was an eggplant, big, purple and plump. Another was a potato, lumpy and speckled with dirt. Yet another was a head of lettuce, wet and glistening in the light. I even saw a few broccoli houses in the mix. Altogether, it made for a scene that looked more like a produce store aisle than a neighborhood in Queens.

Even as my eyes widened with wonder, they roamed further, lifting up into the night sky above me. There I saw a moon so huge and bright, it seemed to take up a whole quarter of the sky. In spite of that, all the stars could still be seen, twinkling brilliantly against the pitch black blanket of space. At the same time, silver clouds drifted along the sky, dancing with shadowy shapes that flew amongst them.

“Wow …” I breathed in disbelief at the panorama that lay before me. It was so beautiful that it made my heart ache – like a masterful painting that I wished could be real.

Suddenly, my eyes were opening, groggily peering into the dark of my rather normal looking room. The ache in my heart followed me into consciousness, filling me with a feeling of wistfulness for the fading dream. Reality just couldn’t compare with that magnificent vista.

“Maybe, I’ll get the same dream again,” I mumbled as I rolled over and closed my eyes. I knew that it was very unlikely, but what were dreams for if not wishful thinking.

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Chapter 05 - Day 3

Groggily, I cracked my eyes opened and for a moment, I swore that I saw purple on the walls of my room. Jerking upright, I yanked my eyes wide, only to be met with the usual pale blue color lit by the faint light of the morning sun that drifted through my window. The dream was gone.

While I might have woken, visions of what I’d seen the night before danced within my thoughts, filling me with longing. I wanted so badly to just lay back down and sleep again, hoping for another such dream. It hadn’t worked in the middle of the night, though, and I’d actually been tired enough to sleep then. Now, I was fully awake, ready to get up and start the day. It was such a disappointment.

“Maybe tonight,” I sighed as I slid out of bed and got started on my morning. Even with stuff to do, I couldn’t shake that dream, though. I thought about it on the toilet, I thought about it in the shower, and I was still thinking about it as I went downstairs to find some breakfast.

“Morning, Henry,” my mom’s voice greeted me as I walked into the kitchen.

Distractedly, I looked up to greet her, only to freeze where I was and stare. My mom was at the counter, unpacking a few of the remaining boxes for the kitchen that she hadn’t gotten to the night before. That was all very ordinary. What wasn’t, was what my mother looked like.

There seemed to be two women standing in the same place, like I’d unfocused my eyes and each was sending a different image to my brain. The more solid of the two was the mother that I’d known for years, a tired, slightly heavy, brown-haired woman of forty-one. Overlaid upon that image, though, was the ephemeral shape of the pretty, young brunette that I’d seen sleeping in my dream.

“What?” my mother questioned, peering at me in confusion. At the same time, the other woman mirrored that action, giving me her own version of the bemused look.

Like when I’d seen blonde hair on my sister the day before, I blinked in surprise at the sight, but this time, it didn’t fade away. The twin images just remained there, their confused looks starting to shift toward concern. It had to be some kind of hallucination.

“Is something wrong?” my mother asked worriedly.

Still staring, I managed to shake my head. What else could I do? It wasn’t like I could tell my mom that I was seeing some strange hallucinatory version of her from my dream. She’d think I was nuts.

“No … I … uhm … thought I saw something … on the wall …” I lied awkwardly, forcing myself to look away from the strange illusion.

Used to reading her kids, my mom peered at me suspiciously. “You sure you’re okay.”

“Yeah. Of course,” I reassured her, trying to sound confident about it. That wasn’t exactly easy to do with evidence of my apparent insanity looking right at me.

“Alright …” my mother conceded. “Anyway, I’m going grocery shopping in a little bit so we can stop relying on the gas station’s selection, travel snacks, and fast food. Can you handle the cable guy if he comes while I’m gone?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Thanks,” my mom replied before getting back to unpacking her box.

With the conversation ended, I turned around and walked right back out of the room, appetite completely forgotten. I was far more concerned about the strange hallucinations, specifically if it was just my mom or everyone. As such, I ran right back upstairs in search of one of my younger siblings.

Once I got up there, I glanced between the two options available to me. My sisters door was still blocked by boxes, meaning I’d have to get her to come out. My brother’s door however was closed, and there was also a decent chance that he hadn’t gotten up yet. He’d been sleeping in later and later with every passing day.

Deciding to go with the one that was less of a brat, I went to my sister’s room and rapped on the boxes a little. “Linds, you in there?”

“Yeah!” my little sister called out from inside.

“Mind coming out real quick?” I asked.

“Why?!” Lindsey questioned.

The question stumped me for a moment before I answered. “I want to see if you’ve gotten any more princess like … y’know since you have a castle now.” It wasn’t really a lie, after all.

Immediately, I heard scurrying from inside followed quickly by a head poking out through the gap in the boxes. Just like with my mother, there were two images before me. One was blonde and the other brunette.

As I looked at the dual images in shock, my sister scrambled to her feet and looked up at me with a grin on her face. This only made the dual images more discombobulating for me as the blonde princess was a great deal bigger than my little sister. It was hard for me to look my sister in the eye when doing so put my gaze right about chest level with a pretty girl.

“I was thinking that I might’ve gotten a little taller,” my sister declared, still caught up in the idea that her appearance had changed in some positive way just from having a castle of cardboard boxes.

“Huh … oh … yeah … maybe,” I mumbled distractedly. “You do look a little more mature.”

“I’m gonna go measure myself!” my sister announced before racing off. By the time she got to the bottom of the steps, she was already yelling for our mother to find a tape measure.

Meanwhile, I just stood where I was, trying to wrap my head around the visions that I was seeing. I could remember both alternate versions of my family members from my dreams the last couple of nights. I’d never seen something from a dream while I was awake before, though.

“Maybe I just didn’t get enough sleep last night,” I hoped as I turned toward my room to go lie down.

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In front of me I heard the clicks and scrapes that came from the cable guy working. He’d been at it for a little while now, getting everything properly installed so that we could have TV and internet. That alone was enough to make it a big deal to my younger siblings, but there was something else about it that was making it a big deal to me.

Like my mother and sister, the cable guy had the nearly transparent image of another person hanging over him. However, it wasn’t of someone that I’d seen in my dreams before like the other two. Instead, it was an entirely new hallucination.

The real cable guy was a rather average looking guy. He was a bit husky with a scruffy beard and a long ponytail. The illusory one, though, was rather suave with dignified features and crisp, well-maintained look to him that spoke of class and intelligence. Something about him also made me think that he was british or at least would pretentiously affect such an accent.

“Is everyone like this?” I mumbled to myself as I rubbed at my chin thoughtfully. It certainly seemed like that was going to be the case.

“You say something?” the cable guy asked, looking up from his work.

I shook my head. “No, just uh … thinking about what I want to watch first.”

“Can’t help you there, man. I don’t really watch much TV, myself,” the cable guy replied as he got back to his work.

“Really?” I asked. “I mean … you work for the cable company. Don’t they give you it all for free?”

The cable guy shrugged. “Just prefer something with more depth than the kind of stuff they put on the airwaves. Occasionally, a good independant film gets enough notice from the masses to get on one of the movie channels, but that’s about it really.”

“Right …” I agreed uncertainly.

Hearing the man talk had only disconcerted me further. While he didn’t have a british accent, everything that he’d said sounded like something the illusory version of himself might say. That didn’t seem like it could be possible, though. I’d certainly never met the guy before, and he didn't look like an intellectual snob in real life, only his illusory self did. There was no way that I could have created a delusion that actually matched him like that. Clearly there was more going on here than I’d thought. I had a feeling that I was going to have to go back to that dream again to figure out exactly what, though. I only wished that I could do so right away.

Suddenly, my head jerked upright as if I’d been starting to nod off but caught myself before I could truly fall asleep. At the same time, the reality that waited for me when I looked around seemed to belie that sensation. Clearly, I must have fallen asleep.

The room I was in had been replaced by the purple fleshy walls of the eggplant, dream house. It was different than usual, though, lit by warm golden light that was soft and pleasing to the eye. That wasn’t the only difference either. The living room, previously lacking in people now had a person in it, the suave, intellectual snob form of the cable guy. There was no sign of his real identity, though. Strangely, he was still installing the cable, even in the dream.

“I’m actually back,” I breathed in disbelief as I rose from my seat. “But how? I could’ve sworn I was focused, and I wasn’t tired … was I?”

No answers came, not even from the snobby cable man. In fact, he didn’t even seem to hear me. Instead, he just kept at his work as if I wasn’t there at all.

Perplexed, I stepped forward, intending to tap the man on the shoulder to get his attention. A moment later, I was across the room, starting to reach for him when my mind finally managed to warn me to pull back. Touching people in this world had not worked out like I would’ve expected in the past.

“How do I get his attention then?” I mused, peering at the man.

Even as I pondered that question, the man straightened up and turned toward me. At first, I thought that he’d finally heard me speak, but his eyes didn’t focus on me, but on something behind me. A moment later, I got further proof that he couldn’t see me when he took a step forward, coming right at me.

Surprised, I darted out of the way, barely getting to the side before the man plowed through where I’d been standing. As I caught my balance, he didn’t even slow, just kept right on walking across the room. When he got to the couch, he reached out with a hand …

“Hey, kid,” I heard the cable guy call out, as something shook my shoulder. “You fell asleep.”

Suddenly, my eyes were popping open and the dreamworld was gone. Standing in front of me was the cable guy with the illusory snob hovering over him. Leaned forward, his hand was on my shoulder, clearly in the act of waking me up.

“Oh … sorry …” I mumbled groggily as my body struggled to fully wake back up.

“No problem,” the cable guy told me. “I got you all hooked up, and everything tested fine, so you should be good to go.”

I nodded along with the information. “Alright. Thanks. Need anything else from me?”

“Nope, you’re good,” the cable guy assured me. “I’ll go ahead and let myself out.”

Not bothering to say anything else, I just gave the man another nod to show that I’d heard him. I was too distracted by the brief dream to give him any more thought than that. I wasn’t even sure if I could call it a dream, since the action had so perfectly mirrored reality. What I was sure of was that it had given me no answers and even more questions – questions that would have to wait for the next time I found myself in that place to get answers.

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Chapter 06 - Night 3

The silvery light of that gigantic moon dominated the night sky above me. Beside it, the stars twinkled and danced like happy fireflies, never quite staying still. Below, the suburb of vegetable houses bathed in the heavenly brilliance, seeming almost an offering to the god of the moon.

From where I stood on the porch of my eggplant home, I could do little besides stare at the fabulous tableau before me. It had overtaken me the moment that I’d stepped from my house, stripping away my reason as punishment for daring to step out into the world. In its place was only rapture.

It took several long moments, but eventually a stray thought managed to stick in my head, reminding me that I wasn’t here to sightsee. I needed information – information that I would only be able to get in the dream world. Since I didn’t know how long I’d be able to stay this time, I couldn’t afford to waste time just standing there, looking at the world no matter how beautiful it might be.

Prying my gaze away from the sight, I shook my head to clear my thoughts and try to rattle them back on track. Once they were, I lifted my head to look first left then right down the road. I needed information but neither way seemed more likely to give it to me than the other.

“Your majesty!” a male voice gasped from my left.

Surprised by the sound, I spun back that way. What awaited me there was even more surprising than the noise. Kneeling on the ground before me was a boy in his late teens wearing nothing but a black speedo. He was handsome with a toned swimmer’s build, long blonde hair, and boyish features. I barely noticed that, though. I was too focused on the little black horns sprouting from his temples, and the matchings wings and spade-tipped tail that he had thrusting from his back.

While I stared the boy remained where he was. He was not only on his knees, but had his head bent forward almost as if he was praying to me. There was no movement outside of his breathing, nor any attempt to say more.

“I … uhm … you may rise,” I commanded uncertainly, my mind awhirl at this new oddity.

It wasn’t just the boy’s demonic look that was confusing me. The fact that he was talking to me was confusing as well. The cable guy had been unable to see or hear me. The only other person to speak to me had been the princess, and that had only been after I’d touched her and gotten pulled into the black mist. Before that, she’d just been sound asleep, not even rousing when I called out to her.

“Thank you, your majesty,” the boy replied, getting his feet back under him. He still did not lift his eyes, though, keeping them carefully on the ground.

“Why do people keep saying that?” I blurted unconsciously at the strange form address that people kept using for me in this world.

Recoiling slightly, the boy’s face scrunched up in worry. “My apologies, your majesty, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“What?!” I gasped in confusion at the reply. “You didn’t upset me. I just want to know why people keep calling me your majesty.”

“How else should one address his queen, your majesty?” the boy questioned.

“Queen? I’m no–” I started to speak, but the voice that made the words was not my own. At the same time, I was suddenly acutely aware of my body, and how very different it was from the one that I knew. Thoroughly bewildered, all I could do was look down.

