A thin hand shook him fiercely by the shoulder. Sleep dropped away as his blanket was torn from him and the high, panicked voice pierced into his ears.
“Prince Phillip! Awaken at once! It's the princess! You must awaken! Prince Phillip!”
His eyes sprang open. The light dripping in from the hole in the thick stone wall was that of dawn, gray and new. He sat up, taking in the wild-eyed face of the Lady Isabelle as she leaned over him in his bed.
“The princess!” she cried, her hands now knotted in the silky swathes of her elegant, flowing robes. He found it odd that they were always flowing, even without a breeze, or so much as a draft from the halls of this immense castle.
Lady Isabelle went on, nearly screaming, about the princess and the dragon and how time was short.
Phillip swung his legs over the side of the bed and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror leaning against the opposite wall. Tall, handsome, young, strong. Was that really him? He remembered thinking it wasn't once or twice. But how could that be?
He stood and dressed, sliding into boots, chain mail, weaponry, all the while with the frantic lady sobbing and rasping in his ear.
“You're the only one left, my lord!” she wailed, clinging to his arm. “The beast has devoured all your brothers in arms. Even the captain of the guard himself has fallen!”
For the first time, he looked Lady Isabelle straight in the eyes. Tears were streaming from her huge, puffy eyes, and her lips trembled.
She saw the question, the doubt in his face and went on, “He fought bravely, my lord. You would have wept to see his valor.”
Phillip shook himself free of the woman and snatched his sheathed sword and belt from the table, rage boiling in his chest.
“The monster will pay,” he swore, the hinges of the slamming door ringing behind him.
In a blur, he swept through the empty corridors of the castle, reached the stables and mounted his horse. With a roar and a shrill cry, the snowy white stallion reeled and galloped for the main gate. Phillip glimpsed his shield hanging from a rack outside the barracks, and as the steed pounded by, he snatched it off the hook and tucked it in close by his side, just as he'd always done.
For the swiftest moment, the world became white. A sharp buzz filled his ears. He felt his legs losing hold of the saddle, his fingers growing limp around the grip of his shield. Then, color returned, and he was himself again.
Phillip whipped his head back and forth to clear it, leaned closer to the horse's neck, and rode on. Nothing would keep him from this revenge.
They burst into the forest, limbs and leaves snatching at horse and rider. Above the branches, Phillip could make out a tumbling column of black smoke reeling into the sky. The horse tossed its head, the scent strong in its nostrils. Phillip smelt it too, the vile stench of brimstone riddling the air.
The trees fell away, spilling into an enormous rocky valley barren of anything green.
And there stood the beast.
The dragon towered over the valley, casting a jagged shadow over the prince and his mount. It's rippling scales shone like wet, hot tar, its horrendous claws tearing ugly scars in the earth. Its massive, hideous head swerved towards him, two flaming yellow eyes glaring into his.
The dragon reared back, spread its torn wings to the gray sky, and roared.
Phillip's anger boiled over into a cry of his own, and he spurred his horse forward. His sword rang out of its sheath, catching the glinting rays of the sun as they flew over the hill behind the dragon.
The creature advanced at a frightening speed, jaws agape and ready to swallow him whole. At the last moment, before death was certain, Phillip nudged his mount to one side and swiped at the dragon's neck just behind its spiraling horns. Boiling blood spurted from the gash, and the devil roared again.
Phillip pounded away from its slashing claw and wildly snapping teeth, gearing himself for another charge.
And then he saw her.
Rhoswen, the princess, lay on the blackened earth amid the claw marks of the dragon. She did not move.
Phillip looked back to the dragon and almost saw a glint of sickened glee in its amber eyes. It was too much. He slammed his heels into the horse's sides, his rage nearly blinding him.
But the beast was ready this time. It feigned a charge, and just as Phillip swung his blade it launched itself into the air and swiped at him from above. The blow of its claw smashed him from the saddle and sent him tumbling across the ground. He lost his shield but kept an iron grip on the gritty handle of his sword. On shaking legs, he stood and faced the dragon, one eye blinded by the blood pouring from a wound on his forehead. His breath was ragged in his lungs.
The dragon let loose another hellish scream and pounded toward him. Phillip gritted his teeth and raised his sword. The beast drew closer, and with every thunderous step, its jaws gaped wider. An orange glow rose in the back of its throat. The places where its claws met the earth left white puddles of molten rock.
Phillip knew he would die. The captain had known too, as soon as he saw what Phillip now saw, the dragon charging him with the breath of hell behind his teeth.
“He will not have died in vain,” Phillip rasped and charged.
At that moment, the sun broke the top of the mountain and streams of light flooded over the valley. The dragon reeled, a pained and terrified look possessing its grotesque features. The fire in its chest began to die.
“Now you will taste death!” Phillip roared.
He lunged, his blade aimed at the beast's exposed chest, the light of the sun guiding his thrust.
And the world became whiteness. A buzz. A churning in his stomach. A feeling, so familiar, and yet so unrecognizable.
