The King’s scout, whoever that was, messed up severely by bringing me here.
There weren’t always dragons in the valley.
I opened my eyes. Was that the last thing Geoff had said to me?
But that wasn’t the question I should have been asking myself, as I turned my head slowly, cradled by lush, green grass. I appeared to be laying in the center of a mushroom circle. I reached my hand out cautiously to touch the white-gray mushroom head, only to find my arm covered in a thin layer of baby-blue mesh. I sat up, looking down at myself. I was wearing an evening gown? I surveyed the area around me, finding an open field of grass, with small bushels of wild flowers every few yards.
In the distance I could see a tiger, sitting at the edge of the field watching me patiently. I looked back down at my sparkly dress, my heart thudding in my ears. What was the last thing I remembered? Not Geoff speaking of his failed relationship to my roommate. I closed my eyes as my ears began to ring from the panic of a tiger being so close, while I sat in a fancy party dress, surrounded by mushrooms.
The last thing I was doing was singing to Geoff, yes that was it. I had just confessed my feelings to him by singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” then I… passed out? There was an earthquake- No, not in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“Are you alright?”
I gasped, whipping my head toward the voice, relief flooding me for precious seconds, until my eyes met the green gaze of the tiger. I swallowed the scream that bloomed in my throat. I would not die screaming. Maybe the person who spoke moments ago will know what to do with a tiger.
“Elizabeth, right?” said the tiger. My eyes widened as my mouth dropped open ever so slightly.
“You’re quite calm, they’re usually screaming and running by now,” the tiger informed me.
“Where am I?” Perhaps there was an earthquake in Kalamazoo, and I was knocked unconscious, falling into a coma.
“You are… ah, well, you are not in your world anymore,” the tiger replied.
“No.” the tiger was sitting outside the mushrooms, watching me carefully. He had the deep voice of a man. I stood on shaky legs, looking around more carefully, seeing a field and a forest a little farther away. This looked like my world.
“My name is Masquerade,” the tiger supplied.
“How’d you know my name?” I asked, crossing my arms. I didn’t know tigers could, but Masquerade seemed to smile.
“Come, let’s meet the gatekeeper.” Masquerade stood, turning to face the trees in the distance. I stayed rooted in my spot, thinking the mushrooms were some kind of protection and the moment I stepped out of the circle, the tiger who called himself Masquerade would maul me.
“Wait a minute, you’ve never told me where I am, and how do I know I can trust you?” I called after Masquerade.
“I’ll explain on the way,” Masquerade replied, never slowing his lazy stride. I sighed, placing my hands on my hips, looking down at the floor length dress once more, noticing I didn’t have any shoes on. I wiggled my toes in the grass, gathering some of the skirt in my hands and lifting to see I had thin leggings on as well. There were slits running up the skirt of the dress, ending at my hips.
“And what’s with the dress?” I asked, looking up to find Masquerade halfway to the trees. I huffed, displeased. I dropped the dress’s skirt, chewing the inside of my lip. I peaked down at the mushrooms, lifting my right foot. I paused as Masquerade yelled:
I stepped out of the protection of the mushroom circle, squeezing my eyes shut, waiting to hear Masquerade’s bounding steps and feel the pain of his teeth tearing into me. I opened my eyes, to instead find Masquerade at the treeline, staring into the darkness of the forest. I sighed and jogged over to him, keeping a sharp eye on his still form.
“Are you ready?” Masquerade asked as I stood beside him. The sunlight cast its light only a few feet into the woods, then it was total darkness. The unknown.
“I don’t know, tiger. I don’t know where I am, why I’m wearing a dress, or how you can talk. How am I supposed to know if I’m ready? Ready for what?” I crossed my arms angrily.
“Now, that is the correct question,” Masquerade responded, standing back up to start into the woods. I rolled my eyes and followed him.
“I must confess, there is something different about you, than the others.” Masquerade said after we walked in silence for a few moments.
“Others? There are others?” I asked hopeful for human interaction, some reassurance in this fever dream I was having.
“There were, but they failed,” Masquerade replied, sorrow in his tone.
“Failed what?” I tried my best to keep the impatience from my voice.
"Their tasks. There are always three of you. Two of you, in love with the same person. You are the fighter, while the other woman is the bait. The man is the prize."
"What?" I spat. I couldn't help the disdain in my tone. The other woman Masquerade had to be referring to, was my new roommate, Andie. I had met her boyfriend the day after I moved in and I hadn't realized he was her boyfriend until I had already started developing feelings for him. I had applied to a coffee shop he managed and he hired me on the spot.
“We are ruled by an evil creature, who killed the king and queen and has wreaked havoc on our lands,” Masquerade finally admitted, failing to understand my contempt.
“An evil… king?” Did I time travel in my coma daydream?
“Yes, these lands are home to the Imorti, who have an unprecedented amount of power,” Masquerade explained.
