Chapter Four

As Cinderella broke our embrace, I wiped my tear-soaked cheeks off with my sleeves again. “Heh,” I scoffed with a smirk as I gazed down at them. I then muttered, “My sleeves are getting soggy.”

Cinderella shrugged. “You had quite a lot to let out; I can tell,” she said kindly.

She continued frowning concernedly, however, as she commented, “You’ve really never had any friends before… and your life hasn’t been terribly easy, either…”

Taking a deep breath, Cinderella concluded, “To be honest, I’m surprised you turned out as well as you did.”

I raised a brow in confusion. “What do you mean?” I said.

Seeming to be worried that she’d offended me, Cinderella quickly clarified, “I mean- with everything that you’ve been through, I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect you to be anything more than a recluse. Or a gibbering mess. I’m just surprised that you’re as sane as you are, considering that most anyone else would likely have become so psychologically damaged that they’d have to spend the rest of their lives in a mental hospital, after living through the things that you have.” With a smile, she added, “It’s a compliment- in other words, the strength of your will and mind are quite extraordinary.”

I returned her smile. “Thanks,” I said.

I then looked away, however, as I muttered, “But actually, you are right.”

Cinderella blinked. “About what?”

Swallowing and trembling slightly with nervousness, I replied, “You’re right in assuming that my psyche was damaged by my… childhood trauma. Quite badly.”

For an instant, I saw a sliver of the same fear in Cinderella’s expression that had been present in the eyes of every other person who had ever looked at me before. “What do you mean?” she said softly.

Steeling myself for the possibility of driving Cinderella away again, but determined to soldier through this in order to establish with complete certainty whether or not this friendship could last, I took a deep, shuddering breath before pointing at my temple and saying, “As of right now, I am currently diagnosed with several psychological disorders; including high-functioning autism, clinical vampirism, and borderline sociopathy. Among others. In other words, I am quite far from sane.”

Cinderella blinked, and was silent for a few moments. However, she then grinned and shrugged, saying, “Well, I think your autism was fairly obvious just observing your behavior. I don’t think it’s a ‘disorder,’ anyway; I think you’re just the psychological equivalent of left-handed. As for the other two, how do they manifest?”

I gazed silently at Cinderella for a few moments, stunned at how well she was taking this revelation. “Really?” I said disbelievingly. “Your not bothered at all by any of those?”

Cinderella shook her head. “Not really,” she replied casually.

“Why not?” I said.

“I’ll tell you in a moment,” Cinderella reassured me. “But please go on first.”

I blinked, then shook my head and said, “Well, when I say I have clinical vampirism, it means that I literally thirst for blood. I love how it tastes, and I have an intense longing to taste it; to drink it. Seeing blood being spilt fascinates and excites me just as much as it horrifies me.”

Cinderella looked slightly disturbed, though evidently not enough to abandon me. “So do you drink blood?” she said. “Quite often?”

I looked up for a moment, then shook my head. “Not really,” I said. “I mean, I don’t go out of my way to do it; but whenever I receive a wound that draws blood, I’ll lick some from it if it’s been cleaned. My mother says I’ve always done it; when I got vaccines or scraped my knee as a little kid, I would always either directly lap blood from the wound or, if I couldn’t reach it, lick it from my fingers. All she could convince me to do was to make sure I washed my dirty wounds before drinking from them.”

Cinderella scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue. “Yeah, that’s… really gross…” she muttered in disgust.

I softly chuckled. “Yeah, but I can’t help it. I enjoy the taste and… I don’t know… the sensation far too much.”

Cinderella’s expression became a touch concerned as she asked, “But you don’t drink others’ blood, right? Or deliberately harm yourself to taste your own?”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t,” I replied. “But I want to sometimes…”

Cinderella blinked. “Which one?” she said.

“Both,” I replied.

Cinderella was silent for a few moments, then she sighed and said, “Well, assuming you’re telling the truth, you still don’t, even if you want to. I guess that’s all that matters, in the end.”

Quite stunned again at how she was taking it, I said astonishedly, “It still doesn’t bother you?”

Cinderella shrugged. “We all have our own demons we must face,” she muttered. “And though yours might be quite unusual, you still seem to have tamed it rather well. Your desires aren’t the things that matter; what matters is what you do about them.”

I made a small smile, though it was short-lived; I then frowned again as I said, “What about my borderline sociopathy, though?”

Cinderella snorted. “Are you serious?” she said as she suppressed further laughter.

“Absolutely,” I replied annoyedly. I was a little angry now. I frowned as I said sternly, “I’m always serious.”

“Just making sure,” Cinderella said, grinning widely and rolling her eyes.

“It is serious,” I insisted somberly. “You really shouldn’t make light of it; insanity is… dangerous.”

“Aren’t we all just a little bit mad, though?” Cinderella replied, narrowing her eyes coyly as she continued grinning and gazing sideways at me.

I replied with glaring silence. Cinderella laughed again, then she said with still-cheerful but earnest sincerity, “Come on, Aaron; you’re obviously not a sociopath.”

My glaring frown melted into a frown of surprised confusion. “What?” I said quietly.

Cinderella gave me a light punch in my upper arm. “Just think about it, sweetie,” she said. “A sociopath is, by definition, incapable of empathy. Or compassion. I doubt people fitting this description even exist, but I know for an absolute certainty that you don’t.”

Rubbing my arm and blushing more intensely at having been addressed as “sweetie,” I muttered, “And how is that?”

“Because you felt the need to warn me that you were,” Cinderella answered. “Hard to spin that as anything other than concern for my well-being, innit?”

My mouth opened slightly as Cinderella leaned forward, supporting her weight against the swing’s chains by her elbows, and continued, “Whoever diagnosed you as a sociopath is a right proper idiot.”

I shook my head. “They didn’t,” I said. “They diagnosed me as a borderline sociopath.”

Cinderella frowned at me. “What the hell does that mean?” she said disdainfully.

“It’s sometimes extremely difficult for me to empathize with others,” I replied. “In addition, I have an almost pathological lack of fear.”

Cinderella seemed quite confused. “Huh?” she said.

“I don’t respond rationally to dangerous situations,” I clarified. “For instance, if you point a loaded gun directly at my face, I won’t immediately flinch or try to get out of its path. It’s not that I’m suicidal, or that I don’t try to preserve my own life, but… the prospect of my own death doesn’t really frighten me at all.”

Cinderella looked equal parts shocked and impressed. “You have no fear of death whatsoever?” she said quietly.

I shook my head.

Cinderella looked as though she was going to say something in reply, but evidently decided against it. She looked out into the distance for a few moments, then she softly asked, “Why do you suppose that is?”

“I don’t really know,” I replied with a small chuckle. “I mean, I don’t want to die, but the idea of dying isn’t scary to me. I guess I just see it as nothing more than lying down and falling into a dreamless, eternal sleep. As true a rest as anything you can possibly have. I just hope that I can live my life in such a way that when that time comes, I’ll be ready for it, and I can welcome it with a sense of relief.”

Cinderella nodded in agreement. “A sound and reasonable philosophy, to be sure,” she commented. “However, I don’t think your fearlessness in the face of your own mortality makes you even a borderline sociopath.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Because you still experience fear,” Cinderella answered. She held her palm up as she continued, “You might not fear death, but you’ve shown fear towards other things. Cruelty. Pain. Loneliness. I think it’s fairly clear that you fear those things.”

“Yeah,” I casually replied. I cracked a small smile as I said, “But I don’t think it’s possible not to fear those things. After all, since we’re social animals, it’s only natural that aversion towards isolation or suffering is one of our most fundamental inherent traits.”

Cinderella nodded. “What would you say is your greatest fear?” she said.

Thrown off a little by this fairly unexpected question, I looked up towards the clouds in the bright blue mid-morning sky for a few moments before answering, “That I don’t fear death. In the face of physical danger, I fear nothing, and that scares me.”

“Why’s that?” Cinderella said.

I looked down at my grasped hands, careful to keep my watering eyes out of Cinderella’s sight. “Because it’s not normal to not be afraid of death,” I said. “It’s how humanity has survived. That I don’t have something that every other human being has… it must mean that I’m broken. That there’s something fundamentally wrong within my psyche that makes me a danger- not just to myself, but to the others around me. Add to that my misanthropy, my stunted ability to empathize, and my literal blood-thirst, and I’d say it wouldn’t be unreasonable to worry that I might become something truly… monstrous.”

Cinderella gently placed her hand under my chin, causing me to widely open my eyes and make a small gasp of surprise. Cinderella softly turned my head to face her, and I saw that her expression was every bit as caring and concerned as it had been before my confessions. “Aaron, you’re not dangerous,” she said. She smiled and laughed as she added, “In fact, paradoxically, the fact that you’re so worried that you are a threat to others is how I know you aren’t. Aaron, you are honestly and truly one of the single best friends I’ve ever had.”

I felt tears welling up again as I smiled bitterly and replied, “You haven’t even known me until yesterday.”

“I don’t have to,” Cinderella replied, firmly but still sweetly and kindly. She smirked as she added, “Trust me; I have dealt with far enough people to know who is a danger and who isn’t. I have seen many cruel, fraudulent, and insincere people, and a few kind, compassionate, and utterly genuine people, and so I feel quite secure in conclusively assessing you as being one of those rare treasures that is a true friend.”

Cinderella gave my cheek a gentle, prolonged stroke before she shifted back to place her full weight on her seat once again. She then said, “Let me tell you a story now. I’m almost certain that you’ll be convinced of the high quality of my sense of judgement by its conclusion.”

After a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Alright,” I said. “I’m listening.”

With a pleased smile, Cinderella gazed forward, out into the distance, as she began, “I was born in London in the morning of an Easter Sunday thirteen years ago. My mother was fourteen when she had me, having been compelled to conceive and bear me by the state.”

My eyes widened. This meant that Cinderella’s mother had refused to abide by her civic duty and bear her required two children, and had been subsequently forced by the World Hegemony to conceive Cinderella on pain of arrest and life incarceration for defiance of the state’s law.

Every fertile girl over thirteen years of age was required to make at least one attempt at conceiving a child per year, either through artificial insemination or unprotected vaginal sexual intercourse. Any fertile girl who had not conceived a child by her eighteenth birthday was then taken into temporary state custody until she became pregnant, and was then released back into her home community. Likewise, if a girl had not conceived her second child by the time she turned twenty-one, she was likewise put under temporary arrest until she again became pregnant.

When the World Hegemony first implemented this law, the Board Of World Leaders released an accompanying statement that they regretted having to enforce it, but that they had to in order to keep all of civilization alive and flourishing. They pointed out that if they simply allowed women to bear as many or few children as they desired, there would either be a communal workforce shortage due to women deciding not to have enough children to replace the dying senior population, or that there would be so many new people every generation that the world population would soon outgrow what the Earth could sustain, as very nearly happened immediately before the International Unification of Nations a thousand years ago.

The BOWL stated that though this was undeniably an unequal burden on the world’s women, they argued that it was also an honor, because the women could perform a necessary task that a man never could. In addition, they attempted to mitigate the apparent sexual imbalance this created by making artificial insemination publicly and freely available to all girls thirteen years of age or older, as well as pointing out that even the female World Leaders were required to abide by this law and command, just like all civilian women were. This included none other than the current Hegemon Chairperson of the Board Of World Leaders: Whitney Beatrice Shamroque, who had performed her societal duty and bore two children herself despite being the most powerful human being- man or woman- in the world.

However, in the event any girl or woman over the age of consent refused to abide by the reproductive commands of the World Hegemony, she would be arrested and presented with an ultimatum: she must either allow the state to impregnate her by any means it deems necessary, or she must forfeit her freedom and be forever removed from society. If she relented, the offending woman no longer had any say in how she conceived her child; at the discretion of her Monarch Secretary, she would either be forced to undergo artificial insemination, or otherwise be compelled into sexual activity with a man her Monarch Secretary selected for her.

Though I didn’t dare voice it, I privately viewed this as unjustifiably barbaric. After all, even if the offending girls technically were criminals who had legally partially forfeited their freedoms, it was still virtually impossible to view the state-mandated coercion they underwent as anything other than simple rape. This is why I was determined to work to change it if I ever became a World Leader.

I said hesitantly, “Did she- well, your mother, I mean- um… did she, ah… did she have to…?”

“Yes,” Cinderella replied somberly. “She was considered to be extremely beautiful, so she was made to service all of the men charged with her custody. Including the then-King Secretary of Britain. One of them is my father, though I’ve no idea who. Nor do I care.”

I nodded softly. “I don’t blame you,” I muttered.

Cinderella gave me a small smile, accompanied by a short, bitter laugh. I then said cautiously, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but… do you know why your mother was so… rebellious?”

Cinderella grinned. “Not at all,” she replied. She looked up as she answered, “It wasn’t that she didn’t desire to have children. Quite the opposite, actually. But she also believed quite strongly that it would be cruel to leave her children alone with no one to watch them for long stretches of every day.”

My eyes widened. “Y-you mean, she…?” I stuttered.

Cinderella gazed expectantly at me, waiting for me to finish my question. I swallowed before blurting out, “Did… did your mother desire to have a husband…?!”

Cinderella smiled, then shook her head. “Not at all,” she said.

I sighed relievedly, noting that I had been trembling and flushing with fear. It would have been very bad if Cinderella’s mother had been actively seeking a man who would marry her; after all, marriage was a fundamentally religious practice, and was therefore outlawed as a highest-tier crime of treason and endangerment to civilization along with all other religious rituals, sacraments, and rites when the World Hegemony was founded nearly a thousand years ago.

In many ways, it was religion and the ills it brought that had led to the conception and creation of the World Hegemony in the first place. A millennium ago, just before the International Revolutionary War occurred, the Earth seemed to be on the brink of destruction; the world was bursting with unsustainably large populations, crime and warfare seemed to ravage every street, man-made natural disasters rendered the faces of many nations into apocalyptic wastelands, and the world’s superpowers all seemed poised to unleash weapons upon each other wielding such destructive capabilities that they could easily reduce the entire planet to a mound of dust.

Worst of all, mankind seemed to welcome its own imminent self-annihilation. As utterly insane as this was, the widespread delusion that humanity’s extinction was something to be desired was largely the result of the teachings of the world’s most widespread religious traditions, which convinced their followers that the world must end so that our pain-riddled, sinful world could be washed away and replaced with an eternal, spiritual paradise of the afterlife. Furthermore, each major religion claimed that its own adherents were the only ones who would be admitted into this paradise, and so all non-believers must therefore either be converted into their own way of life, or otherwise be utterly destroyed.

Naturally, these extreme and irrational dogmas led directly to conflict, which only grew in scale and destructiveness as mankind’s secular knowledge of the world simultaneously also accumulated. For the vast majority of history, it was the most religious, irrational, and primitive examples of humanity who ruled the world’s lands, and the enlightened men- the rational, the educated, the intelligent– were either put to death for daring to question the madness of their lords, or otherwise made to serve those lords as designers of their weaponry or strategists of their military campaigns.

With the advent of industry and mechanical technology, it seemed as though mankind had finally realized the error of its ways; there was a great era of science and rationality, the majority of nations implemented systems of democratic republics so that the people could choose better leaders than the autocratic, hereditary monarchs of ancient times, and religion seemed to be slowly dying off.

However, we humans gravely underestimated our own foolishness and our irrational greed; though reason, democracy, and secularism had brought untold prosperity and stability to nearly all peoples, the common masses were still not content with all they had. Though even the poor men of the first global civilization lived far better than the richest emperors of medieval times had lived before them, they still desired but more wealth and more luxury. Of course, since they were enjoying as high a quality of life as it was possible to have, they began seeking to attain impossible degrees of luxury and indulgence, which is what still-living religious traditions promised them.

As such, despite living with undeniable proof of the value of reason and the emptiness of religion all around them, the world’s nations seemed to regress in their cultures and ideals to those of older times; back to the primitive ways of tribalism, dogma, and warfare. Mankind democratically elected the same sorts of fools for leaders that democracy had been specifically designed to prevent from obtaining power, and mankind came to the brink of complete self-destruction, armed simultaneously with the destructive miracles of secular science and the suicidal madness of religious belief.

However, just before humanity could obliterate itself with the horrors civilization had crafted with its own hands, a new movement began. This movement, which began with a small collection of scientists, philosophers, artists, aesthetes, and other nonreligious intellectuals, came to the realization that it was ignorance that was the root of the threat of destruction that civilization faced. They realized what was, in retrospect, a ridiculously obvious truth: that it was absurd to entrust the common man with his own self-preservation, in the exact same way it is absurd for a parent to do the same with their young child. The fact was that most humans were fools who did not, and could not, know what they truly needed. They could not select competent or capable leaders for themselves, any more than an infant can select a mother for herself who is well-suited to raising her. Furthermore, there was no training required to become a nation’s democratic official; you simply needed to have enough charisma to rally a majority of your countrymen around you. Why did we not train our leaders, and carefully filter out all those with incapable minds from that training, in the same way we diligently selected and trained our physicians or teachers?

These educated secularists then realized that it was the common masses who held them back from obtaining this ideal technocratic civilization; they came to see that the uneducated simpletons that made up the majority of the world’s peoples feared and hated them, as they knew in the deepest reaches of their suppressed minds that the so-called “intellectual elite” really were their superiors in every way. It was the educated who had created civilization and all of its wonders; it was achievements of the mind such as writing, art, philosophy, diplomacy, science, mathematics, and reason that had made the world’s civilizations into glorious, advanced bastions of flourishing prosperity, and it was not the result of the overly-glorified wars and savage brutality that mediocre minds liked to imagine had made their homelands great.

With this newfound discovery, in addition to the knowledge that humanity’s lesser minds would never peacefully accept this new world order due to their own willful, proud ignorance and spiteful jealousy, the enlightened minority of mankind came together and formed a coalition known as the “Secular Military State for the Formation of a Single and Unified International Government,” which was colloquially shortened to the “Atheistic State.” Though the Atheistic State was smaller and less populous than every other power on the world stage, they quickly rose to become an overwhelmingly mighty superpower due to the superiority of their advanced technological weaponry and unparalleled strategic brilliance. Though the rest of the world’s nations quickly divided themselves into other allied superpowers in a frail attempt to defeat or even slow the steady conquest of the Atheistic State, they all inevitably crumbled and fell before their unstoppable might.

Once they had secured the unconditional surrender of every other nation, the commanders and officers of the Atheistic State officially founded the World Hegemony, then built a new capital for this unified international government. This capital, Central City, was founded upon the ruins of the great metropolis New York City, which was a center of world trade and diplomacy that had been destroyed in battle during the International Revolution. Intelligence tests were then administered to each person on the week of his or her thirteenth birthday; the brightest and the best were then made to be doctors, scientists, and government officials from that day forward. The highest government officials, which consisted of the six Emperor Presidents of the Earth’s six inhabited continents and the Hegemon Chairperson of the entire World Hegemony, installed themselves in the capital as the ultimate ruling body of the Earth: the Board Of World Leaders, who were tasked with overseeing all the world’s nations and maintaining peace in every land.

The BOWL then issued their first major order; after officially criminalizing the teaching or practice of religion in any form or capacity, they commanded the law enforcement of every nation to purge all dissenters who refused to completely renounce their irrational beliefs in the supernatural. In the process of eliminating religion completely from civilization, the BOWL also outlawed all rituals and practices with fundamentally religious roots, including prayer, sacraments, marriage, and wedding ceremonies. As such, any person who was found to have participated in or seeked to engage in marriage was sentenced to lifelong removal from society for endangering civilization.

Nonetheless, though the BOWL had strictly enforced its forbiddance of marriage for an entire millennium, there were still occasional occurrences of isolated lunatics attempting to secretly engage in religious rites- including marriage- which were routinely unearthed by the World Hegemony’s police forces. Fortunately, these were an increasing rarity; such incidents always appeared in the international news, and the gaps between them were slowly growing increasingly lengthy. Nowadays, it was considered an anomaly to see more than one or two reported during any given year, and the individuals involved were always viewed by the world at large as tragic cases of mental illness who almost certainly couldn’t be cured.

I had been worried, after hearing Cinderella describe her mother, that Cinderella herself might have been raised by such a mental case. That might have been quite dangerous, so it was with great relief that I learned it wasn’t so.

Cinderella wasn’t done, however. “My mother had no desire for a husband,” she said. “However, she did desire for the father of her children to act as her partner in raising them.”

My concern returned a little. “So… so she wanted a… boyfriend?” I said.

Cinderella nodded.

I frowned with confusion and a tinge of worry. Though cohabitation didn’t have the ritualistic, dogmatic sanctions that made marriage dangerous, it was still widely viewed with suspicion and distain by society. After all, it was common practice for those who still engaged in marriage even during the BOWL’s prohibition of it to present themselves as mere cohabitative couples to the outside world in order to keep their felonious unions secret. In addition, voluntary monogamy was widely viewed as a sign of personal weakness and evolutionary unfitness; if you cannot reproduce with a wide variety of partners, the thinking went, then you are ultimately a biological failure as a sexually reproductive animal. To be monogamous was to declare to the world that you and your chosen partner were both too unattractive or lacking in social skills to live up to your natural instincts; therefore, all voluntary monogamists were viewed as shameful embarrassments.

Likely sensing my wariness at her mother’s socially contrarian nonconformity, Cinderella continued, “My mother was a gentle, withdrawn introvert. Furthermore, she viewed kindness and chivalry more highly than anyone else I know; she desired that her children have the chance to inherit these traits from whoever their father was, and that they could know their father, so that they would receive twice the attention, wisdom, and love they could from her alone.”

My eyes widened, and my mouth opened slightly, as I realized surprisedly how sensible and intelligent these desires were. After all, as much as I loved my mother, there was still only so much she could do for me; she still had to put bread on our table and live her own life, even while doing everything in her capabilities to aid me with my own problems. If I had another parent, I realized, our lives would be significantly easier; some of the burden of raising me would be lifted from my mother’s shoulders, I would have another counsel in my learning and growing, and the both of us would have another ally and confidant to rely upon.

I allowed myself a small smile, then said, “Now that you put it that way…”

Cinderella grinned. “My mother was also incredibly cautious and guarded. She was very sensitive, and was uncomfortable with personal vulnerability, so she desired a physical relationship only with someone she was good friends with, and could trust would show respect and consideration to her and her wishes, rather than simply doing as they pleased to satisfy their own desires.”

I smiled and looked down at my hands. “She sounds like me…” I muttered softly.

I flinched as I realized what I’d just said, though relief quickly washed over me when Cinderella then giggled, “I agree.”

My smile faded as I asked, “I presume your mother never met such a man?”

Cinderella shook her head sadly. “No,” she said. “All the men she spoke to were completely uninterested in whatever she had to say or happened to think; all they saw was a pretty, shy girl with a voluptuously sensuous body and a sweet voice.”

I blinked. “Did she happen to look like you?” I said.

Cinderella grinned, obviously flattered. “She did,” she replied. “Her hair was a shade darker, though, and she had green eyes and a freckled face. But otherwise, yes, we are almost perfect mirror-like images of each other.

“At any rate, because she was still a virgin and hadn’t made any attempts at conceiving by the time she was fourteen, my mother was arrested and taken to the British Capital Building in London. There, the King Secretary of Britain gave her a choice: to either offer her own body to him and any of his policemen who paid him the monetary price he set for a taste of her, or to be permanently removed from free society.” Cinderella’s eyes began watering. “She was terrified, but she had no choice; she didn’t even have an idea of what would become of her if she refused. She chose to be violated until she could be set free again.”

Cinderella wiped some tears from her cheeks with her fingers. “They restrained her, and took turns to use her. Every day, the King Secretary of Britain tested her to see if she was pregnant, then she would undergo another round of rape by him and his guardsmen. My mother didn’t remember how many days this went on.

