Monday, December 5, 2011

untitled chapter 1 (as seen on Evil Editor)

Chapter 1
The National Institute of Mental Health
The National Institute of Mental Health loomed like a giant medieval fortress, a dismal and imposing figure against the orange sky.  Two towers, remnants of the war, flanked the Institute’s entrance.  Atop each tower, a sniper sat in waiting, laser rifle in hand, his index finger lightly caressing the trigger.  A young man was making his way toward the entrance.   
Joe Raymond couldn’t see the shadowy figures whose sights were aimed his direction, but he knew they were there.  His stomach gave an unsettling lurch.  He took a few more steps.  Fifty feet from the entrance, slid up his legs, his torso, his nose—finally coming to rest on his forehead.  Their scarlet glare floated just outside his vision.
Though he had never visited the Institute before, Joe knew the drill.  Legs quivering, he raised his hands above his head slowly, deliberately.
“Stay right where you are,” commanded one of the snipers over a loudspeaker.  “Security will be with you shortly.”
Minutes passed, but it seemed like hours to Joe.  When at last the door in front of him opened, he breathed a sigh of relief.  Three men attired in black uniforms stepped through the opening.  The insignia on their shoulders revealed them as the Institute’s police detail.
An older man with a scarred face stepped forward.  “State your name and your business.”
“Joe…Joe Raymond.  I am here to visit Marietta Lee.”
The man pulled a small electronic device from a pocket in his uniform.  He pressed a button, and the device projected the details of Joe’s visit in the form of a hologram.  A fuzzy reproduction of Joe’s face accompanied a few lines of type.  Only one word mattered to Joe.  Approved.
“It would seem you have been approved,” said the man.  “Please come with us.”  His eyes examined Joe thoroughly.  “Also, now would be the time to inform us if you are carrying any weapons.”
“N-no, no weapons,” said Joe.
“Come with us.”
Joe followed the security detail hesitantly.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that something would go wrong as soon as he stepped through the door.
“You must go through the detector,” said the same man.
“Okay.”  Joe stepped into a large, metallic box.  This box was currently dark, but it would light up quickly after he entered it.  The light, he knew, would turn green if he was deemed safe and red if he was deemed unsafe.  A few anxious moments passed before the light turned green.
“Alright,” said the head of the security detail.  “Please come with us.  There is some paperwork to fill out.”
As Joe followed them, he couldn’t help but think the word paperwork was a bit outdated.  No one used paper anymore.  However, paperwork was, and always had been, associated with bureaucracy.  And seeing as the National Institute for Mental Health was a part of the government, he had expected bureaucracy of the most tiresome sort.
The only man who had spoken thus far took a seat behind a table.  He pointed to the seat opposite him.  “Sit.”
Joe acquiesced.  His heart pounded against his ribcage as he lowered himself into the chair.
“What is the reason for your visit today?” asked the man.
“Didn’t I already tell you?”  Joe noticed his words appearing on the hologram, exactly as he had said them.
“Yes, but I would like to know your actual reason.”
“Th-that is my actual reason,” said Joe nervously, eyes intent on the text that was appearing.
“I don’t doubt that.  What I’m looking for is the ulterior motive.”
“Does their have to be an ulterior motive?” said Joe.
The man scrutinized Joe with a piercing look.  “Don’t play the whole stupid act with me.  It won’t fly.  This is not a pleasant place.  People don’t come here unless they have a very good reason.”
Joe fidgeted in his seat.  “Well, I just heard that an old friend of mine was here.  Marietta and I grew up in the same housing unit.  I wanted to see her.”
“Very well,” said the man as he rose from his chair.  “Follow me.”  He turned to the other guards and ordered them back to their posts.  The head of the security detail clicked a button on his device, and the fuzzy hologram of type faded.
Moments later, he opened a door, then beckoned Joe through it.  Joe shuffled hesitantly through the door, peering back at the man warily.  There was no visible expression on the guard’s scarred face.
Hundreds of doors lined the long hall Joe had entered.  The floor beneath his feet was white, as were the walls and the ceiling.  The general effect was blinding.  Joe slowed his pace, prompting the guard to prod him from behind.
“Keep moving.”
Joe tried to calm his nerves, but he couldn’t help feeling like a prisoner as he marched down the hall.  His mind drifted to the horrors of life in the Institute.  He couldn’t fathom Marietta’s misery in this bleak place.  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Martin Mason-Chapter 1