“Imorti? What kind of power?” My head buzzed.
“They can grow wings for a short time to fly, gils to breath under water, they can shapeshift, concoct potions and spells, create portals-”
“So they’re like witches?”
Masquerade growled. “Of course not. Imorti are immortal beings who can do just about anything they put their mind to.”
“So, what’s all this have to do with me? And what do you mean Andie is bait?”
Masquerade was silent as we approached the side of a mountain, an opening of a cave sprouting before us. Masquerade hesitated before the entrance.
"Andie was Geoff's original girlfriend, until you came along, correct?"
"So, right now, they are locked up together within the castle. You only have so much time before you will lose the favor of Geoff. The dress will indicate who he favors."
I looked down at the gown.
"Right now, you see, the dress is in pristine condition, meaning Geoff still wants you, but the more time he spends with Andie, the dress may start to tear, or fall apart, meaning he is beginning to favor Andie."
"You're fucking with me?" I chomped down on my tongue so hard it began to bleed. I usually didn't like to use swear words, but what he was saying was too ridiculous.
"Geoff broke up with Andie to pursue me. I was the one who had to convince him that he needed time to be sure he was over Andie, but he insisted he wanted me." I paused, looking away from Masquerade's gaze. "I could see their relationship had died long before he ended it, but I still thought he needed time."
"This is a new development," Masquerade replied thoughtfully. I looked at him once more.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the king has scouts that do his bidding for him. Imorti that are wretchedly loyal to him. They tend to find a weak trio. A fighter who is selfish, too self-absorbed to care about succeeding. Weaklings that can hardly defend themselves, let alone fulfill tasks that will be asked of you."
"But why? Why is this happening and why do you need humans to do these tasks?" I crossed my arms, glancing at the cave entrance for good measure.
“King Del was in line to marry the princess. Princess Gia had chosen him out of all the suitors, they were days from marriage when she met…”
I looked back to Masquerade when he didn’t go on. I watched him as he stared off into the trees. “Tell me,” I demanded.
“She met Ari, a man who once lived in The Underwater, but decided to see what the other courts had to offer.”
“There are six. Petal Court, Sun Court, Leaf Court, Ice Court, The Underground, and The Underwater. King Del was from The Underground, a rather misunderstood court, since the people down there tend to be quite… anti-social.”
I shuffled my feet impatiently. “So what does this have to do with me?”
“When Princess Gia changed her mind and decided to marry Ari, Del was devastated. He killed the king and queen, took the throne, and like I said, plunged the lands in disarray. He stripped Princess Gia of all her powers and banished her from the kingdom. Where we are now, is where Imorti are banished.”
“So, where is Princess Gia?”
Masquerade was silent for a long moment. “No one knows.” He started into the cave, so I followed. A few feet in I could see a warm glow in the distance. We approached a woman with dark brown skin, crafting, what looked like, a leather belt.
“Gatekeeper,” Masquerade said, bowing deeply to the woman. She bowed her head back in return, training her bright gold eyes on me.
“This is Elizabeth, our newest fighter.”
“Hello,” I said, bowing my head to her as well. This brought a smile to her face. “What is your name?” I asked.
“She cannot speak, and she does not have a name,” Masquerade informed me.
“Oh.” My face flushed.
“This is the fate of those who are banished,” Masquerade clarified.
“Oh,” I said more angrily. The gatekeeper cocked her head.
“I know, I’ve noticed this one is different too,” Masquerade said to the woman. She fiddled with the belt, attached a small sheath to it, then laid it on a slab of rock before me.
“I’m different, because I don’t seem like a self-absorbed weakling?” I asked, eyeing the small leather belt.
“You seem strong, and competent, and you’re the only human I’ve met who didn’t scream and try to flee at the sight of me.”
I shrugged. “I mean I work out almost everyday with my twin brother, and I try to see things logically. Like right now, I think I have fallen into some kind of coma and this is some kind of twisted, vivid dream.”
Masquerade laughed and the woman smiled.
“Well, whatever helps you get through this, I suppose.”
“You never did explain what 'this' was,” I pointed out. The woman raised her eyebrows at Masquerade. The tiger huffed.
“King Del wanted to prove a point to his people. Love doesn’t exist. He chooses three humans from Earth who have found themselves in a similar situation as him-”
“A love triangle,” I sighed.
“Yes, precisely. The third party, the fighter, will have to trek across our lands, collecting gifts, and make it to the castle alive.”
“I can die here?” I asked, horrified.
“Well, yes, but you’d just return to your world,” Masquerade explained, but the woman gave him a hard look. Masquerade huffed once more.
“You’ll return to your world…. Different. You will feel your emotions a little less vividly and…” Masquerade looked at the woman, who nodded encouragingly.
“You won’t be able to feel love anymore.”
The blood drained from my face. I stepped back away from the tiger, falling against the stone wall.
“Like at all? Not even for my family?” I asked roughly.