“When she finally tested positive for pregnancy, her restraints were removed and she was sent back home. However, she was warned by her King Secretary that if she intentionally miscarried, she would be forced to endure that same fate all over again.”

The both of us were silent for a few moments, and I slowly absorbed the shock of all Cinderella just told me. Cinderella then took a deep breath, turned to face me with a gentle smile once again, then she said, “Trust me, Aaron; I know. You are probably the least dangerous or untrustworthy boy I’ve ever encountered.” Cinderella laughed as she added, “Hell, not even my own father could hope to be half as noble as you are, whoever he is.”

Cinderella then reached over and took my hand, causing me to flinch and intensely blush as she concluded, “I promise, Aaron; you are my absolute best friend. I’d stake my life on it, so certain am I.”

Cinderella then leaned forward and kissed my cheek.

While I was motionlessly paralyzed for a few moments, Cinderella stood up from her swing and stood in front of me. Leaning forward, she said, “Will you allow me to take you somewhere, my sweet friend? To show my gratitude?”

My face blazing, I made a small smile and nodded very slightly.

Cinderella giggled, took my hand again, then pulled me onto my feet. We began walking through the park, and I was utterly silent for about a minute, even as the bystanders we passed turned to stare at us between the trees and flowering bushes.

However, once my blush had subsided, I said, “Cinderella- can I ask you one more thing?”

Cinderella turned and grinningly nodded at me. “Of course. What is it?”

“Your mother,” I said, “she- … w-what’s her name?”

Cinderella’s eyes narrowed. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” she said coyly.

At my puzzled silence, Cinderella giggled. “My mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother have been Disney’s biggest fans as long as we can remember. My name is Cinderella, my grandmother was named Aurora, and my great-grandmother was named Belle. Naturally, my mother’s name was Alice.”

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Chapter Three

My first, horrified thought when I woke up was: Was it all just a dream?

I was wide awake in seconds; I threw off my covers, ran to my computer, and turned it on. The seconds it took to boot up felt like hours, and I found myself sweating and trembling as I rapidly muttered to myself, “No, no, no, no, no no no… come on, come on…”

Once my desktop was up, I immediately clicked on the MasterScribe shortcut. A few clicks later, I scanned down my recent MasterScribe chat history, and saw that I had, indeed, played Dungeons & Dragons until two in the morning last night.

With an enormous sigh of relief, I hung my head before taking a few breaths. So it wasn’t a dream. Cinderella was real.

I looked up towards my ceiling, grinning more widely than I think I ever had before.

I still couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the surreality of all that had happened yesterday; I was quite certain that there was no possible way that Cinderella wasn’t merely a fantasy I’d subconsciously created in response to my maddening loneliness. And yet, astonishingly, it seemed that I really did meet and befriend her on the steps of the Tokyo Public Library yesterday afternoon. I also had a date with her today. It would be the first date- or, for that matter, the first social outing– I’d ever successfully arranged with another human being.

My smile vanished as suddenly as it appeared. My overwhelming joy was swiftly replaced with complete panic. I had a date with Cinderella today. What time was it scheduled for?

I then flinched as I realized: we’d never arranged a specific time; all we’d agreed was that we’d meet at the playground of Hayashi Park today. I immediately looked down at the digital clock on my monitor, which told me that it was seven fifteen in the morning.

After marveling over the fact that I was already completely lucid despite getting up so early after having only gotten a few hours of sleep, I made my decision: I would get dressed and have breakfast right now, go to Hayashi Park as soon as possible, and wait there for Cinderella to arrive. I’d wait all day if that’s what it took; this was the only opportunity at forming a friendship or engaging in courtship that I’d ever received in my entire life, and I would’ve laid down my very life before I let that opportunity slip away.

I bolted away from my computer desk to my dresser, where I pulled open my black wooden drawers and began pulling clothes out. I knew exactly what outfit I was going to wear without even having to think about it; I was going to wear my favorite outfit.

After I’d retrieved and donned some soft cotton boxers, I picked up a pair of loose, black denim jeans; a pair of hand-knitted black socks; a long-sleeved cotton shirt with thick, even horizontal black-and-white stripes; a large white t-shirt with several belt loops of the same fabric sewn onto it; and three black leather belts with steel buckles, as well as a matching belt choker.

I slid into my pants, fastened one of my belts over it, pulled on my socks, put on my long striped shirt, then pulled my large white t-shirt over the top of it. I then fastened my other two belts across my torso through my shirt’s belt loops, then fastened my choker around my neck.

I’d modeled this outfit after those of some of my favorite characters, especially those particularly gifted at puzzles and games, such as Alice Liddell, Yugi Muto, and Leleouch Lamperouge. It was also distinctly Tim Burton-eque; belts, stripes, and a monochromatic color scheme were all staples of his protagonists’ wardrobes. I’d also decided that my white t-shirt’s resulting resemblance to a straightjacket would only add to the aura of creepiness I radiated, but that I should embrace it anyway; after all, I couldn’t do anything about it, so why try to fight it? Besides, perhaps Cinderella had approached me because she liked the “dark and mysterious” aesthetic in the first place; and though I regarded myself as not particularly either of these things, I seemed to be able to pull off the look well, at least.

Once I was dressed and I had straightened out my hair, I went to the kitchen, where my mother was enjoying an omelette and a mug of unflavored green tea. Upon seeing me enter, she smiled and remarked, “You’re up early.”

“Yep,” I replied, approaching our refrigerator. Once I opened it, I pulled out a carton of milk and poured myself a glass. I then sat at the table across from my mother, took an apple from the handmade brown ceramic fruit bowl standing in the tabletop’s center, then began briskly eating my small breakfast.

“Excited for your date with- Cinderella, wasn’t it?” my mother said.

“Yep,” I said after swallowing a mouthful of apple.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile this much,” my mother said, a tranquil and glad look in her eyes.

“I could get used to it,” I said, shrugging. I chuckled, then continued eating my apple.

In less than a minute, I finished my breakfast. I discarded my apple core, placed my glass in the kitchen sink, then walked to the door, calling “Bye!” back to my mother.

“When do you think you’ll be back?” my mother shouted to me as I stepped to the exit’s threshold.

“I have no idea!” I cried, laughing joyously. I opened the apartment’s front door, then made my way to the building’s staircase.

It took me around twenty minutes to arrive at Hayashi Park. It was a beautiful and pleasantly cool morning; the smell of flowers and growing fruit saturated the air, and the sun alternated between peeking from behind leaves and from behind large clouds. There weren’t very many people there, either; even though it was summer vacation, it was a little early for a lot of small children to be there, so the park was mostly populated by a scattered mixture of joggers, breakfast-eating salarymen, and casual strollers ranging in age from as young as me to quite elderly. I rather liked relative solitude, so this was as wonderful a morning as I could possibly imagine.

I expected to be waiting for Cinderella for quite a while once I had reached the park’s swing sets. I didn’t mind this; I had become quite skilled at passing the time with my own thoughts and contemplations in the many, many lonely hours I had spent by myself. However, to my surprise, I didn’t have to use that skill at that moment; when I arrived at Hayashi Park’s playground, I saw that Cinderella was already sitting in one of the steel chain-suspended swings, gently swaying while reading a worn hardcover novel.

Cinderella was really there. I had really met her yesterday, and she had waited for me here, just as she promised. I beamed, and held back a sob as my eyes watered up. I had never before been as happy as I was at that very moment in my entire life.

I let out a small laugh as I wiped my eyes, which caused Cinderella to look up at me. “Oh! Aaron!” she said, smiling cheerfully. “Hello!”

“Hi, Cinderella,” I replied, sniffing.

Cinderella frowned concernedly upon seeing my watery eyes. “Are you okay?” she said. The genuine care for my well-being in her voice tugged at my tears even harder.

“Yeah,” I said, laughing softly as I wiped at my eyes again. “I’m sorry I’m such a mess…”

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Cinderella replied, gently smiling. She then frowned concernedly again as she asked, “Is something wrong?”

“No, no, it’s just…” I began. I sniffed again, then looked around. “I think I’ll go find a restroom to get some tissue…” I said.

“Will this do?” Cinderella said. I turned back to her, and saw that she was offering me a white, lace-edged handkerchief.

I made a small, elated gasp. “Thank you!” I cried, bowing as I held my hands forward to graciously accept her offering. Cinderella placed the handkerchief in my upturned palms, which I then dabbed my eyes and wiped my nose with.

“I’m completely fine,” I said after my face and nose were a bit drier. I chuckled, then added, “I just… eh, I’ll tell you in a second. What’s that you’re reading, by the way?”

Cinderella grinned broadly, then closed her book and held it up, displaying the cover to me. It was a dark blue codex with a dust jacket that had obviously seen a lot of wear, judging by the small tears on its edges and the large wrinkles down its center. There were three clusters of rings printed upon its front, and in each was the white silhouette of a young person; in one was a teenaged boy, in another was a teenaged girl, and in the last was a male child. The words upon the cover were English, and the author’s name was printed in cursive in the lower-left corner while the title was given in large, bold uppercase letters at the top.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle,” Cinderella said, beaming. “It’s my absolute favorite book.”

“Really?” I said surprisedly.

“Of course,” Cinderella replied. She then smirked as she asked, “What, is it really so shocking?”

“No, not at all!” I replied, laughing softly. “In fact, it makes perfect sense. More than anything I’m just surprised that you admit it’s your favorite book.”

Cinderella raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Why does that surprise you?” she said, puzzled.

“Well, it is a children’s book,” I pointed out, “which most aesthetes would be embarrassed to admit to be their absolute favorite piece of literature.”

Cinderella frowned. “Is there something wrong with that?” she said.

I laughed again. “Of course not! Not in the slightest!” I said. “I agree completely! Children’s books hold just as much artistic value as any other form of literature. Anyone who says otherwise is arrogant, pretentious, and elitist.”

Cinderella grinned.

“People have actually given me a lot of grief over my favorite book, too,” I continued.

“Really?” Cinderella said surprisedly. “What book is it?”

The Lord of the Rings,” I answered. “No one disputes that it’s a classic, but no one will take you seriously if you argue that it’s the greatest novel of all time, either.”

“So you think it is?” Cinderella said.

I nodded energetically. “Oh, yes!” I cried. “You can go on all day about the literary brilliance of Ulysses or Great Expectations, but how many novelists can write ideas with as much depth and reach as many audiences as Tolkien? Even to this day, the man continues to draw immensely passionate fans as much as he draws academic scholars who analyze and study his works.”

Cinderella softly smiled. “You make a rather good case for it,” she said. She then looked up thoughtfully as she observed, “However, I would argue that popularity does not inherently indicate quality. The standards by which judge a work are how true, needed, and well-delivered its message is.”

I nodded. “For example?” I pressed.

“I’d argue that the greatest novel of all time is either To Kill a Mockingbird or Les Misérables,” Cinderella continued. “Both works are about the cruelty that people can show to one another, and aim to demonstrate the world-shaking power of kindness that can counteract it. Even if that kindness seems small or insignificant.”

Cinderella then gazed into my eyes as she added, “Cruelty is something that will always plague humanity, and kindness is something we will always need. Therefore, those books will always hold value, because they will always be able to teach new readers how to be kind in the face of a cruel world.”

I found myself staring at Cinderella, stunned by the eloquence of her argument. However, I was even more shocked by the reasonings behind her argument; to Cinderella, the most important thing in the world was… kindness. “That’s… incredible,” I said.

Cinderella raised a brow. “What is?” she said.

“Just… that you hold kindness so highly,” I said, giving her a small smile of amazement. “I never thought I’d ever meet anyone who values kindness as much- or perhaps even more– than I do.”

Cinderella’s mouth opened slightly with shock, and her expression was one of deep, concerned distress. “You’ve never met someone who values kindness before?” she said.

I rubbed my head and looked away. “Well, that’s not exactly true…” I admitted. “I mean, my mom is one of the kindest women I know. But aside from her… no, I haven’t.”

Cinderella continued to gaze at me with distressed disbelief. “You really… haven’t?” she whispered.

I shook my head.

Tears began forming in Cinderella’s eyes, and she stood up from the swing she was seated in. She stepped up to me, then wrapped her arms around me, pulling me into a gentle but tight embrace. “Oh, Aaron…” she whispered. “I’m so sorry…”

I wasn’t sure how to feel at that moment. I was a bit frightened and confused; after all, I had only known Cinderella for one day. Despite how short the time we had known each other was, however, she was already showing me a deeply intimate physical expression of comfort. It was as though we had been close friends our entire lives.

Another part of me was overwhelmed with relief, gratitude, and joy. I felt tears begin pouring from my own eyes again as it dawned upon me that I was receiving genuine, heartfelt affection from another person. Cinderella was performing for me an act of great caring and support that I had received from no one else (except for my mother), even despite the fact that she barely knew me. I sniffled again as I wrapped my arms around Cinderella and returned her embrace.

After a few more moments of continuing to tightly hold me, Cinderella released me and stepped back. She then sat back on her swing and nodded to an empty one beside her, asking softly, “You want to swing with me?”

Without hesitation, I nodded and swiftly seated myself beside Cinderella. We then pushed off from the ground and began slowly swinging in differing tempos.

As we fell into a rhythm of gently passing each other in opposing directions while swinging back and forth, I found myself mentally deliberating whether I should begin going into the details of why I was so unspeakably grateful to have met Cinderella to her. My greatest worry was that by doing so I’d alienate her and drive her away by coming across as even stranger and more unsettling, not to mention pathetic, than I was sure I already did. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was highly doubtful that Cinderella would confirm such fears; even though I had only known her for barely more than a few hours, I had already gotten enough of a sense that she was exceptionally non-judgemental and open-minded that I was almost certain of it. I also desperately wanted to pour my heart out to someone, and bare the great suffering I had endured for my entire life to someone who could understand and offer real consolation for it. If Cinderella couldn’t understand the unique and horrible nature of my woeful past, who else possibly could?

After taking a few deep, meditative breaths to steel and ready myself for the daunting action I was about to take, I turned to Cinderella and said with a gentle smile, “Cinderella, I really cannot thank you enough for being my friend.”

Cinderella smiled back. “Oh, the honor is mine!” she replied, giggling modestly.

I softly laughed, then said, “No, you haven’t the slightest idea how much it means. Before you, I’ve actually never had a friend before. Let alone one so… remarkable as you are.”

Cinderella’s smile faded as she turned to look worriedly at me. “Really?” she said. “You’ve never had a friend before?”

“Nope,” I said sadly, turning away from her to look down at the ground. “Not even one.”

“I don’t understand how that could have happened,” Cinderella said. “I mean, you’re one of the sweetest and most noble boys I’ve ever met.”

I smiled softly, then said, “Even if that’s true, no one would ever get close enough to me to learn that.”

“Why not?”

“There was always a reason for my peers to shy away, even if the reasons changed over time,” I replied sadly. “When I first started going to school, the reason all the other kids stayed away from me was very simple: they were afraid of me. More specifically, they were frightened of my physical appearance. They thought I might be a ghost, or a vampire, or some other kind of unsavory, unnatural monster. The few times I tried to approach some other children to play with them, they ran screaming away from me, crying that I was going to bite them or put a curse on them. Nothing the teachers said about vampires and ghosts not being real did anything to convince them otherwise. So I gave up.”

Cinderella’s expression was now one of deep sympathy and heartbreak, though I had only barely started. I continued, “Around the next year, they got used to how I looked. But rather than fear me, they began to hate me.”

Cinderella gaped at me. “They hated you?!” she cried, stunned. “Whatever for?”

I shrugged. “For lots of reasons, I think,” I said. “To start, I was very strange, even back then. I kept largely to myself and spent most of my time reading, drawing, or solving riddles and puzzles in puzzle books. I never put up a fight, even if someone tried to pick one, so the other boys started calling me ‘weak’ and ‘spineless.’ I just didn’t want to fight. I don’t like fighting. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Cinderella nodded. “Go on,” she said.

“Gradually, I think their hatred then became motivated by jealousy.” I then shrugged as I continued, “I know this might sound sound conceited, but there’s no point in pretending otherwise: I’m immensely intelligent. I just am. I’ve never had any difficulty learning new things, even without trying. I was already able to fluently read and write when I entered kindergarten, and I also had a fairly firm grasp of advanced science and mathematics.” I grinned. “It honestly felt as though I were a real-life Matilda Wormwood. It probably isn’t surprising that I read Matilda quite a bit.”

Cinderella nodded. “So that angered your classmates?”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “I always knew the answers to all of the teachers’ questions, and I always had the best test scores in my grade. Sometimes I even knew more about the subjects than the teachers did. I honestly felt rather guilty about it, since I could see a lot of the other kids pouring their very sweat and tears into countless things that I could accomplish flawlessly while barely thinking about it. I could understand why they’d hate me so much.”

I hunched forward and wrapped my arms around my swing’s chains as I continued, “And my classmates essentially just kept hating me for that reason throughout the rest of our primary school careers. Everything else was just added on top of it.”

Cinderella blinked. “‘Everything else’?” she said. “What do you mean?”

I looked back at Cinderella, and saw that she was still gazing at me with deep, sincere concern and sympathy. In truth, I thought that I’d rather not talk about it any more, as I would be going into some of my most painful and traumatic memories if I went any deeper. However, I found that I couldn’t refuse such a sweet look from such enchanting, compassionate eyes.

I also had a growing feeling that, by telling Cinderella about some of the worst things that had happened to me, I would likely have the profound experience of a healing through cleansing. It would be painful to confess such painful memories I’d never told anyone of before, of course, but I realized that doing so would be like removing a shard of broken glass from a wound; though it might be more painful at the moment to remove it than to just let it stay there, it would ultimately result in less ache and, more importantly, allow the wound to begin mending.

With a sigh, I said, “Well, as we grew older, the other kids and I began to explore our sexualities. Obviously we would. But like most other things, I was ahead of the curve there, as well. I’ve known as long as I can remember that I’m attracted to other boys as much as I am to girls. Well, that’s not exactly true- boys generally care less about their personal appearances than girls do, and I find dishevelment off-putting. But if a girl and a boy both have average appearances and are equally untidy, I’ll be equally attracted to both of them.”

I could tell by the cringing expression on Cinderella’s face that she anticipated what was coming next. “I didn’t think anything of it, either,” I said, shrugging. “I just liked boys. Plain and simple. So when my classmates started going on dates and writing love letters to each other, I had no idea of what might happen if I attempted to pursue a homosexual romance with one of my peers; I didn’t even consider how badly people might take it.”

Taking a deep, slightly trembling breath, I continued, “His name was Takeshi Matsumoto. He was much bigger than me, so I was pretty afraid of him, but he was also a very good-looking and talented athlete, so I had a massive crush on him. He’d dated many of the girls in our grade, but I could see that… I don’t know… his heart wasn’t really in it. I could see that he was just pretending to be a big lady’s man because that’s what all of his friends were.”

I took another breath. “I wish I didn’t try to ask him out in the school halls,” I said. “I wish that I didn’t do it in front of so many other kids. I could tell that he felt completely humiliated and absolutely furious when I said that to him. His friends all laughed at us, and started taunting us by calling us both ‘perverts’. He blew up at them, shouted that was the only freak there, and that he didn’t even ask me to make a move on him.” I sniffed and my eyes began watering. “Then he beat me. Pretty badly. I was all bloody and bruised and had to go home early that day.”

I wiped my eyes on my sleeve, then continued, “The bullying got much worse after that. People started calling me a ‘freak’ again, but now they’d also added ‘disgusting’ and ‘pervert’ to the mix. I got attacked several times after that, too, and I never tried to ask anyone out again.”

My hands, which were clasped together, began to faintly tremble as I gritted my teeth with rage. “I’ll be honest, I came to dislike boys more than I do girls. I’m not any less… physically attracted to them, but I developed a…” Here I steeled myself to be completely honest. After a few short, terse breaths, I finished, “I developed a hatred especially for them.”

“Why’s that?” Cinderella said. There was still no judgement in her voice. The sheer overwhelmingness of my emotions became nearly unbearable.

I quietly sobbed. I lifted my arm up and hid my face in it, whispering, “I’m so, so sorry… I… I’m making a scene…”

I felt Cinderella place her hand on my back. “Don’t be,” she said sternly. Surprisedly, I looked up at her, and saw that she was gazing at me with a chiding frown. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of your emotions,” Cinderella said. Her expression softened as she added, “It’s okay, Aaron. You need to let it out.” She concluded with a small smile, “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

I barely suppressed another sob of overwhelming gratitude, but nodded. “Al-alright…” I said.

I quietly wept a little longer; once I had my bearings again, I sat back up, wiped my cheeks, and sighed. “Ugh,” I said. “I’m such a mess…”

“It’s alright,” Cinderella said kindly. I returned a smile of thanks to her, then she said, “You want to keep going?”

I nodded. “Y-yeah,” I said. I looked back down at my hands as I continued, “The reason I hate boys more than I do girls is because… well, girls just seemed to have a line that they wouldn’t cross with me. They verbally harassed and insulted me as much as the other boys did, but they never hit me or otherwise physically violated me in any way.”

Cinderella’s eyes widened with shock. “What?” she said quietly.

I swallowed, tremblingly took a few breaths, then continued, “One time, while I was walking home from school, I saw that Takeshi was following me. And something about him that day scared me more than I usually was of him. I tried to just ignore him, but he kept following me until we were next to an alley, then he shoved me into it.”

I shivered. “When I got up, he pinned me against the wall. I tried to get away, then he hit my cheek and growled, ‘Where do you think you’re going, freak?’

“I said, ‘Please let me go.’

“He snickered, then he said, ‘Oh, so you’re going to play hard-to-get now?’

“Then he kissed me.”

I looked over at Cinderella, and saw that she looked deeply disturbed. “I…” she began, though she found herself at a loss for words and said nothing more.

Looking down again, I continued wearily, “It was very… invasive. Above and beyond the fact that Takeshi was forcibly kissing me, he also used one of his hands to hold my jaw and force me to keep my mouth open. I tried to stop him for about half a minute, but then I saw that there was no escape and decided to try to enjoy it. I started kissing him back, so he stopped holding my jaw open. After he’d kissed me a little longer, he pulled away and chuckled, ‘I knew you really wanted it, you little pervert.’

“I didn’t say anything, and he started kissing me again. I didn’t fight him anymore, but he still had me pinned with one of his arms. With his other one, he slid his hand up my shirt and started stroking my belly and chest.”

I was flushing and weeping with shame and embarrassment as hard as I’d been in the story I was recounting to Cinderella. “I was… terrified,” I whispered. “I was more scared than I think I’d ever been. But I also…” I swallowed. “A part of me also really did like what he was doing. I was so very scared and confused, because I wanted desperately for him to stop so I could get away from him, but I was also enjoying it.” I placed my face in the palm of my hand as I added, “This probably doesn’t make any sense, does it?”

Cinderella placed her hand on my shoulder, then shook her head. “Not at all,” she replied. “I understand completely.”

My eyes widened. “R-really?” I said astonishedly. “How-?”

“I’ll tell you more when you’ve finished,” Cinderella interrupted me. “Are you finished yet?”

After a moment of stunned silence, I shook my head and said, “N-no… sorry…”

“It’s alright,” Cinderella immediately reassured me. She pulled her hand away as she said, “Go on.”

Taking another breath, though filled with newfound courage, I continued, “I felt so ashamed, and worthless, and filthy, especially since I was getting… excited. I hated that I was getting aroused by Takeshi molesting me, and I tried my hardest not to. But… something about that situation, and the way that Takeshi was kissing me and teasing me…”

I clenched my eyes closed and trembled silently for a moment. “And he could feel it,” I whispered. “When he did, he pulled away again and snickered, ‘What, am I making you hard, pervert? Wow, you really are a sicko, huh?’

“He then leaned forward and whispered, ‘Just like am.’