Chapter 1
A Mother’s Sacrifice
A hooded figure raced through the streets, feet splashing like giant water balloons in ankle-deep puddles.  In her arms was a damp bundle, only identifiable as a baby from the small cry it gave.  She ducked beneath a store’s awning to protect her child from the onslaught of rain.  The baby cried softly.
“Shh,” she urged, stroking the child’s head.  She made a fearful glance to her left, brushing her soaked, sandy blonde hair away from her eyes.  “They might hear us.”
How anyone could hear over the pounding rain and constant thunder, one can only guess, but this woman quaked in terror.  A flash of lightning illuminated her surroundings.  For a moment, she thought she saw a shadowy figure silhouetted against the sky.
Though she tried to assure herself no one else would be out in this weather, the thought felt far from reassuring.  After all, the only people who’d brave these conditions were those searching for her and her child.  Little did it comfort her that they were as unaccustomed to the weather as she.
The woman pulled the blanket away from her baby’s head and looked into his deep blue eyes.  She couldn’t bear the thought of their parting, but as long as her child remained with her, he would never be free; he would never be safe.
A clap of thunder startled her from her thoughts.  She thought she saw somebody again out of the corner of her eye.  It was no longer safe outside.  For the briefest of moments, she stared longingly at the store in front of which she had taken cover—before remembering what she could do.
The woman cradled her child in one arm and pressed her other hand firmly against the door.  The lock clicked.  As she entered the building, she held up a hand to silence the intruder alarm.
Turning the lights on would surely announce her presence, so she closed her eyes and concentrated.  The room was soon illuminated in varying shades of green.  Though she would have preferred actual light, she could at least see.  Night vision had always been one of her strengths.  A rare ability.  But still one she feared her pursuers may have also possessed.
The room turned a blinding green with each flash of lightning.  Fear surged within her.  It was only a matter of time until they found her.  With the resources at their disposal, her pursuers could be anywhere, do anything.  She felt alone, vulnerable; she stood no chance.
Though the woman knew her death was fast-approaching, that wasn’t what bothered her.  No, it was the thought of her child, of the life he was sure to have if they found him.
She jumped.  A clock behind had chimed.  She glanced at it to see it was three o’clock in the morning.  Her heart pounded in her chest.  A few hours from now, the sun would rise; she would be visible, even more vulnerable than she already was.
Her child let out another small cry.  She caressed his head lovingly.  “Please, be quiet…please.”
But the child didn’t recognize her words; he could only sense her anxiety—and it did little to stop his crying.  Louder and louder the child wailed.  Thunder cracked overhead.  The once intermittent lightning now flashed almost continuously, nearly blinding her.  The time for her night vision had gone.
She turned her head and gazed at the unrelenting storm.  With each flash of lightning, she feared they’d see her.  With each boom of thunder, the baby cried more loudly.  And as she stared out the window, she let out a cry nearly as loud.
Standing beneath the awning, right outside the window, was the figure of a man.  His eyes were staring directly at her.  Without a second thought, the woman turned and dashed through the crowded shop.  The door burst open behind her, and the intruder alarm sounded for a few seconds before the man disabled it.
Objects crashed to the floor as the man hurtled toward her.  She turned around and saw his figure.  Pointing her finger toward the large grandfather clock that had just chimed, she made it slide across the floor, right into the man’s path.  It knocked him off his feet, which she hoped would provide her the few seconds she needed to escape.
Her child cradled securely in her arms, she rushed past shelves of countless antiques: beautiful vases, worn flower pots, old paintings.  If it came to it, she knew she could use these to hold him off awhile.
The sound of heavy footsteps told the woman her pursuer had regained his footing.  She wrapped her left arm tightly around her child and pointed her right behind her.  Though she had no idea what she had sent flying, it must have hurt, judging by her pursuer’s swearing.
The woman spotted a door to the left and whisked herself through it.  She closed the door, then held her hand over it.  The lock glowed for a moment.  Although this ability wasn’t a specialty of hers, she hoped it could hold for at least a few seconds.
Her pursuer approached the door and tried to push it open.  It didn’t budge.  The woman knew she should take off running, but she felt compelled to stare into the eyes of her attacker for the first time.  She recognized his dark eyes, his reddish-brown hair.  The man was one of her husband’s top assassins, a man who never failed to get his quarry.
She took off running.  The assassin swore loudly as he threw his body against the sealed door.  She immediately realized the room she had entered was windowless, so she enabled her night vision.  Even with the aid of her ability, however, the room remained difficult to navigate.
The door burst open.  Her attacker stumbled into the room, blind, sending crates crashing to the floor.  The woman felt the first surge of hope in hours.  Her baby still cradled in her left arm, she dashed through the storage room.  With a flick of her right wrist, she sent enormous crates flying in all directions.
A few moments later, she spotted the store’s backdoor.  Hastening her pace, she broke through it.  The room behind her lit up with a momentary flash of light.  Her attacker surely saw her.  But she didn’t turn around to check.
Cold rain pelted the child’s face.  He let out another loud cry.  His mother wrapped the blankets back around him and continued running.  When she emerged from the back alley, she found herself beneath store awnings on the next street. 
The baby’s cries soon began to die down, for which she was thankful.  She had no idea how many people were pursuing her, if more were listening expectantly for the sound of her child’s cries.  For all she knew, a trap awaited her.
Rain pounded on the canopy above.  Thunder cracked overhead.  At least the baby’s cries would be inaudible over the din.
She passed about ten stores, all dark.  Though breaking into another one crossed her mind, she knew she couldn’t hide forever.  With a backward glance, she could have sworn she saw another shadow silhouetted against the lightning-crossed sky.
The woman reached the end of the awning.  She feared her child would cry again when the rain began to drench him.  But she had no choice.  Stepping away from the awning, she rounded a corner and saw something that filled her with hope.
To her left was a building, lights glowing in its windows.  The mother hastened her pace.  As she neared the building, her heart leapt.
It was a police station.
This was a place to drop off her child, a place he had a chance at safety.  Well, as long as her pursuers didn’t see her enter.  Making a quick sideways glance with her night vision, she saw nobody.
The woman opened the door and ducked inside the police station.  She immediately spotted two officers sitting at a table on the far side of the room.  They looked up from their cups of coffee.
One of the officers, a man of about thirty, rose from his seat.  “Are you all right, ma’am?”
“P-please,” she stammered, “take my child.  Hide him.”
“What is going on, ma’am?”  The officer’s brown eyes had taken on a look of alarmed concern.
“P-please, take him.”  She shivered uncontrollably, noticing how cold the rain had made her.  “D-don’t l-let them take him.”
The other officer rose from his seat.  “Don’t let who take him?”
“You wouldn’t understand!” she cried, shuddering, glancing at the windows behind her.  “I don’t have much time.  Take him.  Hide him.”
“Ma’am, just calm down,” said the first officer.  “Take a deep breath and explain what’s going on.”
“They’re going to kill me.  They’re going to take my baby, my dear Martin.”
“Who is going to kill you, ma’am?”
“You wouldn’t understand!”
The second officer stepped toward her.  “Please, sit down.  If somebody’s after you, we can protect you.”
She looked sadly into his eyes.  “No, I’m afraid you can’t.  No one and nothing can protect you after he decides to kill you.”
“Ma’am, you’re making no sense,” said the first officer.  “Who is trying to kill you?  We are the police.  We can help.”