The body that I apparently now possessed definitely fit the title of queen. For one, it was female, a fact that was very obvious thanks to a pair of a huge breasts which were on display in an elegant, but low cut, pale green gown with a rather renaissance styling to it. There was even a slim sword belted around my waist with a golden, basket hilt, and I could feel the cool weight of something metal resting upon my brow.

As strange as suddenly being female was, it was, unfortunately, the normal part. A red fox tail swished across my butt in agitation, while a pair of white feathered wings thrust out from my back, and there was even long, pale green hair spilling over my shoulders. I was clearly not human any longer.

This whole situation was just too weird. I couldn’t remember ever having a dream where I was a completely different person, and certainly not a girl. Why would I suddenly be some strange, inhuman queen?

“Your majesty?” the boy inquired timidly.

The words penetrated my thoughts enough to get me to look up at the boy, but it did not alleviate my shock. Even without looking, I could still feel the unfamiliar body as it produced sensations that I were beyond foreign to me. How could I possibly know what it felt like to wag a tail or spread wings or even have my chest jiggle? In spite of that, I could feel all of that and more in the dream.

“Sorry, I … “ I trailed off, unsure of what I could even say to explain my situation. At the same time I wondered if I even should. It was just a dream, after all – a strangely persistent one that returned night after night ...

“Are you alright, your majesty?” the boy’s concerned voice cut into my thoughts.

Returning my focus to the boy, I nodded quickly. “Yes, just scatterbrained tonight. Could you answer a few more questions for me?”

“Of course, your majesty,” the boy agreed graciously, adopting an easy smile.

“Could you tell me what I’m queen of?” I asked.

“Of dreams, of course,” the boy responded matter-of-factly.

Given my situation, that answer didn’t surprise me. What else could one be queen of in a dream besides the dream itself. It also likely meant that the beautiful world around me was supposed to be dreamland, and it certainly fit that description.

“Of course,” I agreed with the boy as if I’d known that answer all along. “Now, this will seem odd, but do I have a … name? Y’know, besides ‘Queen of Dreams’.”

Furrowing his brow, the boy gave me a quizzical look. “Are you sure you’re alright, your majesty?”

“Oh, yes,” I assured him. “Like, I said, just scatterbrained tonight.”

“Forgive my impertinence, your majesty, but your brain would have to be awfully scattered to forget something like your own name,” the boy remarked.

“And it is,” I told him. “More scattered than you would believe.”

Oddly enough, the boy seemed to accept that answer, nodding nonchalantly. “Very well, your name is Alaria Amenia Anastasia Tsaren … the First of course.”

“That’s quite the mouthful. No wonder I forgot it,” I joked, eliciting a polite laugh from the boy. “Thank you for reminding me of it.”

The boy dipped into a low bow. “It was my pleasure, your majesty. Do you require my services further?”

While I certainly had plenty more questions to ask, I wondered if I hadn’t asked this one boy enough. I had already given him more than enough reason to worry about me, and I didn’t really want to find out if dreamland had insane asylums. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck in a nightmare like that.

“No. Thank you again,” I replied, letting the boy go.

“Good night, your majesty,” the boy said, giving me a polite nod before he walked past me and continued on down the sidewalk.

I was just about to start off the other way when a curiosity popped into my head that just had to be indulged. “Hey, boy,” I called, turning toward the strange young man. “One last thing. Where are you going?”

The boy stopped and turned to answer me. “Just down the street, your majesty. There’s a young woman there that is just starting to dream about her crush at school. It should be a most delectable meal.”

As is often the way with curiosity, the answer to my question had served only to drive me into wanting to know more. What was the demon boy eating, the dream or the girl? Would either be harmed by this? Was that how he sustained himself in this world? I believe I’d heard once that succubuses fed on the eroticisms of men, so maybe he was the boy version of that, an … incubus I think they were called. So many questions, but I had said the boy could go.

“Thank you. Good night,” I told the boy, letting him get back to his meal. It was a little disappointing, but I had other more important questions to find answers to than ones related to the random demon boy. A glance down was more than enough to prove that fact.

Taking a moment, I gathered up what I knew so far. It wasn’t much, but the one thing I had to go on was that I was supposedly the queen of this dream world. Everyone that had spoken to me here had recognized me as such and acted with the deference that title would warrant. That didn’t explain why I could see the characters from the dream in the real world, though. It also didn’t explain how things worked in this world. However, it seemed likely that, if I could find more people like the demon boy, I could ask them about those very things.

“Alright, I’m a queen, so I must have servants or subjects or something around,” I mused, looking down the street in either direction. “Maybe in like a castle or …”

A twinkle out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. At first, I assumed it must have been one of the brilliant stars, but when I looked up, my jaw nearly dropped. Floating there atop the silvery pillow of a cloud sat a castle that sparkled and glistened in the brilliant light of the stars and moon. It was like something out of a fairy tale, all graceful minarets,graceful arches, and elegant towers that created a dynamic silhouette against the night sky. All of it was made of white stone adorned with gold and silver that intertwined like woven threads. There were even little lights within, soft, incandescent glows that mingled with the light of the sky to illuminate the entire structure beautifully.

The next thing I knew, my eyes were opening, replacing the stunning castle with the dark of my bedroom. The loss of that vision was palpable, leaving me feeling strangely empty and lost as I lolled my head to the side and sighed. In that moment, I desperately wanted to go back there right away, to see it all again, to never let it be taken away. Toward that end, I rolled over, trying to get back to the dream, but that very desire seemed to keep it at bay.

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Chapter 07 - Day 4

The blue walls of my room greeted me in the morning light, unwanted and despised. I had never managed to get back to the dream, to the floating castle in the sky that had so tantalized me. Even now, the idea of exploring it thrilled me, but rather than guide me back to sleep, it only woke me further, taking away the last edge of grogginess from my thoughts.

“Ugh … damn it,” I groaned, truly not wanting to get up. I did so anyway, though, rubbing at my face as I sat up.

At the same time, I remained filled with frustration. My time within the dream had been so short, and I’d learned so little - just a name and a title. There was still no explanation for why the dream bled into the real world, nor any clue how to make it stop. There wasn’t even an indication of how I could go about getting back to the dream to find out. The times when I went there seemed to be so random and brief.

“Maybe I should make a pl … an …” I began to reason, only to have the thought snatched from me as I happened to look down.

Thrusting from my chest was the same expansive cleavage that I’d sported briefly in my dream the night before. It wasn’t solid, though, having the same translucent ephemeralism as the images that I’d seen overlayed over people the day before. Beneath it was my usual chest, covered by my usual t-shirt.

Involuntarily, I reached up, trying to touch the mounds on my chest. That caused my vision only to diverge further as my real hand passed right through the illusion, but my illusory one cupped the globe. At the same time, there seemed to be a slight tightness in my chest, almost as if I could feel the illusory hand there.

Jerking my hand away, I shook my head as if that would clear the hallucination from my sight. Rather than do that, though, it just sent long strands of diaphanous, green hair fluttering about my face. Apparently, the vision wouldn’t be chased away so easily.

“Great, it’s getting worse,” I grumbled, sighing in annoyance. It wasn’t just the nuisance of seeing a dream-queen when I looked down that bothered me either. The really troubling thing was that I’d learned about that aspect of myself the night before, and it had appeared this morning. Such a coincidence was hard to ignore. It might well mean that, rather than finding a way to end the hallucinations, learning more about the dream might actually make things worse.

Lifting my gaze again, I looked around at my room. There was no sign of the purple walls or unusual furnishings that characterized the house in my dreams. That served as proof that not everything would seep over, at least not immediately. How long would that last, though?

“Maybe I should just see a shrink …” I muttered, not liking the idea at all. Who knew what they might do to me to try, to ‘help’ me. Having read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in school, I doubted that it would be anything good.

Resolving to deal with the situation myself, I decided it would be best to just put up with the hallucinations for now. I could still see the real people underneath them, so it wasn’t like they were in my way. Worrying about them would only make it harder for me to focus on figuring out how to get rid of them.

As I hopped out of bed, I got the first indication of just how difficult it was going to be to focus for the foreseeable future. On the edge of my vision I caught movement which drew my gaze down to my chest just in time to watch my illusory assets bob with my movements. It was rather mesmerizing, leaving me just staring at them even after they’d settled into the gentle rise and fall of my breathing.

The sound of my sister scampering down the hall snapped me from my stare. My eyes immediately jerked up as my face warmed. Even if they were my own imaginary boobs, the idea of getting caught staring at them was still embarrassing.

Fortunately, my sister just raced right by my room, not even glancing in through the cracked door. That had me slumping in relief, but also warning myself to not get too enraptured with what I could see. I had to focus on my plans for the next time I found myself in that dream.

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“I think that should do it,” I critiqued as I wrote one final line on the piece of paper in front of me.

The paper was something that I’d been working on for quite a while by that point, a list of what I should do the next time that I found myself in the dream world. It was something of a mess, including erase smudges, crossed off entries, and arrow insertions to accommodate the various ideas that had come to me that morning. In spite of that, I was rather confident that I had gotten the list to a place where it would keep me from wasting my limited time in that place.

“If these work anyway,” I remarked, glancing at the downy, feathers of the illusory wings that extended from my back. Theoretically, they would allow me to fly in the dream which would in turn allow me to reach the castle in the sky. If they didn’t, though, I would have to find another way up there, which would undoubtedly take a lot of time. Annoyingly, I didn’t seem to be able to test my flight capabilities while awake, because, try as I might, I couldn’t get the phantom wings to spread.

Frowning, I turned back to the paper, wondering if I shouldn’t make a second list for if the wings failed me. The only real idea I had, though, was to wonder around looking for something that could fly or someone to ask about it. That wasn’t so much a list as it was a desperate hope.

Out of nowhere, a shrill shriek pierced through the house, and my eardrums with it. Cringing in pain at the keening sound, I turned from the paper at my desk and shoved myself from my seat. The only thing that could cause that noise was my brother tormenting my little sister.

“Such babies,” I grumbled as I stomped across my room and burst out into the hall. Even as I moved, the scream continued unabated, long and loud. There was no sign of my mom coming to the rescue, which meant it was my job to put a stop to it.

A few steps down the hall brought me to the origin of the racket, Lindsey’s room. The wall of boxes that she’d built had been knocked over and she and Greg were sitting on her bed, both still overlaid with illusions of their dream characters. The latter, with a smile on his face, had the former trapped in a hold, keeping her on his lap and faced toward the laptop on the bed in front of them while she screamed and flailed.

“Greg! Let her go!” I growled angrily as I stalked into the room.

The smile vanished from Greg’s face at the sound of my voice. Instantly, he looked up toward me, loosening his grip on our sister in the process. Not wasting the opportunity, Lindsey squirmed free and darted away with tears in her eyes.

Seeing his quarry escape, Greg leveled a glare at me. “What do you want?”

“I want you to grow the fuck up, Greg, instead of picking on little girls for fun!” I retorted as I returned the glare.

Greg snorted derisively. “Yeah, like you’re so damn mature, ‘big brother’. What, think that just because Dad’s gone that you’re the man of the house now?”

My fists involuntarily clenched at my sides at that comment. It wouldn’t have been the first time one of us had taken a swing at the other, and it wasn’t like I’d lose. I might get in trouble, but who cared about that. Greg deserved it. My mom didn’t deserve to have to deal with it, though.

“You’re such a child,” I huffed, holding my rage in check long enough to spin away and storm out of the room.

“Yeah, well, so are you!” Greg yelled at my back.

In spite of my desire to be mature, my eye twitched slightly at the lame come back, and I felt a real urge to go back and beat the crap out of Greg, but I kept moving. One of us had to be the mature one, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Greg. Besides, I had to go find Lindsey and calm her down after whatever the hell Greg had done to her.

Finding my sister wasn’t a difficult task. She basically only hid in three possible places when she was upset. One was under her bed, two was in my mother’s closet, and three was in my mother’s arms. If mom hadn’t come running at the scream, that meant she wasn’t home, and she’d run away from her bed, so I was not at all surprised to find her curled up in my mother’s walk-in closet, hiding under a rack of coats and dresses.

“Hey, Button,” I greeted as I poked my head into the closet.

“Leave me alone!” Lindsey whined, burying her head further into her knees as if not seeing me would make me go away.

Rolling my eyes, I moved all the way inside and leaned over to look at her. “Well, I’d love to, but I really need to talk to someone about how much of a poopyhead Greg is. Who else can I do that with except for you?”

“He’s the poopiest,” Lindsey mumbled without looking up.

“Really? What did he do to get that inauspicious title?” I asked as I sat down on the floor.