“I felt his free hand start moving down to my crotch, and I panicked. I started struggling again, but he just laughed and said, ‘Relax, freak. You’re just gonna make this harder on yourself…’

“He kissed me again, and he started undoing the button and zipper on my jeans. Out of desperation, I bit his lower lip very hard. For a fraction of a second he loosened his grip slightly as he screamed and began badly bleeding, and I was able to push him off of me. However, before I could get away, he swung his fist and hit me in the back. While I was lying on the ground, he kicked me in the chest and broke some of my ribs.”

Aaron…” Cinderella muttered distressedly.

“I could tell he was going to hurt me even more,” I said, “so I kicked him in the gut before he could attack me again. While he was lying on the ground, doubled over from the pain, I slowly stood up before running as fast as I could to get well away from him.” I teared up again as I muttered, “I was so afraid and in so much pain. I cried for someone to help me the whole time, but everyone I passed avoided me, or even ran from me in fear. With the blood on my clothes and dripping from my chin, this doesn’t really surprise me- particularly when added to my unnatural paleness, I have no doubt what I must have looked like to them.”

With another trembling sigh, I concluded, “I caught a train, then returned to my mother. She was mortified, but she immediately got me to a hospital where they treated me and my injuries. She also contacted the school, who immediately expelled Takeshi and notified the State, who apprehended him.”

As stunned as ever, Cinderella was silent for a few moments before quietly asking, “Did you tell your mother that he was trying to…?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “All I told her was that one of my classmates had brutally attacked me without provocation, and that I’d had to fight him off to get away.”

Cinderella was quiet again for a few more moments. “Have you told anyone else about this?” she then said. I detected tremendous worry and distress in her voice.

I shook my head. Cinderella blinked, swallowed, then said, “Aaron, I… I can’t even…”

I shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do about it, right?” I said. “I got my injuries treated, and the State arrested Takeshi, so I’ll never see him again. I don’t know what more I could have reasonably expected from this situation.”

To my astonishment, however, Cinderella was hugging me again. I was shocked that I had any tears left, but I began silently weeping one more time as I hugged her back.

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Chapter Two

I never got tired of watching Tokyo rush by through the window of a tram car. I was never bored when I was traveling; whether on a bus or on a train, I was always perfectly contented to just stare out the window at the scenery of my surroundings throughout the entire trip while the other passengers read their pulp novels and manga magazines (or, if they were wealthier, playing games on handheld consoles). In my eyes, reading and gaming were strictly activities for my bedroom, and traveling was for observation, contemplation, and reflection.

I liked to imagine how a master oil painter might portray this city in differing times, lightings, or weather conditions. I didn’t mind when it rained or snowed; in fact, I saw an exciting opportunity whenever precipitation occured. I imagined committing such scenes to a canvas with cool, deep blues and silvers to create a moody, melancholic atmosphere suited to the composition made upon it. Whenever it was a bit cloudy, but not so cloudy that the daylight was blocked out, I would likely wait until sunset so that I might capture the rich oranges and purples the sun cast against the clouds. At night, I would select vibrant neon hues to recreate the many lights glowing from the casinos, malls, cinemas, bathhouses, and arcades scattered throughout the metropolis. But my absolute favorite times for taking in the vista of Tokyo were bright, sunny autumn and spring mornings, when the trees were pink with cherry blossoms or browning with dying leaves; those were the times I felt that Japan showed its true essence, completed by the sight of the majestic peak of Mt. Fuji in the distance.

In my eyes, Mount Fuji was the most beautiful object in the world. The highest point in Japan, the wide and snowy volcano had awed, enraptured, and inspired countless artists and explorers since it was originally discovered in ancient times, as well as providing untold thousands of generations of philosophers and thinkers the focus for countless hours of pondering and meditation. But what most amazed me about this mountain was that it was largely the same as it had been thousands of years ago; even at the dawn of civilization, mankind must have seen and revered a mountain much like the looming, snowy purple behemoth I beheld now. It had witnessed many great wars and the rise and fall of many great civilizations, and even after mankind’s great leaps and advancements in science and technology it still stood there, like a grim old man eternally telling the world the story of the wonders of nature and the slow passage of time.

It gave me comfort to know that many others before me had seen this same mountain, and that many of them must have been thinking many of the same things that I did. It was a reminder that though things were always changing, in many ways they also remained the same. How many other people have been lonely, I thought, and looked at this mountain, and wondered if there was anyone like them? That have thought that things must have been better in the past, only to realize that those who were also outcasts with the same frustrations were the only ones that wrote anything? That realized no one can ever know the deepest secrets of the universe, as they are forever out of the reach of any man?

But today, at last, at least one of my questions had been answered; there must have been at least one other person who was looking at Mount Fuji and thinking like I did. After all, she had come to Japan for the purpose of admiring and reflecting on beauty, as I did. A part of me had begun to doubt that such a person even existed, but happily I was proven wrong; I had met that person on the steps of the Tokyo Public Library today. Thinking about Cinderella Peterson while continuing to gaze out the window at Mount Fuji, I gently began to close my eyes as I softly smiled.

It was dusk by the time the tram stopped at the station nearest to my home. I stepped off of the car onto the station’s platform, then I made my way onto the street and began walking towards my home as the blue of the night sky deepened until it was completely black. I couldn’t see any stars, as they were obscured by the light of the street-lamps, which cast a comforting and familiar orange glow over me as I gradually approached my apartment building. Within a few minutes, I saw it; a tall, cylindrical, steel beam-framed tower built of locally-excavated stone shaded in many pleasant hues of brown. I pushed the steel handlebar of one of the glass doors at the entrance, opening my way to the building’s light brown wooden staircase.

I scaled up six flights of stairs before I arrived at the small, rectangular hall of the seventh floor, which like all of the others held two doors in the long wall and one door in each of the two smaller side walls. I turned right, walked to the end of the passageway, and knocked on the door to Room Seven Hundred Four.

“I’m home!” I called out as I entered my apartment.

My mother, who was chopping up some vegetables for dinner in the kitchen, turned to me and gasped happily. “Welcome home, Aaron!” she cried delightedly, setting her knife down on her chopping board before stepping up to me. She embraced me, exclaiming, “I’m so happy to see you, dear! You’ve come home so early!”

“Yeah, it’s nice to see you too, mom,” I replied, hugging her back.

My mother was a rather small, plump woman with a warm, good-natured face who always wore a kitchen apron whenever she was at home. Unlike me, she had a very normal appearance; like most other Japanese women, she had a light olive skin tone, dark brown hair, and slightly narrow brown eyes. Her hair was long and artificially curled, and she usually had make-up on, which all contributed to a pleasant and friendly appearance that suited her well in her profession as a receptionist for a hospital not far from our home. It was fairly obvious that Reo Sakura was not my birth mother; she was medically infertile, and so she had been assigned by the World Hegemony to raise me and my younger brother Avion as her adopted children.

When an adult woman was unable to have children of her own, the state would assign her to be the custodian to two or three of someone else’s children, who could come from one of two sources: they could be orphaned through the death or imprisonment of their birth mother, or they could be the children of the female officials of the Board Of World Leaders, the highest governing body of the World Hegemony. The state also tried to keep blood relatives together, as well as keep foster children in their nations of origin, if they could; as a result, my brother and I had both been assigned to Reo Sakura immediately after we were each born to a (predominantly) Japanese BOWL official in Central City, the Capital of the Earth.

I loved my mother with all of my heart, though I often wished that I had been assigned to the care of a doctor or a professor instead of her; as kind, loving, and supportive as my mother was, she was of average intelligence, while I was speculated to be an “immensely gifted intellectual prodigy” by the healthcare providers and educators charged with me. It was difficult to contest that evaluation; I could already speak fluently when I was two years old, I began reading and writing shortly before I was four, and I had an advanced knowledge of linguistics, literature, music, computer science, mathematics, and physics by the time I was seven. Even during my first school years, only a few adults could understand many of the things I spoke about; needless to say, absolutely none of my peers could. As a result, I found that nearly everyone had absolutely no idea whatsoever of how to deal with me, including my mother.

Nonetheless, my mother did everything within her power to give me as much out of my life as she could, even if she couldn’t discuss most of my interests with me. She always concerned herself with my troubles, tried to give me access to any resources I might need, and praised me for every accomplishment I made, whether it was a perfect grade on a class exam, the final draft of a poem, or the solution to a highly-complex abstract mathematical problem that she couldn’t even begin to wrap her head around. For that reason, I always concluded that I preferred to have her as a mother more than I would probably have liked a doctor, as they likely wouldn’t have shown me even half of the attention or affection that my mother had shown me.

“How was your visit to the library?” my mother said once she had released me from her embrace and taken a step back. “Is there any particular reason you’re back so soon?”

“My trip was quite nice,” I replied as I knelt down to untie my black, belted, gothic leather combat boots. I then slid out of them and placed them against the apartment genkan’s wall while I continued with a small but beaming smile, “I befriended a girl there. She’s just moved here from Britain. Her name is Cinderella Peterson.”

My mom placed her hand over her mouth as her eyes widened with shock. “You did, dear?” she gasped.

I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I’ve also arranged to go on a date tomorrow with her.”

My mother broke into a wide, giddy smile. “Oh, that is just wonderful, Aaron!” she cried. Tears began streaming down her cheeks, which she wiped away as she sniffed and continued softly, “I was so, so very worried that you wouldn’t ever be able to make any friends…”

I comfortingly placed my palms over my mother’s shoulders and gave her a gentle, reassuring smile as I said, “Don’t worry, mom; I’m alright.”

Once she had dried her tears from her cheeks, my mother replied, “I know, dear. It’s just that you’ve never had anybody to talk to or play with growing up. I’m very glad you were able to meet someone who could see how amazing you really are.”

I blushed slightly in embarrassment. “I’m not that great, mother…” I said, looking away and rubbing the back of my head nervously, to which she broke into laughter.

My mother then returned to the kitchen, where she resumed cutting up her vegetables as she said with a sly glint in her eye, “Is she a pretty girl?”

“Oh, she is dead gorgeous,” I replied as my smile widened with the memory of Cinderella. “Her beauty is almost divine. She’s really smart, friendly, and cute, too.”

My mother’s smile broadened. “Quite a brainy looker too, huh? She sounds a lot like you.”

I chuckled nervously, “Honestly, mom…”

“Do you think you’ll ask her to be your date?” my mother asked. “You know, to your Coming-Of-Age day?”

My eyes widened and I was silent for a moment, stunned. “I… I never really thought about it…” I said.

My mother abruptly stopped chopping a carrot and turned with a shocked expression to me. “You haven’t?” she said. “Why not? Didn’t you say she was pretty?”

“Y-yeah, she is,” I stuttered. Indeed, now that I thought about it, not only was Cinderella extraordinarily beautiful, but she was also quite sexy, as well. Her minidress had shown off her stunning legs, which were long, smooth, and slender, but pleasingly toned. Her figure was likewise strong but graceful, and though she only seemed to be about as old as me, she already had rather wide hips and a pair of nice, pleasingly round small breasts. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I would have liked very nearly nothing more than to see her without any clothes on.

So yes, I did find Cinderella quite physically attractive. The odd thing, however, was that sexually fantasizing about her wasn’t the very first thought I had about her when we had first met; in fact, my carnal desire for her hadn’t occurred to me until several hours after I first met her, despite the fact that I’d been thinking of nothing but her the entire time.

Usually, when I encountered someone who was highly attractive, I would immediately imagine myself having a sexual encounter with them, and then when I got home I would browse my porn collection until I found an image of a similar-looking model that I could pleasure myself to. Not so with Cinderella, however. Despite the fact that her beauty surpassed that of anyone I had ever met before, her sex appeal had been less of a priority to me than the possibility that I might become her friend. How curious, I thought; why had my first desire been to get to know her, rather than to lure her into bed?

Perhaps it was because my thirteenth birthday was still a month away, I thought; after all, it would be foolish to make an advance on Cinderella now, before I had come of age. Perhaps I wanted to befriend her so that I could still have access to her by the time of my Coming-Of-Age’s arrival. However, I then remembered the first moment I had laid eyes upon Cinderella, and I realized that befriending her had been my end goal in and of itself at that time; the idea of physical intimacy with her had only occurred to me when my mother suggested it just a few moments before now.

I sat silently for a few moments, surprisedly wondering how something so strange had happened to me, as well as asking myself why it would. I then shook my head and smiled, however, as I decided that I was simply so completely starved for companionship of any kind that my instincts had turned to finding friendship before finding a mate. It was a logical product of my evolutionary heritage; after all, humans are pack animals, we must form bonds in order to survive, and if you do not survive you cannot perpetuate your bloodline.

Chuckling to myself one more time, I lifted my arms into the air and stretched. “I’m going to be in my room,” I said to my mother after a long, luxurious yawn.

My mother nodded. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready,” she said.

“Thanks!” I replied before making my way to the apartment’s hall.

Before I turned into the door leading to my room, however, I stopped at the one just before it: the door to Avion’s bedroom.

I turned and stared at the closed entrance to Avion’s room. I couldn’t remember the last time I did this, and I was quite surprised at myself for doing it now. What has seized upon me to stop at the entrance to Avion’s bedroom? I wondered. Have I gone mad?

I scoffed. Well, of COURSE I’ve gone mad, I observed sardonically. But so mad as to ENTER it?

I tensed up, and a chill ran down my spine. No. Don’t you DARE, Aaron. Don’t even THINK about it, I chided myself. I took a deep, steadying breath, then slowly exhaled to relieve the panic that had suddenly overcome me.

Even after all the horrors and atrocities I have witnessed and experienced, never have I encountered a being who has filled me with as much inexplicable, horrific dread as my younger brother Avion. His full name was actually Joshua Avion Axe, though he seemed to prefer to be known by his middle name. I couldn’t be sure, though; he never told anyone if this was actually the case. In fact, he never told anyone anything; my brother was utterly and completely silent, and as such nearly everything about him was a complete mystery.

Avion was born on June Thirteenth, when I was eight years old. However, he was not brought to me and my mother until three years later, as he was critically and deathly ill during and long after his birth. We were informed by the letters his doctors had sent us that he was extremely lucky to be alive; he had barely hung onto life by a thread for about eighteen months after his birth, during which time he never had human contact and was raised entirely by medical machines. When his condition improved and his caregivers attempted to introduce him to other children, however, Avion was extremely cold and aloof to them. None of his nurses could ever persuade him to speak, though his doctors said he wasn’t mute. He never played; not even by himself. He never smiled, or laughed, or explored the world like other small children do. Instead, he laid in his bed all the time, leaving only to eat, use the restroom, and attend his mandatory lessons and playtimes. He didn’t have any mental disabilities; on the contrary, Avion had reportedly mastered reading, writing, and mathematics even sooner than I did. Though he had been sickly when he was born, he seemed perfectly healthy now. No one was sure exactly what was wrong with him; all anyone knew was that he was- at all times- utterly silent, brooding, and grim.

When Avion was well enough to travel, he was brought to Tokyo by an airplane; the same jet model as the plane I was brought on. My mother and I were both extremely excited to meet him, and each of us had purchased a gift to welcome him; my mother got him a set of finger-paints, and I ordered him a miniature arcade cabinet kit; I planned to build it, install it in his room, and then help him select games for it. I had helped my mother shop to get new clothes for him, and I also helped her move Avion’s new bed and dresser into his bedroom. Everything we picked out for him was rather plain, but we planned to get him new items as we got to know him and learned what his likes and interests were.

On the day of Avion’s arrival, it was early wintertime. My mother and I had both dressed in jackets and knitted beanies to keep warm, then we took a train to the Tokyo Airport, where we waited at the cheerfully-colorful adoption terminal with a handful of other women and their children for his jet’s arrival. Once the silver, sleek passenger plane landed, an airbridge had been connected to it, and its entrance door was opened, a squad of nurses uniformed in white came out, carrying newborn infants to their adoptive families. The exception, of course, was Avion, who was holding the hand of the nurse who brought him to us, and we were able to identify him the instant we laid eyes upon him.

According to my mother, Avion looked exactly the same as I did when I was a young child. He was small and scrawny, though he was taller than most other boys his age. He had a round, sweet, exquisitely-shaped face, which wouldn’t have looked at all out-of-place on a porcelain doll. His skin was snow-white; his straight, silky hair was shiny and black as pitch; and his enormous eyes were the same intense shade of violet as my own were. Looking at him, I could see why people were often afraid of me; Avion was quite beautiful, but in a cold, eerie, and deathly sort of way, like a recently-deceased corpse or a pale, lifeless china doll. Adding to this uncanny aura of unnaturalness was the bright violet of his irises, a shade that was almost impossible to find in human eyes. According to our physicians, the pure white complexions and unusually-colored eyes that Avion and I shared were attributable to albinism, though they were utterly baffled and unable to explain how our hair was still black despite this.

Nonetheless, despite Avion’s fearsome appearance, I was quite happy to see him. I grinned and called out to him as he was being led to me and my mother, “Hey, buddy! You’re Joshua, right? I’m your brother, Aaron!”

My excitement only builded as Avion approached us. He looked so adorable, I thought, in his little white t-shirt, gray sneakers, and faded black jeans. He looked almost like a miniature alternative punk rocker. My cheer faltered, however, when Avion turned to look at me.

I trembled under Avion’s gaze. His eyes were narrowed in a malicious glare, as though he wanted nothing more than to strangle me. His expression was filled with pure, burning hatred and loathing for me, despite the fact that we had never met before. He never spoke, though I thought I could detect a message in his expression, as though a voice were sounding clearly in my head:

Do not speak to me. Ever.

I involuntarily hid behind my mother, stammering fearfully, “M-mom? Is h-he okay?”

My mother was silent. I looked up at her face, and saw that she was pale with shock and fear, as well.

“You are Reo Sakura, correct, miss?” the nurse accompanying Avion said, looking to my mother.

After a moment, my mother nodded. “Y-yes, I am, sir,” she replied quietly, still gazing at my brother. She then asked tremblingly, “Is… is this Joshua?”

“It is,” the nurse replied. I detected a slight hint of fear in his voice, as well, and saw that he seemed anxious to hand Avion off to us as quickly as he could.

Avion released the nurse’s hand and briskly strode until he was standing just before us. My mother swallowed, made a painful smile, and crouched down as she opened up her arms. “Would you like a hug, Joshua dear?” she said hopefully.

Avion cast a threatening glare at my mother, causing her smile to quickly fade and for her to promptly stand back up as she said, “Al-alright, then…”

“He’s not much for physical contact,” the nurse said.

“What’s… what’s wrong with him?” I whispered fearfully.

My mother placed her hand on my back and frowned sternly at me. “Now, Aaron…” she said chidingly.

“We don’t know what’s wrong with him,” the nurse said, causing me and my mother’s attention to immediately return to him. “He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t play, and he never gets out of bed except to eat.” The nurse then reached into his right trouser pocket and pulled out an envelope, which he held out to my mother. “This is a letter from his physician,” he said. “It’ll tell you everything you need to know about him.”

My mother blinked in stunned silence for a moment, then took the envelope, opened it up, and pulled out the letter it held. After unfolding it and reading the first few lines, she said, “He… he prefers to be known as ‘Avion’?”

“We think so, Miss,” the nurse replied. “We can’t be sure, though. He won’t tell us.”

My mother continued reading the letter for a few moments, then nodded. “Al… alright, then…” she muttered, folding the paper back up and sliding it back into the envelope.

The nurse, with an expression of great relief, nodded at my mother with a polite, “Good luck, Miss,” before turning and quickly reentering the plane.

As the nurses were boarding the state airplane to return to Central City, my mother and I turned around, and saw that the other families were staring fearfully at Avion, as well. When the other mothers met our gazes, they immediately embarrassedly looked away and began taking their children back out of the terminal.

My mother took a deep, weary breath, then turned to Avion. “Shall we go home, dear?” she said, smiling kindly and offering him her hand.

Without responding to or looking back at my mother, Avion slid his hands into his pockets and began walking towards the exit. My mother and I exchanged a fearful glance, then we reluctantly followed Avion as he led us out of the airport.

Even after we brought Avion home, he remained every bit as hostile and icy as when we first met him. He shut himself in his room and refused to leave except to eat and use the restroom, just like the letter his physician had given us said he had done at the hospital he used to live at. He never touched the gifts me or my mother had given him, and the only things he allowed into his room were books from the library, which he kept on his bookshelf. My mother and I had no idea how he got the books; we assumed that he had walked to the library and brought them back himself, though we never saw him leave the house. My mother tried to ask him if he had gone off to the library all by himself without telling her, but of course he stoically refused to answer. As a result, my mother gave up and told him to at least be safe, then never troubled him about it again.

The strangest thing about Avion, however, was not his refusal to break his silence, his hermitage in the solitude of his bedroom, or even the hostility he displayed towards everyone for seemingly no reason; the most peculiar thing about him was what sorts of books he read. It didn’t at all surprise me that Avion was already deeply invested in studying books, or even that the books he read were often quite ponderous and thick; after all, I was reading books of similar difficulty and advancement when I was only a little older than him myself. However, when I had first started reading, my first ventures into literature had been pieces of speculative fiction such as DraculaBlue Lights of Heaven, and The Lord of the Rings. Avion, on the other hand, seemed to have absolutely no interest in fiction whatsoever; the only books I ever saw him studying were highly academic textbooks, journals, and essay collections on topics such as human history, biology, quantum physics, philosophy, high-level mathematics, linguistics, and cultural mythologies. I would have thought of it as nothing more than merely a somewhat unusual academic recreational activity, except that Avion didn’t seem to perceive it as a hobby at all; on the contrary, Avion seemed to take his strange studies so seriously that he obsessed over them to the point of exclusion of all other aspects of his life.

It was as though Avion had been waiting to escape from the hospital he was born in exclusively to engage in this one activity. When he wasn’t in daycare, sleeping, or eating, he was always sitting cross-legged on his bed, reading one of his many staggeringly heavy library books. Everything he did seemed to be in service of this laborious pursuit; he added no decorations to his room, he had no toys on his bed or in his empty toy box, and he didn’t even have a clock on his wall. Aside from his bed and shelves of library books, the only other objects in Avion’s room were a writing-desk with no chair (he stood whenever he was writing), a stack of blank sheets of paper, a clear glass bottle of ballpoint pens, and the many pieces of writing he had made and tacked to the walls. I couldn’t read these writings; they seemed to be composed entirely of characters from an extremely complex, indecipherable constructed language that Avion had invented for his own use. Obviously, Avion didn’t want me to understand them, or for anyone else to, for that matter. But whatever it was he was writing, it seemed to be something quite enormous and of the greatest importance to him; he studied the notes on his wall just as much as he studied his books, and he was always adding more to them and tying strings between the tacks holding them up to better organize them.

Avion had been absolutely livid the few times I had disturbed him, and he made it abundantly clear that me and my mother weren’t allowed anywhere near his bedroom. He always kept it quite spotless and tidy so that my mother never had to enter to clean it, and he did all of his laundry by himself so that neither of us would have an excuse to enter to collect his dirty clothes or bedsheets. His message was obvious: that he was to be left alone at all times, and that there would be deeply horrific consequences if me or my mother so much as put a toe over the threshold of the entrance to his room.

However, at that moment, I had a surprising and powerful urge to check in on him and say hi. Though the idea of speaking to Avion was still quite frightening, I was filled with a newfound courage at that moment, likely from the joyful energy I had gotten from meeting Cinderella. As much as I feared Avion, I still deeply cared about him and was very worried about him; I thought that his cold, mechanical upbringing had caused him deep and disturbing psychological damage, and even if I couldn’t, I still wanted more than nearly anything to find some way- any way- to help him heal those scars.

Taking a deep breath, I rapped my knuckles on Avion’s door before turning the knob and pushing it slightly open. I saw that Avion was hunched over his desk, drafting one of his encrypted notes.