“No one can help.”  She held out the child and handed him to the officer.  He didn’t want to take hold of the baby at first, but, when she pulled her arms away, he had no choice.  The officer nearly dropped the baby.  The woman had already burst through the door by the time he regained a firm grip.
“Ma’am!” he called out.  “Come back!  Your baby!”
That was the last thing she heard before the door closed.  She raced through the downpour, which had grown more intense since she had entered the police station.  Thoughts of the dry comforts of home tormented her mind.  But those comforts, she knew, came with a price.  A life of imprisonment and servitude.  Her world was in the grip of dark times, and her husband was behind it.
She had been taken in by him at first.  The allure of power, she knew.  Evil though he was, her husband was a powerful man, more powerful perhaps than any who had lived before him.  Too late she had realized that, with such power, came evil, the deepest depths of darkness.
She couldn’t allow her child to grow up in that world and follow in his father’s footsteps as his brothers had before him, the brothers who were not her children.  Cruel and despicable, they were, just like their father.  She swore her son would never know evil, would never turn to the dark.
The woman tried to hold back the tears as she thought of her cold, wet son in the arms of the young officer.  But there were more pressing matters at that moment.  It was only a matter of time until her pursuers found her again.
She ducked behind the police station, where she saw a few patrol cars sitting unattended.  Though she hesitated for a moment, the woman knew what she must do.  She pressed her hand against the door.  The lock clicked.  After situating herself in the seat, she placed her hand on the steering wheel.
The engine burst to life.  She put the car in drive and maneuvered it onto the street.  In the surrounding din, the officers wouldn’t notice the missing car until the morning.
The woman made her way to the main thoroughfare through town, the car’s windshield wipers straining against the onslaught of rain.  She checked the rearview mirror every few seconds as if she had a nervous tick.  Any moment, she expected to see the lights of a car behind her.  But the small town seemed empty apart from her and her stolen police vehicle.
The woman pressed the gas pedal nearly to the floor as she far exceeded the speed limit.  Though the road was empty, she longed to be out of town quickly, more for her child’s safety than for her own.  The farther she was from here when they found her, the less chance they stood of finding her son.
She made her way to the highway and started to drive even faster to the south.  Where she was going, she had no idea.  Anywhere was better than staying in town and exposing her son to the greedy hands of evil.  It was better that he’d never know of the world where he was born.  Better that he’d never know his father.
Despite her fatigue, she drove through the next day, stopping only occasionally for food.  Never did she rest for more than a few minutes time.  The longer she stayed in one place, the better a chance they had of tracking her.  People like her didn’t belong in the “normal” world.  And though she didn’t understand how, she knew her pursuers could track her.
She had decided to abandon the police car.  It would be too conspicuous.  At a nearly deserted rest stop, she had taken the opportunity and grabbed another car.  She felt bad for the people she had stranded, but her need was greater than theirs at the moment.
The woman made frequent detours to throw off her pursuers.  Sometimes, she turned onto another highway, sometimes onto a deserted country road.  All the while, she felt cornered.  She could have sworn cars were deliberately following her, stalking her every move.
That night, she stayed at a motel in the middle of nowhere.  From what she had read on highway signs, she knew she had stopped in a place called Arkansas and that she had come from a place called Missouri.  Like the rest of the “normal” world, though, it was completely unfamiliar to her. 
And that was her brightest hope, that her pursuers were as disoriented as she.
After staying awake for almost two days, sleep should have been easy to come by.  Her mind, however, raced with fear.  Though she had drawn the curtains across the window, she compulsively peered through them every minute or two.  The motel’s parking lot remained still, empty, and silent.
Her eyelids drooped, and she collapsed into bed.  Sleep, though, proved impossible.  She couldn’t stop worrying about her fate, about her son’s fate.  Was he, even now, back in the clutches of her evil husband?  Did the police hide him as she had instructed them?
A car door slammed outside.  She jerked upright in bed.  As was her custom when she heard any sound, she peered through the curtains.  When she did, she saw the very sight she had feared.
A man was slowly making his way right toward her door.  His figure was shadowy and indistinct, but his gait had a purpose to it, something she had come to recognize in her husband’s best assassins.
With a jolt of terror, the woman realized there was only one exit, the one outside which the assassin stood.  Her only chance was to fight.  But what chance did she stand against a trained assassin, a man who had mastered abilities she’d never attempt in her wildest dreams?
The woman pressed her hand against the door, sealing it.  It would hold for at least a few seconds.  No time to grab anything, she dashed to the other side of the room.
As much as she regretted the laws she had already broken and the damage she had already done, it was time for a little more.  She pointed her right hand toward the wall opposite the door.  With a sound like a gunshot, a large hole appeared in the wall.
The residents of the adjoining room screamed and held their small children close as she sprinted past them.  Seconds behind her was the assassin.  The woman flung the door open and raced into the dark night.  Cars and trucks rumbled past on a nearby highway.
She scrambled toward the highway, stumbling up a steep embankment.  Her attacker was gaining on her.  A whoosh of air flew over her head, accompanied by a flash of white light.  Judging by its color, the man had only tried to knock her unconscious.
This filled her with a newfound sense of hope.  If they weren’t trying to kill her, they hadn’t found her son.  They needed her to find him.  That, however, was one thing she’d never allow.
She finally climbed to the edge of the highway.  Vehicles hurtled past at seventy-plus miles per hour, their drivers unaware of her predicament, probably making their way back to their families and their peaceful lives.  The kind of life she hoped her son would have.
The assassin had caught up to her.  This was the moment.  There would be no more running, no more evading.
“You’ve given us quite a challenge, Amy.  Never would have expected it from you.”
“I-I’ll take that as a compliment, James.”  She attempted the most powerful pose she could muster, though her legs shook uncontrollably.  All this time, she had known her death was fast-approaching, but, now that it was at hand, it felt completely different.  Her heart felt so strong, so powerful.  To think it would soon stop…
The man eyed her intently, a piercing look behind his dark eyes.  “Where is your son?  Where is Martin?”
“Somewhere you’ll never find him!”
“We shall see about that.”  The man stepped forward and pressed his hand to her forehead.  She had expected immeasurable pain, but instead it was her mind he assaulted.  Images flashed before her eyes: Martin as a newborn, her smuggling him through the portal to the “normal world,” the shop where she had hidden…
With immense effort, she pulled his hand away from her forehead.  She wouldn’t give up his location.  Not after all this.  She pushed the assassin.  He tumbled down the hill, caught by surprise.
While he clambered back to his feet, she stepped to the highway guardrail and hoisted herself over it.  She stood resolutely on the shoulder of the highway.  A pair of headlights approached from a distance.
Motion out of the corner of her eye caught her attention.  The assassin had climbed back to the top of the hill.
“Get back here now!” he shouted as he vaulted the guardrail.
The next few seconds passed as if in slow motion.  She turned and stepped into the flow of traffic.  The man inched toward her.  She caught the look of horror in his eyes.  A dazzlingly bright light appeared in her peripheral vision.
She turned and faced the light.  A truck horn sounded.  The lights grew brighter and brighter until nothing else filled her vision.  Nothing else mattered.  Her heart pounded its last few beats.  She faced imminent death with the knowledge that her son Martin was safe.
The scream of her would-be murderer was the last sound she ever heard.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Chapter 2