Keeping her face buried in her kness, Lindsey burst into a rant on my brother’s qualifications for most poopy of heads. “He knocked over my castle! And then, he made me watch some more of that puppet thing, except this time there were dozens of them! Then, when I tried to leave, he grabbed me and forced me to look at it!”

By the end of her tirade, my sister had once more dissolved into sobs. I wasn’t too happy either, because her crying forced me to burrow my way through the clothes to get to her. Once I did, I wrapped an arm around her, doing my best to emulate my mother’s patented, comforting, back rub.

“You’re right, he is the poopiest,” I agreed. “No wonder he stinks so much.”

One of Lindsey’s sobs mingled with a giggle at the lame joke. “Yeah. He’s the stinkiest too.”

“For sure,” I concurred. “He’s also the crabbiest.”

“And the meanest,” Lindsey continued, finally lifting her head from her knees.

“And the dumbest,” I added.

“And the babiest,” Lindsey furthered.

It may not have been a real world, but that didn’t keep me from laughing at the rather fitting insult that my sister had concocted. “Totally. That’s why you can’t let him get to you like this. You’re a big girl, but he’s just a big baby.”

“But he’s always picking on me!” Lindsey whined.

“Yeah, well, I’m gonna talk to mom and see if she and I can’t do something about that,” I told her. “He’ll probably find it a lot harder to pick on you if he can’t leave his room.”

“Pro’bly,” my sister agreed, actually cracking a smile.

I smiled as well, glad to see her over Greg’s most recent torment. “But first, why don’t you and I go rebuild your castle? A princess has to have a castle.”

“Yeah!” Lindsey cheered excitedly.

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Chapter 08 - Night 4

Floating in the night sky, the cloud castle sparkled, eliciting dreams of majesty and adventure. There was no way to know what awaited up there: fantastical treasure, a great beast, some glittering court, or some daunting mystery. It could be any of those things or none of them or even all of them at once. The possibilities of it had my heart beating in my chest, eager for the journey ahead.

“Alright wings, time to do your thing,” I remarked as I pulled my gaze from the castle above to the wings behind my back. All of my plans rested on them and their ability to take me soaring through the skies.

Concentrating, I rolled my shoulders to try to loosen up and get a feel for the wings on my back. I could feel them shift and move with the motion, seeming to twitch in anticipation of the flight ahead. Whatever eagerness they had, it mirrored my own, so I didn’t delay for long before trying to spread them.

Unlike in the waking world where I could only see the wings, here in the dream world, they answered my desires. Muscles moved as soft white feathers unfurled, spreading out from my back into two graceful arches. Extended, they seemed much larger than they had while folded on my back, stretching out quite far to either side. They also glowed faintly with a soft golden light while leaking little motes of starlight from the tips of the feathers like some mystical faerie dust.

As my wings reached their full extension, I paused once more, taking one single moment to gather myself as I looked at the beautiful wings. I only gave myself that one moment, though, before I moved on. A short hop took me into the air as my wings beat. The first powerful thrust held me in the air. The second started me on my path to the stars above, driving me up and forward in a graceful arc toward the heavens.

Flying was like nothing I had ever felt before. Certainly it was incomparable to the pitiful variation that an airplane provided. It was more akin to what it’s like on a motorboat, skipping across the waves. I could feel the wind as it ran through my feathers and hair, the subtle shifts in my flight from the air currents, the slight jerk and twist caused by every beat of my wings. It was an amazing mix of thrill and sensation that made every turn or spin, and every dip and dive, into an exhilarating rollercoaster without any rails to pen me in.

Lost in the moment, I played around in the sky, looping and twisting all over in the brilliant light of the moon. I might have continued just like that until my time in the dream ended, if not for one dizzying climb taking me up through a cloud. When I burst free of the damp gray and back into the open air, my flight slowed, drifting to a lazy hover as my thoughts were taken elsewhere.

The source of my distraction floated only a couple dozen meters in front of me – the castle in the clouds. From the ground, I had not been able to grasp the scope of its size and grandeur. It was massive, towering over me like some great New York skyscraper, except it wasn’t cold glass and steel, but shining silver and gold. The side nearest to me was an open courtyard paved in cobblestone that just faded away at the edge of the cloud. In the center of the courtyard was a series of elegant fountains, shooting water into the air in an endless waltz that never seemed to take the exact same step twice. When the water splashed back down, it flowed off into little canals built into the stone, creating a mosaic of water and stone that sparkled in the moonlight.

“Well, I guess I should land,” I mused, letting myself dip down to gain some speed before swooping over to the courtyard.

As I reached the castle’s cloud, I shifted my wings around to slow my descent. A moment later, I landed lightly on the cobblestones which were just as solid as they looked in spite of their floating on a cloud. The boots I wore in the dream even clicked softly on them.

Marveling at my surroundings, I slowly stepped forward while folding my wings back behind me. Now that I was standing amidst it, could feel its solidity under my feet, the castle seemed all the more wonderful. It lent the whole place a realism that made me doubt that I was actually in the middle of a dream.

It was just as I was moving past the fountain that suddenly a loud bang sounded through the courtyard. I had just enough time to look toward the castle to see a pair of large, double doors that were set into the wall fling open as a man rushed through them. He was an odd looking man to say the least, dressed in a long flowing robe and sporting the face of clock. In the place of eyes, he had the images of a sun and a moon that he seemed to be able to see out of and the hands of the clock, combined with their hub served as a nose and mustache. From his neck swung a great pendulum that resembled a necktie that bobbed and forth with perfect precision no matter how he moved about. I could even hear him faintly ticking.

“Your majesty!” the clock bellowed out as he rushed toward me, sounding for all the world like he was chiming out the stroke of twelve. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”

“You have?” I questioned, unsure what to do with that claim. There certainly hadn’t been any indication that anyone was looking for me. Then again, he was a clock, so perhaps he had no way to get down to the ground, or no reason to think I was down there to begin with. The castle was quite large as well, so he might have not even finished searching there for me. There were all manner of explanations, each of them reasonable.

In spite of being a clock, the man still managed to nod, though, how that worked without a proper neck I couldn’t quite figure out. “Indeed, I have, your majesty. There are people here to see you, papers that need to be signed, accounts that must be accounted for, writs that must be written, addresses to be addressed …”

Getting the impression that he would go on until stopped, I held up a hand to put an end to the increasingly absurd sounding list. “That’s enough. I get your point. Unfortunately, I’m very busy at the moment, so it will just have to wait.”

“But your majesty, it can’t!” the clock protested. “The Great Wizard of Rook claims that without your magical expertise a horrid calamity will undoubtedly befall the land, and –”

“Wait, the great wizard wants my magical expertise?” I questioned, pointing at myself.

The clock nodded. “Yes, your majesty. You are the most powerful sorceress in the land, after all.”

“Right … of course …” I mumbled, quite intrigued by this new bit of information. I’d always wondered what it would be like to wield magic, and apparently, now I could. I wondered how it worked. Did I just need to imagine what I wanted, or wave a hand, or chant some sort of mystical rhyme?

“Of course, his majesty, King Jack, believes that you are not fit to handle the calamity at all and should abdicate your throne to him,” the clock continued on. “He’s challenged you to a duel for the throne.”

Snapped from thoughts of mystical power, I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Who’s challenging me for what now?”

“King Jack of the Lonely Hearts as challenged you for the crown,” the clock reiterated. “In fact, he’s waiting in the throne room as we speak, denouncing your ability both as a queen and as a swordswoman.”

“What? Why?!” I demanded, thoroughly confused as to how someone I had never met could be disparaging me in such a manner.

“Well, I can’t know for sure, but likely it has to do with your siding with his wife against him in the divorce,” the clock explained. “He was most cross that she kept the lion’s share of the responsibilities when it came to matters of the heart.”

Hearing that had me blinking in surprise. “When I sided with his wife? Me?”

“Yes, your majesty,” the clock confirmed before tilting his head slightly. “Forgive my asking, but is something wrong, your majesty?”

“Huh? Oh … no, just a little scatterbrained tonight,” I told him, using the same excuse I had for the demon boy. It had worked then after all. “I had a lot to worry about even before I … returned here.”

“My apologies, your majesty. I should have known,” the clock apologized, bowing deeply.

Not wanting to stay on that topic, I waved off the apology. “It’s alright. Just lead me to the throne room. I’ll handle Jack first.”

“Yes, your majesty,” the clock acquiesced, adding another quick bow before straightening up, spinning on his … odd, wooden, peg-like feet, and starting off at a brisk clip.

Falling into step behind him, I let the clock lead me into the castle, all the while marvelling at the things I saw. It was like the interior and exterior of the castle were in an endless struggle over which was more impressive, and neither would give an inch. As such, the inside of the castle was all grand halls, full of columns and arches. Rich carpets and tapestries adorned the floor and walls interspersed with masterful paintings and flawless statuary. There were even grand crystal chandeliers and flawless patterns of gold and silver set right into the stone.

As spectacular as all of that was, it still failed to prepare me for the splendor that awaited me when I stepped into the throne room. Having seen the castle from the outside, the throne room seemed to actually be impossible. There was just too much space inside, sporting a ceiling several stories high, and a huge open expanse of marble floor that was somehow all filled with people. Not a single person among the crowd seemed to be human either. The closet appeared to be elfin in nature, and the most strange was some manner of giant fur covered, dragon-thing that was curled up in one corner making small talk with what I was pretty sure was a mouse in a musketeers outfit that stood upon the beast’s snout. It was hard to tell from so far away, though.

When I entered the room, a hush fell upon the crowd, leaving not even the whisper of a draft to disturb the perfect still. I wished there was such a whisper, because within that still, every single eye was focused on me, and for some of those in that room that was a great many eyes indeed. Without such a whisper, I was locked in the crowd’s gaze, petrified as surely as if I’d stumbled upon a medusa and been turned to stone.

For as long and hard as the stare felt, it ended in the briefest of moments. The silence vanished as well, replaced by the general rumble of an entire crowd of beings dropping to whatever they had that constituted a knee, before once again silence reigned in the room. It was enough to make the floor shudder beneath my feet, and my throat quiver around a lump that threatened to choke me with anxiety.

“Well, well, well,” a male voice, loud and mocking broke the silence. “How good of you to finally grace us with your presence, Alaria.”

Drawn by the sound of the voice, my gaze shifted to the far end of the room. There, at the end of a great red carpet sat a dais, and upon that dais sat a throne. Strangely, it was a rather simple throne, by far the most modest item I had seen in the entire castle. Still, it was undoubtedly mine, and yet in it sprawled a truly obnoxious looking man. He reminded me of a picture I had once seen of Louis the XIV, of France, all preening and foppish. His hair was a giant mountain of black curls and for clothes he wore a ridiculous mixture of leggings, high heeled shoes, and what looked for all the world like an extravagant, fur, bathrobe. Ridiculous looking or not, it was clear from his inappropriate choice of seat who this man had to be – the challenger for my throne, Jack.

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Chapter 09 - Night 4

The entire throne room was frozen with tension. There was no sound, no movement, nothing. It was almost like no one was even breathing for fear that even something as slight as that would break the standstill.

The sources of that standstill were on opposite ends of the throne room. On one side, seated in my throne was Jack, apparently The King of Lonely Hearts. On the other side, right by the entrance stood myself, supposed Queen of Dreams. The former’s gaze held a flippant disdain as it looked down upon me. Mine, I’d steeled with cool and determination. Neither seemed inclined to break.

“I would’ve been here sooner, but I had more important things to worry about,” I began, not wanting to waste any more time on a childish staring contest. “I’ve only just now managed to find time for something as trivial as you, Jack.”

From the crowd came a hushed gasp at my insulting words. There had been no such reaction from them at Jack’s mocking jibe, making me wonder if I had perhaps made some sort of mistake. It was possible that they were on Jack’s side, not my own, or perhaps they had just not expected me to sink to his level.

While the crowd might have been surprised, Jack was furious. The flippant ease that he’d possessed before vanished as he hopped from the chair, his mountain of hair quivering in rage. Red lines crisscrossed his eyes, and a big pulsing vein sprung out from his forward.

“That’s enough from you, you detestable harlot!” Jack growled in a tone that matched his furious expression. “You’re not fit to sit the throne, not fit to rule over us, not fit to even set foot in this blessed realm! You’re nothing but insignificant slime, squished into a dress and crown.”

That outburst earned not just a gasp from the crowd, but a full on cringe. All those near the path between Jack and I took a step back, clearing plenty of space in case we decided to leap at each other. I was certainly tempted to do exactly that, wanting rid of this contemptible nuisance as quickly as possible, but I reeled it in. I was the ruler here, not Jack, and as such, I would maintain control.

“Still throwing tantrums like a child a see,” I mocked as I started forward, moving with grace and poise. For good measure, I added a few clicks of my tongue, like a mother reprimanding a petulant child. “Tsk, tsk, tsk, you really should have grown out of that sort of thing at your age.”