“Hey, buddy,” I said, offering him a warm smile. “How are you doing, Avion?”

Avion responded by flinching, then turning to look at me with an expression of deeply appalled surprise.

“Do you need anything?” I said with a slight tremor.

Avion’s eyes narrowed, and he gave me a glare of such burning fury that it seemed to say, Get out, or I will tear your eyes out and snap your neck.

I shrank away from Avion’s malicious gaze, then I said quietly, “Alright, alright, I was just checking…”

Avion continued glaring at me until I closed the door again, after which I heard him resume scratching out his notes.

I stood before the door for a few moments, gazing at it as I slid my hands into my pockets.  I then sighed wearily, shrugged, and muttered, “Well, it was worth a shot…” before turning and closing the remaining distance to my own bedroom.

Once I had opened the door to my room, I smiled; it was probably the most comforting sight to me in the entire world. It was a little like Avion’s, in that all of the walls were lined with shelves and there was a writing-desk in the corner of the room; however, unlike Avion’s bedroom, mine was filled with color and little decorations to liven it up.

That wasn’t to say everything in my room was completely cheery; for instance, my western-style bed was made with black sheets, a white pillow, and a hand-stitched quilt I had made myself that consisted of black, white, and gray blocks which were embroidered with victorian-inspired floral designs and arranged into a Storm at Sea pattern. I similarly had an elegant, drearily monochromatic fine victorian china tea set, an iron reading-lamp designed to resemble a gothic streetlight, and posters for several death metal bands plastered over my walls. But dark things weren’t the only things that brought me joy; I also had hundreds of toys, game pieces, and figurines stacked on all of my shelves and any other horizontal surface I could fit them on. Some of the items in my collection included rare, century-old vinyl figurines of some of my favorite anime characters, such as Leleouch Lamperouge, Shinji Ikari, Maka Albarn, Simon Jiha, and Ray‘s Alex, as well as my favorite video game protagonists Link, Heather Mason, Caim, and American McGee’s interpretation of Alice Liddell. I also had a replica of the original Winnie the Pooh and plush dolls of Riolu and Lucario, my two favorite Pokémon. However, of my knickknacks, by far my most valuable and treasured one was my Jack Skellington puppet; it was one of the actual dolls used to animate The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I had carefully posed and displayed it in a cylindrical glass case before placing it on top of my tallest shelf in order to preserve it.

The possessions I had in this room that I loved the most, however, were the hundreds and hundreds of books, disks, cartridges, records, and tapes that filled my shelves. These weren’t even all of the items of my library; just my absolute favorite ones. I was contented to read most books, listen to most songs, or emulate most games on the black tower personal computer I kept on my desk; however, when I was absolutely filled with adoration for a particular work, I would get ahold of a genuine original copy of it (or at least a replica of it) so that I could experience it as its creator originally intended. For that reason, I had a real vintage record player, several century-old gaming consoles, and an entire shelf full of plastic sleeves in which I had carefully stored many ancient Western comic books. The rest of my shelves were filled with countless optical disks of films, games, and television series; hundreds of Nintendo cartridges; hardcover editions of my favorite novels, such as The HobbitBeowulf, the Harry Potter series, and Touched; as well as complete collections of about a dozen manga series such as Fullmetal AlchemistDriven BackAi Ore, and every series Takeshi Obata had ever illustrated, including Hikaru No GoDeath NoteBakuman, and All You Need Is Kill. They all added together to create a vibrantly eclectic atmosphere of- to use an old English word- geekiness, which was the most relaxing one I could possibly be in.

I took a deep, satisfied breath, then strode to my bed. I lifted up my mattress, then began browsing over the stacks of pornographic magazines that rested beneath it. My porn collection covered an extremely wide range of subjects for those with specific interests; pregnancy, bondage, food play, incest, bara, yuri, water play, and many different kinds of role-play were some of the many genres it included. In all honesty, I had an insanely huge number of intense kinks, and I couldn’t say which was my most powerful one; all that really mattered to me was that the participants were showing real pleasure during whatever act they were engaged in.

I ran my fingers over the spines of the magazines, attempting to choose one to aid me in my nightly ritual of masturbating before taking a bath and going to bed. However, I found myself realizing something that caused me to hesitate, bring my hand to a stop, and gently lift it away from the magazines: I could still not get Cinderella out of my mind.

I thought of finding a photo of a teenaged European model with golden hair and blue eyes so as to have a visual aid that resembled Cinderella. But- strangely- I found that the idea seemed oddly unsatisfying; the model wouldn’t be her, and so it wouldn’t be the same.

My eyes narrowed with puzzlement. “What is going on…?” I whispered, setting the mattress back down. “I’ve never been so obsessed with someone before…”

I stared down at the floor, scraping the corners of the farthest reaches of my mind to find an explanation for why I could simply not stop thinking about Cinderella. Was it because she had approached me and talked to me of her own volition? Was it that everything about her, from her looks to her personality to her mind, seemed to have been crafted specifically to make her as attractive as possible to me? Was it because she was the first friend I’d ever had? Or was it something else; some unknowable connection between us that could not be detected or measured, and I couldn’t even begin to understand?

I thought about this for several long minutes, though the answer was just as elusive to me at the end as when I’d started. I sighed disappointedly, then turned my thoughts to another, more palatable problem: Cinderella so completely filled my thoughts that I would not be able to sleep tonight. I had no doubt about this; my obsession with Cinderella would be a very long-lasting one, and it would not allow me any rest anytime soon. For that reason, I needed some way to occupy myself for several hours until sheer exhaustion could overrun my insomnia.

Gently smiling, I went to my desk, sat in my plush, purple swiveling gaming chair, and picked up my communications headset. I slid it over my head, adjusted the microphone attached to it, turned on my computer, then clicked an icon of a black, calligraphic on the monitor’s desktop. A few seconds later, the interface for my application, MasterScribe, opened up and displayed the message: “You are now online, Mr. Shiro Yami.

Shiro Yami was a fitting pseudonym, I think; after all, one had only to look at me to understand what the words “White Darkness” meant. This was the name I had chosen as my identity on the Internet; the one place where I could interact with others without causing them fear or drawing bullying to myself. Here, I was anonymous, and so the world could see me for what I really was.

My activities on the internet reminded me a lot of those that Valentine and Peter Wiggin engaged in in the novel Ender’s Game; in the real world I was a nobody, but I was staggeringly famous and respected on the Web. I could comfortably join discussions in nearly any community, as I was fluent in every living language and had a deep knowledge of most things people liked to talk about. Of course, I contained my activities largely to forums dedicated to literature, music composition, and programming circles, since I was only comfortable having conversations on those general topics. People often emailed me whenever they had a very difficult question relating to them, and my answers were almost always unanimously accepted by the entire Web as gospel truth. But my main use for the Internet wasn’t browsing the forums or communities; my primary reason for being there was to distribute my projects.

Aside from reading, gaming, and watching movies, my favorite hobby was to create media. I wasn’t contented to work in just one medium, however; I wrote novels, comics, plays, and musical scores, and I was additionally a game developer. These projects were the source of my fame; they were extremely well-regarded in critical circles as well as with the general public, who were all quite astonished at the tremendous speed and high quality with which I was able to compose them. Fans and admirers of my work tirelessly attempted to guess my true identity, though I adamantly refused to tell them. Watching their guesswork was pretty amusing, though; many were absolutely convinced that I was the persona of an artistic collective or the alias of a highly secretive private corporation, as they couldn’t believe that just one person could do all that I did, though the majority of my most fervent fans agreed that the consistency in style between my works pointed to a single mind being behind all of them. No one was able to come close to guessing who I actually was, however; the most dominant theory about my identity was that I was a reclusive, brilliant Doctor or World Leader, that I was in age somewhere around my late thirties to early fifties, and that I used my pseudonym out of a desire to be left alone, or otherwise to see how my works would fare without the prestige of my real name. How ironic, I often thought, that Shiro Yami was a reputable nobleman of the world’s intellectual gentry whose ideas and opinions were held by the populace at large with a deference bordering on reverence, while Aaron Axe was nothing more than a young, strange, frightening little peasant-boy who had no friends and had often returned home from school covered in blood and bruises from beatings he had received from other children.

The wealth with which I had purchased all of my games, books, toys, and antiques had come from the revenue I generated from my online sales of my projects. My income wasn’t great enough to, say, start up my own corporation, but it was substantial enough that I could fund yearly summer-long vacations to luxury resorts if I so desired. I had little interest in such things, however; if I were to win a lottery and suddenly receive an entire fortune, I would have simply spent my winnings on even rarer and more valuable collectibles I desperately wanted, such as a signed first edition of Alice in Wonderland, arcade cabinets of Galaga and Pac-Man that were manufactured in the Nineteen Eighties, and the first editions of the Gutenberg and King James Bibles. The closest I would have come to throwing a huge, wild party would have been to buy one of the original Nightmare Before Christmas film reels, rent a Twentieth Century-reenactment movie theater, then hire the projector to show the film while I watched it and ate buttered popcorn in complete privacy.

The application I was currently running, MasterScribe, was one of my most popular and successful products; it was a software I had developed for the purpose of hosting sessions of role-playing games on the Internet, and I had designed it to be as powerful, intuitive, and fun to use as possible. Most of the time I had spent writing it had been devoted to its map editor, which I modeled after raster graphics software. I had put a lot of love and care into the assets making up the map editor’s library, so that anything a Game Master might need for any given session- whether it was a complex trap, a tile for a specific ground type, or an obscure monster from an almost-forgotten adventure module- was always right at their fingertips. I had also composed a large selection of musical pieces that a GM could play to add atmosphere during a session. When one was actually playing their game, it became a three-dimensional simulation almost exactly like a conventional video game, except that the GM continued to hold complete control over all aspects and rules in it. MasterScribe, initially made just for my own use, had quickly become a huge hit after I introduced it in online RPG communities, and was now the platform most online role-playing sessions were played on. Even at the tiny price I sold it at, I had still made a tidy profit off of it; I was grateful that I didn’t live in a pre-World Hegemony civilization, as I would have had yet-uneliminated online piracy to worry about that might have made things result differently.

“Send out an open invitation for a self-contained Dungeons & Dragons adventure,” I said. The voice recognition registered my command, then promptly displayed a list of my favorite D&D modules, as well as some I had written myself. I selected a module of my own creation titled The Emperor’s Pistol, which was an extremely difficult self-contained adventure for the third edition rules that had been inspired by the Tomb of Horrors module, as well as the old platformer I Wanna Be the Guy. Once I selected the adventure, MasterScribe informed me that my open invitation was up, and I sat back and waited for other players to take it.

I didn’t have to wait long; within seconds, I had several dozen players send me messages asking to join my session. I selected a few players that I had played enjoyable sessions with before, then I said, “Alright, then, let’s get this going. Select one of your pre-made level five characters, everyone.” MasterScribe automatically converted my words into a text message and sent it to the other players.

I oversaw the other players attempt and fail to complete The Emperor’s Pistol about three times, which always ended with them all dying truly gruesome deaths to one of my many death traps I had hidden throughout the module. Their first trek into the palace I designed ended with them all falling into a bottomless pit, the second ended with them drinking a potion that instantly turned them all to dust, and their third attempt ultimately resulted in them all getting crushed under a falling moon-shaped ceiling decoration. After this last party wipe, I looked down at the clock in the corner of my desktop. It was about two o’clock. At that moment I felt all of my accumulated exhaustion fall upon me, and I made a wide yawn before saying, “I have to go now. Good game.” I then removed my headset, closed MasterScribe, and turned my computer off.

Now that I was sufficiently tired enough, I stretched, stripped down, then went to take a bath. Once I had finished bathing and dried off, I returned to my room, opened up my bedcovers, and slid naked into them. As I closed my eyes and drifted into slumber, my thoughts remained fixed upon Cinderella. The last thing I saw before losing consciousness was the sight of her kind, warm, friendly smile.

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Chapter One

I fell in love. She was breathtaking, otherworldly, and angelic. Our eyes met and she tilted her head, staring at me curiously.

A sudden burning sensation caused me to look away. I felt my cheek. It was hot. I sighed, smiled, and turned back to her. She was smiling, as well.

This girl intrigued me for many reasons; to begin with, she was by far the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She was tall, slender, and graceful, yet strong. Her complexion was fair but lightly tanned, which along with a grassy scent she carried and a look of playfulness in her expression indicated that she had a deep affinity with nature as well as a childlike love for play. Her face was round, youthful, and sweet; it seemed to be glowing with a magical radiance, as it was framed by extremely long, wavy golden hair that shined and glistened as though it were spun from sunlight. But above all, I was enraptured by her eyes; they were very large, intelligent, and caring orbs of a deep and vibrant blue that I couldn’t decide more resembled sapphires or the sea.

This girl’s beauty wasn’t the only thing that fascinated me about her, however; she was also very noticeably odd in a great number of ways. She was obviously European, which was somewhat of a rarity as a sight in the city of Tokyo. In addition, her attire stylistically clashed with the clothing of nearly everyone else around her; while most of the people walking past us wore either traditional kimonos or modern outfits reminiscent of the styles of popular anime and manga characters, this girl was wearing an eclectic combination of a rainbow tie-dyed t-shirt, a blue denim overall minidress, and a pair of thick white cotton socks beneath a pair of black leather combat boots. The only thing that I could think of that all of these anachronistic items had in common with each other was that each one was associated with one of the movements of late-twentieth century rock.

But the thing that most fascinated me about this girl was the fact that she was gazing and smiling at me without the slightest hint of fear. This caught me quite off-guard, as I had never seen a stranger look at me without being afraid before. The moment anyone first caught sight of my deathly pale skin, ink-black hair, and intensely violet eyes, they would invariably and immediately flinch and recoil slightly away from me with fear, if not run away outright. But not this girl; for some reason, she was giving me a smile that showed nothing but friendliness and warmth. In the face of hospitality I had never known before, I found that I was a little afraid myself; after all, what was it that made this girl different? Why, when all others looked upon me with dread, did she smile at me as though I were as ordinary as anyone else?

Nonetheless, whatever the reason this girl wasn’t afraid of me, I found that I was immediately immensely attracted to her; not only was she unafraid of me as well as astonishingly beautiful, but if my guesses proved to be correct, she was also a classic rock aesthete. I wondered if I was dreaming, as it was as though someone had taken everything I’d ever wished for and crafted them all together into my ideal girl. If I was dreaming, I prayed with all of my being that I would never wake up.

I wanted to talk to her. However, I was paralyzed with panic. What should I say to her? I thought. Should I speak in Japanese, or cycle through European languages until I encounter one we have in common? What should I talk about? What will I do if something goes wrong? What if I blunder so badly that I drive her away? Every question I asked myself only made me more panicked and anxious, and I felt myself begin to tremble as my face burned as though it were on fire.

However, to my enormous relief, I didn’t have to initiate the beginning of our conversation; the girl stepped up to me and said cheerfully, “Hello.”

I blinked, swallowed, gave my head a small shake, then nervously smiled back as I tremblingly replied, “He-hello…”

The girl giggled, and I felt my blush intensify. “There’s no need to be scared,” the girl said. My mouth opened slightly with surprise; her Japanese was excellent, though I could detect a noticeable British accent in her voice.

Once the girl stopped giggling, she placed her hands on her lap and bowed to me. “It’s an honor to meet you,” she said.

I blinked again. This girl was demonstrating perfect courtesy in introducing herself to me. Smiling back, I placed my hands at my sides and bowed back to her, replying, “It’s an honor to meet you, as well.”

Once we both stood back up, the girl offered me her hand. “I’m Cinderella Peterson,” she said. “What’s your name?”

I blinked, wondering if I had heard her correctly. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I said.

The girl giggled again. “My name is Cinderella Peterson,” she repeated. “What’s yours?”

After gazing astonishedly at Cinderella for a moment, I smiled back before taking her hand and shaking it. “Aaron Axe,” I said, to which her smile brightened.

Once she released my hand, Cinderella clasped her fingers together behind her back and rocked back and forth between her toes and heels. I slid my hands into my pockets as I said, “‘Cinderella’, as in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, right?”

“Yes,” Cinderella replied. “But in actuality, my mother named me after the Disney movie, since it’s her favorite one.”

I nodded. “So your mother’s a big Disney fan, huh?”

“Oh, yes,” Cinderella said. “She told me that if she ever had another daughter, she would name her Aurora Belle; if she had a son, or if I was born a boy, she’d have named him Adam, after the Beast.”

I grinned. “Well, the Beast is the best Disney prince,” I said. However, I raised a brow in puzzlement as I noticed that Cinderella had uttered the phrase, “if she ever had another daughter or a son”. Wondering if the implications were really true, I said, “So… you don’t have a brother or sister?”

Cinderella’s cheerful smile quickly faded. Her eyes closed slightly as she replied sorrowfully, “No. My mother died before she could have her second child.”

I blinked. “Oh,” I said quietly. “I’m… I’m sorry…” I muttered.

Cinderella shrugged. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “She just got very, very sick. I miss her terribly, though.”

I nodded. Wow, I thought; she really is like a Disney princess; she has the beauty, the appearance, the personality, the name, and even the tragic backstory of one. However, though I was deeply excited about this fact, I set it aside as I gave her a sympathetic gaze and said, “I’m very sorry you lost your mother.”

Cinderella nodded and softly smiled. “Thanks.”

I looked around at the street we were standing in; there were vibrantly colored (especially red), neo-traditional towers and buildings all around, with the distinctive curving roofs of archetypical medieval Japanese architecture. Pedestrians were crossing over the roads in large, shifting crowds between shops and restaurants as the occasional tramcar rolled beside them, guided by the steel cables webbed over Tokyo’s streets. Cinderella and I were standing on the stone steps to a particularly large and tall building: the Tokyo Public Library, which was my most preferred haunt aside from my own bedroom in my mother’s apartment. I wondered extensively at why Cinderella had come here; after all, not only did she look quite out of place, but she seemed to have neither tried to acclimate to Japanese culture nor any intention to. I would have guessed that she was simply a tourist that was here for a temporary visit, but she was a fluent speaker of the language and had just come out of the public library, which were highly unusual traits for a for a mere casual sightseer to have.

Curious, I turned back to Cinderella and asked, “I was wondering- why have you come to Tokyo? Are you just here for a visit, or did you move here?”

Cinderella looked away with a thoughtful expression. “Well… a little of both, I suppose.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I plan on living here for a while,” Cinderella said, “though I plan on leaving eventually.”

I nodded. “I see. How long to you plan to stay here?”

Cinderella shrugged. “That depends,” she said.

“On what?” I asked, raising a brow in puzzlement.

“On how soon I can finish what I came to do,” Cinderella replied.

“What have you come to do?” I said.

Cinderella looked up as she considered her answer. After a few moments, she said, “I was called here.”

My eyes widened with surprise. “‘Called here’?” I said confusedly. “What do you mean?”

Cinderella shrugged. “There’s really no better way to say it,” she replied simply. “I’m just meant to be right here at this moment, and I’ll need to be here until I’m needed somewhere else.”

I blinked, silently gazing at her for a few moments. “I don’t understand,” I said.

Cinderella softly laughed. “That’s alright,” she said. “It really doesn’t make any sense, does it?”

I smiled.

After a moment of silence, I said, “Alright then. Maybe this will be easier to answer: what exactly is it that you do?

Cinderella grinned. “Oh! I’m an artist,” she replied.

I nodded. “I see. Can you provide me any details?”

“More specifically,” Cinderella said, “I’m a sketcher and an oil painter. I also play the guitar and the piano.”

I gasped, smiling with pleasant surprise. “Really?!” I said. “do, too!”

Cinderella gasped, as well. “You do?!” she cried elatedly.

I nodded excitedly. “Yeah! I’m also a violinist and game developer!”

Cinderella beamed. “That’s so cool!” she cried. “What subjects do you usually use?”

I looked skyward as I thought about it for a moment. “Um… mostly, uh… ‘Tim Burton-esque‘ things, I suppose.”

Cinderella nodded. “Alright. Like what?”

“Well, uh…” I said, “bare trees, old abandoned houses, victorian and gothic architecture, cemetaries, that sort of thing. Danny Elfman is also my favorite composer and Hideo Kojima is my favorite game designer, and they’re my biggest inspirations when I’m writing music or developing games.”

Cinderella nodded. “I see,” she said. “So, you really like the horror genre, huh?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “It’s not because I want to be scared, though. I just love the atmosphere and the mood when horror is done correctly.” I grinned. “That’s why Tim Burton is my favorite filmmaker, I think; nearly all of his works are horror, yet not many of them are designed to be outright frightening. They’re more like pieces of literary fiction with horror as the frame and backdrop. For instance, Sweeney Todd is a classical tragedy disguised as a rape-and-revenge-esque exploitation film. By the same token, The Nightmare Before Christmas is essentially a retelling of How the Grinch Stole Christmas where the hero still misunderstands the holiday, but loves it rather than hates it, and thereby examines its themes in ways The Grinch didn’t within the context of a cool, eerie stop motion world.”

Cinderella grinned. “You’re right,” she said. “Tim Burton’s filmmaking style really is quite clever in that way.”

“What are your main inspirations?” I said, leaning forward slightly with eager anticipation.

“Disney is an enormous inspiration to me, in case you haven’t guessed,” Cinderella replied with a coy smile.

“What a surprise,” I laughed.

“I also love works with the same core ideas of magic, optimism, and childlike wonder,” Cinderella continued, her eyes wide with wondrous bliss. “My favorite live action film is The Wizard of Oz, which is the closest thing I’ve seen to an animated Disney film that isn’t animated.” Cinderella laughed as she added, “Of course, the creators of The Wizard of Oz were inspired by Snow White to make it in the first place, so it’s no surprise it ended up being so Disney-like!”

I grinned. “I see. What kind of music do you like?”

“My favorite bands are the Beatles and Coldplay,” Cinderella replied. “There’s just this undercurrent of hope and fun in much of the Beatles’ work, and I’ve never heard music with as much beauty and a sense of wonder as Coldplay’s. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Coldplay were the successors of the Beatles.”

I raised a brow in confusion and surprise. “Really?” I said.

Cinderella nodded. “Mm-hmm,” she said with a soft smile.

“How so?”

“Think of Eleanor Rigby and Viva la Vida,” Cinderella replied. “Can’t you see the common heritage in ideas between them?”

I placed my hand over my chin and looked down, humming in thought. “You know, I think you’re right,” I said after a few moments. “Both songs are moody, orchestral ballads about an unfortunate person’s tragic life and eventual fall.”

Cinderella smirked and pointed at me as she added, “I’d even go so far as to say that, like the Beatles, Coldplay holds the distinction of being the greatest band of their time.”

I smirked back. “Are you sure?” I said, folding my arms. “After all, their contemporaries included Modest Mouse, Paramore, and Boyce Avenue.”

Cinderella tilted her head confusedly. “‘Boyce Avenue’? Who’s that?”

I gaped at her. “You’ve never heard of Boyce Avenue?!” I said astonishedly.

Cinderella shook her head.

I rubbed the back of my head as I said, “Well, they were a rather obscure early twenty first-century band who were mostly known for their covers of other artists’ songs. Their original albums are unsung rock classics, though. They could be a tad melodramatic, but their music is practically just bursting with passion and emotion. Their compositions are also quite beautiful.”

Cinderella smiled and nodded. “I’ll have to look into them, then,” she said.

We were both silent as I nervously darted my gaze in all directions but hers for a few moments. “S-so…” I said as I felt myself begin blushing again, “Do… um… do you think we could m-meet to talk again sometime?”

Cinderella grinned as she nodded. “Of course! I would love to!” she cried. “Where would you like to meet?”