This is the other chapter I mentioned on Evil Editor.  I originally switched it to the first chapter, but my creating writing group didn't think it worked all that well.  It wasn't that anything was wrong with the chapter.  It was more an issue of audience.  Even if the focus in my query is on Malia, they said I should open up with Vardin's chapter because starting out with a girl is likely to turn away young male readers, who apparently can't handle female protagonists.

It would be great to hear anyone's thoughts on which chapter I should use to start the book.  I think it can work either way because the start isn't really chronological.  As always, comments on the chapter are welcome.  I just brought this chapter into my creative writing group for critique and left with a lot of helpful comments.
Note: If you think the note from the mother is terrible, it won't surprise me.  I haven't gotten around to fixing it yet.

Chapter 2

A Poor Engagement

Malia rubbed her eyes and yawned as she slipped out from the covers atop her bed. Disturbing images flashed through her head, the same as always. The blood-stained sheets. The shapeless red and black figure. That same nightmare plagued her nearly every night, though its vividness had diminished over time. As Malia rolled across the mattress, she felt something strange and recoiled, still ensnared in the dream’s spell.

What was that? she thought as she touched the hard, rectangular object beneath her covers. Malia lifted the blanket to see the book she had attempted to read the previous night. She breathed a sigh of relief. I must have fallen asleep while reading it. It wasn’t a very good book anyway. She chuckled silently.

Malia rose from her bed and strolled toward the door to an adjacent room. She knocked and called out, “Agara.”

Malia’s servant, an older woman with short, brown-gray hair, opened the door and stepped toward her. She smiled kindly and looked into Malia’s deep brown eyes. “What do you need, dear?”

“First, Agara, I need you to fix my hair, please. Then, I need you to pick out a good outfit for me. I suppose I must make a good impression on my suitor when he arrives this evening.”

“My princess, you look stunning no matter what you wear.”

“Oh, Agara,” she tried to laugh as she shook her head. “If only everyone felt the same way.”

Princess Malia and her servant entered the huge closet next to Agara’s room. Agara pointed at a pink silk dress. “How about that one?”

“I am not in a pink mood today,” Malia sighed. When am I ever in a pink mood?
Agara’s eyes widened in surprise. “But you look beautiful in pink.”

Malia examined the remaining dresses for a few seconds before pointing at an elaborate white silk dress. “I will wear that one,” she told Agara, more to be done with the search than because she liked the dress. “Would you please retrieve it for me?”

Agara ambled over and delicately removed the dress from its hangar. A slight frown crossed her face as she scrutinized it. “Oh, you’re right! This dress is perfect!” Her expression said otherwise.

Agara dressed Princess Malia, making a great effort to prevent wrinkles. The dress seemed snug as she finessed it over Malia’s shoulders. Then again, the princess lacked the ideal build. By no stretch of the imagination was she fat, but neither did she feel inclined to watch what she ate.

Finally dressed, Malia looked at herself in the mirror. “It is . . . nice,” she admitted as she shifted the dress around to make it more comfortable. “Except my hair is still a complete and utter mess.”

“Well, let’s fix that right now.” Agara grabbed a brush off the dresser and ran it through Malia’s mess of long brown hair.

“Agara, I am worried about today.” She winced as the brush snagged on a knot in her hair. “I have this feeling something bad is going to happen.”

“That’s only your nerves, dear. You’re meeting your suitor today. This is a very important day in your life. It’s alright to be nervous.”

Her hair straight, Malia looked more like a princess. “That must be what it is. I must be worried about meeting him.”

Agara set the brush down. “That should do it. Your hair looks wonderful, dear.”

“Thank you, Agara. Sometimes, I do not know what I would do without you.” She shook her head and smiled. “I would fail miserably at being a princess.”

Agara gave Malia a quick, caring hug, then shuffled back through the door adjacent to Malia’s bedroom while Malia strolled the other way.

One of the guards protecting the door looked her way as she stepped into the hallway. “Good morning. You look beautiful today, Princess Malia.”

“How awful of you,” Malia joked, trying to calm her queasy stomach. “I would hope I look beautiful every day.”

“O-of course, b-but you look even more stunning than usual.”

Malia smiled at the guard’s frantic reply as she strolled through the hallway and toward the stairs. Taking care not to fall in her high-heeled shoes, she stepped down the long spiral staircase to the bottom of the tower.

These steps are far too thin
, she thought as her right foot nearly slipped. And I hate these shoes. It required a great deal of self-control not to send them flying down the stairs.

When she arrived in the palace dining room, her father, the king of Crayden, had already begun eating his breakfast.

“Good morning, Malia,” he greeted her between bites.

“Good morning, Father. What news of my suitor?”

The king set his spoon down on a cloth napkin. “He sent a messenger earlier this morning. He plans to arrive around noon rather than in the evening.”

“That is great.” Malia brushed her hair out of her face as a servant filled her glass with freshly-squeezed juice. “Now I do not have to wear this terribly uncomfortable dress for so long.”