If I had thought Jack looked enraged before, then I couldn’t even describe what he looked like after I said those words. His entire face turned red, and his whole body shook like a rocket about to shoot off the ground. With veins straining in his neck, he clenched his fists at his side and glared at me with eyes that could have bored through stone.

“Enough!” Jack screamed as he yanked his sword, a rapier-like weapon, from his belt with a metallic hiss. “I challenge you, Alaria Amenia Anastasia Tsaren for the right to rule.”

While not unexpected, I wish I was more sure about what to do with regards to the duel. I had no idea what the rules even were. Could I decline? What sort of weapons were fair? Were their off-limit blows? Even if I knew the rules, I had no idea how skilled I was with a blade, nor how skilled Jack might be. There was one thing I did know, though. There was no way I was going to back down from this arrogant little shit.

Reaching to my waist, I gripped the golden hilt of my sword. There was no sound as I pulled the blade slowly and smoothly from its scabbard. Once it was free, I brought it to bear in front of me, settling into a stance that felt easy and familiar.

“Very well, Jack. I accept,” I declared, ready for the coming fight.

As a formal duel for the crown, one might have expected a great deal of preamble. There might have been a listing of rules or a grand countdown to build up the tension until the first blow was struck. None of that happened here. Jack, filled with a bloodlust that went past frenzy, just charged at me like a rabid beast.

There had still been half a room between us at the duel’s start, but Jack closed that gap in an instant. His blade led the way with a lightning fast lunge, whose aim and power were designed to tear the heart from my chest. As that thrust drove home, he shrieked out a single word in fury, “Die!”

The speed and power of my rival should have been stunning, overwhelming, unbeatable, but it wasn’t. If anything, it seemed slow and weak, not even threatening enough to put fear into me. My reaction was precise and calm, a simple flick of the wrist that brought my blade across and turned that devastating lunge into a harmless stumble. Gracefully, I slipped out of the Jack’s way, leaving only a single extended foot behind.

Staggering and off balance, Jack tried to correct himself and avoid my foot at the same time. In the end, he succeeded in neither, clipping my foot and losing his balance for good. He toppled straightforward onto his face, landing with an audible crash as his momentum rolled him over into a tangled mess of hair and robe.

“Ouch, that looked like it hurt,” I remarked as I fell back a step to drop into my original easy stance. At the same time, Jack huffed and sputtered as he fought his way back to his feet, swiping his hair back in the process. “Well, have you embarrassed yourself enough or did you want to try again?”

“You have mocked me for the last time, witch!” Jack retorted, not at all willing to concede defeat even after being so obviously outperformed. Instead, he came charging in again, this time hacking with his sword like it was some scottish claymore instead of a refined fencing blade.

Falling back, I let Jack’s slash cut through the air in front of me harmlessly. As he tried to bring it up again for another strike, I brought my own blade down to intercept, deflecting it back low again. Immediately after, I twisted the blade, bringing it up and forward to press the point against Jack’s throat.

“I think that’s quite enough,” I stated, leveling an icy stare at Jack. “Drop your sword.”

For a moment, Jack stood frozen in defeat before finally he released his weapon to let it clatter to the floor. All the while, he still glared at me, his rage undimmed by his loss. His glare was joined by an angry muttering of, “You lucky little …”

“Yes, I was lucky to have an opponent that was so incompetent,” I mocked. “Now get out of my sight, Jack, before I decide to treat you like the useless cockroach that you are and squash you.”

Defiant to the last, Jack held his glare for one last moment. Finally, he let out a perturbed huff and spun, stomping out of the room on the ridiculous heels he wore. He even made sure to have the doors slammed shut behind him.

“What a childish fool,” I muttered in annoyance as I gracefully sheathed my blade.

As soon as my blade was away, the crowd darted forward. At first, it almost seemed like an attack, a great wave of bodies pressing in to crush me. That impression was quickly dispelled as soon as the first person stopped in front of me to bow his head and offered his heartfelt congratulations on my victory. From there, the surge took a very different tone as every member of the court seemed determined to express their joy over my victory. Time and time again I had to shake hands, smile, and nod as the endless tide of graciousness and platitudes washed over me, threatening to drown me in a sea of goodwill.

“Enough!” I finally blurted, holding my hands up to forestall any further well wishing.

Instantly, the crowd fell back from me, creating a bubble of free space. After that, they fell to their knees and bowed their heads. The closet even shook in fear as if they expected me to lash out at them for upsetting me.

Seeing such a reaction, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was strange or if I was known for fits of rage. It was very hard to tell given that, of everyone in the room, I seemed to know the least about me. Regardless of if it was normal or not, I had no intention of such a fit at the moment, so I needed to do something to fix the situation.

“Forgive my outburst,” I began, my voice echoing amongst the kneeling stillness. “I still have important matters to attend to, and I have already wasted enough time on Jack’s foolish attempted coup. You may all rise.”

While they were a bit uneasy at first, the crowd began to rise. A quiet murmur built among them as well, pervasive but too quiet for me to hear. Soon the whole room was whispering with each other, only giving me as much attention as it took to glance surreptitiously my way.

Figuring that a rumor was the least of my worries, I turned away from the crowd and walked up toward the throne. It really was a remarkably plain looking chair, just some dark wood and a few plush red cushions. I’d certainly expected something grander after all the grandeur that I had seen so far in this place, but it was still my throne, so I was damn well going to sit in it.

The moment I sunk into the cushion of the throne, I regretted my poor assessment of the chair. In spite of its appearance, it was truly something special, so soft as if to make me feel weightless, so comfy as if to put a mother’s embrace to shame. All I could do was sink into it and feel all tension and worry slip away from me.

The next thing I knew, my eyes were opening, squinting against the light of the morning sun. I wasn’t seated anymore, and certainly not on that wonderful chair in that marvelous castle. I was on a somewhat hard bed, with a mildly lumpy pillow beneath my head, and looking at the plain boring walls of my room in my family’s new house. Never had waking up been a bigger disappointment.

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Chapter 10 - Day 5

“I can’t believe I wasted the whole dream flying around and sword fighting,” I grumbled as I idly changed the channel on the TV.

When I’d first awoken, I’d been quite happy with the dream that I’d had the night before. Both flying and sword fighting had be exhilarating, more so than I could remember anything being for a while. In that moment, I had wanted nothing more than to get right back to the dream so I could keep at them for hours to come.

A few minutes later, I’d finally remembered my list for the dream. The list had not included any sword fighting for the crown, and the only flying on the list had been a very brief trip straight to the castle in the clouds. After that, I had been supposed to start researching about the dream, why it bled into reality, and how to get it to stop doing that.

Now, I sat on the couch in front of the TV, trying hard to not look down at my illusory cleavage. I had gained no more information about why I could see them, and certainly no more information regarding how to get rid of them. Other than determining that my wings did actually allow me to fly in the dream, I had learned basically nothing at all.

“That and I’m better with a sword than Jack,” I remarked under my breath, smirking at my triumph over the obnoxious fop. That had felt so incredibly sweet, that it was probably worth putting up with another day of being crazy to have experienced it.

Letting out a wistful little sigh, I started changing the channels on the TV again, searching for something to pass the time. It wouldn’t be easy. There was still a lot of time until it would even be night, much late enough for me to sleep, and I so wanted to do exactly that right in that moment.

A flicker of something on one of the channels caught my eye as it flipped past. I couldn’t see it clearly, but it stuck with me, getting me to start flipping back in search of that particular channel. As I was going much slower this time, it took a few moments, but when I finally found it, the remote fell from my hand.

“Are those …?” I gasped as I stared at the screen.

The current channel was showing a news story, a local one at that. While I tried to keep up on what was going on in the world, I had little interest in the random fluff pieces and murder cases that showed up in local news. This story, however, was impossible to ignore.

As the anchorwoman talked, a video played on the other half of the screen. The video showed the scene of some park the night before. As such, the quality wasn’t the best, with dim, awkward lighting from street lamps and other city light. Even with that, the figures in the video were clear to see, a veritable horde of little men – puppets. Each wore a black suit and sported a big, porcelain head with beady red eyes. Instead of hands, they had these glistening metal claws that could be heard clacking and sparking in the video amidst the sounds of gunshots. Occasionally, one of those shots apparently hit as one of the puppets would burst, exploding like a miniature bomb and leaving behind nothing but a small cloud of black smoke.

“While this is the first video of the puppets that we’ve been able to get, reports indicate that it is actually the third incident involving these strange creatures,” the anchorwoman reported. “Witnesses claimed to see similar puppets both during a major traffic incident last night, and prior to the discovery of a homeless man butchered in the streets the night before. The police department could not comment on where these puppets came from, but they did warn that they are to be considered extremely dangerous.”

At that point, the report ended, but I just kept staring in stupefied disbelief as the news moved on to the next story. I’d seen those puppets before – their glowing red eyes, their claw-like hands, their malicious porcelain faces. They were identical to the horde that I had protected that princess, my sister, from in that first dream.

“But that can’t … they can’t …” I tried to rationalize. The puppets couldn’t possibly be real. They had to be a hallucination or a hoax or something. Dreams didn’t just show up in real life.

“Henry,” my mom’s voice said, cutting into my thought.

Starting with surprise, I jerked around to see my mom standing at the entrance to the living room. “Huh! What?”

My mom gave me a suspicious look, but she didn’t press for any information. “You got a sec? I need some help with some of the boxes in the basement.”

“Oh … uhm … yeah … sure,” I mumbled. “Just give me like a minute. Okay?”

“Sure. Just come on down when you’re ready,” my mother agreed before turning to walk back out of the room again.

The moment my mom was gone, I slumped against the back of the couch and let out a heavy sigh. “It was just a hallucination … it was just a hallucination …” I muttered under my breath. It took a few moments of that and a couple of deep breaths before I was finally able to get up and head off to the basement to help my mother.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“They’re not a hallucination,” I stated, finding it hard to believe even as I formed the words declaring it so.

As I’d been helping my mother in the basement, the report of puppets had kept nagging at me, refusing to leave my thoughts. As such, when I’d finished, I’d gone to research the story to put it to rest as nothing but a mirage like all the others I’d seen. Much to my surprise, it had proven to not be false at all. I’d found multiple stories and videos on my computer all related to the strange puppet attacks. In desperation, I’d even asked my mother if she’d heard of the story, and she had. Greg had as well.

After all of that research, I had changed tacts. If it wasn’t a fake story, it had to be a coincidence of some kind. The more I saw, though, the more certain I felt that it wasn’t. The first reports started the night after the dream where I’d fought them. They looked the exact same. They sounded the exact same. Somehow, beyond all reason, the monsters from my sister’s dream, the very dream that I’d entered while asleep, had come to life.

Even as I accepted that fact, I wondered what else it might mean. Would the other dreams come true as well? I’d entered Greg’s dream the night after that and there’d been no sign of zombies walking the streets. The walls of the house hadn’t suddenly changed into the pulp of an eggplant.

It only took a glance downward to see that some things had changed, though. The first day after the nightmare with the puppets, there had been no illusory versions of people. The day after that, others had them, but I did not. Now, I did as well, and sometimes, from the corner of my eye, I could see purple on the walls. I could occasionally feel a twitch in my imaginary wings or my tail swish through the air. Things were clearly progressing.

“But what do I do about it?” I questioned, absently running a hand over my hair as if it was out of place.

The answer to that question, at least the only one that I could come up with, was a scary one to consider. As far as I could tell, the only place to find answers about the dream world was from within it. Yet, every time I went there, my world changed more and more. Would I unleash more killer puppets the next time that I went to bed? Would I lose the ability to see reality entirely? I didn’t have answers to questions like that. I didn’t have answers to questions about what would happen if I didn’t go there either. I didn’t have an answer for whether it was even possible for me to not go to that place. I didn’t have answers for anything.

“I have to go,” I finally conceded, resigned to that fact. There was no way for me to avoid sleeping forever, after all. Whenever I finally did, I expected I would end up there. I would just have to make the most of it when I did.

Leaning forward, I rested my chin in my hand while thinking of my plan for the next time I slept. Obviously, the most important part would be not letting myself get distracted. Last time had been fun, but I needed to stop whatever was happening to me before it progressed too far. I just had to figure out how.

“The Great Wizard of Rook,” I mumbled. That was one of the people that the clock had mentioned last dream. Unless he was some Wizard of Oz-type fraud, he seemed like a good candidate for understanding what was going on. His magic might even be able to fix whatever was causing it. At the very least it was a place to start.

There was a worry with seeking out the wizard, though. The clock had said that he had wanted to consult with me regarding some catastrophe. While it was possible that it was related to my own problems, if it wasn’t, it was a pretty big distraction to worry about. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to ignore something like that, either. It seemed difficult for me to ignore anything in my dreams.