“Uh, I don’t know…” I said, closing my eyes as I grinned embarrassedly. “I mean…”

“Should we meet at a playground?” Cinderella said, which caught me off guard and caused me to immediately open my eyes and give a stunned gaze to her.

“R-really?” I said softly.

Cinderella nodded. “Of course,” she said, beaming cheerfully. “I find that I love to swing while I’m talking. Would you like that?”

After blinking in stunned silence for a moment, I nodded. “Y-yes!” I said. “That sounds fantastic!”

“Wonderful!” Cinderella replied with a small, excited laugh. “Do you know of an especially good place for swinging, Aaron?”

“Well, uh…” I said, looking down thoughtfully. “One that I’ve often visited when I was little was Hayashi Park, which is close to where I live.”

Cinderella nodded. “Alright. Would you like to meet again at Hayashi Park tomorrow, then?”

My mouth opened slightly with surprise. “You… you know where it is?” I said.

Cinderella shook her head. “Nope,” she said, beaming. “I’ll be able to find it, though. I’m very good at navigation.”

I gazed silently at Cinderella for a moment, then nodded. “Y-yeah,” I said with a small smile. “It’s settled then. I’ll meet you tomorrow at Hayashi Park.”

“I look forward to it!” Cinderella cried with an enormous grin. She then leapt towards me and caught me around my neck in a tight embrace.

Aah-!” I said as I surprisedly took a step back to regain my balance.

My arms were still rigidly straight at my sides and I was blushing intensely as Cinderella released me. She then turned around, looked back at me over her shoulder, and waved at me with a friendly smile, singing, “Goodbye, Aaron! I’ll see you tomorrow!” before humming cheerfully as she skipped down the rest of the stairs to the street. I watched her skip with an energetic bounce until she turned one of the corners and vanished from my sight behind a building.

I stood motionlessly on the library’s steps for a few moments, processing what had just happened. I had just encountered an impossibly cute, beautiful, intelligent, and friendly girl who had looked upon me without fear, agreed to go on a date with me, and then hugged me. Could she truly be real? Was she just a figment of my imagination?

I then the remembered the warmth and softness I had felt when her torso pressed against my own, and as I inhaled I detected her still-lingering grassy scent, mingled with an aroma of cream that must have been from her shampoo.

So she was real. Cinderella Peterson was real. And not only that, she seemed to want to be my friend. I thought that she must be too good to be true, but nonetheless all evidence indicated that I was in reality, and that everything that had just occurred really did happen.

My face broke into a wide, elated grin, then I scaled up the rest of the stairs to the library.

Once I had pushed past the glass front doors, I was greeted by one of my favorite and most familiar scents: the smell of brewing coffee, drafting towards me from the small coffee shop in the library’s lobby just before the entrance. After taking a deep breath with my eyes closed to fully enjoy it, I opened them again and looked around at the comforting sight of the light brown wood paneling the walls, the towering and elegantly carved dark walnut shelves lining the walls and standing over the floors, and the globe-like frosted glass lamps that dangled at the end of cables hung from the ceiling. I could navigate and point out the location of everything in this great building blindfolded, and I adored every inch of it.

I went to the coffee shop’s counter and purchased a twenty eight-ounce cup of espresso with milk, chocolate, and caramel. The cashier, a spindly young man wearing a dark brown apron, charged me three hundred eighty yen for it. I paid for my drink with three silver coins, five titanium coins, and three copper coins, all of which were stamped with characters of differing national origin; some with Chinese, some with Arabic, and some with Japanese, as well as one with English and one with Hindi. Once I had my beverage, I made my way to the bookshelves to browse through their contents.

Though I could find most books on the internet on my computer at home, I found that it was still only a pale imitation of the experience of holding a solid, physical tome in my own hands. In addition, you could read modern books for free in libraries that you couldn’t online, so I often came to the library whenever I wanted to see what contemporary authors had been producing recently.

My reading interests were quite diverse; sometimes I read the most recent scientific journals on physics and computer engineering, and other times I flipped through the illustrations of collections of medieval paintings and sculptures. Most of the time, however, I simply went to the comics and speculative fiction sections to catch up on the latest entries of my favorite series.

On this particular trip, however, I found that I didn’t fall into my usual routine of seeking out a door-stopping space opera or a surreal horror manga volume; instead, I found myself pulling out books such as Bridge to TerabithiaChobits, and The Tale of Desperaux. After picking up a few of such books, I suddenly flinched and froze before looking down at them. I realized: everything that I had selected featured a heroine that greatly reminded me of Cinderella.

After making a small, silent chuckle, I placed the books back on their shelves and deliberately began searching for something to take my mind off of Cinderella; eventually I selected the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe, which was a very familiar favorite of mine.

However, I found that no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t maintain enough focus to keep my mind on the book; my thoughts rebelliously continued to wander to Cinderella. I closed the book and picked up a copy of Hamlet to attempt to distract myself with that, instead, but my efforts were just as wasted there. After I unsuccessfully tried again with a volume of Sherlock Holmes, I gave up; I stood up, replaced the book, and slid my hands into my pockets as I walked out of the library.

After walking down the street past pachinko parlors, sushi restaurants, gaming stores, brothels, convenience stores, and magazine stands, I reached the tram stop I had arrived from; after depositing a few coins in one of the fare boxes, I went through a steel turnstile and stood with several other passengers on a raised cement platform. Once the small, red, well-maintained train arrived, we all walked into it. I remained standing as I took a hold of one of the circular aluminum handles dangling from a strap bolted to the ceiling; a few moments later, the doors closed and the tram lurched forward as it began moving.

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Copyright, Dedication, and Acknowledgements

Rainbow ©2017 Morgan Ray Hess

To Michael, my brick wall.

I have many people to thank and express my deepest gratitude for making this work possible. To begin with, I must thank my mother Nikki as well as my friend Kelsie for showing me the light when my world was at its darkest. I must also thank my father Richard, my sister Aiden, and my brothers Warren and Collin for tirelessly being sources of inspiration to me. I thank my mother’s parents Ivo and Barbara for the sense of wonder and creativity I inherited from them, and I thank my father’s mother Coleen for reminding me how complex and wonderful a person can be. I thank my mentors Janet, Steve, and Eric for giving me an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and I thank my cats Puffle, Ellie, and Purr Fur for their unwavering companionship and affection. Lastly, I thank Shelly and Austin for being my friends despite how little I see them. My debts thus all repaid, consider this book dedicated to all of you.

Begin Reading >

Rainbow Announcement

It is time to release my life’s work to the world.

As I might have already told you all, my life has been dedicated to the creation of a novel titled Rainbow. It is my Magnum Opus, the heart of my projects, and my attempt to create the Apotheosis of Human Artistic Achievement. I have spent what is now half of my lifetime planning and drafting it, and now I am ready to release the final version to the world. Without further ado, please allow me to introduce it.

Rainbow is a young adult fantasy/science fiction/dystopian/romance/adventure/horror novel inspired by such works as A Wrinkle In Time and The Mysteries of the Unknown. It is simultaneously a high fantasy epic set in our world as well as a meditation and deconstruction on storytelling and some of life’s deepest questions, such as:

What, exactly, is the nature of good and evil?

What is the inherent nature of mankind?

For what purpose are we all here?

Rainbow explores these questions and attempts to answer them in a bid to become known as the greatest novel ever written.

Now that I’ve established what this work means to me and what I hope to accomplish with it, here is my formal advertisement for it:

All stories are true.

Aaron Maitreya Axe is beautiful, brilliant, and alone in a distant future where religion is forbidden and romantic love is dismissed as an antiquated fantasy of an era of unenlightenment. However, Aaron meets and finds himself falling in love with Cinderella Peterson, a mysterious girl of seemingly-supernatural beauty who is the first real friend he’s ever had.

Cinderella spirits Aaron away from the oppressive, hopeless life he’s always known and shows him the world of the paranormal; a world hidden within our own in which all things are possible and wonders both unimaginably horrific and unspeakably beautiful roam throughout the infinite cosmos of the universe. Cinderella also reveals to Aaron that the Earth is on the brink of succumbing to the forces of darkness, and that the two of them are the only ones who can save it.

Aaron reluctantly joins Cinderella on her crusade to liberate the world from the clutches of evil, and together they embark on a quest across the Earth and through the stars to search for ten ancient artifacts of legendary power, with which they might successfully lead a revolution against the tyrannical rule of the servants of darkness. Along the way, they encounter and are forced to overcome all the obstacles that the princes of despair send to hinder them, including Cinderella’s tragic, secret past; the lords and legions of Hell; and a mysterious foe who may prove to be a greater threat than even the Dark Lord Satan himself.

A tale of horror and humor; of romance and adventure; of courage and despair; of darkness and light.

This is the epic of the universe.

This is Rainbow.


I will post the entirety of this novel on this blog, and it will be archived in my Rainbow page, which you will find under my Projects page. I will begin posting it on Friday, March tenth. Please subscribe for this site’s newsletter so you can receive updates for it, as well as other news regarding it and my other projects.

Chapter Three: The Summer Sun Celebration

When Spike returned to the inn that evening, he and Twilight went to a nearby bank to cash in Celestia’s check (the teller was enthralled to handle a document with the Princess’s signature), then they went to the diner with the turkey dinner sign across the street from the Sugar Shack to eat with the silver. When they finished their meal, they returned to their rooms in the inn and sent a message to Celestia informing her that they had found nothing to report that day. Once Spike had written and burned the letter, he and Twilight took turns bathing and putting on their pajamas, bid each other good night, then went to bed.

Pinkie baked complimentary raspberry muffins for them the next morning, which Twilight found absolutely delicious and sincerely thanked Pinkie for. However, once she had eaten and gotten dressed for the day, Twilight asked Spike if he would be visiting Pinkie’s friends. When Spike replied that he was, Twilight asked him to gather reports from them about any trouble before picking up another book and sitting back on her bed, returning to her reading.

For the next two days, Twilight spent all her time reading in her room, except when she went to eat. She always ate alone; Spike was invited to join Pinkie or one of her friends for every meal. The first few times, Spike told Twilight she could come, too, but each time Twilight replied that she was fine and that he could go on his own. When his new friends asked him concernedly if there was something wrong, Spike could only express uncertainty and pining for his mentor and closest friend.

Soon enough, however, Twilight ran out of reading material from the books she’d brought with her, so she went into the bakery downstairs and seeked out Pinkie, who she found frosting a small, loudly decorated child’s birthday cake. With a polite smile she said, “Hey, Pinkie.”

Pinkie looked up, grinning. “Hi, Twilight!”

“So,” Twilight said, “can I ask you a favor, Pinkie?”

Pinkie nodded. “Sure, Twilight! What do you need?”

“Well, I’m out of books. You have a library, right?”

Pinkie nodded. “Yep.”

“Can you show me where it is, please?”

“Okie dokie lokie! Just give me about five minutes…”

Twilight folded her arms and watched Pinkie finish decorating the cake. Upon completion, Pinkie pulled her apron over her head and hung it on a nearby hook. “Follow me!” she said, gesturing forward at Twilight. She led Twilight out the door.

They walked eastward, and soon they began traversing the park Twilight had seen when she’d first arrived from the train. It was just as lively as when she’d seen it last; Twilight passed by young children firing water guns and hurling water balloons at each other or swinging across monkey bars and screaming down the slides of the playground while young couples (many of whom Twilight noticed were same-sex) were sitting on benches feeding pigeons or lying on the grass, gazing up at the clouds.

“Would you like an ice cream?” Pinkie suddenly asked Twilight, startling her.

Twilight turned to Pinkie and saw that she was holding two double scoops of vanilla ice cream in waffle cones. “Where did you get those?” said Twilight.

“I bought them!” Pinkie cheerfully replied. “Want one?”

Twilight blinked at her, astonishedly wondering at how Pinkie had disappeared and returned with the frozen treats so quickly. Nonetheless, she smiled gratefully and said, “Yes, thank you, Pinkie,” as she took the one Pinkie was holding out to her.

As Twilight licked melted drops off of the cone’s side, she looked at Pinkie and saw that she seemed happy to have pleased her. It was at that moment that Twilight realized that Pinkie hadn’t spoken to her nearly so much since the afternoon she and Spike had arrived; it seemed that Pinkie had seen that she was annoying her, and so had honored her wishes and talked to her less.

“I’m sorry I bothered you so much,” Pinkie said, again startling Twilight. Had she spoken her thoughts out loud?

“I know you didn’t really want to listen to me, and that’s okay,” Pinkie continued. “We can talk as much or as little as you’d like.”

“Oh. Well, um… thank you,” Twilight replied. She gazed down at her ice cream. She began to feel guilty over hurting Pinkie’s feelings by openly drowning her out with cider when she first came.

“It’s okay,” Pinkie said, for the third time startling Twilight. Twilight turned with a stunned expression back to Pinkie as she continued, “I should’ve seen that I was making you uncomfortable. You don’t need to apologize.”

“Have… have I been talking?” Twilight said.

Pinkie shook her head. “No. I can see what you’re thinking by looking at you.” With a bittersweet smile, she continued, “I’ll be happy if you’re happy. If you need anything, just let me know.”

Twilight nodded, then looked back at her ice cream. Why’s she doing this? she wondered. Why is she being so nice to me? I’ve been at best decent, or even rude to her. Why does she want to be my friend so badly?

Twilight started to get a little angry. She didn’t ask Pinkie for anything. She didn’t want to be Pinkie’s friend; Pinkie should just leave her alone. All she had to be was Twilight’s host and guide; nothing more.

Twilight glared at her ice cream cone. She was upset at herself for accepting it from Pinkie. She decided then and there that she would accept no more favors from Pinkie and make it as clear as she could that they would not be friends.

Soon after they finished their ice cream, Pinkie stopped before an enormous oak tree at the end of the road. It had a balcony, several windows, and a red door installed in it. The door had a candle painted on it, and to the left of the walk up to it was a wooden sign bearing a book and the bold words, “Golden Oak Library.”

“Here it is!” Pinkie said, gesturing at it.

With a gleeful smile, Twilight pulled open the door and entered. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her nose was filled with her favorite scent: that of thousands of books.

The library was rather small and circular, with shelves hallowed out from the tree’s wood that were stacked nearly to bursting with tomes and scrolls. Twilight could see a few chairs and desks placed around the room, with a small writing-desk and a stool standing to her right as she entered. In the back, there was a set of stairs leading to a pair of wooden doors as well as a set of glass doors that opened onto the balcony.

There was a middle-aged Human woman in a long, simple brown dress standing on a ladder, sliding books into one of the shelves. She had a pair of small, round jade earrings and had thick, curly brown hair.

“This is our librarian, Matilda!” Pinkie said, entering behind Twilight. “Hi, Matilda!”

Matilda turned, and smiled at the two girls. “Hello, Pinkie,” she said. “Who is this?”

“This is Twilight!” Pinkie replied. “She’s an ambassador from Olympus!”

“Pleasure to meet you, Miss Twilight,” Matilda said, stepping down. “What brings you to Avalon?”

“I’m here with my apprentice to oversee the Celebration,” Twilight replied.

Matilda nodded. “I see. Where is your apprentice now?”

“Out with Pinkie’s other friends.”

“Alright. What can I do for you?”

Twilight approached one of the shelves. “I’d just like to browse,” she said.

Matilda smiled. “You like books, dear?”

“Oh, I adore them. I read all the time.”

“Well, you can come and read in here whenever you’d like.”

Twilight smiled gratefully. “Thank you.”

“Do you need anything else, Twilight?” Pinkie asked.

Twilight shook her head. “No, I’m good. Thanks, Pinkie.”

“So,” Pinkie said, “Spike is having a picnic with me and my friends at noon. Would you like to-”

“No, thank you,” Twilight said, frowning.

Pinkie’s smile faded dejectedly. “Oh,” she said. “Okay. Well, um… are you at least going to come to Spike’s birthday party the day after tomorrow?”

Twilight sighed. “Yes, I’ll come to his party.”

Pinkie grinned. “Alright! I’ll go tell him. Well, see you later!” With an enthusiastic wave, she exited the library.

As Twilight selected some books from the history section, she said to Matilda, “How long have you been working here?”

“Oh, almost thirty years,” Matilda replied. “I’m actually going to retire in about a year or so. Only problem is, no one’s lined up to fill in after me.”

Twilight nodded. “I hope they find someone.” She took the stack of books she’d chosen to a nearby armchair, where she placed them on the desk beside it and sat down. She picked up the volume at the top of her stack, opened it, and settled comfortably into her seat to begin reading it.

Until the day before the Celebration, Twilight spent many blissful hours sitting in the armchair of the Golden Oak Library, devouring volume after volume until the sun sank beyond the horizon. However, on the day before the celebration, she had to regretfully forgo another day of reading for a long day of sleeping; she had promised to come to Spike’s birthday party, after all, and she also had to be on the lookout for attempts to unseal Nightmare Moon with the stars’ alignment that night. For that reason, on the morning of the twentieth day of June, Twilight remained in her pajamas as she had a large breakfast along with several mugs of beer, brushed her teeth, and then closed the curtains of the windows in her room before returning to bed.

Twilight was awakened by Spike shaking her. “Get up, Twilight!” he said. As Twilight sat up and yawned he continued, “Get dressed; Pinkie’s just about to throw my birthday party!”

Twilight nodded. “Alright… Just give me a few minutes,” she said, stretching.

“Hey, Twi,” Twilight heard a familiar raspy voice say from her door. She turned to see that Rainbow was standing in her doorframe, a stack of parcels at her feet. “Packages for ya,” she said.

Twilight stood up and walked forward. Rainbow pushed the tower of parcels toward her with her foot. Twilight said, “Thanks, Rainbow.”

“Any time,” Rainbow said, walking away with a wave.

Twilight turned to Spike. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Spike smiled and nodded. “See ya,” he said, walking out of Twilight’s room and closing the door.

Twilight pulled open the twine for the first parcel; beneath the brown paper was a colorfully-wrapped gift with a note attached to its ribbon bow that read, “To Spike from Night Light and Twilight Velvet: Happy Birthday!”

Twilight set the present aside and opened the next parcel. This present was wrapped with golden-and-scarlet paper that seemed to dance like flames in the light and was tied with a coral silk ribbon bow, attached to which was a note that read in breathtaking calligraphic characters: “To Spike, I hope you have an absolutely wonderful birthday. Love, Celestia.”
Twilight raised a brow in puzzlement. “Love”? Why had Princess Celestia signed off the note in such a way? Not even Twilight had received a gift from her teacher that had the word written to her.

Twilight shook her head, then moved on to the next parcel, which was Shining and Cadance’s gift to Spike, and the next four were the birthday presents from his best friends, including Twilight.

However, Twilight found one more parcel. She didn’t know who else would have sent Spike a present, so with great curiosity she opened it as well. This present was rather large and heavy, and attached to its bow was a note that read in handwriting Twilight didn’t recognize, “Spike, I hope you have a happy birthday. I miss you and love you with all of my heart.”

Twilight looked at the back of the note, but couldn’t find a signature. Growing a little suspicious, she took a stick of chalk from her pocket and drew two ritual circles on the ground. She placed the parcel over one, stood, held her hands over it, and her marks glowed for a few seconds as she directed some of her Chi into it. Once she felt that the circle was filled, she snapped her fingers, activating it. The circle glowed blue for three seconds before dying down and laying dormant. So there was no metal inside it.
Twilight placed it over the next circle, then activated that as well. This circle too glowed blue, indicating that there was no poison in it either.

Twilight hummed thoughtfully. No bombs or poisons; so the parcel was clean. With some weariness still remaining, Twilight carefully opened the wrapping paper, taking care while pulling the tape away not to rip it. Her eyes widened in shock at what it was: it was a box set of three mint-condition first edition Steam rulebooks. She opened up the Player’s Handbook and saw that on the cover page was the autograph of Gaben Bellevue, the late creator of the game.

Twilight was absolutely stunned. These books were collector’s items of tremendous value; many dedicated Steam players and book collectors would have payed tens of thousands of gold pieces to get ahold of these incredibly rare volumes. Twilight immediately excitedly wondered who could have simultaneously had enough affection for Spike and enough wealth to get them for him.

Twilight’s first thought was of Spike’s sister, Sunset Shimmer. However, she quickly dismissed the idea; after all, Sunset had been kidnapped long ago and was likely long-dead by now. Besides, where would she have gotten all the gold from? In addition, if Sunset had somehow escaped from whoever her captor was or was even merely still alive, wouldn’t she have come to see Spike herself or written to him that her heart was still beating?

Perhaps it’s their mother, or their father, Twilight thought. However, this raised the same question as Sunset: why hadn’t they come to give this to him personally? Besides, their father was likely dead too, and nobody knew anything about their mother. Hell, they knew hardly anything about their father, either; all they had were some vague descriptions that Sunset had told Spike of when she was barely old enough to remember and Spike was a baby.

So perhaps the books had been given by a secret admirer. Twilight knew that many girls had crushes on her sweet-faced apprentice and she wouldn’t have put it past them for one to secretly send him a gift to show her devotion to him, but what twelve-year-old girl could even begin to afford these, or even convince her parents to get them?
It was a fascinating mystery, and Twilight found herself growing quite excited over it. Whoever had sent Spike the gift knew him very well; he would be absolutely delighted at receiving it. She carefully wrapped the books back up and tied the bow back over them. She then picked up about half of the parcels and levitated the rest, and with the gifts stacked in her arms or hovering beside her, glowing purple with Ether, she exited her room.

It was just as tiring to carry some of the parcels telekinetically as it would be to carry them all with her arms, the only difference being that Twilight felt her energy drain directly from her body and she began to feel faintly lightheaded, so she sighed with relief when she placed all of Spike’s presents on the table designated for them by the presence of his other gifts provided by his new friends. “Oh, good, you’re here!” she heard Pinkie cry, and Twilight turned to see her standing beside Rainbow and Spike, who were leaning against the glass selling-counter.

Pinkie and Rainbow were both wearing small, colorful party dresses that suited them and their figures perfectly; Rainbow was in a rainbow-striped shoulderless top and a short, straight blue skirt with purple, ruffled edging. Up her arms were long, fingerless gloves that reached up past her elbows halfway to her shoulders. Completing it were a pair of winged magenta boots and a matching loose belt with a golden buckle shaped like her cloud mark. Pinkie’s dress similarly had a blue shoulderless top and a two-layered skirt; this one, however, had a purple layer over a pink layer. Around her waist was a yellow bow, and on her wrists were a pair of blue bracelets. She wore a small, blue top hat on a pink headband and small, bowed purple dancing shoes.

Pinkie was also holding a pink dress with a ruffled skirt and striped top in one hand, and in the other a pair of tall, high-laced matching pink boots. “Here’s your dress!” said Pinkie. “Go try it on!”

Twilight nodded and took the items from her. She went back up to her room to change, and when she came back down Spike grinned upon seeing her. “You look beautiful,” he said.

“Thanks, Spike,” Twilight said, smiling back. She turned to Pinkie and asked, “Where are the others?”

“They all have to finish their jobs before they can come,” Pinkie replied. “Rainbow finished all of her deliveries and I’m going to be working all night tonight, so we’re both on break.”

Twilight nodded. She helped Pinkie arrange the treats and set up the games for Spike’s party while they waited for Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rarity to come. Since they were planning on having their businesses closed for the festival the next day, they all worked until eight that evening, and began to arrive as twilight was descending upon the town.

Fluttershy was in an elegant spring-green dress, and Applejack was too dressed in green. Rarity wore a sparkling, light blue ruffled minidress with only one shoulder. Everyone thanked her many times for the dresses, and the party began.