She seated herself in a chair at the table, thankful she would soon meet her potential husband. The worries from a few minutes earlier had receded to the back of her mind. Another servant hustled over and quickly placed a napkin in front of Malia

“Servants!” her father ordered. “Stop taking so long, and acquire some sustenance for my daughter.”

The servant nearly sprinted to the kitchen.

“He is definitely great for you, Malia.” She nodded, swinging her legs beneath the table. “He is very worthy of being my successor.” She nodded again, staring at the empty space of table before her. “He is a powerful, commanding man who knows how to run a kingdom.”

“But is he nice, Father? How will he treat me?”

“Well, um he . . . yes he will treat you splendidly, dear.” The king scratched his head.

A servant set a large plate down in front of Malia while those old sentiments began to filter their way back to the forefront of her thoughts.

“Thank you,” she told the servant. The man bowed as he turned away from her. Malia looked down at the plate and began shoving chunks of food into her mouth.

Her father gave her a disapproving glare. “Malia, you must eat more like a lady. Nobody wants to marry a woman who eats like that. If your mother had eaten like that-”

“Okay, father,” Malia retorted, bits of food flying from her lips. “You know I do not eat like this in front of company.”

“I know, dear,” he responded as he returned to his breakfast. “Obviously, you do not.”

Malia continued eating, hardly paying attention to her father, for this was his usual manner; she had learned to live with it.

“What am I going to do for two hours?” she complained with a heavy sigh, glaring at her father. “Noon is still two hours away, and this dress is so awfully restricting. I cannot do anything fun in it.”

“Why not try being more ladylike?”

“I am ladylike!” Malia argued, her mouth stuffed with food again. She swallowed. “Or at least I am when I wish to be.”

“Well, you should still make it a habit.”

“If I must, father.”

But Malia’s father remained at the table as she left the dining chamber. Instead of ascending the stairs as usual, she passed them and entered the palace library. Sometimes, she thought, this room is the only thing keeping me from leaving this place.
Dozens of shelves housed the many books of her ancestors’ collections. Malia had already read most of them, though a few hundred still lay untouched by the back wall. She surveyed these books, noticing no real sense of organization, which frustrated her.

Malia picked up one dusty book and looked at its cover. It was titled ‘A History of the Ring of Darkness,’ and its author started with an H, though the rest of the letters had faded. As she opened the book, a small piece of paper fluttered to the floor.

Malia grabbed the paper and immediately recognized her mother’s handwriting. She felt a twinge of sadness as she gazed at the words.

Jevian, I miss you so much, dear. I know your business in Darbrook is important, but I feel like Malia would benefit from knowing her father a little better. Perhaps, I worry too much, but I fear what may happen if Armoth discovers what I am doing. When I became involved, I knew I was taking a risk, but that was before Malia was born. I expect her to carry on my work one day, but right now, she is too young to understand. However, I fear for her. If Armoth sends his Darkness Guards after us, I would not put it past them to kill her too. Harius has told me that Malia is special and that I should take special care, not only to protect her, but to teach her as well. If only she showed some interest in learning. Right now, she is so concerned about being a princess and fulfilling her duties that I worry. Not that she should ignore her royal duties, but I am hoping this is only a phase. I know, I worry too much. After all, I worry that the courier will not be able to find you.

With love,


Malia took a deep breath, slipped the note back in the book, and closed it. That was probably the last thing she ever wrote. My father was away in Darbrook when it happened. A hint of anger surged through her veins.

“I will make you proud, Mom.”

Her eyes lingered on the dusty book for a few more seconds. Becoming upset over Mom now will not improve anything, she reminded herself. You must learn to control your emotions, Malia. They will cloud your judgment when you most need it.

Malia needed something to take her mind off the note, so she strolled in the direction of one of her favorite books. She grabbed it from the shelf and smiled as she gazed at the title: ‘Luminenian Symbols: How to Decipher the Mysterious Runes.’

After about an hour of reading, Malia heard her father’s voice. “I told you to focus on being ladylike. Is that what you are doing right now?” He appeared from the other side of a bookshelf.

“No, Father.”

“And why are you not doing as I told you?”

“I see no need.”

King Jevian’s face turned red with anger. “Well, I do, young lady. So you better put that book down right now and start practicing. Ladies do not read books!”

Malia glared at her father. “Are you saying Mom was not a lady, then?”

“That is it! Go to your room! And if you choose to disobey me again, you can say goodbye to your library privileges.”

“Fine!” Malia threw the book to the ground and stomped past her father.

An incredibly boring hour later, Malia and the king stood in the palace foyer, waiting. She surveyed the many elaborate decorations on the walls and thought, I like them. But are they really necessary? If somebody came in here and destroyed this place, would the loss of these decorations change the world in any way?
Malia’s thought process was interrupted as the gate began lifting. She looked at the clock in the palace lobby to see her suitor had arrived about ten minutes early. As it clanked and groaned, the opening gate revealed aspects of his appearance. First, his boots—black and shiny, embellished with small gold bands which appeared to serve no functional purpose. Then, his pants—dark red with intricate gold accouterments.

As the gate revealed more of his appearance, Malia noticed the same elaborate design on his suit jacket, which he had buttoned all the way to the top.

He certainly took care to impress me
, she thought, noting every piece of clothing perfectly accentuated her suitor’s tall, handsome figure. He looked strong and a little intimidating, though not too large. Confidence radiated from every square inch of his body. His short dark hair and golden brown skin complemented the rest of his appearance, and Malia couldn’t help but fall in love with his physical attributes.

The appearance of her suitor presently surprised Malia, though she still worried how he’d treat her. But she failed to understand the reasoning behind her intuition, for she had never met the man.

The suitor bowed to the king. “Greetings, Your Majesty. I am Tylen. Your daughter is even more radiant than I had imagined.”

Malia blushed, though his remark struck her as insincere.

Tylen turned to her. “Hello, Your Majesty. I kindly entreat you to sit down to a small lunch with me, if your father approves, of course.” He gave the king a quick, overly wide smile.