“Just focus on your own thing first,” I told myself. Once I’d figured out how to fix my own issues, I could consider sparing time for whatever issue the wizard had to deal with. That would be the best that I would be able to offer in return. “Now, all I have to do is wait until tonight.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 11 - Night 5

My wings beat against the air as I set down gracefully in the courtyard of the sky castle. Even though it was my second visit, the grandeur of the place was still overwhelming, forcing me to just stand there and marvel at it for a few moments. As I did, I folded my wings behind me and started to drift slowly toward the door.

Unlike last time, the door didn’t burst open and reveal my clockwork aide which was unfortunate. He would have been quite useful as a guide to the wizard that I was searching for. The door did still swing open, moved by a pair of plate mail suits that clattered and clanked as they moved. That was all the noise they made, though, greeting me with nothing more than bowed heads.

Pausing at the door, I looked at the two metal suits. There was no sign of any one inside of the things, no eyes visible through the visor. Instead of flesh, the space between the joints was filled with gears, creating a dizzying array of clockwork within the mechanical guardians.

“Hmm … I wonder …” I mumbled as I finished inspecting one of the suits. “Can you hear me?”

The armor’s helmet immediately lifted up from its bowed position to look at me before nodding.

“But you can’t speak, can you?” I asked.

The armor’s helmet shook from side to side.

Rubbing at my chin, I wondered how the armor worked. They appeared mechanical, not electrical, so it seemed unlikely that there was a computer inside. It was a dream world, so perhaps they worked on magic, but if so, why bother with the clockwork mechanisms at all. Surely, wizardry could move the armor by itself. Perhaps …

“No, no. No distractions,” I reminded myself, shaking my head to clear away the devilish curiosity. Once I had, I took a deep breath to refocus myself and returned my attention to the armor. “Can you show me to The Great Wizard of Rook?”

The armor nodded once again.

“Wonderful!” I declared brightly, happy to have a guide, even if it wasn’t a talkative one. “Please lead the way then.”

After a quick bow, the armor turned and started off, clanking and whirring with every step that it took. The steps themselves were quite awkward as well, rigid and jerky, like one would expect from a rudimentary robot or old fashioned automata. In spite of that, the armor was far from slow, moving with at a crisp, albeit stilted, pace that was actually faster than my own. Since I had no way of knowing how much time I would have in the dream, I decided to consider that a good thing and kept up.

In spite of the quick pace, it still took quite a while for the armor to lead me to my destination. There was hallway, after stairwell, after hallway, as I wound my way through the grand expanse of the castle. No two parts looked the same, not the rooms themselves, nor the objects within them. One hallway would be filled with beautiful paintings, and the next, a series of weapons and armor. The one after that would have archaic artifacts from some ancient civilization, and even further down the line would be some mystical gallery of what appeared to be actual miniature star formations and nebulae.

Only after passing through that eccentric menagerie did I finally reach what appeared to be my destination. It was a simple wooden door, bound with steel, that resided at the top of a long spiral staircase. From the windows that looked out over the grounds, it seemed to be the tallest tower in the entire castle, the very pinnacle of the sea of majestic peaks that the structure sported. That was where the armor stopped and shifted off to the side.

“Uhm … thank you,” I offered to the armor, which only bowed its head subserviently. I didn’t have any other ideas of how to reward it for its service, so I left it at that and stepped forward.

While I’d been intending to knock on the door, the armor had other plans. Its hand darted out, grabbing the handle and pushing the door open for me, leaving me to just gawk at what lay inside. Within the room was a strange, yet very familiar looking seen. It was like some kind of eccentric study, filled with bookshelves on the walls and random science-y devices scattered about the floor. There was a telescope near a globe dotted with unknown countries on a table. Along another windowed wall was a desk stacked high with piles of paper. There was yet another desk coated with half built inventions. There were also tables and chairs scattered about as well, many covered with opened books and even what appeared to be an upturned tea set in one table’s case.

Of the many odd things cluttering the room, the one that most drew my attention was the one that seemed the least plausible. Given its star-spangled, navy robe, one might have guess it was a human, but only if one didn’t look at it’s head. Rather than a human head or even a bestial one, this figure sported a head shaped like a square crenellated tower made of light gray stone.

At the sound of the door, the tower-headed figure turned toward me, showing a face that was every bit as odd as his head. Instead of eyes, he had two keyhole windows with what looked like candles for pupils. Instead of a nose, he had the shadowed recess of an a cross shaped archer slit. For a mouth, he had just a horizontal crack in the stone, through which could be seen teeth that looked like the bars of a portcullis.

“Your majesty!” the tower boomed in a rich powerful voice at the sight of me. “I’m so glad you have finally returned!”

I supposed that I shouldn’t have been surprised that it could speak, or that it would know me, or that the great wizard that I was looking for would be so odd looking, but I was. For a moment, all I could do was blink, before finally putting a strained, but pleasant smile on my face to greet him. “Yes, it’s … uhm … good to be back.”

The tower, Rook, flashed his metal bars at me in a dazzling grin. “Really? Does that mean your experiment was a success?”

“Experiment?” I asked as I entered the room. Behind me, I heard the whirr of gears followed by the thump of the door closing. “What experiment is that?”

“What experiment?!” Rook gasped incredulously. “Why the one to experience the life of a dreamer, of course. The last you told me before you disappeared was that you had nearly completed the shell that you would need.”

Taken aback, I looked down at myself in confusion, seeing only Alaria’s form. Was this the result of some strange experiment by the queen? That would certainly explain how I had ended up in her world, with her appearance.

“Is something wrong?” Rook questioned when I did not immediately reply.

“Huh … uhm … no,” I mumbled, shaking my head absently. “It’s just … could you tell me when this experiment happened? I can’t seem to remember.”

Humming softly, Rook raised one big stony scratch at where his chin would be if he had such a thing. “Hmm … well, you have been gone quite a while. I think it was fourteen or fifteen years ago now.”

“W-When did you say?” I stuttered in disbelief.

“Fourteen or fifteen years ago,” Rook repeated, giving me a look that seemed to be curious.

That unit of time sent my mind reeling. I was fourteen, going on fifteen in the fall. If Rook was to be believed, that would mean that Alaria had performed her experiment around the time I was born – an experiment that was intended to let her live as a dreamer. Had she possessed me or something? Perhaps the new appearance and dreams were some attempt by her to escape from an effect that she couldn’t control.

“Something about you seems strange,” Rook remarked.

Torn from my thoughts, I refocused my gaze on the big tower. “What?”

“You’ve always been absent-minded, but never to the point of forgetting something as major as that experiment,” Rook continued. “It was too important to you, driving you like nothing I’ve ever seen. You poured everything into it. The only way you’d forget it is … well if something made you forget it.”

Tension flooded me at Rook’s deduction, while I inwardly cursed myself. I should have prepared for this, had an answer ready that was better than my being scatter-brained to explain why my memory was so faulty. It should have been part of my planning. However, I didn’t have such an answer, and now, as my mind tried to fabricate one, it kept turning up blank.

“I … uhm … I don’t …” I stammered, all the while wondering what would happen if this great wizard and the many other fantastical creatures I’d seen in this world found out that I’d been duping them.

As I fumbled, Rook peered at me with a gaze that seemed to pierce my very soul, laying me bare before him. A moment later, his eyes widened in surprise. “You’re still bound to the shell you created. How is this possible?”

Surprised by that response, I couldn’t help but ask, “Shell? What Shell?”

“The artificial dreamer shell that you built for the experiment,” Rook answered. “You were going to insert yourself into it, linking yourself with magic, but that link should have been severed before you returned here. However, it’s still active. I can see the magic leading back toward a body down below.”

Rational thought failed me as I listened to Rook speak. His words just didn’t seem possible, didn’t seem feasible. This was just a dream, a silly, oddly lucid one, but still just a dream – even if it had leaked into the real world with puppets and visions and …

“I should sever the link at once. It’s clearly affecting you,” Rook stated, raising his hands in preparation for a spell.

“No!” I blurted, afraid to find out what would happen to me when that link was severed. Hopefully, I would still exist, but there might be feedback or side effects or something … yeah something. “ I … uh … I’m not finished … with the experiment … yet … so, you can’t.”

A look of concern narrowed Rook’s window-eyes. “But your majesty, the link clearly must be damaged for it to partially release you like this. It’s also impairing your thinking and memories. It might even be endangering your health.”

“Then we just have to repair it, right?” I suggested desperately. “Then I can return to the experiment without worry.”

Rook tilted from side to side uncertainly. “That might be possible, but it would be safer to abort and restart the experiment from the beginning.”

I shook my head. “No. We’re fixing it. Understood?”

Rook bowed his head in acquiescence. “Yes, your majesty.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 12 - Day 6

The sun’s light found me angry at its existance. Once again, I had returned from the dream without resolving my issues. In fact, those issues were clearly worse as a quick look around showed. Now, the whole house was overlaid with the illusory image of the dream world, from the eggplant walls to the mushroom bed.

“At least I figured out how to fix things,” I grumbled as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and sat up. While I said that, it wasn’t like I believed that nonsense about being some dream queen’s person suit. Obviously, that was just the silly narrative of an equally silly dream. It had to be.

Regardless of the story’s ridiculousness, I didn’t think the talk with Rook had been pointless by any means. Clearly, the dream was having some sort of psychological impact on me, though. The hallucinations were proof of that. It seemed likely that if I was able to confront and resolve the problem in the dream, that it might resolve the other issues as well. Once it did, I would be able to just go on about my life and completely forget about the random week of craziness I’d suffered from when my family moved to New York. Unlike the dream’s nonsense, that train of thought made sense.

Before I could get any further in my thoughts about the dream, a shrill shriek cut through the house. It was followed by the patter of scampering little feet as my sister fled from some sort of torment. I had a pretty good idea of the source of that torment.

“Greg,” I muttered in annoyance, tired of having to deal with my brother’s troublemaking.

Luckily for me, this time, my mother was home. The flight of my sister was followed by my mother yelling. “What did you do, Greg?!”

“Nothing!” Greg yelled back in an undoubtedly false claim to innocence.

Sighing, I thrust myself out of bed and pulled on some shorts before heading out into the hall. From my mother’s room, I could hear my sister crying while my mom tried to soothe her. If my mother was busy there, that left me to go deal with Greg. It seemed I wasn’t going to be lucky after all.

Sighing yet again, I trudged over to my brother’s room and stepped in. My brother was sitting there, glued to the laptop as usual. He seemed to be watching something, probably whatever he had used to scare Lindsey.

“So what did you really do?” I asked, leaning against the door frame with my arms folded reprovingly.

“Nothing, ‘Dad’,” Greg snarked.

“Linds doesn’t run screaming from nothing,” I retorted, pushing off the frame to walk over to the computer. “You were showing her some creepy video again weren’t you.”

Greg shrugged. “She’s the one that wanted to see it. I was just sitting here minding my own business before she poked her nose in.”

Doubting my brother’s claim, I rolled my eyes. “Sure ... What was it this time? Not another one of those puppet movies, was it?”

“Well, it’s not a movie, per se,” Greg replied, shifting the laptop so I could see. On the screen was a video like the one I’d seen on the news the day before of creepy puppets. The still frame showed them atop something brown, hairy, and covered in blood.

“Is that a dog?” I gasped in surprise.

Greg nodded. “Yeah. They apparently went after some house nearby, butchered the family dog and tore up the back door trying to get through the doggie door. The dad had to sit there beating them back with a baseball bat until the cops showed up.”

“What are you thinking? You can’t show stuff like that to Lindsey,” I scolded. “You shouldn’t even be watching it.”

Greg let out a derisive snort. “Whatever. I don’t wanna hear another one of your lectures. You asked what she saw, so I showed you. Now, get out of my room.”

“Mom’s gonna pissed at you,” I warned.

“Who fucking cares?” Greg spat dismissively.

Unsure of what else I could even do, I just shook my head at my brother before turning to walk out. Once outside, I started down the hall toward my mother’s room intending to tell her what I’d learned. Undoubtedly, she’d punish Greg, but it probably wouldn’t help.

When I got to my mother’s room, I poked my head in first to see how things were going with Lindsey. The little girl seemed to have calmed down, and was currently sitting on the bed with my mom’s arm wrapped around her shoulder. Neither was looking my way, so I tapped lightly on the open door to alert them of my presence.

“Oh, hey, Henry,” my mother greeted, smiling wearily. “What do you need?”

“I talked to Greg,” I told her. “Seems he was watching … something he shouldn’t have been when Lindsey walked in.”

“It was awful!” Lindsey added, nestling closer to our mother. “That poor doggy …”

In response, my mother gave my sister a reassuring rub on the shoulder. “It’s okay, sweetie. It wasn’t real.”