They started with cake and games. At Pinkie’s specialized birthday parties, there wasn’t a single large cake and a communal tub of ice cream; instead, the main celebrant was given a small, unique cake with their name and the words “Happy Birthday!” beautifully written in elegant frosting topped with a number of lit candles matching the number of years they’d lived. Once they’d made a secret wish and blown out the candles, they were given the cake to eat on their own while everyone else was allowed to consume as many of any of the cupcakes in the shop as they liked. As for the ice cream, there were no bowls or spoons; they were served on large platters by the confectioner Bon-Bon as small, round balls covered in hard chocolate alchemically designed to keep the insides cold until the shells were broken. As a whole, Twilight had to admit that this arrangement was a brilliant idea; there was little mess and everyone could have as much or as little dessert as they liked. Spike was provided with a cake of swirled peach and chocolate flavored batters topped with twelve sea-green candles. Once he’d closed his eyes, made a wish, and blown them out, he began eating it with a silver fork while the girls selected cupcakes, popped open glass bottles of soda, and popped a few ice cream balls into their mouths.

The first game they played was Blind Man’s Bluff. Spike was able to catch Rarity and Rainbow once each (though Rainbow had gotten close to him several times to taunt him, and when Spike had caught her it was because she didn’t jump back fast enough). He caught Pinkie four times, though it was clear to everyone that she was letting him, and Twilight began to think that she liked getting caught more than she liked getting away.

After everyone had gotten a little tired, they began playing Twenty Questions instead. They found that Twilight was uncannily good at the game; with her encyclopedic knowledge she guessed every one of the others’ items, and they also found that the items she chose for them to guess were so obscure and well-picked that they could never figure them out, even though it seemed obvious when Twilight revealed the answer to them (the item that Twilight most enjoyed using was the night sky, and she laughed hysterically when the others failed to guess it).

Once the games were over, it was time for Spike to open his presents. Pinkie gave Spike her present first; it was a box of assorted rock candies, as Spike had told her that they were his favorite kind of sweet. Next was Rarity, who had given Spike a woven leather bracelet with beads of colorful corals, shells, and smooth, semiprecious stones. Fluttershy had gotten him a fine framed oil painting of a sleeping dragon, and Applejack had given him a brown leather cowboy hat. Rainbow’s gift was a professional-quality vibrantly colored football, which prompted Spike to challenge her to a juggling contest. Rainbow went first, and was able to keep it in the air for seven minutes before she attempted a trick and dropped it. Spike was able to juggle it between his feet for five minutes, but in the end he kicked it a little too hard and was unable to catch it before it touched the ground again.

“I win,” Rainbow gloated smirkingly.

“Best two out of three,” Spike replied.

“Maybe later,” Twilight said. “You still need to open the rest of your presents.”

Spike nodded. “Alright.”

Twilight handed him his gift from her parents. It was a golden pocket watch. After all his friends had admired it for a while he opened his present from Shining and Cadance, which was a large hardcover piano songbook.

“You play the piano, Spike?” asked Pinkie.

Spike nodded. “Yeah.”

“You’ll have to show us sometime!”

“Sure,” Spike replied as Twilight handed him the gifts from his Olympian friends. They were booster packs of Steam figurines.

“You’re a Steam player?” Rainbow said when she saw them. “Man, what a geek!”

“I’ll still kick your ass at football,” Spike replied.

“In your dreams, nerd!” Rainbow teasingly replied, playfully punching his shoulder. They both laughed, then Twilight handed Spike his gift from Celestia. It was a beautiful, hand-bound book of poetry in masterful, calligraphic characters of black ink brush strokes. Spike read the first two aloud, and as he did so he and his friends’ smiles gradually faded away.

“My heart, it aches so
Knowing how long we’re apart
My tears always flow
Trees grow, and flowers bloom
The sun rises high in the noon
The wind rushes through the trees
Rustling the green grass and dewy leaves
Bees hum as they hurriedly fly
And pollen drifts from their legs into the sky
Though I wish I could say it is a perfect day
The music is silent and the flowers are gray”

“That’s… kinda damn depressing,” Rainbow said.

“It’s beautiful, but…” Fluttershy said, frowning down at her hands folded in her lap, “why is it all so sad?”

“But still…” Spike said, running his fingers over the characters, “for some reason, it makes me… a little happy, too.”

“Why’s that?” Twilight said, raising a brow.

“I don’t know,” Spike said. “I guess… I guess it just… well, feels very heartfelt, somehow. Like whoever wrote this really loves whoever they’re talking about.”

Twilight smiled. “I’m glad Celestia could tell you would appreciate it,” she said.

Spike smiled. “Yeah.”

He carefully set the book aside as Twilight gave him her own present. Upon seeing it, his face immediately brightened; it was a full-color Steam art book. “Thanks, Twi,” he said.

Spike stood up, but Twilight said, “Hold on, you still have one more present.”

Spike’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Really? Who’s it from?”

“I don’t know,” Twilight said, handing him his anonymous gift.

Spike read the note, then said, “What?”

“What does it say?” Pinkie asked excitedly.

“‘Spike, I hope you have a happy birthday. I miss you and love you with all of my heart,'” Spike read aloud.

“Do you know who you think it might be?” Rarity asked.

Spike shook his head. “No idea.”

“Do you think it might be Sunset?” said Twilight.

“No. Her handwriting’s different,” Spike replied.

“Who’s Sunset?” asked Rainbow curiously.

“She’s my older sister,” Spike replied.

“Where is she?” said Fluttershy.

Spike looked down, frowning with deep sorrow. “She was kidnapped a few years ago. Nobody knows what happened to her.”

The girls gasped, and Rarity said, “Oh, dear… I’m terribly sorry, Spike, I didn’t know-”

“It’s alright,” Spike said, wearing a false smile. “It’s just…”

“We understand,” said Fluttershy. “We’ll only talk about it if you want to.”

Spike smiled sadly at her. “Thanks.”

With very low spirits, Spike opened the present from the mysterious giver. His eyes widened, however, when he saw what it was. “First edition Steam rulebooks?!” he cried.

He hurriedly pulled out the Player’s Handbook and opened it to the title page. “Oh, Celestia, it’s signed by Gaben Bellevue!!” he shouted, grinning with tremendous excitement.

“Who’s that?” said Rainbow.

Spike closed the book and held it up, pointing at the bottom of the cover, below its illustration of a band of grizzled bandits in tattered brown waistcoats wearing brass goggles and adorned with belts filled with clock-like gadgets. “He’s the game’s creator!” he said, running his finger over the words, “Written and created by Gaben Bellevue.”
“There’s only maybe a hundred signed first edition sets out there, and a dozen mint ones!” Spike continued, his voice growing louder as he went on. “Oh my gosh, these are worth twenty thousand gold pieces, at least!”

The girls all gaped at him. “Twenty thousand gold pieces?” Rainbow said unbelievingly. “You’re kidding, right? Those books cost twenty thousand gold pieces?”

“At least!” Spike said. He spread the books over his lap, wondrously admiring them. “Who could’ve gotten these?! This is the best present ever!”

Pinkie grinned. “So you had a good birthday, Spike?” she said.

Spike nodded vigorously. “Yeah! This is the best birthday ever!”

Pinkie pumped her fist. “Yes!” She leapt into the air, crying, “WHOO-HOO!” She produced a cannon from seemingly nowhere and fired it, sending confetti and streamers flying through the air.

Spike individually embraced each of the girls, thanking them for the gifts, then went upstairs to put his presents in his room.

Sounding a little sad, Pinkie said, “Well, party’s over.” With a dejected frown she continued, “I have to get ready to sell cake and candy to people tonight.” Her smile returned, however, as she added, “But the Celebration’s just about to start! Two great parties, one right after the other! This is gonna be the best night ever!”

When Spike came back down, Rainbow said to the others, “Come on, let’s go to the festival! We’re gonna rock all night long!”

As Rainbow led the others out, however, something in one of the windows caught Twilight’s attention from the corner of her eye. She turned, and saw that gazing into the shop was a pair of turquoise eyes. Twilight could see no more of the Being’s face, as her mouth and nose were obscured by a black knitted ski mask and her hair was shadowed by a black hood. Twilight only saw the hooded Being for a few seconds, however; when Twilight looked in her direction, her eyes widened and she bolted out of sight.

Puzzled, Twilight followed Spike and the other girls out of the door. She looked behind herself as they went outside, and she thought she saw a black boot disappear into one of the alleys.

“Uh, Spike?” she said.

The others all stopped and turned to her. “Yes?” Spike said.

Twilight gazed at him for a moment, then shook her head, deciding against telling him; Celestia had commanded her not to endanger him, and there’d be less chance she’d be seen if she investigated alone. “Never mind,” she said. “I need to go.”

“Why?” Spike said confusedly.

“I just need to check something,” Twilight replied. With a smile she assured him, “I’ll be right back.”

Spike nodded with slight apprehension. “Alright…” he said.

With a nod, Twilight ran into the alley beside the inn and entered the opening she saw the hooded figure turn into.

Twilight walked down a long stretch of alleyway, but fortunately there was only one turn at the end. She treaded over discarded newspapers and old rubbish until she came back out into an empty street, where she could see a few blocks away that the hooded figure was turning at the corner of the block. Twilight cast a spell to silence her feet as she ran to catch up with the figure, and when she reached the corner she saw the figure walk down a few more meters before entering a small, abandoned house.

Twilight approached the decrepit, crumbling brick structure until she stood at its doorstep. She carefully placed her ear against the door and her marks glowed as she amplified the sound from beyond it. She could hear breathing and a heartbeat from the other side; someone was standing guard at it.

Growing deeply suspicious, Twilight stood back and looked up. The windows were shattered, and many of the bricks had chipped or weathered away, leaving several handholds. She silenced her footfalls again as she stepped up onto an exposed brick on the side of the wall and grabbed one above her head, pulling herself up. She climbed up to the windows, and as there were still some jagged pieces of glass in their frames she telekinetically lifted them away and gently laid them on the ground beneath her before climbing in.

She was in an old, dusty bedroom with a moth-eaten bed in one corner and a shattered lamp in another, and on the ground between them was a frayed, filthy rug. Twilight laid on her belly and pressed her ear against the rug, again amplifying the sound beyond it.
She heard a man say, “… have you been? It has been an hour since you left.”

She heard a teenaged girl reply, “I’m sorry, Master. This has really drained me, and I had to steal a lot of cakes and take a long rest before I got my energy back.” Twilight’s eyes narrowed; the girl’s voice was familiar, though she couldn’t quite place it.

“Well, it is nearly done,” she heard the man say. “Just a little more.”

“Yes, Master,” the girl replied.

There was a moment of silence, then Twilight heard the girl and the man, joined by a few more voices, begin chanting in Elvish, “Supernatural etherial iron, rust and weather away. Supernatural etherial iron, rust and weather away.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. She recognized the incantation; they were performing the Rusting Ritual. Deciding that this called for further investigation, she carefully stood back up and walked out into the hall.

As Twilight stepped down the dark passage, she moved extremely slowly to minimize the creaking of the boards beneath her feet. At the end she came to a dimly-lit spiraling staircase. She carefully crept down the steps, holding onto the wooden banister to support herself, and when she was low enough to see the first floor clearly she looked down at the room beneath her.

In what must have once been a parlor, Twilight could see seven black-clad figures standing at several spots around the room. All of them were uniformed in boots, jeans, gloves, and hoodies, all as black as pitch. Their hoods were drawn up over their heads, which along with the ski masks over their lower faces hid their identities. One was clearly an Angel, as Twilight could see a pair of dark green wings protruding from his back; he was standing beside a wingless figure at the edge of the room, and both of them were leaning against the wall, watching the center.

Twilight supposed that the four figures in the middle of the room were Elves; they were standing around a ritual circle, continuing to chant the Rusting incantation with their hands crossed over it. Twilight could hear that two of them were adult men and the other two were teenaged girls, one with the familiar voice Twilight had heard from upstairs. Behind them, guarding the front door was a massive eighth figure without wings who was intently watching the ritual, as well.

There were several lit candles placed around the spell casters, casting an ominous orange glow around the house. Some of the light dimly lit Twilight, who was a little worried that she would be seen, but fortunately the figures all seemed to be too focused on the ritual to look in her direction.

Twilight looked around the room, and saw that there were two more ritual circles drawn on the ground. Though she recognized the one the hooded figures were using at the moment as the Rusting circle, she had never seen the other two before. However, she recognized some of the shapes and characters they were composed of, so with a few minutes of careful study she came to the tentative guess that the purpose of one was to break or dissolve some kind of “barrier” and the other was for establishing some kind of “connection.”

A thrill of panic coursed through Twilight. A horrific idea had immediately come to her mind: that this group of hooded Beings were attempting to secretly unseal Nightmare Moon. She deduced that the “barrier-breaking” circle was to make it possible to magically access her prison, and that the “connection-forming” circle’s purpose was to allow them to release her from this remote location. The only thing that didn’t make sense to Twilight was that they seemed to be trying to free Nightmare Moon with the Rusting Ritual, which implied that they thought that she was imprisoned in Tartarus with only simple etherial iron shackles and chains.

Nonetheless, Twilight knew they immediately had to be stopped. But what could she do? She couldn’t interfere alone; they outnumbered her by a vast margin. She thought of running and telling a guard, but by then it might be too late. She thought of burning a letter to the Princess begging for help, but she didn’t have parchment or a pen, and anyway Celestia could never act quickly enough.

However, the thought of burning a letter gave another idea to Twilight: she could start a fire, and escape in the shadows as the house collapsed around these hooded Beings.
However, just as Twilight was raising her hand to snap and ignite a spark, the chanting hooded figures suddenly grew silent and let their hands fall to their sides. “There, it is done,” she heard one, the man the girl had called “Master,” say.

The figure standing guard at the door looked up from the circle, and suddenly flinched as his eyes fell upon Twilight behind the bannister. “Hey, someone’s spying on us!” he shouted in a deep, intimidating voice as he pointed at Twilight.

The figures all looked up at her, and Twilight froze in place. A second of absolute stillness hung in the air before Twilight hastily scrambled back up the stairs.

“She’s seen us! Assassin, kill her!” the Master shouted, and one of the figures who was aiding him perform the ritual drew a knife from her belt and flung it at Twilight.

Twilight abruptly stopped just before the blade could plunge into her abdomen, but it cut open her arm as it rushed through the air and lodged itself in the wall. Twilight screamed in pain and held her arm, but kept running back up to the second floor as blood seeped through her fingers.

“I missed her!” Twilight heard an unfamiliar girl’s voice shout.

“Never mind her!” the Master shouted back. “Our work is finished. We have to leave.”

Twilight heard many boots rapidly hit the floor as the figures ran out of the house and into the street. She went into one of the bedrooms and leaned her head out, looking down below, and saw that the hooded Beings were sprinting in the direction of the Everfree Forest. She angrily groaned in great frustration; they would be impossible to find in there.
Nonetheless, Twilight had to tell the Princess immediately. Still holding her bleeding arm she ran downstairs, out the still-open door, and back towards the town square.

* * *

The night was vibrant in Olympus. Its shining crystal buildings were glowing bright with lights as jugglers, clowns, and acrobats were entertaining the citizens of the city while they sang and danced and awaited the awakening of their High Princess.

The guards all wished they could join in the celebrations, but they were all on-duty and instructed to be especially vigilant tonight. Celestia had commanded them to wake her immediately if anything seemed even remotely wrong, and so they were all on the very highest alert.

Celestia was wise to take such precaution.

A shadow slinked through the streets of the city, darting between dark corners and avoiding the gaze of any of the merry celebrators it passed. It approached Camelot slowly, carefully; Olympus had changed quite a bit since the shadow had last been there, and it didn’t want to take any chances or encounter any surprises.

Its patience paid off; it reached the gates of the castle unnoticed. The entrance was brightly lit, and two guards were standing watch at it, so the shadow didn’t dare pass between them. This hardly delayed it, however; it simply moved around to the castle’s side and teleported past the iron fence that walled the garden in.

There were two guards patrolling around the flowerbeds, so the shadow hid behind one of the trees and waited for them to pass by. Once they had gone, it dashed to the fortress’s wall and climbed the vines clinging to it up to the window.

Once the shadow had entered, its mind eased a little; Camelot hadn’t changed at all. It knew its way to the Royal Bedchamber as well as the mark on the back of its hand, so it was simple work avoiding the guards patrolling the halls to reach it.

Once the shadow had pushed past the tall doors into Celestia’s bedchamber, it silently, slowly approached the massive, circular bed upon which the Princess slept. Soon the shadow could see the curled, unspeakably beautiful figure of Celestia, clothed and blanketed in fine, cool silks, slumbering peacefully as the moon gently shined through the window upon her face.

The shadow melted away, revealing a massive pair of dark, feathered wings. Their owner smiled as she reached towards Celestia, the white crescents on the backs of her hands glowing blue.

* * *

Twilight frantically knocked on the door of the Golden Oak Library. “Matilda! Please let me in!” she cried. “It’s Twilight!”

After a few moments of silence, Twilight heard footsteps approach the door. It opened, revealing the drowsy, robed form of Matilda. As she sleepily rubbed her eyes she said,

“What are you doing here, Twilight? It’s one in the morning.”

She looked down at Twilight’s arm and gasped, covering her mouth. “Oh, Celestia! What happened?”

“No time,” Twilight said. She pushed past Matilda and asked, “Do you have any alcohol and bandages?”

“Yes, they’re up in my bathroom,” Matilda replied, breathing deeply with her hand over her heart.

Twilight ran up to the bathroom next to Matilda’s bedroom, and in one of the lower cupboards she found a first aid kit with bandages, cotton swabs, and a glass bottle of rubbing alcohol. She held her arm over the bathtub and poured some alcohol from the bottle onto her dripping wound. She cringed and grunted as her arm began to sting with pain, but she quickly cleaned it, bound it with bandages, and washed her blood down the drain.

When she came back down, she said to Matilda, “Do you have a pen and parchment I can use?”

Matilda nodded. “Yes. On that desk over there,” she said, pointing at the writing-desk beside the front door.

Twilight sat at the desk, took the feather quill from its inkwell, and hurriedly scratched onto the top sheet,

It’s Twilight. I think I saw an organization attempt to unseal Nightmare Moon. I didn’t see who they were, and I don’t know if they succeeded. Please answer as soon as you can.”

Twilight then telekinetically lifted the parchment into the air and snapped. Purple flame quickly enveloped the parchment and consumed it until it vanished. Twilight then stood, turned back to Matilda, and asked, “Can I put a ritual circle on the ground here?”

“What?” Matilda asked worriedly. “Why?”

“I can’t tell you,” Twilight replied. “I’m sorry. It’s in case of an emergency. Can I draw it?”

After a moment, Matilda nodded. “Of course, Twilight.”

“Thank you,” Twilight said, and she held her hand up and conjured a long, cylindrical stick of black carbon into it. She knelt down and drew a long-range Teleportation circle on the wooden floorboards beneath her, then stood and held her hands over it. Once she had filled it with Ether, she said, “Thank you so much, Matilda,” and ran back out of the library.
In a few minutes, Twilight returned to town square. It was loud and lively, with fiddles and singing filling the air as actors staged simple plays on wooden platforms and teenagers danced around the fountains under glowing paper lanterns.

Spike’s bright green hair made him easy to locate, and Twilight soon pushed through the crowd to find him dancing with the pink-haired Angel girl that they’d seen at the Sugar Shack when they first arrived.

“Spike!” Twilight shouted.

Spike and his partner turned to Twilight. “Oh, hey, Twi!” Spike said. “This is Scootaloo. She’s best friends with Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle!”

“You’re Twilight, Right?” Scootaloo said, grinning at her.

Twilight nodded. “Yes.” She turned and said to her apprentice, “Come on, Spike, we have to-”

“What happened to your arm?” Spike said, pointing at the red-soaked bandage tied around Twilight’s knife wound.

“I’ll tell you in a minute,” Twilight replied. “Come with me.”

Spike anxiously nodded and followed Twilight as she led him back to the inn.

The Sugar Shack’s bakery was very busy; Pinkie, Bon-Bon, and the Cakes had their hands quite full selling sweets, pastries, and drinks to the partygoers. When Twilight and Spike entered, Pinkie called to them, “Hey, guys! Would either of you two like a cupcake?”

“Not now, Pinkie,” Twilight replied, pushing past the other Beings to get to the stairs.

When Pinkie noticed Twilight’s arm, she cried, “Twilight! Are you hurt?”

“It’s just a scratch,” Twilight replied. “I’m fine.”

She rapidly scaled the steps with Spike right at her heels, and once they entered her room she shut the door. As she turned to Spike, he said, “What’s going on, Twilight?”

“Spike,” Twilight said, trembling with worry, “I think I saw someone try to unseal Nightmare Moon.”

Spike froze up, his eyes widening with terror. “W-What?!” he cried.

“I saw a group of black-hooded Elves perform the Rusting Ritual,” Twilight whispered. “They also had circles for rituals I think were for allowing them to reach her.”

Spike glared as he said, “Were they the ones that hurt you?”

“Yes. I’m fine, though.”

Spike was quiet for a moment. “Did they actually do it?” he said softly.

“I don’t know,” Twilight replied. “I sent Celestia a letter, though.”

“Did she send one back?” Spike said.

Twilight flinched, and realized that she hadn’t received a reply. “Well… n-no,” she said.

“Oh. Well, she… she might still be sleeping,” Spike said, trying to give her a comforting smile. “And even if they did unseal Nightmare Moon, Celestia’s way more powerful than her. I’m sure she can handle it.”

Twilight nodded, though she still felt quite uneasy.

“Come on,” Spike said, turning to the door. “We’ll see Celestia at sunrise. You can talk to her then.”

Twilight took a few deep breaths, then smiled. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine. But just in case, I’ve set up an escape Teleportation circle in the library. If anything goes wrong, take my hand and I’ll take us there.”

Spike nodded. “Alright, Twilight.”

They went back outside, and Twilight tried to take her mind off of things. However, she found that her anxiety only grew every minute; as the hours went by, she continued to wait for a reply from Celestia, but one never came.

While she was sitting on a bench, Rainbow approached her, flushing a little with intoxication, and said to her, “Hey, wanna dance?”

“Not now,” Twilight replied.

Rainbow frowned concernedly at her arm. “What happened?” she said.

“I fell,” Twilight replied. “It’s just a scratch. I’m okay.”

Rainbow nodded, shrugged, then went to talk to another girl. Soon they were dancing together, and Twilight decided that she needed to be alone for a while. She returned to her room, where she tried to read. However, she found that she couldn’t take her mind away from that hooded group, Celestia’s failure to answer her letter, and that terrible possibility that Nightmare Moon had returned…

It seemed to be an eternity before the first lights of dawn broke over Olympus in the distance around five o’ clock, but once it did Twilight closed her book and returned to town square, where the dancing had stopped and the town’s children and adults had gathered, as well. Everyone was excitedly chattering, and the children were laughing at clowns as they performed magic tricks for their amusement from the temporary wooden stages set up on the streets.

Twilight found Spike with Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie, Rainbow, and Fluttershy at the central ring of the crowd. Spike was saying to the girls, “…and Celestia’s going to spend the entire week visiting every settlement in the world to personally welcome them to their thousandth Summer Sun Celebration. We’re right after Olympus.”

“This’ll be so cool!” Rainbow cried excitedly. “I’ve never seen the Princess before, except in photos and paintings.”

“Nor have I,” Rarity said. When she saw Twilight, she said, “Ah, hello, Twilight darling! You see Celestia every day, don’t you?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes.”

Rarity looked down at Twilight’s arm. Before she could speak, however, Twilight said, “Don’t worry; it’s just a scratch.”

Pinkie jumped up and down, squealing excitedly. “Ooh, I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait!”

At that moment, a pair of guards marched in from each of the four streets, each with a trumpet in hand. They lifted the horns to their lips and blew a regal fanfare, and upon their sound all the crowd’s chatter died down.

When the fanfare had ended, one of the guards cried out, amplifying his voice with his magic, “Ladies and gentlemen, please lend your ears to the honorable Mayor Meyer!”