“Not even for your family. So you see, it’s important you succeed.”
“I didn’t ask for this,” I mumbed.
“No, and I’m sorry for that, but you see the importance of defeating the king. It seems his scout failed him this time, Elizabeth you just may win this.”
“What choice do I have?” I asked, standing straight up, looking down at the leather belt once more.
“This is your first gift,” Masquerade explained. “It will get you past the barrier and into the courts.”
I grabbed it off the rock, holding it up to my waist. The woman shook her head, pointing to her thigh. I brought my leg from under the dress through one of the dramatic slits, strapping the sheath to my thigh.
“You’ll have to earn the knife from an Imorti,” Masquerade explained. I nodded, reveling in the feel of the leather squeezing my leg. My fingers twitched for a weapon. I mean I wasn’t normally a violent person, but the more I learned from the tiger, the angrier I became. Masquerade was correct, the king’s scout did choose the wrong person as the “fighter.”
I grew up living outside a summer camp my parents owned, where I learned how to climb, swim, and got quite skilled in archery. I worked out regularly because it helped my anxiety. But most importantly, it wasn't just my love for Geoff I was fighting for. It was for my twin brother, older sister, and oldest brother. It was the love for my parents and my best friend.
The King’s scout, whoever that was, messed up severely by bringing me here.
“Alright, what do I have to do?” I asked, clenching my fist. The woman and Masquerade shared a look.
"Our first stop will be the Petal Court, where their trees are being consumed by some kind of rot," Masquerade informed me as my heart thudded painfully against my ribs.
"Is that always the first task?" I asked.
"No, this is a new development that started a couple weeks ago." Masquerade studied me as I tried to bite back the anger that I was sure was causing my face to flush bright red.
"I'm in my last year of college to get a degree in Earth Science, so I can become a conservation technician." I informed him. Masquerade just cocked his head.
"I want to be a tree doctor. Instead of cutting them down, I want to save trees." I clarified, realization flooding Masquerade's massive face.
"Curious," he mumbled, meeting the gatekeeper's gaze. "Then we must hurry." Masquerade stood, starting toward the entrance of the cave. I turned back to the woman, bowing once more.
"Thank you for the gift."
She bowed back, giving me a smile that didn't show any of her teeth. I hurried after the tiger.
We stood outside the border, which I couldn't see any difference from the grass we stood on to the grass on the other side, except it was separated by a valley. "There haven't always been dragons in the valley." Geoff had said that to me right before he ended his relationship with Andie, when I asked him why he was with her.
She was messy, loud, rude, and had no regard for other people's feelings. Especially the feelings of her boyfriend. Geoff had explained when Andie first started college she was different. She didn't like to go out as much, she would rather stay home and read, or bake a recipe she found on the internet.
But as she made new friends, and the stresses of classes got to her, Andie began to change. She was partying more, focusing on her grades less. Geoff admitted he hoped she’d get back to who she was, that maybe the partying was just a phase.
"You look worried," Masquerade said, tearing me from my thoughts.
"I am," I admitted. "You referred to Andie as 'bait' and I think I just figured out what that really meant."
Masquerade ambled beside me silently, waiting for me to go on as we crossed the valley.
"Geoff fell for Andie because she wasn't always the way she is now. And if they're trapped together, then she could easily win him back."
"I wouldn't say ‘easily.’ You had mentioned earlier that Geoff broke-up with Andie. That has never happened before. Usually when the fighter triggers the portal to bring the three of you here, it's because they've confessed their feelings for the prize while the prize is still dating the bait."
"Really?" I asked as we approached a set of spiraling stone steps.
"Really. What was the trigger that brought you here?" Masquerade asked, as we ascended the steps.
"How am I supposed to know?" I asked.
"Well, what's the last thing you remember doing? Usually it's a kiss or intercourse that activates the portal the scout creates."
I flushed. Sex with someone who was taken.
"Well, it wasn't sex or a kiss. Geoff and I had our first kiss three weeks ago," I told the tiger, leaving out the fact that the kiss did, in fact, lead into intercourse. But no portal was triggered then.
"So what's the last thing you were doing?" Masquerade pushed.
"I- I was singing. I sang to Geoff and when the song ended, his apartment started shaking and... well, then I guess we passed out and were transported here." I felt incredibly foolish. Am I starting to believe that any of this is real? I couldn't afford not to, if what the tiger said was true. If my ability to love was on the line.
"Singing?" Masquerade said, puzzled.
"Yeah, well, I usually don't sing in front of people. Just, like, my family, and best friend."
Masquerade was silent. I watched him as we made it to the top of the stairs and stood outside an orchard of, what appeared to be, cherry blossom trees. The ground was covered in light pink petals.
"Is that bad?" I finally asked Masquerade, when all he did was stand outside the pink trees.
"Not bad, just strange."
"Why is that strange?"
"It’s strange because it sounds like King Del's scout is on our side."