I started to open my mouth to correct my mother and say it was a news story, but she looked at me and just shook her head. Without a word, I closed my mouth again, and nodded. It being real would only scare Lindsey more.

“Anyway, thanks for letting me know, Henry,” my mother told me. “I’ll talk to Greg in a bit.”

“Sure thing, Mom,” I replied before turning and walking out.

With my part in the incident complete, I started back to my room. I might have been done dealing with it, but the still frame of the video that Greg had showed me stuck with me. The puppets didn’t fit into my idea about fixing things with the dream. They weren’t a hallucination. They’d killed a dog and a person. They were real.

As I got back to my room, I wondered once again if they were just a strange coincidence. It was certainly possible that I’d just seen those puppets somewhere before and unconsciously put them into the dream that night. The one in that movie that Greg had been watching looked a little different, though, and I couldn’t think of any other puppets like that. It wasn’t exactly easy to forgot demonic puppets with claws for hands either.

“Maybe I suppressed it or something?” I muttered. That seemed silly, but it made far more sense than puppets from a nightmare coming to life. Either that or it really was just an extremely unlikely coincidence. It had to be. Dreams couldn’t impact reality.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Again?!” I growled in frustration as I heard the sound of Lindsey sobbing through the walls. Immediately, I was up off my bed and stomping toward the door. “Damn it, Greg!”

A few quick strides brought me out of my room and to my sister’s. The cute little girl was curled up on her bed while clinging tightly to her favorite teddy bear. It was a gift from her father, a massive, brown thing that was nearly as big as the eight year old.

“Hey, Button. What’s the matter?” I asked gently as I walked over to sit on the bed next to the prone girl. “Greg picking on you again?”

Keeping her face buried in her teddy bear, Lindsey shook her head. “Uh uh.”

“Then what? Did you hurt yourself? Break a toy? Lose something?” I rattled off possibilities in an effort to get the girl to talk.

My sister managed only a nod in response.

“And which one are you nodding to?” I inquired, nudging the girl toward an actual answer.

“Last one,” Lindsey mumbled.

That issue didn’t seem like it would be too hard to deal with. My sister often misplaced some toy or another and got upset when she couldn’t find it. Likely, it had gotten stuck in the wrong box during the move.

“Alright, I’ll help you look for it,” I offered. “What did you lose?”

“Daddy,” Lindsey answered only to immediately return to sobbing softly into her teddy bear.

Hearing that was like getting punched in the stomach. It actually made my eyes burn a little, forcing me to fight back the urge to join Lindsey in crying. There certainly wasn’t anything I could do to fix things for her.

“Linds …” I started, trying to figure out what to even say. “Dad’s … “

“I know,” Lindsey muttered, saving me from having to actually come up with something to say. “It’s just … I miss him.”

Trying my best to be reassuring, I rested a hand on my little sister’s shoulder. “We all do, Linds.”

“Not Greg,” Lindsey grumbled. “He loves it when bad stuff happens.”

Smirking, I resisted the urge to laugh at Lindsey’s assessment. “I don’t think Greg actually likes that stuff.”

“Yeah, he does,” Lindsey insisted. “He’s always watching scary movies and picking on me.”

“Yeah, well … I don’t think he does those things because he likes them,” I told her.

Finally, Lindsey poked her head up from her bear. “Then why do them?”

“Well, let me ask you this, do you like crying in your room with only your teddy bear to keep you company?” I asked, getting a shake of the head from my sister. “Well, then why were you doing it when I came in?”

“Because I was sad,” Lindsey answered.

I nodded. “Exactly. It’s the same thing for Greg, except instead of crying, he acts like a big fat stupid head all the time. It’s a real pain in the butt, actually.”

The insult elicited a slight giggle from Lindsey. “Totally.”

Hearing my sister laugh got a genuine smile from me. “Anyway, I know I’m not Dad, but if you ever need him, I’ll do my best to fill in for him.”

“Thanks, Henry,” Lindsey responded, rolling over to give me a hug.

“Anytime, Button,” I replied, returning the embrace. A moment later, I released her, got up, and turned to go.

“Henry?” Lindsey spoke up before I even managed to take a step.

Turning back, I gave her a quizzical look. “What is it?”

“Can I … can I sleep with you tonight?” Lindsey asked.

“Still scared of that creepy video Greg showed you?” I asked, getting an embarrassed nod from my sister in response. Those creepy puppets had really done a number on her the last few days, so it wasn’t really a surprise. “Yeah sure, we’ll have a little slumber party.”

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Chapter 13 - Night 6

“What do you mean you can’t fix it?” I questioned, not at all happy with this news.

Across the study from me, Rook raised his hands helplessly. “I mean that I can’t, your majesty. I have no idea what you did to bind yourself to the shell.”

“Well can’t you figure it out?” I demanded, desperately wanting this fixed so that I could put this whole crazy dream nonsense behind me.

Rook shrugged. “Perhaps?”

“What do you mean perhaps?!” I yelled, losing my composure. It was rather odd to see the towering ... well ... tower that was Rook rear back from me in fear. It also made me feel kind of bad. It wasn’t his fault the dream worked this way. “Sorry.”

The big tower nodded in understanding. “It’s alright, your majesty. I can understand your frustration. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like you left any notes regarding the experiment, and you say you can’t remember what you did.”

“But you said you could sever the link, didn’t you?” I queried, quite sure that he had proposed doing exactly that the night before.

“Yes, but that could be done by using a simple anti-magic spell to shatter the enchantment,” Rook explained. “Obviously, doing that will not fix it.”

Running my hands over my face, I let out an exasperated sigh. “Alright, so what’s our best bet for figuring it out?”

Taking a moment, Rook scratched at his non-existent chin thoughtfully. “With time to study the link, perhaps I could divine what magic was used to create, but I simply don’t have time to devote to that at the moment.”

“What? Why not?” I inquired, hoping that, whatever the obstacle was, I could take care of it quickly to free Rook up to research my issue.

“Well that’s actually what I’ve been wanting to speak with you about,” Rook began while walking over to one of the tables to grab a notebook. “You see, a few days back, I observed an anomalous surge in magical energy. Upon further study, I discovered that the surge had created a magical sinkhole that was leeching mystical energy from our world.”

As Rook talked, I nodded along, while wishing he got to the point quicker. “Alright, so you need my help to close this sinkhole?”

“Actually, yes. I’m sure that. with your help. we could resolve the matter quite quickly,” Rook answered.

“And after that you’ll be free to research a way to fix the link?” I asked.

Rook nodded. “Of course. I’d love to then.”

“Great,” I stated, glad to at least have a course of action. I was not so glad that it involved yet another side mission, but at least it was progress. “Where is this sinkhole?”

“Well, that’s one of the fascinating aspects of it,” Rook replied. “It moves about. From what I can tell, it’s source is a particular dreamer that resides in the city below the castle, a young girl.”

A sense of dread gripped me at Rook’s words. I just knew that I wasn’t going to like finding out who the dreamer was. “Alright. Take me too her.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

There are few things in the world that I hate more than being right when I want to be wrong. It is a truly awful experience. The entire build up to the reveal is filled with dread, and then, when it finally comes, it still crushes the spirit. That was how I felt as I stood in my room, looking down at my sister’s sleeping, teen, princess form – like my spirit had been crushed.

While finding out my sister was the source of some magical catastrophe was bad enough, there was a worse part to it. The worse part was that I was quite sure that I was right about something else as well, and yet again, it was something I desperately wanted to be wrong about. I wanted that so much that the very idea of vocalizing the idea scared me, because I was so sure it would be confirmed.

“You and this girl are quite close I take it,” Rook remarked, snapping me form my thoughts.

Looking up from my sister, I turned toward Rook. “What makes you say that?”

“The look of pain on your face,” Rook replied. “It is the look of someone fearing for a person they love.”

“I’m fearing a lot of things at the moment,” I mumbled, shaking my head sadly.

“I find this anomaly disconcerting as well,” Rook noted. “Never before have I seen a dreamer leech magic from our world like this.”

Sighing, I shook my head again. “I don’t think she’s the one leeching it.”

“What do you mean?” Rook questioned.

“A few nights ago, I … stepped into Li-er-this girl’s nightmare,” I began to explain the hypothesis that I dreaded. “In it, there were these demonic puppets. A few days later, those same puppets attacked people in the re-er-waking world.”

A look of realization dawned on Rook’s face. “Of course. That makes perfect sense. A dream would need a great deal of magical energy to sustain itself in the waking world, and the only way for it to get it would be through the dreamer that created them.”

I winced slightly at the claim that my hypothesis made perfect sense. One, it confirmed that I was probably right, and two, it shouldn’t make any sense at all. Dreams were just silly little fantasies created by brains that were processing and storing information from the previous day. They shouldn’t be impacting the real world. They shouldn’t even be there. They weren’t real.

“Well, this is a great relief,” Rook continued happily, not even noticing my distress.

“What? Why’s that?” I questioned, personally thinking that this was terrible news.

“Well, now that we know the cause, it will be easy to fix,” Rook explained. “We simply need to terminate the dreamer, and her dream, along with its drain on the magic of our world, will both cease to exist.”

My eyes widened in shock at Rook’s suggested. “What?! You want to kill her?!”

For the first time, it was Rook’s turn to wince. “My apologies, your majesty. I forgot that this dreamer is precious to you. Unfortunately, that is the easiest, quickest, and most certain method to put an end to the magical drain.”

“Well, then we’ll use a harder, slower, less certain method!” I yelled unyieldingly.

Rook bowed his head obsequiously. “As you command, your majesty.”

Seeing the wizard immediately cave to my demands helped calm me down. “Good. Now, what are some of the other options?”

Lifting his head, Rook gave me a quizzical look. “Other options, your majesty?”

“Yes, you said … terminating her was the best method, so what are some of the lesser methods?” I elaborated.

“Oh … you see I called it the best method, because it was the only one, your majesty,” Rook explained. “The only other possibility would be to somehow retrieve the lost dream from the waking world, but that’s impossible.”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Why is that impossible? That dream got over there somehow, didn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but I don’t know how it managed that,” Rook corrected. “The only dream that I know of that is strong enough to cross between the realms is you, your majesty, but it’s currently impossible for you.”

“And why’s that?” I demanded, growing impatient with Rook’s lack of helpfulness.

“Well, because of the link you already exist within the waking world as one of the dreamers,” Rook explained. “Of course, you could just wake up to go there, but you would just be a normal dreamer, with no means to force a dream, especially a hostile one to return to this world.”

And there it was, the dreaded conundrum. If I broke the link, I would be free to traverse to the waking world as Alaria and use her power to force the wayward nightmare to return, ending the issue. If I did not break the link, the magical drain on the dream world would continue with unknown consequences for me. Presumably, the puppets would continue their rampage in the waking world as well. There was a third option, but it was utterly unthinkable, murder my sister to spare myself.

Of course, it was possible that there was no conundrum at all. There could be another option, one that Rook either hadn’t considered or was deliberately hiding from me. It could all be a trick by a crazy mind intended to drive me further into madness by getting me to accept the ludicrous idea that I was not a real person but the queen of dreams.

“Your majesty?” Rook questioned.

I’d been so deep in my thoughts that the interruption actually caused me to start with surprise. “Oh … what is it?”

“I’m sorry if I disturbed you, but you had a look on your face that could only be described as anguish,” Rook commented. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Not unless you’ve come up with some other idea of how to fix this situation,” I told him.

“Regrettably, I have not, your majesty,” Rook replied.

Having expected that answer, I just nodded absently, trying to think of some other way to fix things. “Could I send someone else to the waking world?”

Rook shrugged. “I assume you could send them, but I don’t know what would happen to them once they arrived. From what you’ve told me in the past of your visits, I imagine anyone besides yourself would simply be overwhelmed and destroyed.”

“That dream is managing it,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but it has a conduit to this world that supplies it with magic,” Rook noted.

“Could I fabricate such a conduit for someone else?” I asked.

Rook tilted his head from side to side. “Perhaps, but this one is already enough to pose a serious threat to our world. Creating another might well prove cataclysmic.”

Reaching another dead end, I frowned. Everything kept coming back to the same choices, do nothing or sever the link. I had no way to know what would happen if I did either of those things. Either could destroy me. Either could save me. It was all a question of what I was willing to risk and what I believed was real and what I believed was fantasy.

For several moments, there was silence. Rook just looked at me, waiting for me to decide our course of action. Meanwhile, a silent war raged in my head between all the various options, bits of information, and educated guesses. They were weighed and counted; reweighed and recounted. Finally, my mind was made up.

“Sever the link,” I commanded without a hint of uncertainty.

“Are you sure, your majesty?” Rook asked. “I understand how important completing the experiment is to you.”

Quite sure, I nodded in confirmation. I wasn’t happy with it, but severing the link risked only me. Every other option risked someone else, sometimes lots of other people. I didn’t think I could handle living with it, if anyone else paid that kind of price for me.