“That would be splendid!” The king sounded more excited than he had in years. “I shall inform the servants.” He strode into the next room and out of earshot.

Tylen grinned at her. “Good afternoon, darling.” Malia flinched in disgust.

“First of all,” she declared, her voice angry yet still quiet. She made direct eye contact with Tylen, taking in his strong jawline and dark, piercing eyes. “Do not call me darling. We are not yet married, and I do not believe it is prudent for you to act as though we are the first time we meet.”

“There is no need to worry about such things.” He caressed her face with his hand.

She swiveled her face away from his touch. “Second of all, I would prefer that you not do that.” He stroked her shoulder, but she twisted her body and faced the wall.

When Malia’s father returned a few moments later, an awkward silence had fallen upon the room. Tylen stood there, trying to look as composed as possible while Malia faced away from him, staring into the corner of the room.

The king failed to notice the tension in the air. “Let us proceed into the dining chamber!” Tylen and Malia followed him and sat down in adjacent chairs for a small lunch.

“How are you, my dear?” Tylen asked, insincerity evident in his voice, at least to Malia.

“Everything is great,” Malia lied, casting him a dirty look.

Tylen beamed at her. “That is good. I cannot overcome your beauty. It is simply astonishing.”

“Thank you.” Trying to avoid Tylen’s eyes, she angled her head downward at the plate of food the servant had placed in front of her.

Malia ate her food silently while Tylen discussed his wealth and status with her father. Could this man possibly be a bigger jerk? she thought as she continued eating, each bite less ladylike than the last. She kicked her shoes onto the floor. Maybe if I act like the worst lady ever, he will leave and never bother me again. Malia picked up a soft green vegetable with her hand instead of her fork and shoved it into her mouth dramatically.

King Jevian failed to notice her theatrics. “So, what do you think, Malia?”

Her thoughts escaping her, she stared blankly.

Tylen placed his hand gently on Malia’s shoulder. “Not to worry, I think she is simply overcome by the excitement of the day. I must admit I am rather excited as well.” He smiled in Malia’s direction, but she felt like punching him in the face.

“Malia, darling, what do you think of marrying Tylen next week? The wedding preparations have already been completed.”

She fidgeted in her seat. Should I tell the truth? I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with him.
“I would hate it.”

Tylen and her father both stared at her, their mouths hanging open in an unattractive manner. Malia would have laughed given different circumstances.

Tylen recovered his composure first. “Why, my darling?” He reached his hand toward her.

“I am not ready!” Malia knocked her chair to the floor with a loud clang.

She stormed out of the room and up the stairs, then burst through the door to her room and ripped the dress off, not caring if she tore it. She grabbed an off white, sleeveless shirt and forced it over her shoulders before pulling on some tan-colored pants and tying her hair back in a ponytail to keep it away from her face.

Malia opened the door to Agara’s room and took a deep breath to quell her anger. “Agara, would you please bring my bow down to the archery range.”

She exited her room and turned down the corridor to the left, passing her father’s room and a few more rooms of which she didn’t know the purpose. To her right stood the only door to an interior room. It had been used for storage but had recently been emptied, much to her dismay a few mornings earlier when the noise in the corridor had thwarted her attempt to sleep in.

Finally, Malia reached the other set of stairs in the hallway. When she arrived at the bottom, she stepped through a door to the archery range outside. Agara, completely unaware of the scene that had unfolded, followed with her bow and a good supply of arrows.

She handed the bow to Malia and stepped back to watch the princess, who put an arrow on the bow, pulled it back, and released. The arrow flew swiftly through the air and struck the target in the center. Malia shot another arrow, achieving the same result.

Why does my father always force me to do things I don’t want to do, she thought angrily as one of her arrows flew astray. That’s enough of this. She threw her bow to the ground and stomped back up to her bedroom. Still furious with her father, she locked the door and flopped violently onto her bed. There she lay, crying about her situation, the splotches of her tears marring the beauty of her sheets.

“Malia,” her father’s voice called through the door a few minutes later. Though he sounded furious, he attempted to control his anger. “Malia, dear, could you open the door?”

“No! Go away!”

“I understand you are upset. But you need to open this door right now.”

“I am not opening that door—not for you, not for anyone!”

“You do know the guards have the key to this door. Do you not?”

“Yes, Father, but may you please leave me alone and allow me to sort things out?”

“How dare you act as if you have done nothing wrong? Have you any idea the shame you brought upon the family with your actions today!”

Malia rolled off her bed, her feet slamming the floor. “Have you any idea the shame I feel at having an imbecile for a father!”

“That is no way to speak to your father, young lady.”

“I see nothing wrong with it,” she retorted as she stepped over to her dresser and began pushing it toward the door to form a barricade.

“What are you doing?” the king asked upon hearing the noise.

Malia said nothing as the dresser slid against the door. Her adrenaline pumping, she grabbed the chest of drawers to strengthen the barricade. It proved heavy, and her arms began to ache.

“I asked you a question, young lady.”

“And I have chosen not to answer it.”

“How dare you be so impertinent to your father?”

“How dare you be so inconsiderate to your daughter? Have I no right to choose whom I wish to marry?”

“You have a duty to fulfill as princess of this kingdom!” the king bellowed as the chair Malia pushed collided with the chest of drawers. “And what are you doing in there?”

“Keeping you out.”

“Give me the key,” Malia heard her father ask one of the guards.

“Yes, sir.”

King Jevian placed the key in the lock and turned it, but when he tried to push the door open, it didn’t budge. He pushed again, straining his shoulder. “That’s it!”

His footsteps stomped down the hallway, and Malia soon heard Agara’s door burst open. She rushed over in an attempt to barricade the door between their rooms, but her father flung it open before she had the chance.

“Alright,” her father began, taking a deep breath and holding his hand out in a calming motion, “I understand your concerns. However, I believe you should give Tylen another chance.”

“No, I refuse.”

His face turned red. “Malia, let us try this again.” He took another deep breath. “You shall give Tylen another chance.”

“No, I shall not.”