The crowd applauded, and a white-haired, middle aged, bespectacled Human woman in a fine suit stepped out from the town hall’s front doors. She shouted over the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to welcome you all to our one thousandth festival of the Summer Sun Celebration!”

There was wild applause, and when it died down the mayor continued, “On this day, we celebrate a millennium of peace, harmony, and friendship that began with the mortal races of Beings uniting behind High Princess Celestia to end the tyranny of the dark Goddess Nightmare Moon one thousand years ago!”

There was more applause, and the Mayor concluded, “Without further ado, it is my honor to introduce our ruler, Her Esteemed Royal Majesty, the High Princess Celestia, Goddess of the Sun!”

The trumpets blew another fanfare, and the curtains in the doorway of the town hall’s highest balcony were pulled back.

However, there was no one there.

After a few moments, there was anxious murmuring in the crowd. “What’s goin’ on?” Applejack said, and Spike exchanged a worried look with Twilight.

As the crowd began to grow more unrestful, the Mayor said, “Please, please, remain calm, everyone! There must be a reasonable explanation for this!”

“Ooh! Ooh! Maybe she’s playing hide-and-seek!” Pinkie cried. “I’m really good at this! Maybe she’s under- ah, ah! AHH!!” she screamed, pointing at a dark fog that was swirling at their feet. “What’s that?!”

Cold, sinister laughter echoed through the square, and the crowd fell silent. The same cold voice boomed over them, “You want your High Princess, my beloved subjects? Well, look no further!”

The clouds gathered up to the balcony of town hall, and the crowd thought they could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. “Oh no,” Twilight whispered, and after a few moments the clouds suddenly melted away, revealing a tall, dark, intimidating winged Being.

She looked like a smaller, dark-skinned version of Celestia. Her intense eyes were a piercing blue, and on her head was a black crown-helmet that opened at the top to allow her flowing, starry blue hair to blow behind her. Her vast wings were a deep midnight blue, and she was wearing very little; the only true clothing she had on was a bikini-like top of black metal plate, chain, and leather, and a long tapestry loincloth embroidered with a rearing blue alicorn superimposed over a round, white moon. Aside from this, she had a pair of snake-like iron bracelets and an iron necklace with a large sapphire as its centerpiece, as well as black leather sandals that wrapped up around her calves. Her almost-complete lack of clothing showed off the vibrant aurora markings up her sides and down her arms, as well as the mark on the black ink-like splotches on her thighs, shoulders, and hands: a white crescent moon.

She spoke again, her voice ringing throughout the square: “It’s been so long since I’ve seen your precious little sun-loving faces.”

She climbed up onto the railing and leapt down, flapping her wings to slow her descent to the ground. The crowd backed away from her, and someone shouted, “What did you do to our Princess?!”

“Why, I am your Princess,” the Goddess said, feigning innocent puzzlement. “Why, am I not royal enough for you? Don’t you know who I am?”

The crowd said nothing as they continued to back away from her. With a smirk, she teleported forward, coming to a stand centimeters away from Fluttershy. As the shy Angel girl yelped and hid behind her arms in fear, the Goddess said, “Does my crown no longer count now that I’ve been imprisoned for a thousand years?”

She teleported again, this time before Rarity. She took Rarity’s chin in her hand and smiled as she said, “Did you not recall the legends? Did you not see the signs?”

“I did,” Twilight said, glaringly stepping towards her. “And I know who you are. You’re the Goddess of the Night, Nightmare Moon!”

The crowd gasped, and Nightmare Moon made a satisfied smirk. “Well, well, well, someone who remembers me. Then you must also know why I am here!”

“You’re here to-” Twilight said, but dread suddenly filled her and words failed her. She trembled as she said quietly, “to…”

Nightmare Moon laughed. “Remember this day well, little Beings; ’tis the first day of High Princess Nightmare Moon’s reign over the world! From this day forth, the rule of the night shall last forever!”

< Previous Chapter

How To Write A Novel

Many people wish to write novels, but don’t know how they should get started. Perhaps they believe that they’re not good enough writers, or that they’re not intelligent enough to do it, but I’m here to tell you: you can do it. This is a person who has wept many, many tears and has spent many sleepless nights brooding over the idea that he was incapable of accomplishing the completion of a novel. I have since written several novels, and am in the process of writing several others (one of which you can read as I write it right now). I’m a busy autistic college student with an anxiety disorder who still writes every day. I’ve been through the gauntlet; I assure you, nothing can stand in your way. If you want to write a novel, do it, and let nothing stop you.

I will guide you through the writing process by telling you the process that I myself use. This is a guide to not only write a novel, but to write a good novel. Writing novels is a talent that anyone can develop, and though it isn’t easy, I guarantee that it is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling things you’ll ever do.

First, you need an idea for your book. Well, where do you get ideas?

The way that get ideas is to simply ask myself, “What sort of book would I like to read?” and then, if that book doesn’t yet exist, I take it upon myself to write it. In fact, that’s the entire reason I write: to read the books I want to read but that don’t yet exist. If, for instance, you want to read a story about two of your favorite characters getting married and sharing a domestic life together, write a book about that. Don’t worry that it’s based on another’s work; fan fiction is literature, just like anything else, and even if you wish to write original novels fan fiction is a great way to hone your writing skills. After all, the best way to improve at writing is to write, no matter what it is you’re writing.

Once you have your idea, plan out your novel. This isn’t a strictly necessary step, and you can skip it if you like, but in my experience you want to do it if you want to save as much time and have as few headaches as possible. Planning out your novel gives you guidelines, establishes the rules of your world, and minimizes frustration. If you have a general idea of where your book’s going to go, you’re going to minimize the time you’re frustratingly wondering what to do next, or revising parts to accommodate your new ideas.

The way I plan out my books is by using the Snowflake Method, which is described in Basically, the Snowflake Method is planning out your plot and creating your characters in the broadest strokes possible, then getting gradually more and more detailed about them until you know everything about them. If you’re writing a book in a science fiction or fantasy setting, I would also recommend establishing ALL of the rules of your world and writing them down before you begin writing the novel itself. That way, your rules will be consistent throughout your work and your readers won’t feel cheated.

Once you have your world built, your characters made, and your plot established, the next step is to sit down and pound out your first draft. There’s no shortcuts or workarounds on this step; the only way to do it is to do it. This is easily the most frustrating and difficult part of the process, but it’s also one of the funnest and most fulfilling, and I can tell you a few ways to make the frustrating parts more bearable:

First of all: relax, don’t worry about quality, and throw your perfectionism out the window. This is from someone who would like nothing more than to pen the apotheosis of human artistic achievement; perfectionism is your single greatest enemy. Take it from someone who has learned the hard way, after spending several years of his life fighting a losing battle to achieve perfection. Don’t worry about quality; there’ll be time for that later. Your only concern for the moment is to write the book. It doesn’t matter if what you write is any good; the only thing that matters is that you’re writing. If you get tired or frustrated, take a break from your manuscript until you’re up to working on it more. Sleep, or have a good meal, or read another book for a while. Take all the time you need; your manuscript will always be there for you when you come back to it.

Next, write as often as you can, and take all the time you need to finish it. Even if you can only write a couple of sentences every day, remember: you’re still making progress, and some of the greatest literary masterpieces took years or even decades to reach completion. You will only fail if you give up.

But most importantly: never, everEVER destroy ANY of your work. If you write anything, no matter how cruddy it is, KEEP IT. Even if you DO give up on it, you must still NEVER destroy or abandon your writings. Once again, take it from someone who learned the very, very hard way: there is NOTHING that will induce more regret and despair than wishing you hadn’t thrown away your work in a fit of despairing rage, weather because you want to keep working on it or because you want to see and remember what you created when you were younger.

Once you finish your book, go back and edit it until you have your final draft. Flesh it out, add details, and refine it until it’s well and truly completed; you’ll know it when it happens.

Once you have your completed book, you can share it with others, put it online, or try to sell it to a publisher. What you do with it doesn’t matter that much, though; what matters is that you’ve done what many others have only dreamt of doing. You have written your very own novel.

Chapter Two: Avalon

The train gently rumbled over the tracks as trees and cliffsides rushed past its windows. The luxury car’s interior walls were a pleasant yellow with a deep maroon ceiling. An intricate, long Shangri-lan carpet was rolled down its hall, and branching off from the hall were several windowed, polished oaken doors opening onto private booths with cushioned leather seats flanking square stone tables. Each booth also had a wide window for gazing at the lush landscapes the train rushed through.

Twilight and Spike pulled their bags and suitcases down the hall until they found an unoccupied booth. They pushed their suitcases under the seats and hoisted their bags up onto the overhead compartments before sitting on opposite sides of the table.

“So, you wanna play some chess?” Spike asked.

Twilight answered with a nod. “Yes, that would be nice.”

As Spike pulled down one of their bags and produced a folded wooden chess board from it, a conductor rapped on their window. Twilight opened the door, allowing a bespectacled Elf sporting a tufty mustache to enter their booth. “Tickets, please,” he said, and Twilight pulled the two tickets Celestia had provided her from her pocket and handed them to him. The conductor tore both in half and handed two of the halves back to her. “Thank you, Miss,” he said before moving on to the next booth.

An aproned Human stewardess entered immediately after the conductor’s exit, and with a polite smile asked them, “Would you like any beverages this morning?”

“Spiced tea would be lovely,” Twilight said.

“Just regular tea for me. Two spoons of sugar, please,” Spike said.

The stewardess bowed. “I’ll bring them in a few minutes,” she said, and she too moved to the next booth the conductor had visited.

As Spike and Twilight were arranging their pieces on their fine maple board, the stewardess soon returned and gave them their tea, as well as a small plate of snickerdoodle cookies. They thanked her, then began playing their game.

As they took turns moving their pieces between the checkered squares, Spike began to notice that during his moves Twilight would gaze concernedly out of the window. Shortly after they had begun the mid-game, he said, “You alright, Twilight?”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah. I just wonder- what if someone really does try to release Nightmare Moon?”

“Celestia doesn’t seem to think it’ll happen, so you should relax,” Spike replied. He lifted his hand to move one of his knights. “Maybe you should try to make some friends in Avalon to take your mind off things when we’re not monitoring it.”

Twilight groaned. Already Celestia had bothered her about making friends, as she often did; Twilight did not need Spike putting his nose in her business, too. “I’m just going to quietly read in my room or their library,” she said. “You can make some friends if you like.”

“Friendship is one of the six Elements of Harmony, you know,” Spike pointed out. “It’ll bring you greater peace, strengthening your soul and granting you more Chi.”

Twilight frowned at Spike. “I already have Cadance, Shining, and you,” she said. “I don’t need any more friends.” She moved one of her bishops into a square that placed Spike’s king in check.

Spike sighed and advanced one of his pawns, defending his king.

Though Twilight was already a very powerful sorceress, she was always inquiring how to unlock more of her potential. Her family, her close friends Spike and Cadance, and Celestia all insisted that the best way for her to deepen her spirituality was to spend more time around others, but Twilight stubbornly held to her position that her emotional needs were perfectly fulfilled and that expanding her knowledge of Magic was simply a question of finding the right book. Books had never failed her before, and she was growing stronger even without looking beyond them. Making new friends couldn’t be anything more than a frivolous waste of time at best. Twilight had lied to Celestia that she was going to try to make friends to appease her, and she was determined to spend the week studying and doing other useful things instead.

Twilight won four of the six games she played against Spike in the few hours they were on the train. They were given a small lunch of cucumber sandwiches with more tea halfway through the trip, and Spike didn’t bring the subject of friend making up again. When they approached close to Avalon they packed up their game and pulled their bags down, preparing to move back off of the car.

Twilight said to Spike, “Here’s our basic schedule: we’re going to go to the inn, then we’re going to put our bags in our rooms. We’re going to ask our guide to show us around the town and help us look for anything suspicious. When we get back we’re going to unpack, and then we can do whatever we want for the rest of the day. We’re going to check around the town every morning and spend the remaining time however we like until the Celebration, and when that’s over we’re going to pack back up and then go home.”

Spike nodded. “Alright. How are we gonna monitor the town?”

“I don’t know yet,” Twilight replied. “Celestia gave me a letter to read when we’re settled in that should give us instructions.”

In a few minutes the train shuddered to a stop, and the conductors began shouting, “All off for Avalon! All off for Avalon!”

Twilight and Spike stacked their bags on top of their suitcases and rolled them down the hall. It was a little crowded and took some time for them to disembark from the car, but soon enough they were stepping out into the station.

The Avalon train station was rather small, but still clean and quite nice; it was built of deep red bricks and was covered by a domed glass ceiling, allowing the sun to brightly light the tiled ground beneath them. Only two trains, one facing east and the other west, could be stationed there at any given time. The conductors at the stopped trains always shouted the same calls, depending on the direction they were facing; the conductors on the eastward trains always called, “All aboard for Olympus!” while those facing west cried, “All aboard for Dragonscale!” There were two tall clocks installed in the station floor, informing the many Beings moving past them that the time was now one twenty-two.

“Where do you think we go?” Spike asked Twilight.

Before Twilight could answer, she heard a girl’s voice, clear enough to be heard even over the great bustle of the station, shrilly crying, “OLYMPIAN AMBASSADORS!! OLYMPIAN AMBASSADORS!!”

Twilight gazed slightly nervously in the direction of the voice for a moment. “I think that’s us,” she said, and she and Spike began rolling their suitcases towards the voice.

Soon they found the shouts’ source; it was a Human girl in her early teens holding a large card sign over her head between her hands. She was lightly tanned, with bright pink hair kept in two pigtails that swirled in ringlets. She was wearing white sneakers with pink soles and laces, a white t-shirt spotted with polka dots of every size and shape, and a short ruffled skirt that showed off the mark on her thighs, which was a yellow balloon over a pair of baby blue balloons. She was jumping in place while waving the sign, which read, “Olympian Ambassadors,” with an enormous grin as she continued to shout with deafening loudness, “OLYMPIAN AMBASSADORS!! WHERE ARE YOU?!”

Twilight hesitated, staring at the energetic girl for a moment, before she nervously cleared her throat, smiled, and called, “Um, hello?”

The girl turned to them, gasped, and cried, “Are you two the Olympian ambassadors?!”

“Yep, that’s us,” Spike replied.

To Spike and Twilight’s great shock, the girl immediately rushed forward and caught them both in a rib-cracking embrace. “Welcome to Avalon!” she cheerfully yelled before releasing them. They gaspingly, astonishedly stared at the girl as she said, “You must be Twilight and Spike, right? I’m Pinkie Pie! It’s nice to meet you!”

She flashed them an enormous grin before fluttering her blue eyes at them, rocking back and forth between her heels and toes.

Twilight caught her breath in stunned silence for a moment, then tried to smile politely. “Are you our guide?” she asked.

Pinkie nodded vigorously. “Yep! I’m gonna take you to where you’re gonna be staying, and show you around town!”

She rushed forward, picking up some of their bags. “Here, let me help you!” she said as she did so. “Your carriage is this way!” she said, walking towards the station’s south exit. Twilight and Spike glanced concernedly at each other, both wondering where she had put down her sign to pick up their bags, before following after her.

As they were pushing past the huge, rotating glass doors, Pinkie asked, “Have either of you visited Avalon before?”

“No, this is our first time here,” Spike said.

Pinkie gasped. “You’ve never been to Avalon before?! Oh, you’re going to love it here! It’s not very big, but it’s really pretty and fun and everyone here’s really nice!”

As they stepped outside, Twilight saw that Pinkie was correct about at least one thing: Avalon was quite pretty. They were on a street lined with brick town houses and shops, and all of the windows were decorated with colored lanterns and flowers. Nearly all of the houses had well-tended front gardens guarded by wrought iron fences, and the wide windows of the shops displayed everything from shoes to toys to vinyl records of pop stars and the world’s finest classical musicians.

The stone roads were busy with Angels, Elves, and Humans (with Humans being the slightly most numerous) out and enjoying the beautiful day as young children played jacks and hopscotch or hitched rides on the backs of carriages. Twilight could see that just down the street was a large, wooded park where more children were swinging across monkey bars or having picnics with their fathers and mothers (Twilight noticed that some of the parents were quite young; one or two were even in their mid teens).

Pinkie walked to a small, stopped carriage, which stood beside a black street lamp and was pulled by a white, brown-spotted workhorse and was driven by a rather elderly Human man. As Pinkie pulled her guests’ bags onto the top of it, the old man asked, “These the ambassadors, Miss Pinkie?”

“They sure are, Jack!” Pinkie replied.

“So, where to?” Jack said.

“Take us to town square!” Pinkie answered excitedly.

Jack the coachman nodded, and once Spike and Twilight had helped Pinkie fasten the rest of their luggage to the roof of the carriage they stepped inside and sat down as Jack urged the horse forward.

As they rode, Pinkie spoke much and with great speed. “…and you two are gonna be staying at the inn I work at! I didn’t have anyplace to stay when I first moved here, so my employers let me stay in one of their rooms! You’re gonna love your rooms! The beds are so warm and soft and they have great views of town square! Town square is so amazing during the Summer Sun Celebration! I’m the head planner of the festivities, and this year is gonna be the best Celebration EVER!!”

“Do you think you could lower your voice a little?” Twilight said, holding her head with one hand and wincing a little as her ears lightly rang.

“Oops! I’m sorry!” Pinkie said. “It’s just that, I get so excited whenever there’s a party, and the Celebration’s the biggest party of the year, and there’s dancing and music and games and oceans of pink lemonade (pink lemonade is my favorite kind of lemonade, but come on, whose favorite lemonade isn’t pink lemonade?) and my friend Dashie puts on an amazing stunt show and Rarity makes us these adorable party dresses and Applejack gives all of us jugs of apple cider and some of the best caramel apples you’ve ever tasted-”

But at that moment the coach stopped and Jack called down, “We’ve arrived, Miss Pinkie.”

“Oh, great!” Pinkie cried, squealing excitedly. “Yay! Come on, we’re here!”

They all exited, and Pinkie skipped to the back of the carriage to pull down their bags. Twilight saw that they were at a huge cross-section of road before a tall, circular tower, which was surrounded by four large fountains with stone statues spitting water into shallow, glittering basins down beneath them. There was a busy shop at each corner; one, which was clearly a pub, had a sign over its door with a frothing mug painted on it; another had a sign with a steaming ceramic coffee mug; another had a sign with a platter bearing a browned turkey and buttered peas. The one that Pinkie led them towards, however, was easily the most eye-catching of the group; it looked like a large, pink cake, with its brown shingles arranged to resemble frosting. It was capped with a cupcake-like turret that had a small yellow flag on a striped pole sticking from the top of it like a lit candle. “This is the Sugar Shack and Inn!” Pinkie exclaimed, and indeed Twilight saw written over the door in elegant gold letters, “Sugar Shack and Inn” with the subtitle beneath them, “bakery, confectioner’s, and overnight accommodations.” Twilight saw that in the windows were lovingly frosted birthday and wedding cakes that were so large and delicious-looking that she felt her mouth watering at the sight of them.

When Pinkie pushed open the door, a bell heralded their arrival and Twilight heard a man call, “Oh, hi, Pinkie! I see you have our guests!”

Twilight looked around the shop. It was cheerfully colored and decorated, with cream wallpaper and pillars with swirling stripes of hot pink and white. She could smell the temptingly sweet scent of baking cakes and melting chocolate, which she could tell was coming from a kitchen closed behind swinging doors. One corner of the shop was surrounded by a long glass counter, in which Twilight could see row upon row of small chocolates, dipped fruits, and cupcakes of every size and flavor. Standing behind the counter, attending to a young helmeted Angel girl with small orange feathered wings and short, boyish hot pink hair, was a rather plump but lovely Human woman with swirling, frosting-like pink hair and who looked to Twilight as though she were in the early stages of pregnancy. With her was a teen Human girl in a blue t-shirt and short shorts with curled blue and pink hair that was preparing new chocolates on small, square pieces of wax paper and had three wrapped candies on each of her thighs. The man that had greeted them was carrying a crate of flour into the kitchen; he was a tall and rather wiry Human with an angular face, orange hair, a face full of freckles, and a red-and-white striped bowtie around his neck. All three were wearing brown aprons and were smiling warmly at Spike and Twilight.

“These,” said Pinkie, indicating at the elder man and woman, “are my employers Mr. and Mrs. Cake.” She pointed at the confectioner girl and continued, “That’s my coworker Sweetie Drops, but everyone calls her Bon-Bon.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” all three said together, and the women bowed while Mr. Cake nodded at them.

As the young Angel ran out of the shop to her scooter parked outside with a poppy seed muffin, Mrs. Cake said, “So, We’re told you two are here to oversee the Celebration?”

“That’s right,” Twilight said.

With slight concern, Mr. Cake asked, “Is there something wrong? Does the Princess think something dangerous might happen?”

“We doubt it,” Twilight replied. “We can’t tell you much, just that you probably don’t need to worry but we’re here just to be safe.”

“Okay. Come on, I’ll show you your rooms!” Pinkie said.

Twilight gazed anxiously at Pinkie for a moment, then said, “Just a second.” She turned to Mr. Cake. “Do you have any drinks?”

Mr. Cake smiled. “Certainly! We have sodas, iced tea, cider-”

“I’ll have some cider, please. And a glass, if you don’t mind,” Twilight replied.

Mr. Cake nodded. He said to his wife, “Honey, could you get those for her?”

“Of course, dear,” Mrs. Cake replied, and she walked into the kitchen. In a few moments she returned and gave Twilight a glass bottle filled with cold golden liquid and a small glass cup.

“Thanks,” Twilight said, taking them. “How much?”

“Oh, you can have it, dear,” said Mrs. Cake. “Consider it a welcome gift on us.”

“Thank you very much,” Twilight said, and she placed her glass on the counter and then held her hand up in the air. Her marks glowed with violet light, and purple Ether began to materialize in her palm and transmute into a spiraling screw of aluminum.

Twilight used this screw to remove the cork as Pinkie continued, “I have so much to show you guys! That tower outside is the Town Hall, and that’s where we’re gonna see Princess Celestia! We’re gonna set up goals in the park to play football, and we… um…”

Pinkie had nervously come to a slow stop, as while she was speaking Twilight had poured herself and downed a glass of her cider. However, as Pinkie was continuing to rapidly describe her plans for their tour around the town, Twilight had stared with annoyed weariness at her for a moment before lifting the bottle directly to her lips and chugging it until every last drop had rolled down her throat. As Twilight made a small gasp upon finishing it off, Pinkie continued with less enthusiasm and sounding a little hurt, “Um… so we’re, uh… gonna have lots of fun today.” She made another smile that seemed slightly forced.

Twilight smiled back. “That’s nice.”

After a moment of tense silence, Pinkie said, “So, um… I’ll just, uh… help you bring your bags up.” She did so, and soon Twilight and Spike had moved their luggage into their rooms. Pinkie then said to them, “My room’s right next to yours, so we’re gonna be neighbors while you’re here for the week! Whenever you’re ready, just tell me, and I’ll show you around town! If you need anything else, just ask, and I’ll be happy to help!”

Her cheerfulness was back, and Twilight took a deep breath and said with as much genuine appreciation as she could muster, “Thanks, Pinkie. I will.”

Twilight pulled Celestia’s letter out from her pocket, and after gazing at it said, “Give us about fifteen minutes, and then we’ll be ready.”

“Okie dokie lokie!” Pinkie said, and with an energetic wave and an enormous grin she skipped back down the stairs to the shop.

Twilight sighed relievedly. “Finally, some quiet,” she muttered.

“I like her a lot,” Spike said, smiling. “She’s really nice.”

