Once Upon the End (Half Upon a Time)

BOOK: Once Upon the End (Half Upon a Time)
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CONTENTS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

About James Riley

Dedicated to anyone who wishes they knew how their story ends. Just look ahead to the last page; it’s so much easier that way!

Special thanks to my editor, Liesa Abrams, who believes in me like I believe in the invisible gnomes who actually write all my stories. Thank you, Liesa, for making my life and the gnomes’ books so much better.

CHAPTER 1

O
nce upon a time, a dragon held a princess captive, and a hero did everything in his power to save her.

This was not that time.

“Don’t you get it?” the princess shouted, her anger growing. “If you don’t defeat the dragon’s riddles, it’s going to eat me!”

“I understand,” said a boy in black armor and a midnight blue cloak, the uniform of the Wicked Queen’s Eyes. “But I don’t do that kind of thing. Not anymore.”

“You’re going to just let me die?!”

“Looks like it.”

“But if you defeat the dragon, all its riches can be yours! And your fame will spread across the world, with children singing your name and old men telling your story by the light of dying fires!”

The Eye shrugged, then turned to walk away.

“You can’t be serious!” the princess shouted after him.

“Good luck,” the Eye told her, and kept walking.

The dragon roared, a clawed hand launching out to grab the Eye by his cloak. “You will not leave without facing me, Initiate! The Queen demands it!”

The Eye stopped and slowly turned around to look the dragon in the eye.

“Your task is to outwit me, Initiate,” the dragon said. “You will not leave here alive if you cannot. Answer my riddles, and win both your freedom and the princess’s. Fail, and I eat you both.”

The Eye nodded. “Deal.

The dragon smiled, revealing thousands of teeth. “The first riddle is this: What walks on four legs in the morning—”

“A human being,” the Eye said. “Are we done?”

The dragon’s mouth dropped. “But . . . that is the correct answer! A human being walks on four legs when it crawls as a baby in the morning of its life, two legs as an adult at midday, and three legs at the twilight of its life, when it needs a cane to walk. You are right, Initiate!”

The Eye just waited.

“However, there are
three
riddles in total!” the dragon declared, and the princess sighed loudly, as did the Eye. “What can run but never walk—”

“A river.”

“Stop it!” the dragon roared. “I don’t know how you knew these answers, but this last one will
stump
you—”

“Of course the tree falling makes a sound. It’s a tree, falling. Who cares if anyone hears it?”

The dragon shrieked in rage and unleashed a wave of fire that enveloped the entire room.

When the fire went out, the Eye was nowhere to be found.

“He did pass, you know,” the princess told the dragon. “That wasn’t exactly fair.”

The dragon opened its mouth to respond, only to collapse to the ground. The Eye stepped off the unconscious monster’s head and resumed his walk out the exit, sheathing the sword he’d used to knock the dragon out as he went.

“My hero!” the princess shouted, running after him. “You freed me from the—”

“Nah,” the Eye said, and didn’t turn around.

She stopped in her tracks. “But what about your fame and riches?!”

“All yours.”

And with that, the Eye kept walking, while the princess turned to the dragon and snorted. “YOU need some harder riddles next time!” she told it, smacking the unconscious beast on the head.

The Eye continued on, only to find his path coming to a dead end at a mirror on a wall. As he approached the mirror, his reflection grew closer as well, and waved to him.

“Hello, Initiate,” his reflection said.

“Hello, me,” the Eye said, if just to be polite.

The reflection saluted the Eye with his sword, smiling a friendly smile. “Guess what I am?”

“My second challenge?”

“Nice one, Initiate!” the reflection of him said. “You’ve got a quick head on those shoulders! Let’s see if you can keep it there, shall we?” The reflection aimed his sword at Jack. “The Queen grants great power to her Eyes. But power that’s granted can easily be taken away if one misuses it. Only a wise user of the magic of an Eye can pass this test, for only a wise user would know better than to use that magic against the Queen.”

“And what exactly do I need to use it on?”

“Me!” the reflection said. “You’ll have to use your magic to defeat me before I kill you.”

The Eye pulled his sword off his back and faced his reflection. He struck out at the mirror, and the reflection blocked his attack exactly, just from the opposite side, as a reflection will do. Only, unlike other reflections, this one’s sword came right out of the mirror.

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” the reflection said. “Everything you do, I do. Hurt me, and you get the same.”

The Eye nodded and put his sword back in its scabbard. One of the first things he’d learned in training was the magic of tricking light into ignoring you, into not even seeing you, into going right through you.

The Eye closed his eyes and concentrated, convincing the light that he wasn’t there anymore, that it really should just go on about its business, that there wasn’t anything to see here.

Then he opened his eyes.

The mirror was empty. Or, more accurately, it was reflecting his invisible self.

With that, the Eye pushed his way into the mirror and kept going.

A short distance later, a rosy glow filled the corridor, and the Eye found a man sitting before a fire, his back to the entrance. The Eye walked over to the man and saw that he held a glass of something red and cheery-looking, while the fire danced over his face.

“You made it!” the man said with a smile, and gestured for the Eye to sit down.

The Eye took a seat and found a glass of something thick and black on the table between them, a table that hadn’t been there a second ago.

“Congratulations on making it this far,” the man told him, fire glinting in his eye. “Most don’t.”