“If you say one more insolent word, I swear I will…I will-”

“You will what—stutter at me?”

Her father grabbed her arm and yanked her toward him. “What did I just say?” A vein throbbed in his temple.

Malia tried to pull her arm free, but he tightened his grip. “Ow, father, you are hurting me!”

“Well, what you did today hurt me? I never expected such disrespect from my own daughter.”

“Respect is earned.” She wrenched her arm from his grasp and fell backward to the ground.

The king jumped back in surprise and glanced anxiously at Malia. “A-are you all right, Malia?” He looked at the hand that had clutched Malia’s arm and shook his head.

“I am fine, Father,” she replied bitterly.

“That is...good, yes.” He glanced back to see Agara standing in the doorway. “Perhaps, you are right, Malia. Perhaps, I should let you figure things out.” The king turned to leave, then stopped for a moment. “However, do not think this means what you did today was proper, for it most certainly was the most impertinent display I have ever seen.”

Agara stepped out of the way as King Jevian whisked himself through the door, his heavy footsteps clunking on the wood floor. She gave Malia a caring glance before shuffling through the door herself and closing it.

Why must he make me marry such a horrible man? Malia thought as soon as the sound of her father’s footsteps faded. It simply is not fair. I don’t care if I’m a princess. I should be able to live my own life, make my own choices.

The power of this thought suddenly struck her. Wait, that’s it. I’ll run away from this restricting life and live a life in which I can make my own choices. Thinking about that makes me feel so much better.
She had already prepared to gather her things when she realized the impulsiveness of these actions. Wait, maybe if I talk to my father, I can convince him that I don’t want to marry Tylen. But he seems so enamored with the man. I don’t understand it. Obviously, my father believes he can perform well as a ruler. Is that all my father cares about? Does he care about me?
“A-Agara,” she called out.

“What is it, dear?” She sounded concerned, unaccustomed to hearing the princess so distressed.

“Could you come in here, please?”

The door between their rooms opened a few seconds later, and Agara entered through it. She sat down beside Malia on the bed and put her warm hand on the princess’s shoulder. “Today didn’t go too well, did it?”

Malia contorted her face in an effort to hold back the tears. “No, I am not sure what it is, but I simply despise something about that man.”

“Give him time, dear. Your father wouldn’t like him if he was a terrible man.”

“I am not so sure. You know how my father has been ever since . . .”

“And that is because he loved your mother very much.” Agara gave Malia a reassuring smile. “And he loves you too. He wants what’s best for you.”

Malia’s jaw quivered. “B-but does he? If he loved Mom so much, why must he refuse to let me be more like her?”

“Perhaps, he is trying to protect you. Your mother was a great woman, Malia, but what she did put her in danger.”

“I can handle danger! I have tried my best to prepare for it. I have learned archery. I have studied history and languages and countless other subjects. I know the danger my mother faced, and I am willing to face it as well. However, my father will not let me. He wishes that I be a nice, boring, obedient queen for a rich aristocrat like Tylen, and that is not the path I wish to take.”

“We can’t always determine our own paths, dear. My family has been palace servants for generations, so when I was born, it was clear I’d be one too. It may not be your fate to be like your mother.”

“That is a terrible example,” Malia retorted as she shook her head. “I know I must follow her path. She told me to carry on her work. And from that moment, I have dedicated my life to her. I wish to accomplish great things. Ever since Mom died, I have felt like there is a reason for my life, some kind of destiny, and that destiny is not to be married to someone like Tylen and spend my entire life hiding behind the palace walls.”

“I understand, dear. But I still think you should speak to your father and tell him how you feel.”

“I have tried before, but he does not want to listen. He has his idea of what I should be, and if I tell him otherwise, he will not care.”

“But he has allowed you to practice archery and study all these subjects.”

“He did not want to, though. I simply annoyed him enough to obtain what I wanted. I think he now regrets that he allowed me to learn these things at all, so he found a powerful man to instruct me on what I should and should not be doing.” Malia crossed her arms in disgust.

“You and I may not agree with him,” Agara reiterated. “But I do believe he has what he sees as your best interests at heart.”

“It would have been different if he had been there when Mom . . .”

“I know. It’s afternoon, though, and my old body is tired. I was up before the sun after all. We can talk more tomorrow. Okay? We’ll talk later, dear.” She gently patted Malia’s shoulder as she rose from the bed.

“Thank you, Agara.”

As soon as Agara closed the door, Malia contemplated her options again. I know I should listen to Agara, but my instincts still tell me I must leave. Though it doesn’t make any sense, it seems like it’s what I should do. I’ll write Agara a note telling her I left. I hope she doesn’t think poorly of me. She’s the closest thing I’ve had to a mother since Mom died, and it’s really difficult to do this to her. But I have to leave.

Once night fell, Malia collected items she figured she’d need. She found a stack of gold coins on her dresser and shoved them into her pockets. Then, she ducked under her bed, where she had hidden a bow and a few quivers of arrows in case anyone ever attacked the palace while she slept. Malia grabbed them and slung them across her back.

She thought about taking a few extra outfits but realized carrying them would prove too difficult. Finally, she stuffed her bag with a few more miscellaneous items and put on comfortable walking shoes. Malia only remembered at the last moment she had intended to write Agara a note.

Guards were always stationed at the door, so she couldn’t escape that way, leaving the window as her only exit. She opened its fancy gold frame and stepped onto the narrow ledge beneath it. As she looked down, the ground appeared to be at least forty feet below her. It looked so far away.

“You can do this,” Malia told herself as second thoughts crept into her mind. The ledge was barely large enough for her feet. Her legs started to shake.

The princess looked down again and saw another narrow ledge only about six feet below the one on which she stood. She hung off her ledge and quietly dropped to it, almost slipping as she landed.

“Whew,” she gasped. “That was close.” The ground still looked small and distant.

The next ledge was much the same, as were the remaining three below it. When Malia finally stood on the lowest ledge, the ground still looked small ten feet below. She hung precariously off the edge and hesitated. Though it proved a long drop, the princess summoned the courage to let go. She tumbled backward as she hit the ground, noticing a slight twinge in her ankle. But it was nothing serious.