“As you wish, your majesty,” Rook replied, raising his hands. A moment later, he began his spell, a long, droning chant joined by grand, hand gestures.

Closing my eyes, I tried to shut out the spell and thoughts of what it might do. I didn’t want fear to cause me to chicken out. I’d made my choice, and I was going to stick with it. I managed to maintain that certainty right up until the spell ended and I felt something inside me snap apart.

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Chapter 14 - Night 6

For a moment, all of my world was a memory. No, it was more a series of memories, flashes running past my eyes. Together, they told a tale, an ironic one about a queen of dreams that had never dreamed. She had only ever watched others dream, wishing that she could join them. Finally, she found a way to dream just like she had always wanted, only to learn the terrible truth that every dreamer has to deal with – eventually, all dreams, no matter how wonderful they might be, come to an end.

“Your majesty?! Your majesty?!” a voice called, scattering the memories back into the recesses of my mind. It was a worried voice, a deep booming voice, a voice I knew.

Drawn by the voice, I looked up. There, huddling over me, was Rook; his face twisted in worry. I wondered what he could be worried about. It probably had something to do with why I was laying on the ground. I must have collapsed.

“Rook? What happened?” I muttered, rubbing at my head. For some reason, my thoughts just refused to click into place. It was very frustrating, because I felt like I knew the answer to my question, but my mind just wouldn’t provide it.

Seeing me awake, Rook smiled in relief, while extending his hands to help me up. “You collapsed, your majesty. Right after the link was severed.”

That little bit of explanation was all my brain needed to finally do its job. Memories returned, of who I was, of what I’d asked Rook to do, and why I’d asked him to do it. “So it worked? The link is gone?”

As he finished helping me to my feet, Rook nodded. “Yes, your majesty. How do you feel?”

“Befuddled,” I answered.

That was certainly a good word for what it was like. I could still remember Henry, but at the same time there was a distance from him. I still felt like I was Henry. His actions were my actions. His thoughts were my thoughts. Yet, I wasn’t Henry. I was Alaria. I could feel her. I could remember her, her actions, her thoughts. Which was right? Was there even a difference?

“Well I suppose that is to be expected after what happened,” Rook commented. “It will probably pass.”

“Yeah …” I breathed in agreement, even though, I was unsure that was the case. If anything, I felt like I was getting more confused.

Noticing my unease, Rook frowned slightly. “Perhaps it would be best to postpone your trip to the waking world until you feel better.”

“No. I’m fine,” I insisted, shaking my head in refusal. There was no way for me to know how much severing the link might have cost me, but whatever the final price, there was no way I was going to let it go to waste. It had been done to put an end to the puppets, their magical sinkhole, and their rampage in the waking world, so that was what I was going to do. “I’m going.”

Rook bowed his head in concession. “Very well, your majesty. Then I wish you luck.”

“Thank you,” I replied, giving the tower wizard one last look before focusing on what I had to do.

Raising a hand, I gathered my power, feeling it hum through me as it built. As it did, a soft, golden light suffused me, wreathing me in a warm protective halo. Once it had, I stepped forward and the world in front of me rippled and parted out of the way.

The next time my foot touched the ground, it was with a heavy thump like an off balance stumble. The cause was the sudden pressure that I felt, like a my whole body had been covered in a lead apron. It weighed me down and sapped my strength, making me feel weary within moments of my arrival.

Rallying against the pressure, I forced myself to straighten up and take that final step. It did not thud like the first, but it did bring with it another feeling, one of claustrophobia. The very air seemed heavy and suffocating like the world itself was trying to reject me.

“That’s exactly what it’s trying to do,” I mumbled, hearing Alaria’s soft, clear voice in the real world for the first time.

Hearing that sound, I looked down. The formerly phantasmal figure of Alaria was now solid and real with no sign of Henry underneath it. No, it was more than real, brighter and more vibrant that it should have been in the dark room. I made me stand out against reality, a dream somehow made flesh. No wonder reality hated me.

While I was only a dream, the rest of reality still possessed the same duality that I was used to seeing while I was awake. Looking around, I could see the dark, drab of my room, vaguely lit by a street lamp outside. Over it lay the mirage of the dream, with its fantastical furniture, bright purple walls, and the silver light of a brilliant moon that made even night seem bright and colorful.

Like the room, my sister too had her duality as she lay in my bed. At once, she was the plain, little, brown-haired girl and the beautiful, blonde, teenaged princess. Both slept peacefully, curled up under the blankets with smiles on their faces.

Looking at Lindsey, I wondered what she’d think of me. I supposed she’d probably like Alaria. What little girl wouldn’t want to have a magical, faerie, dream queen for an older … well I supposed that I was a sister now.

“I’ll still be there for you,” I promised the sleeping girl. “Somehow …”

Feeling melancholic, I turned away and slipped out of the room quietly out of the room. From there, I snuck through the dark hallways of the house, doing my best to stay silent. I didn’t want to have to try to explain my presence to my family, at least not until after I’d handled things with the nightmare puppets.

Luckily for me, it seemed that the puppets wouldn’t be hard for me to find. I could feel the connection between them and Lindsey. That connection would be as easy to follow as a trail of breadcrumbs.

“I hope these still work,” I remarked as I stepped outside and spread my wings. They seemed to move the same, giving of the same fine motes of star light. At the same time, with how heavy I felt, flight didn’t seem like it would be possible. There was no reason not to at least try, though.

A hop and a powerful beat of my wings got me up into the air. It was strenuous, like trying to run a track event with the flu, but I was flying. Within a few moments, I was up above the buildings, soaring off toward the puppets.

As luck would have it, the puppets were not that far away, their trail leading me toward the nearby Flushing Meadows park. It was a beautiful place in both worlds, but there was one thing there that had me staring in wonder. In the real world, it was a huge, brightly lit steel globe, beautiful but frozen. In the dream world, it was so much more. The globe was suspending in mid air, lacking any visible means of support, and it wasn’t steel. It looked more like a marble, glassy, and colorful. It also moved, the oceans appearing to flow as white clouds drifted around the world. There was even light and dark, like an actual sun was casting its light upon the miniature world. All the while, a trio of glowing orbs spun around the globe, creating triplicate rings of afterglow to surround the monument.

“Focus,” I growled, shaking my head to snap myself from the daze the wondrous creation had left me in. Forcing my attention back to my mission, I swooped down, landing lightly on a large causeway in the park. That brought me right to my next distraction.

Because of the extremely late our, the park was mostly empty. It was not, however, completely empty. In fact, some of its visitors, a trio of young men happened to not even be particularly far from where I landed. There they stood, gawking at me with wide eyes. One even had thought to grab his cell phone and take a picture.

Seeing the trio’s reaction caused my cheeks to burn. It was my first interaction with real people as Alaria, and there was more than enough Henry in me to be embarrassed to be seen as a busty, winged woman in a dress. That was what I was, though, so there was nothing to do about it but get used to such looks. Undoubtedly, such attention would be quite common for me from now on.

Doing my best to ignore the unwelcome stares, I folded my wings on my back and started off again on foot. From what I could tell, the puppets weren’t far at all anymore, just a short way off the causeway. As such, that was where I went, moving off the pavement to the grass to continue my search. Surrounding me were numerous trees, the reason why I had been forced to land to continue pursuit. They provided cover from above, hiding the lights of the city and the sky, plunging the area around them into a gloom into which I could barely see.

“Greetings, your majesty,” a voice, raspy and sinister, hissed from behind me.

Suppressing a faint chill of fear, I turned regally to face the voice. At first, there seemed to be no one there, like the words had somehow been whispered on the wind. Then, light melted into view in the darkness, appearing in twin sets of bloody red. That hellish glow preceded the porcelain white of faces, mocking and cruel. Finally, black, shadowed bodies, complete with glistening claws, appeared completing the images of the demonic puppets. Everywhere I looked there were more of them, hanging from tree branches and poking out from behind trunks. There had to be dozens of them, their eyes boring into me with malice. I was surrounded.

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Chapter 15 - Night 6

I considered myself to be a brave person, someone willing to challenge the dark and frightening, but now, I was afraid. As I looked at the sea of glowing red eyes, a creepy chill ran down my spine, and every hair on my body stood on end. In the face of the nightmarish horde, I wanted to just spread my wings and fly away, but somehow, I held my ground. I even managed to keep myself from quivering like a leaf in the wind.

Across from me, one of the puppets on the ground stepped forward, its gaze boring into my own. “What brings the Queen of Dreams to the land of the waking?”

“You,” I answered, keeping it simple to prevent my voice from shaking. “I came to bring you back.”

“Back?” the puppet question. “Why would we want to go back to scrabbling for the fear of one little girl when here we can feast on the terror of thousands?”

A frown creased my lips at that answer, but I did not let it discourage me. “Because your presence here is endangering our world, draining it of its magic to sustain your existence here.”

The puppet shrugged nonchalantly. “Sounds like an issue for those that remain there. We are free of that place.”

“It’s also an order from your queen,” I added, trying to sound as authoritative as I could.

“You don’t rule here, Alaria,” the puppet rasped. “Here, we are free to do as we wish, and we wish to remain.”

With appeals to reason and authority both failed, I realized that I needed to change tactics. The puppets were the epitome of selfish, caring only for themselves and the fear they could induce. Perhaps fear would work to resolve this situation.

“If you will not return …” I began, letting my hand fall to the hilt of my sword, “... then I will have to destroy you. It’s your choice.”

Silence reigned as the puppets gauged my threat. I knew that, in theory, it was a valid one. As queen, I had the power to destroy them for good. I wasn’t sure how feasible it would be in practice, though. The odds were stacked against me and being in the waking world limited my power. Worse, I would risk destruction as well. All the puppets would have to do was weaken me enough to allow the hostility of the waking world to overwhelm me, and I would be finished.

“Decide!” I ordered with far more courage than I felt while drawing my sword.

I don’t know if my voice quavered or my threat sounded a little too desperate or what, but the moment I drew my weapon, I could tell there was going to be a fight. The puppets confirmed that belief, responding not in words, but in a great rush toward me. Claws glistened as they came, while raspy, malicious giggles filled the air. The battle had begun.

As the puppets came, I prepared myself, drawing my power forward. Golden light suffused both my blade and me, making it so that my strikes would be truly lethal to my dream opponents. The puppets I cut down would not return, and once they were all gone, the nightmare would be ended.

My first assailant came in from my right, leaping toward my face. A line of golden light was cut in the air as I slashed my blade across, bisecting the little critter in midair. At the same time, the light scattered the two halves into tattered, shadowy remnants that quickly faded away.

Even as that first puppet met its end, I was already moving on to the next. This was coming from my left, forcing me to a step to the side to create some distance and turn. As I did, I brought my sword back to the left in a devastating lunge that drove its point right through the puppet’s head.

Before my lunge was even finished, another puppet was on me, trying to take advantage of my preoccupation. My sword might have been busy, but my off hand was not. It lashed across, sending out a burst of golden light that tore that puppet apart.

With both hands busy, another puppet slipped by my defense, darting along the ground. As it ran past, it raked its wicked claws at my hip. The dress, as empowered as my hand and sword, did its best to repel the blades, but while it protected me, it failed to protect itself. There was a loud rip as several slashes were torn in the skirt, baring my thigh and hip. The next strike there would hurt.

I had no time to worry about my new weak point, however. My focus had to be on the attacks that were incoming, not the ones that were past. Toward that end, my current worry was a puppet leaping toward my back. Flipping my blade around in my hand, I drove it back behind me, tearing the puppet out of the sky. It wasn’t enough, though. There were already three more coming at me.

Needing a different tactic, I thrust even more power into my sword before driving it tip first into the ground at my feet. There, that power discharged, blossoming into a sparkling corona of gold that shot out in all directions. As it went, it slammed into puppets, tearing through them like they were made of paper. When the power faded, there wasn’t a single puppet left within ten feet of me.

While effective, expending that much power had its toll. The waking world pressed in to take advantage, renewing its effort to crush me out of existence. While I held it at bay, I was left gasping for breath while I leaned on my sword, still stuck in the ground, for support.

“You seem tired, your majesty,” the lead puppet remarked, his tone mocking. “Having trouble dealing with one lone, treasonous nightmare?”

“I appreciate the concern,” I remarked, smirking nonchalantly. At the same time, I forced myself upright and yanked my sword from the dirt. “But don’t worry. I’ve got more than enough energy for small fry like you.”

“Let’s put that to the test,” the puppet retorted, gesturing forward with one hand. In time with the gesture, those puppets that remained started forward, braving the circle of death my power had carved around me.