“Which challenge do they fail?” the Eye asked.

“Oh, most know enough at this point to defeat the dragon, though not a small amount miss a riddle or two,” the man said absently. “But quite a few never make it past their own selves in the second challenge.” He frowned. “There’s probably a metaphor there. Still, even when they do make it through, most seldom arrive here so quickly. Or so healthy! Do you even have a scratch?”

The Eye shrugged. “Looks like I finally found something I’m good at.”

“Being an Eye?”

The Eye smiled. “If that’s what you want to call it. So, what now?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the man said, placing his glass of red something on the table, next to the glass of thick black liquid. “You’ll drink from one glass, and I’ll drink from the other. That’s it.”

“I hate to say it, but the red one looks a bit more appetizing.”

The man laughed. “I’d hope so! The other is Death.”

The Eye nodded. “And the red one?”

The man watched the Eye carefully. “That one grants the Queen your service, body and soul. If you betray her, if you consider betraying her, if the thought even crosses your mind . . . your blood will light on fire, and you will burn from the inside out.”

The Eye raised an eyebrow. “Sounds bad.”

The man shrugged. “One Eye betrayed the Queen, and now the rest have to suffer, I suppose. The Charmed One never had to drink this, or the Queen wouldn’t have had to kill him with his own sword.” The man looked over the Eye’s shoulder. “
That
very sword, in fact.”

“That’s what I’m told.”

“So, my Initiate friend,” the man said, gesturing toward the drinks. “The choice is yours.”

The Eye reached out and took the red drink. “But if I drink this, and you drink Death . . .”

“Then I’ll die,” the man said. “It won’t be the first time. I betrayed the Queen long ago, my friend, back when she was just a princess. And this has been her punishment for me until the end of time.”

“Well, if you’re okay with it,” the Eye said. “So, I’ll drink from this glass, and you drink from that one.”

The man nodded and reached for the glass. “You have made your choice, then!”

“I sure have,” the Eye said, then dumped his red glass into the other one.

The man’s hand froze midway to the glass. “What have you done?!”

The Eye brought his empty glass to his lips and drank deeply of nothing, then placed it back on the table. “Just drinking from my glass.”

The man stared at him for a moment, then sighed. “Why is it your family always has to take the hard path?”

The corners of the Eye’s mouth twitched. “You can’t always control what you’re thinking, and the last thing I want to happen is a stray thought making me burn from the inside out.”

The man just shook his head. “You’ll still burn, my friend. She can hear your thoughts. She knows all. But have it your way.” And then he took the full glass of loyalty and Death, brought it to his lips, and drained the entire thing.

“By the way,” the man said, starting to shake. “As a reward for passing the test, I thought I might do you a favor and show you something.”

The Eye raised an eyebrow, and the man held a now-trembling hand up, then gestured. His hand dropped back to his lap while a bright circle of fire showed two boys, one in black armor, one in royal clothes.

“Your future,” the man said, then coughed over and over.

The Eye looked closer and watched himself fighting the royal boy in the Wicked Queen’s throne room. He seemed to be toying with the boy, then finally knocked the royal’s sword away and sent the prince to the ground. His self in the fire circle held his sword over the prince’s head, then the sword dropped, and the image disappeared.

“One will betray her, and one will die,” the Eye said quietly. “I’ll have to keep that in mind.”

The man didn’t answer, and the Eye didn’t disturb him. Dying over and over every time some new initiate came by couldn’t be easy, and the last thing the Eye wanted to do was disturb what little rest the man got.

He stood up to leave, only to find himself waking up to a room lit only by candles, his sword glowing softly by his side. The room was empty except for a tiny seat on a table just to the Eye’s left, upon which sat a man no taller than six inches.

“You passed!” Thomas roared, slapping the Eye on the shoulder. “Congratulations! I was sure you’d die at least once!”

“Can you die
more
than once, sir?” the Eye asked. Even in the haze and confusion, he knew better than to be impolite to the captain of the Queen’s Eyes.

The tiny man winked. “If anyone could, it’d be you, boy! You realize that might be a record-setting pass of the test? Faster than your sister, even!”

“Permission to tell her that over and over, sir?” the Eye said, rubbing his temples. He might have passed, but it’d left a test-size pounding in his head.

“You know, the test is different for every initiate,” Captain Thomas said. “What challenges did you face?”

The Eye shrugged. “Lots of little monsters, each one only about half a foot high. Creepy, huh?”

The captain stared long and hard at the Eye, who just matched his gaze innocently. Finally, Captain Thomas looked away. “You’ll have to fill me in more later. We can’t keep the Queen waiting. She asked for you specifically as soon as you passed. Seemed to know you would. I told her you’d die, I really did. But she was so sure!” He chuckled. “Should have known better than to question Her Majesty! Still, if she were wrong about anyone, it’d have to be you.”

The Eye quickly stood up, straightened his midnight blue cloak, his black armor with a white eye in the center, and saluted. Tom saluted back, then climbed up to the Eye’s shoulder and gestured with his sword. “Onward!” he shouted. And with that, the Eye left, his captain riding on his shoulder.

If there was one thing Jack had learned as an initiate, after all, it was that one never left the Wicked Queen waiting.

BOOK: Once Upon the End (Half Upon a Time)
2.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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