“Good for you,” Twilight said, walking to her bed. It was quilted, with an oak nightstand bearing a square, wooden alarm clock beside it. Spike followed her, and both sat at the bed’s foot. “Let’s see what Celestia’s instructions are,” Twilight said, ripping open the envelope. She read it aloud:

My dearest, most faithful student Twilight,

I hope you enjoy your time at Avalon. Regarding your mission, I recommend that you monitor the town by regularly asking its citizens about any unusual or suspicious activity that’s occured recently. Please send me a written report daily of anything you’ve found, and I’ll reply with any further necessary instructions. You can send your reports directly to my chambers via burning. Remember: only Spike may know of your task, unless in the case of dire emergency.

I have also enclosed a check which should provide you enough funds to provide essential provisions for your stay. I wish you the best of luck.

Hoping you’re well,

High Princess Celestia.

Twilight reached back into the envelope and produced a check that read, “For a withdrawal of seventy silver pieces from the Royal Equestrian treasury, by the order of and signed by High Princess Celestia.” Seventy silver pieces; enough to eat comfortably throughout the entire week, and then some.

Twilight placed the check and the letter back into her pocket and said to Spike, “Alright, let’s do this. We just need to ask some people if anything strange has happened, then we can come back here and unpack. We’ll go over your spell casting material a little, then you can go do whatever you want.”

“Sweet,” Spike said.

Twilight led Spike back downstairs, where Pinkie was patiently waiting for them while eating a white cupcake. “So, we’re ready for that tour now,” Twilight said, wearing a polite smile.

Pinkie jumped up, beaming. “Okie dokie lokie! Let’s go!”

“Just one thing- while we’re out, do you think you know anyone who would know what’s going on around town?”

Pinkie nodded. “Yep! My best friends can help you; they’re just the girls you’re looking for!”

“Do you think you could take us to them?” Twilight asked.

“Sure thing! That’ll be perfect; I can introduce you to them while I’m showing you around town!” And with that Pinkie hummed a cheerful tune as she led them out the door.

Pinkie brought them westward, skipping and singing to herself. She pointed out shops to them as they went along, to which Twilight politely nodded and acknowledged them while Spike listened with more genuine attentiveness. In a few minutes they began approaching a massive farm; it was surrounded by a wooden fence, and at its center was a tall red barn beside a small orange farmhouse. There were pastures and pens filled with sheep, pigs, cows, and chickens in close proximity to the barn, and Twilight could also see horses and ponies galloping across a nearby ranch. But the most prevalent feature of the farm was the staggeringly vast apple orchard that surrounded it all- it was almost large enough to be a small forest, and indeed only the fence around it prevented it from merging with the wild Everfree Forest beside it.

The farm was abuzz with activity; Twilight saw a huge number of Humans of all ages there walking, playing, or riding the horses on the ranch. They were clearly all related; they all had hair that varied between red, yellow, or green, and many of them were freckled. “This is Sweet Apple Acres!” Pinkie said excitedly. “My friend Applejack and her family live here. She’s my cousin!”

Twilight nodded. In her studies she’d learned more than a little about the major families of Equestria; she knew that this was the main farm of the Apples, a large but somewhat new clan of Human farmers that was the world’s largest producer of apple cider. The clan had begun in this farm, and the head of the family continued to reside there. “I know,” Twilight said. “Aren’t the Apples a splinter clan of the Pie family?”

Pinkie flinched. “Yeah…” she said, somewhat uncomfortably.

Twilight raised a brow in confusion, but before she could inquire further Pinkie quickly said, “Come on, let’s go meet her!”

With that Pinkie took Twilight’s hand and began running to the front gate. “H-hey!” Twilight protested, but Pinkie only grinned manically as she pulled the gate’s latch open and pushed past it. Spike ran to catch up with them, and they soon came up to another teenaged girl. She was blonde, with green eyes and a spray of freckles across her nose. Her hair was long and kept in a loose ponytail, and she was rather muscular and well-tanned. She wore a brown cowgirl hat as well as a pair of brown leather boots, denim short shorts, and an autumn-colored shirt with its sleeves rolled and its bottom tied, revealing her belly. On her thighs were three red apples, which didn’t surprise Twilight at all. She was busy leaning against the barn, talking to a slightly older boy who looked remarkably like her; he also had long blonde hair and green eyes, and like Applejack he was also wearing blue denim trousers, leather boots, a buttoned shirt, and a brown cowboy hat.

“Hey, Applejack!” Pinkie cried, releasing Twilight’s hand to wave at her.

Applejack turned to them. “Hey, Pinkie!” she said with a southern Arcadian drawl. “These here the Olympian ambassadors?” she asked, smiling at Twilight and Spike.

Twilight sighed, stepping forward. “Yes. Good afternoon. My name is Twilight Sparkle.”

Without warning, Applejack suddenly rushed forward and gripped Twilights hand in both of hers, shaking it with great vigor. “Well, howdy do, Miss Twilight Sparkle? A pleasure makin’ your acquaintance. Ah’m Applejack. We here at Sweet Apple Acres sure do like makin’ new friends!”

When Applejack released Twilight’s hand, Twilight winced and began gently messaging it while Spike suppressed a snicker.

“Let me introduce you to the family,” Applejack said.

“Actually, I-” Twilight began, but Applejack indicated at the boy she’d been talking to and said over her, “This here’s my favorite cousin Braeburn.”

Braeburn tipped his hat with a, “Howdy, Miss Twilight. Spike, sir.”

Applejack then walked towards a cluster of her other relatives, forcing Twilight and Spike to follow her. She pointed at a large, freckle-faced, heavily muscled young man with strawberry blonde hair who was leaning against a tree with a blade of grass sticking out of his mouth. “That’s my big brother, Big Macintosh,” Applejack said, before moving towards the ranch. Once they reached it, she indicated at a young girl with peach eyes and cherry-red hair kept up in a ponytail with a large, pink bow who was riding one of the ponies. “That there’s my sister Apple Bloom,” she said, before turning towards the house. Upon stepping onto the porch, Applejack pointed at a tiny, scrawny, ancient old woman with white hair kept in a tight bun and wearing a long, green cotton dress, who was sleeping with soft snores on a wooden rocking chair. “And this is my grandma, Granny Smith,” she said, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb her.

Applejack turned back to Twilight. “Ah think that’s enough to go on for now. So, what can Ah do you for?”

“Well,” Twilight said, smiling politely, “My apprentice Spike and I are here to oversee the Summer Sun Celebration. Were here to ensure that nothing causes any disruptions to the festival. You clearly have a large family; have you or any of your relatives seen any strange or unusual things or activities around the town?”

Applejack scratched her head, looking up and humming. “Uh, nope. Nothin’ springs to mind.”

Twilight nodded. “Alright. Well, thank you. That’s all we needed to know. It’s nice to meet you, Applejack.”

“Nice to meet ya’ll too,” Applejack said, cheerfully tipping her hat.

Spike waved at her. “We’ll see you later!” he said.

As Pinkie led Twilight and Spike back out of the farm, Applejack called after them, “Don’t be strangers, ya’ll hear?! Come back on the festival; my clan and Ah are havin’ quite the jamboree, and they’re only stayin’ here this week for the millennial Celebration!”

Spike left in quite a cheerful mood, but Twilight was quite tired. She hoped that Pinkie’s other friends wouldn’t be quite so exhausting to talk to. Nonetheless, Applejack was far less bothersome than Pinkie. That was a start, at least.

As they were walking back down the roads, Twilight saw that Pinkie was staring up at the clouds. “Um, what are you doing?” Twilight asked.

“I’m looking for my friend Dashie!” Pinkie replied. “Her house should be somewhere around here today.”

“She lives in a cloud house?” Twilight said.


“Why doesn’t she just live on the ground? Or in Asgard or another Angel city?”

“She moved here with our friend Fluttershy from Asgard a couple years ago because they were bullied there and people are nicer here. But Dashie still loves being in the sky, and her dad is rich, so he had a house built over Avalon for her.”

This made Twilight grow curious, so she continued to follow Pinkie and began to look up at the clouds as well. After a few minutes, Pinkie abruptly shouted, “Aha! There she is!” while pointing at a small cluster of low-hanging clouds at the edge of Twilight’s vision.

The clouds bore a shining white sky marble house that was elegantly built with classical roofs, pillars, and friezes. Twilight was impressed; the small mansion would indeed have taken no small amount of gold to have constructed. Near the house was a smaller cloud, upon which Twilight could distantly see a figure lying across it.

Pinkie ran down the road to get closer, then shouted up in a piercingly loud scream, “HEY, RAINBOW DASH!!”

Twilight and Spike jogged to Pinkie as the girl poked her head over the cloud’s edge. “Hey, Pinkie!” Twilight heard her call to them with a raspy voice. She jumped off of the cloud and hovered to the ground.

The Angel Rainbow Dash was rather small and skinny but well-toned and athletic. Her slightly narrow magenta eyes, straight, messy, rainbow-colored hair, and soft brown skin tone suggested to Twilight that she was of Dragon Imperial descent. Her feathered, sky-blue wings were large and powerfully-built, which along with the multicolored lightning bolts flashing from clouds on each of her shoulders caused Twilight to also conclude that her special talent was great speed in flight. She was wearing a basketball jersey, shoes, and shorts, which were all electric blue with hot pink lining, and her jersey also had her mark emblazoned prominently on its front and her name over the number twenty displayed on the back.

“What’s up, Pinkie?” she said. “Are these the Elves from Olympus?”

“Yep!” Pinkie said. “This is Twilight and Spike!”

“So,” Twilight said, “You’re Rainbow Dash?”

Rainbow smirked, striking a pose and pointing her thumb at her chest. “The one and only. Why, you heard of me?”

“You wouldn’t happen to be related to Rainbow Blaze, the former captain of the Wonderbolts?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah, he’s my dad!” Rainbow said proudly.

Before Twilight could reply, however, she heard a low hum come from Rainbow’s pocket. The Angel sighed and pulled the source of the sound out: it was a plastic card, which was vibrating and magically glowing as it displayed some text. Rainbow sighed. “Hold on, give me just a sec,” she said, and she placed the card back into her pocket and darted into the air with astonishing swiftness. Twilight and Spike stared open-mouthed after her as she flew over the buildings until she dived down out of sight. In less than a minute, Twilight saw her soar over their heads again while carrying a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and twine. She flew a fair distance and then dived down somewhere else, and in seconds she flew back into the air and dived back down to the road where Pinkie, Twilight, and Spike stood.

Rainbow slowed herself down, but she was still going frighteningly fast. Twilight yelped in fright as Rainbow suddenly fell headfirst towards the ground before her. To Twilight’s surprise, however, Rainbow expertly rolled across the ground and came to a stop meters away from her on one knee.

As Rainbow stood up, she dusted herself off and said, “Sorry about that. I had to deliver a stupid package.”

Spike and Twilight continued to gape at Rainbow. “Oh my gosh! That was unbelievably fast!” Spike said.

Rainbow smirked arrogantly. “Yeah, I’m one of the fastest fliers in the world, if not the fastest.”

Twilight continued to silently stare open-mouthed at Rainbow for a moment, causing Rainbow to snicker. “You should see your face, Twilight. You’re a laugh.”

Rainbow smirked, narrowing her eyes at Twilight. “You’re pretty cute, too.”

Twilight blushed, and Rainbow chuckled. Twilight understood now; she had begun wondering why Rainbow had faced bullying in Asgard, despite being such an incredible flier. Now it was clear: Rainbow was an aggressively flirtatious lesbian, which would easily cause her great tensions with her hierarchical, judgmental fellow Angels.

Twilight cleared her throat. “Well, I wanted to ask you if you’ve seen or heard about anything strange or suspicious.”

Rainbow raised a brow. “Why? Is there something going on?”

“We can’t tell you,” Twilight replied. “I’m sorry. Have you seen anything, though?”

Rainbow shook her head. “Nah. Everything’s been pretty smooth.”

“Alright. Well, thanks anyway.”

“Anytime. Well, I gotta go train. Catch you later, Twi.” With another flirtatious smirk, she added, “I can’t wait to hang out some more.”

She took to the sky, and Twilight found herself blushing a little again. “She’s amazing,” Spike said, and Twilight turned to see that he was grinning broadly at her. “I can’t wait for us to hang out some more with her, either.”

Twilight frowned. “Why, so you can see her hit on me some more?”

“To be honest, I actually hope I get to see you two make out,” Spike replied, grinning.

“Not happening,” Twilight said flatly. As Spike groaned in mock disappointment, she testily began walking again. “Take us to your next friend,” she said to Pinkie.

Pinkie nodded. “Okay!”

Pinkie took them nearly back to town square, then turned right so they were going southward. They soon came to a shop with a small, silvery carousel turning over its door. Inside its windows were mannequins displaying lavish, brightly-colored summer dresses, some of which were encrusted with precious jewels. Twilight looked up, and saw a sign over the door that read in golden, lavish letters, “Carousel Boutique.”

“Let’s go in!” Pinkie said, opening the door. A bell rang, then Twilight and Spike followed Pinkie inside.

Everything but the dresses in the shop was some shade of purple, pink, or gold. There were body-length mirrors in two of the corners, as well as a pair of folding screens for customers to change behind. In the far right corner was a drafting desk piled with fabrics and scissors and surrounded by partially-dressed mannequins, and to its left was a carpeted set of spiraling stairs that led up to the second floor. In the center of the boutique was a raised platform, upon which stood a mannequin bearing a dress being worked on by a young Elvish woman.

She was a little older than Twilight, as well as several centimeters taller. She had long, luscious violet hair that curled at the end of her back and bangs. She was wearing a loose, sleeveless blouse, a tight miniskirt, soft, brown leather high heeled boots, and a pair of golden hoop earrings. As she stitched the dress, her sapphire-blue eyes inspected her work through a pair of red cat-eyed spectacles. Her eyes were matched by the three blue diamonds on each of her hands. She was stunningly gorgeous; Spike found himself blushing intensely as his eyes ran down her voluptuous hourglass figure and long, shapely legs. Her pale face was just as lovely, with long black eyelashes, light pink blush on her cheeks, and full lips painted a passionate crimson.

“Hi, Rarity!” Pinkie called, waving to her.

Rarity looked up, then smiled. “Oh, hello, Pinkie!” she said. Twilight immediately identified her high class-sounding accent as Athenian.

Rarity levitated her needle to her desk as she removed and folded her glasses. “You must be the ambassadors from the city of Olympus,” she said.

Twilight smiled. “We are,” she replied.

Rarity made a low curtsy to them. “It’s an honor.”

She stepped forward, towards Spike. “Is this your apprentice, dear?” she said, to which Spike nervously looked away.

“Mm-hmm,” Twilight replied. “His name is Spike.”

“Oh, you’re such a darling little gent!” Rarity cooed. “Are you studying under her remedially?”

At this, Spike stopped blushing and frowned irritatedly at Rarity. He always hated being mistaken for being younger than he was. “No. I’m almost twelve,” he said.

Rarity covered her mouth, flushing. “Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry!” she said.

Spike shrugged. “It’s alright. Happens all the time.”

Rarity smiled apologetically. “Well, I’m mentoring my own sister remedially. Here, I’ll introduce you.”

As Rarity called up the stairs, “Sweetie Belle! Come down, please!” Pinkie turned to Spike and said, “You’re almost twelve? When’s your birthday?”

Spike made a pleased smile as he replied, “June twenty-first.”

Pinkie gasped. “That’s the day of the Celebration!”

“Yep,” said Spike.

“Oh, we’re gonna have to throw you a birthday party! Please let me plan it; I’m reeealy good at planning parties; it’s my talent, you know!”

Spike nodded. “Sure, you can plan my party!”

As Twilight heard someone coming down the stairs, Pinkie said, “Can I throw it the night before the festival? I mean, it’d be a little hard to have them both at the same time…”

“Sure, I don’t mind,” Spike replied.

An Elf girl about Apple Bloom’s age stepped before them. She was in a white sundress, and had light green eyes framed by soft pink and lavender curled hair. There was no mark yet on her hands, explaining to Spike and Twilight why she was already apprenticed to her older sister. “Hi!” she greeted them cheerfully. “I’m Sweetie Belle!”

Twilight smiled at her. “It’s lovely to meet you. I’m Twilight Sparkle, and this is my apprentice Spike.”

Rarity gasped dramatically. “You’re Twilight Sparkle?! As in Duchess Twilight Sparkle, daughter of Duke Night Light and Duchess Twilight Velvet, the Royal Astronomer and the Royal Librarian to Princess Celestia?!” She continued with mounting excitement, “As in the sister of Shining Armor, Captain of the Olympian Royal Guard and lover to the Goddess of Love Princess Cadance?! As in Twilight Sparkle, apprentice of High Princess Celestia herself, who is studying to become Her Highness’s Royal Court Magician?!”

Twilight sighed. “Yes, that’s me.”

Rarity squealed delightedly and danced in place. “Oh, this is simply fabulous! Twilight Sparkle, one of the most important noblewomen in the entire world, here in my boutique! Oh, you simply must tell me all about life in the Royal court and that stunning castle Camelot! Oh, the intrigue, the glamour, the romance!”

She embraced Twilight, rubbing their cheeks together. “We’re going to be the best of friends, you and I!”

Twilight nervously chuckled, gently pushing Rarity away. “Ooo-kay, well, I, um…”

Twilight cleared her throat. “We were just wondering, have you seen anything suspicious or unusual recently?”

Rarity clapped her hands together. “Why yes, darling, I have!”

Twilight’s eyes widened surprisedly. “R-really? What is it?”

“I’ll tell you all about it while I’m fitting you,” Rarity replied. She turned and said to her sister, “Sweetie Belle, would you mind getting my measuring tape?”

“Sure, sis!” Sweetie Belle replied enthusiastically before running to one of Rarity’s cupboards.

“F-fitting me?” Twilight said. “For what?”

“Why, for your party dress, darling,” Rarity replied as Sweetie returned with the tape.

“Thanks, but I don’t-”

“Oh, don’t worry, dear. Consider it a gift; I make all of my friends dresses for the festival!”

Twilight sighed wearily. “Fine.” As Rarity began to wrap the tape around her form, Twilight added, “Just so long as you tell me what suspicious activity you’ve seen.”

Rarity laughed. “Of course, of course! Well, just yesterday, I saw a Human girl named Daisy out having breakfast with an Angel I know isn’t her boyfriend…”

Suddenly realizing what she was actually about to hear, Twilight made a small groan.

As Rarity continued to gossip away to Twilight as she measured her, Sweetie Belle walked up to Spike, gazing at the backs of his hands. “Are you a pyromancer?” she asked wondrously.

Spike grinned. “Yep,” he said, holding up his hand.

“That’s so cool!” Sweetie said. “Can you show me?”

Spike chuckled. “Not in here. I might burn the shop down.”

“I wish I had my Mark,” Sweetie muttered enviously. “Almost everyone else in my class does.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“My friends Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. We’ve started a club to get our marks together.”

“What do you call yourselves?”

“The Cutie Mark Crusaders!” Sweetie cried, holding her fist in the air in a victorious pose.

Spike nodded, smiling. Cutie’s right, he thought; he thought Sweetie was almost as pretty as her sister. Spike was having a very good day; already he’d met a lot of really cute girls, all of whom were very friendly, fun, and likable. They also all seemed delighted to become friends with him and Twilight, so he was enormously looking forward to spending a long summer week with them all. He only wished that Twilight would join along with them, as well.

Rarity concluded, “… and I said, ‘Oh, that beast! I hope a cockatrice petrifies him!'” Rarity rolled her tape up as she said, “There, you’re done.”

Twilight sighed relievedly. “Thanks,” she said. “Well, we’d best be on our way.”

“Bye!” Spike said, and he and Pinkie exited the shop with Twilight as Rarity called back, “Au revoir, darlings!”

Pinkie led them westwards. Twilight was very tired and in a very foul mood. She’d been walking all day, and all of her guide’s friends had been bothersome and absolutely exhausting to talk to. “Is this next one your last friend?” she asked Pinkie as politely as she could.

“Yep!” said Pinkie.

They were silent for a while after that. However, as they drew close to a cottage on the edge of the Everfree Forest, Spike suddenly gasped and pressed his face against a shop window. “Oh my gosh!” he cried. “It’s a limited edition Platinum Clock Dragon Steam figurine! And it’s on sale for twenty silver pieces!”

He turned to Twilight and Pinkie. “Can I hurry in and buy that?” he asked.

Pinkie nodded. “Sure! We’re just going to that cottage over there. Meet us in front of it when you’re done!”

“Okay!” Spike said, and he rushed into the door.

Twilight sighed as she and Pinkie closed the remaining distance to the cottage.

The little house was yellow, and had a very lovely little garden with several birdhouses and fruit trees bearing beehives all around it. Crouching before the house and feeding some birds was an Angel of almost godlike beauty; she was slender and willowy, with sweet blue eyes and pink hair that was so long that it nearly reached the ground while she crouched. She wore leather sandals and a soft, pink miniskirt. Her feathered wings were the color of custard, matching her t-shirt that had small, flared sleeves that showed off the marks of pink butterflies on her shoulders. Like Rainbow, she looked as though she were Dragon Imperial. Twilight deduced that she was Fluttershy, the girl who had moved to Avalon from Asgard with Rainbow.

Fluttershy was gently singing as she scattered seeds, and while hearing it Twilight felt her breath stop; it was so sweet it was heartbreaking.

“Hey, Fluttershy!” Pinkie shouted, and Fluttershy yelped as the birds around her scattered into the air.

“Pinkie!” Fluttershy said, her voice quiet and soft. “Please don’t scare the birds!”

Pinkie covered her mouth. “I’m sorry!” she said.

Fluttershy closed her eyes and smiled. “It’s okay. Just be more careful next time, please.”

“Okay!” Pinkie replied, flashing her a grin. “Anyway, this is my new friend Twilight!”

Fluttershy looked at Twilight, then blushed and looked away, hiding behind her long bangs. “Umm, hello,” she whispered.

Twilight made a pained smile, then said. “Umm, hi, Fluttershy.”

Fluttershy only made a quiet squeak in reply.

“So, uh…” Twilight continued, “have you seen anything strange or unusual recently?”

Fluttershy silently shook her head.

“Ooo-kay,” Twilight said. “Well, I’ll be on my way then. Nice to meet you.”

“Hey, Twilight!” Spike shouted, coming in behind her. Fluttershy looked at him, then suddenly gasped. “Is this your apprentice?” she cried elatedly.

Twilight sighed. “Yes,” she said. “This is Spike.”

Fluttershy ran forward, coming to a stop just before Spike, who was carrying a bulging brown paper bag. “Oh, he’s sooo cute!” she gushed, eliciting a self-satisfied smirk from Spike.

With a glance at Twilight, Spike said, “Well, well, well!” and folded his arms, closing his eyes.

“Hi, Spike! I’m Fluttershy! It’s so wonderful to meet you!” After glancing at his hands, Fluttershy asked, “Are you a pyromancer?”

“Why, yes, I-”

But at that moment Twilight grabbed Spike’s ear and began dragging him away. “We’d better get going,” she said. “It’s getting late, and we’ll need to get settled in at the inn and get some rest.”

Fluttershy blushed again. “Oh. O-okay,” she said, nervously touching her forefingers together.

“Goodbye,” Twilight said, and Pinkie and Spike waved at Fluttershy as they followed her back to the inn.

Once they were back in their rooms, Twilight and Spike unpacked their bags. They reviewed Spike’s spell casting for about fifteen minutes in Twilight’s room, then Twilight dismissed Spike to do whatever he pleased until six o’clock, when he agreed to come back so that they could go and get dinner.

Spike left the inn to visit Applejack at Sweet Apple Acres. When he was gone, Twilight picked up her copy of the first Daring Do volume, Daring Do and the Philosopher’s Stone, and laid across her bed and began to read it. She was determined to enjoy a relaxing, quiet week in this room alone with her books.

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