Wearily, I settled myself into a defensive stance, readying myself to meet the charge. At the same time, I kept my gaze locked on the head puppet, noticing that he didn’t move to join the attack. It didn’t look like he’d been part of the first attack either. I supposed that he was the type to lead from behind.

A moment later, I was once again fighting for my life. This time, the puppets were far more cautious. They did not approach in large groups that might allow me to blast away large swaths of them at once. At the same time, they never approached alone, always darting at me in pairs or trios to try my defenses. The first duo was easy to defeat as I cut one out of the air while the other was shattered by a foot to the face. The trio that followed, however, had far more luck, losing only one as they tore more holes in my dress at my waist and shoulder.

Feeling out of breath and leaden, I tried to force myself to move faster. As the next group came, I actually darted forward to meet the first one, lancing him through the throat with a lunge before spinning toward the next. My upper body made the move, but my feet didn’t quite manage to keep up. My toe caught on a bump in the ground and I lost my balance, stumbling forward. Somehow, I still managed to complete my swing, slashing apart the puppet in front of me, but I was unable to get around to handle the third that was closing from behind.

The next thing I knew, agony blossomed forth in my back, drawing a scream from my lips as claws slashed at one of my wings. White feathers, stained red with my blood fluttered in the air, drifting lazily to the ground. As they did, the little devil that had hit me giggled with delight as it skipped back out of my reach.

“She bleeds! She bleeds!” the horde chanted in chorus, delighting in my pain.

Clenching my teeth, I glanced back over my shoulder at my wing. It didn’t look too bad, but it definitely hurt. I didn’t show that to the puppets, though, pretending to laugh it off. “Heh, guess that means I’m gonna have to get serious.”

“Then so will we,” the horde countered in unison.

Hoping that claim was as much of a bluff as my own, I got my sword up again and prepared for another wave. At the same time, I looked around, gauging my chances. There were still quite a few of the puppets left and I was only going to get weaker with every wound I received. I was going to have to finish this quickly, if I wanted any chance of coming out of it victorious.

The puppets seemed to want things over quickly was well as they wasted no more time before rushing in. They stuck to the same tactics, sending a trio of puppets charging at me. I, however, did not.

As the trio came, I assessed their attack angles, waiting for them to close. Before their sinister claws to reach, I dodged, hopping back to make two of the three fly harmlessly past me. The third still came crashing in, but without the threat of its allies, it was easy enough to decapitate with a quick flick of the wrist.

While it was good for a round, by the next trio, the puppets were clearly already adapting to my tactic. They’d shifted their angles slightly to box me inside their range, rather than all aiming for a single point. They also kept their claws spread wide further limiting my movement.

The next rush didn’t go well for me. I managed to catch two in a wide sweeping cut, but I didn’t even come close to defending the third. Its blades found flesh, tearing deep gashes in my abdomen that had me doubled over as I gasped in pain.

“She dies! She dies!” the puppet horde cheered, prophecizing my coming downfall with their words. Even to me, it seemed like they were right. I only had another round or two left before their numbers took me down.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I still have more than enough life in me to get rid of you pipsqueaks,” I taunted as I forced myself mostly upright. I couldn’t quite make it all the way, and I had to keep my left hand pressed to my wound to slow the flow of blood, but I was up enough to fight. It was my last chance to win this, though. It was time for a more desperate plan, and I had just the one.

The only reply the puppets gave was another charge, rushing toward me with another coordinated trio. Gauging their angles, I picked my target and shoved power into my sword so that it blazed with light. At the sight of that, all the puppets flinched. Those that weren’t attacking even fell back a step, making sure they would be out of range of another pulse. The attacking trio, though, were fearless, barreling in even in the face of that power.

Before the puppets could get to me, I shifted, taking just a small step to my left. As soon as I could set my feet under me, I burst forward, leading with a powerful lunge. My sword blazed as it clove through the night air, lancing into the puppet as it was just getting into its leap. The moment it struck, the power with the blade burst forth, creating a blinding beam of golden light that pierced the darkness, disintegrating the puppet before driving on to crash into its real target – the head puppet which I’d lined up perfectly with the strike.

For a brief moment, I swore that I could see fear in the puppet’s red glowing eye. The next moment, the light struck and the night was filled with the shrillest, most anguished wail that I had ever heard. It assaulted the eardrums, making me wish that I could claw my ears from my head to stop the sound. It hung in the air for only a second before silence, still and lasting, fell over the night.

As the scream faded, taking the horde of puppets with it, the world crashed in. Injured and spent, I dropped to my knees, struggling to keep my very being together. A single faltering moment, and I would be swallowed up for good. I didn’t give reality that moment, clinging to my defense until finally I was sure that I had held the waking world at bay.

“Not dying today,” I told the world, as I fought my way back to my feet. “But I will at least leave you alone.” With those final words, I gathered myself and stepped back into the dream.

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Chapter 16 - Day 7

“You’re sure the leak is fixed?” I asked Rook as we sat in the tower-top laboratory discussion the results of my efforts against the puppets.

Rook nodded. “Yes, your majesty. Dealing with the wayward nightmare seems to have fixed things completely. There have been no signs of any energy being siphoned off, nor of any further degradation.”

“What about long term effects?” I questioned.

“Harder to say, your majesty,” Rook replied. “The lost energy should recover naturally, but it will take some time. I’ll make sure to continue monitoring it.”

That news was about as good as I could expect to hear. It had been close, but the danger to the dream world seemed to be past and Lindsey was safe. I could consider this a victory, though, I hoped future victories would be a little cleaner.

“Very well. Keep me informed,” I told the wizard as I moved to rise. Doing so sent a stab of pain through my abdomen, dropping me back into my seat as I winced in pain.

“Your majesty!” Rook gasped, jumping to his feet.

Before the wizard could rush toward me, I waved him off. “It’s alright. I’m fine. Just not quite a hundred percent yet.”

Once again, I tried to rise, this time doing so more slowly and carefully. It still hurt, but not enough to stop me from getting to my feet. I did need a moment once I did to gather myself before I could do anything else, though.

“Remember to keep me informed,” I reiterated my instruction.

Rook bowed his head in acceptance. “Of course, your majesty. I’ll let you know immediately if anything changes.”

“Good,” I stated, confident that Rook would do exactly as promised. “Now, excuse me, I have other business to attend to today.”

“Of course. Have a pleasant day, your majesty,” Rook offered politely.

“You too, Rook,” I returned before turning and walking out of the room.

After leaving the laboratory, I walked down a few floors to where there was another room in the tower. The room itself was very small, but it sported a large, walk-out balcony. That made it a perfect place to take off from and land on, saving me the trip down the nearly endless flight of stairs.

Unlike usual, I did not enjoy the feel of flying as I hopped off the balcony and soared through the air. I had other things on my mind, things that filled me with anxiety. That anxiety only grew as I left the cloud castle behind, winging toward the city below.

It seemed like only a moment after I took off that I was landing on the ground in front of my destination. Another stab of pain came with that exertion, but it wasn’t even enough to really register in my thoughts. I was too focused on the eggplant house in front of me.

For several seconds, I just stared at the front door of that house. Inside was my family, probably already worrying about me, even though, it had only been a few hours since any of them could have noticed that I was gone. What would they think when they saw me? How would I even convince them that I used to be Henry?

As I worried, I let my gaze fall to my dress, absently running my hands over it. Magic had fixed the various rends and tears, but I still felt the need to recheck it. I realized it didn’t really matter, that what I was wearing was not going to be the focus of anyone’s attention, but I still worried about it. I supposed that I’d been through my mother’s fussing over my clothes too many times to tolerate being shoddy now.

“Well, here it goes,” I finally declared before gathering my energy and stepping between the worlds.

The moment I entered the waking world, I felt its weight and hostility, adding to my weariness from the ordeal the night before. It wasn’t enough to threaten me or drive me away, but it made the last few steps to the front door even harder to take. Every one reminded me that I wasn’t really of this world anymore, that the people in the house weren’t really my family anymore.

Stopping in front of the door, I raised my hand to press the doorbell. My finger froze there, hovering over the button, shaking slightly from nervous energy. It took a gritting of my teeth and a surge of willpower to get me to close that distance and finally press the button.

From inside the house, I could hear the doorbell chime. It was followed by a muffled yell that sounded like my mother. After that, I could hear footsteps on the wood of the foyer beyond the door. They drew closer quickly, stopping just before the latch mechanism began to rattle.

A moment later, the door opened, revealing my younger brother. His mouth was open like he was about to say something, but there were no words. Instead, he just stood there, slack jawed as he stared at me with wide incredulous eyes.

“Hello, Greg,” I greeted, forcing my voice to stay calm.

“H-Hi,” Greg stutted as he continued to gawk. At first, his eyes had wandered over me, taking in my absurd appearance, but it hadn’t taken them long to settle on my chest.

Fighting against embarrassment, I plastered a pleasant smile onto my face. “Could you get … your mother for me.”

“Huh? Oh … s-sure,” Greg stammered, nodding absently. “Just a … just a sec.”

Surprisingly, Greg managed to actually pull his eyes off me, turning to walk back into the house. He didn’t bother to close the door or invite me in as he left, though, leaving me to stand outside, peering through the open portal. It didn’t let me see much, but it was enough to spot my little sister poking her head out from the living room to see who was at the door. Like Greg, her jaw dropped in surprise, but her wide-eyed stare was filled with awe and wonder – at least it was until our eyes met and she ducked shyly back behind the wall.

“There’s a what at the door?!” I heard my mother gasp from inside the kitchen. A couple of seconds later, she stepped into view and became the third member of my family to gawk at me. Her look was more stupefied than anything else.

Trying not to let that reaction get to me, I raised a hand and gave my mother a friendly wave. “Hello.”

“Hi …” my mother replied uncertainly, walking toward me with obvious trepidation. “Is there … uhm ... something I can do for you?”

“It’s more something I can do for you,” I replied. “I have something to tell you about your son, Henry.”

Instantly, my mother’s uncertainty was replaced with worry. “Henry? What do you … “ she began, only to narrow her eyes suspiciously. “Did you do something to him?”

That was an interesting question. Had I done something to Henry? Severing the link had destroyed the shell that was Henry without leaving a single trace of him behind. In a way, I had killed him.

“No,” I answered, unsure if it was a lie. The words that followed, though, I knew were the truth. “I am … was him.”

My mother scrunched her face up in confusion. “What?”

“I … uhm …” I began, struggling to find the words or even look my mother in the eye. I managed the former, but the latter I couldn’t do, dropping my gaze to the ground. “I know you won’t believe me, it’s just not believable, but I am Henry or at least what he became last night.”

Confusion returned to suspicion and then was joined by anger. My mom probably thought I was joking or lying or just intentionally being cruel. “What did you did to my son, you insane bitch?!”

Even expecting my mom not to believe, I couldn’t help but wince at that outburst. “I had to choose between being your son and protecting Lindsey. I chose the latter.” At least, I hoped that was the choice that I had made. “I am Henry, though.”

“That’s not possible,” my mother retorted.

“But it’s possible for there to be a winged, green-haired woman with a fox tail standing here talking to you?” I questioned, wagging my tail so it would poke out from behind me.

The tail movement shook my mom’s denial, but only briefly. “That’s not … those could be fake … and even their real it doesn’t mean you’re Henry.”

I let out an exasperated sigh. “I know that Greg’s been terrorizing Lindsey with videos of scary puppets, which started the day we moved in. I know that Dad came up with Lindsey’s nickname because you always say that she’s cute as a button. I know that, when you found out he had died, you couldn’t even stay standing much less hold onto the phone. I had to finish the call with the doctor for you while you cried on my shoulder.”

My mother crumbled against the tirade of random facts, doubt and uncertainty creeping into her expression. “But … you're a grown woman … err ... faerie?”

“Yeah … about that ... I’m sort of ... the queen of dreams,” I answered shyly.

“The queen of … dreams?” my mother repeated dubiously.

Uncomfortably sweeping my hair back over one shoulder, I nodded. “Yeah … I’m … uh ... Alaria Amenia Anastasia Tsaren the First, actually.”

My mother blinked. “I … uh … I think I need to hear the story from the beginning.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” I remarked. “It’s a bit long, though.”

“Right, well, why don’t you come on in then?” my mother offered, moving to the side to allow me entrance. “I’ll get us some drinks and then you can tell me the whole thing."

“Sounds good to me,” I agreed, stepping into the house. I doubted that my mother fully believed me, but it was a start. Eventually, she would. Still, even when she did, I knew that things would never be the same.

The End

Author’s Note: Hey all, Light Clark here, also known as lightivation or lightoffury or just Light. If you liked the story, consider checking out my free fantasy series, The Trials of Tannen, which is being told in serial at my website here: https://lightivation.wordpress.com/

Also, if you want to support my work, and have a little money to spare, stop by my patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/lightivation No pressure, though. If you just wanted a free read, that’s fine too.

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