The night dark, Malia could see only from the light the full moon cast on her surroundings. She walked stealthily across the palace grounds so as not to attract the attention of the guards at the front door—quickly ducking behind a large statue of her great grandfather to avoid the sight of a patrolling guard.

As Malia escaped the palace grounds, she remained close enough to hear the low conversation of those guards, though she couldn’t tell exactly what they were saying. She crouched out of sight behind a hedge, occasionally peering through the brambles to make sure no one was coming.

Malia continued walking through the grass since it proved much quieter than walking on the rock paved path leading from the palace. The decorative hedges no longer concealed her, but she had snuck far enough away the guards wouldn’t spot her unless they knew exactly where to direct their eyes.

Finally, Malia reached the edge of the city of Crayden. She sought to avoid attention from the people on the streets. As she surveyed her surroundings, she noticed their ratty old clothes, their sad faces, the looks of desperation in their eyes—a stark contrast with Malia’s sheltered life.

It’s so unfortunate, she thought pensively. Why do all these people have to live like this?

Malia noticed their watchful eyes as she walked by, periodically glancing over her shoulder to be certain no one had followed her. She felt relieved she hadn’t dressed like a princess; that would have attracted a lot of attention, and if anyone recognized her, she would find herself in a great deal of trouble.

Malia noticed many of these people appeared old, some quite sick. They looked at Malia and her clean clothing, hoping to receive something, but sadly, she had nothing to give them and tried to avert their glances. She carried only what she absolutely needed and wished with all her heart she had something—forgetting about the small fortune in her pockets.

As Malia passed a large tavern, she spotted a Darkness Guard carrying an unconscious man out the door. I wonder what happened, she thought as she ducked into an alley beside the seedy establishment. And why is a Darkness Guard doing that? Shouldn’t it be a town guard’s job?
The man passed but never looked to his right where the princess had failed to conceal herself. With a sigh of relief, Malia trekked across the rest of the city until she reached the eastern side, where a large forest stood. She gazed at the tall trees looming in front of her and wondered where she should go.

Despite her uncertainty, Malia’s intuition propelled her feet into the forest. She strolled under the dense canopy of trees, which looked menacing in the darkness of the night. Malia feared there may be bears or other wild animals in the forest, but she had never heard tale of any attacks.

After walking through the night, exhaustion gripped Malia. Halfway through the day, her feet refused to carry her one more step, so she decided to rest in a clearing. The beams of sunlight passing through the dense foliage looked beautiful to her. Small yellow flowers dotted the meadow. This is the most beautiful place in the world. She smiled as she lay down to rest.

Crunch. The noise startled Malia. It sounded like footsteps. Someone else walked in the forest. She stood, alert for any signs of this person approaching her. The crunching sound grew closer, louder. A twig snapped. She felt a surge of panic. A chill ran down her spine as she heard the sound of heavy breathing.

A tall, muscular man stepped into the clearing, wearing a thick chain mail and carrying a sword. Upon closer inspection, Malia noticed a red and black circular badge. It suddenly struck her that he was a Darkness Guard. Her heart sank in her chest as memories from her past crept into her mind.

Recalling that her bow hung on her back, she reached for it and rose to her feet as a surge of anger shot through her body. She ducked behind a tree and took aim but found herself unable to hold the bow steady. Her hands shaking, she hoisted the bow over her shoulder and sighed softly.

But the moment the Darkness Guard started to walk away, Malia moved her foot and accidentally stepped on a branch, which snapped with a crack like a whip. The Darkness Guard turned and saw her.

“What are you doing here?”

Malia’s words caught in her throat. She froze to the spot in terror, her hand no longer ready to grab the bow.

“Answer me,” the Darkness Guard commanded.

“I-I do not know.” Her legs shook.

“Does anyone know you’re here?”

“No,” Malia answered before realizing her mistake. “I-I meant yes.”

“Hmm, nobody knows you’re here. And I don’t want anybody to know I’m here. So, you know what that means?”

“What?” With a twinge in her stomach, she already knew his answer.

“It means I have to kill you.”

“I-I am sure there are other ways of handling this situation,” Malia pleaded, her heart pounding. “I could just f-forget I ever s-saw you.”

The Darkness Guard ignored her appeals, brandished his sword, and approached her. Malia screamed loudly, having forgotten her bow rested against her back, ready to be used.

The Darkness Guard stood only a few feet away from her when he suddenly stopped.

Malia screamed again, even louder this time. The man hit her over the head to prevent further calls for help. Her surroundings obscured, and she thought she saw something swimming in her vision as she collapsed to the forest floor.

While she lay on the ground, immobilized, Malia overheard an argument between the Darkness Guard and someone else.

“What are you doing?” demanded the Darkness Guard.

“I-I could ask you the same,” countered the other voice.

“It’s none of your business.”

“I think it is my business.”

“Leave now. Or I’ll kill you.”

The argument ended, and Malia prayed the person hadn’t been killed. She tried to stand, but her head throbbed. Dizzy, she collapsed to the ground with a heavy thud. The Darkness Guard slowly stepped in her direction, twigs crunching beneath his heavy boots.

“Now, it’s time for you to die,” he sneered, chuckling, a hint of pleasure in his voice.

Malia crawled along the ground, still disoriented from the blow to her head. Her dizziness began to fade, and she struggled to her feet, her legs wavering. As she began running, she stumbled and fell but quickly climbed back to her feet. The Darkness Guard pursued only a few steps behind her. She attempted to sprint faster in spite of the throbbing pain.

The sound of quick footsteps grew closer and closer behind Malia. She tried to outpace her assailant as fatigue overcame her, her breathing hard and labored. She collapsed.

The Darkness Guard’s boot struck the forest floor inches from her head. He brandished his sword. Malia wanted to scream, but no sound escaped her mouth. She looked pleadingly at the Darkness Guard in one last hope he’d spare her.

His eyes, however, offered no compassion.