The world became itself again, and Phillip was staring at the hilt of his sword flush against the black scales of the creature's breast. He turned his head, and there was the mile-long neck of the dragon stretched out dead on the floor of the valley.
The prince shoved himself away from the carcass and collapsed onto the ground, staring up into the new morning sky, the sweat and blood drying on his face.
And then, a hand touched his. Rhoswen's face appeared in his blurring vision.
“My prince,” she whispered, her tears splashing against his forehead. “You have won.” She kissed him, gently. And that was the last he knew before the dark.
Phillip woke up. A thin hand grasped his shoulder; a shrill voice rang in his ears.
“Prince Phillip! Awaken at once! It's the princess! You must awaken! Prince Phillip!”
His mind was a haze. He needed to remember something. It lingered just on the edge of his mind, just out of reach.
Phillip ripped the blanket off and twisted around to see the Lady Isabelle there with her ever-flowing robes and ever-wringing hands.
“The princess!” she screamed.
Phillip rose, dressed, and in an instant, he was galloping through the forest. He saw the beast, saw Rhoswen, saw the morning sun ready to spring over the top of the mountain. It was a hard battle, but in the end, he won. Rhoswen kissed him. The world went black.
And then white.
The thing he should remember almost escaped him again.
Again? Was this not the first time he had…
Phillip sat up and stared at Lady Isabelle. “It's the princess!”
“Stop it,” he ordered quietly. She didn't seem to hear.
“The princess, my lord!” she cried.
“Stop!” Phillip roared.
Isabelle stilled. A new shade of fear came over her thin face, her eyes twitching in their round, panicked way.
Phillip's heart began to quicken. “Let me out of this place,” he said.
Isabelle stiffened. “My lord, the Lady Rhoswen, she–”
“Let me out,” Phillip said again, louder. He rose. Isabelle attempted to cling to him, but he flung her away. He spied the sword resting on the table. He took it. The door stood open.
No. Not the door. That's what starts it.
He turned all around, realizing how barren the room was. The bed, the table, the door, the lady and himself.
The look on Isabelle's face became one of rising fury. “My lord, have you gone mad?”
“Yes!” Phillip answered. “That's what brought me here, isn't it? The madness, the hunger.”
Isabelle's eyes twitched once, then twice. The charade had ended.
The woman screamed a harpy's scream and charged him, a knife suddenly in her hand. He batted her arm away and shoved her away, where she stumbled back onto the bed.
“You're not real!” he shouted, trying to assure himself. Phillip slid the sword from its sheath and brought it down on her writhing form.
The metal clanged against metal. Sparks flew. The world flickered between whiteness and reality.
No. The white is real.
Isabelle gripped his wrist before he could release the sword. “My lord,” she said in a screeching, fractured voice. “Your lady awaits.”
Phillip tore himself away and made for the blank wall to one side of the room, the one furthest from the woman who was not. He slammed his shoulder into the stone, and it was not stone. It gave a little, then sprang back against him.
A glance over his shoulder and Isabelle was rising from the bed, the sword still embedded in her shoulder, bits of fire flying from the severed wires poking out from under her flowing robes.
Phillip turned back and slammed into the wall again, and again, and again. Each time, he thought it gave a little more. And each time, it flickered white.
Finally, the wall ripped, and the castle vanished. Phillip reached through the rend in the whiteness and ripped it some more.
The clank of moving metal parts from behind alerted him of Isabelle's closeness. Without a moment more, he dove through the hole into the small, dark, filthy room beyond.
Wooden boxes were piled around everywhere. One wall was made of computer screens, and another of dials, levers and button panels. Phillip looked behind him and saw a great white tent of elastic fabric, saw the hole he had just ripped in it, saw the furious face of Isabelle as she came through after him.
Phillip leapt up, snatched his backpack off the floor and ran. He remembered where the door was, slammed it open and bolted out into the street.
The morning sun gleamed through a few clouds as they drifted across the sky. People walked along the streets. Bells rang as customers entered and left stores. The smell of bakeries and donut shops hard at work wafted through the air, mixing with the less pleasant scent of the cars coasting down the road.
Phillip looked down at himself. He was a boy again, just as he had always been. The dream-come-true machine hadn't done anything to his clothes.
But what had it done to his mind?
Phillip shook himself and focused on running, looking back every other moment, fearing to see Isabelle hot on his heels. She... it was never there.
He found his house, went in, dropped his backpack by the door, stripped off his jacket and walked into the kitchen, still out of breath.
Mom was frying sausage on the stove. She looked up when he came in. She smiled. “Morning, Mr. Big Man. How was the sleepover?”
Phillip blinked. “Sleepover?”
“Did you have fun?”
He thought about the question and decided to be honest. “I did. Not in the way I thought I would, though.”
Mom looked up again and stopped cooking. “Is everything okay, hun? Did something happen?”
Phillip returned his mother's worried look and shrugged. “Stuff happened, yeah. But I'm okay.”
She raised an eyebrow, then turned back to the stove. He knew they would talk more. And that was fine with him. She deserved answers. He had lied to her about the sleepover, after all.
“Being a hero isn't what some people think it is.”