Prompt: You’re in charge of assigning every child in the world the monster under their bed. One child has caused every monster assigned to him/her to quit. You decide to assign yourself.
Grend looked up from the stack of paperwork on his desk. “What do you mean you quit?”
Blobblox—a putrid, bluish-green slime creature—shrugged, or what Grend assumed was a shrug. It was more like a ripple along its almost square, semitransparent body.
“I mean, ‘I quit,’” came the reply, his skin—or what passed for skin—rippling with each word like stones were being tossed into it.
Blobblox stared at Grend with unblinking eyes that floated in the middle of the slimy mass. A scroll—the scroll containing the child’s information that binds the monsters to them—floated up between the eyes. With a quick retching sound, he vomited it up, and it crashed onto Grend’s desk with a splash of slime. The scroll flashed brightly for a moment, then faded to its normal brown, canceling the bond between monster and child.
“You can’t quit!” Grend slammed one clawed fist onto the wooden desk.
The aged oak cracked underneath the impact, and slime splattered about. Wherever the ooze hit Grend’s scales, a strange tingling sensation lingered for a few seconds. The wingless dragon tried to keep his expression angry and stern as he flicked the dripping slime off his face with a single black claw. Slimes could be terrifying, but having a conversation with one was just ridiculous.
“Since when?” Blobblox shivered. Grend wondered whether it was a mocking gesture; slime creatures’ physical expressions were confusing.
“This child is . . . it’s weird. Nothing bothers it! You sure it’s not a zambo?”
“That’s ‘zombie,’” Grend corrected. He paused, then added, “Or ‘ghoul.’ I’m not too sure, to be honest. The point is—”
“ That this . . . little thing . . . is weird,” Blobblox answered. “And the house . . . is dark. I don’t know how to explain it. It bubbles me.”
Grend opened his jaw to protest, but Blobblox was already flowing for the door.
“C’mon, Blobby!” Grend called, hurrying out of his seat to stop the monster from leaving. “Every monster I’ve assigned to this boy has quit! You’re the best beast I know! It should be an easy assignment!”
He reached out to grab—well, nothing.
Slimes were weird like that. Grend’s scale-covered arm sank elbow-deep into Blobblox, but the slime seemed oblivious to the invasion of his personal space.
Grend groaned in disgust as he withdrew his arm, bringing with him a thick layer of slime. Blobblox didn’t seem to miss it as he poured himself out of the doorway and headed down thehall. Grend coughed out a ball of flame onto his arm, burning away the slime, leaving his arm unharmed.
“My arm still feels all tingly,” he murmured. “What is he even made of?”
Grend flexed his fingers a few more times as he headed to his desk, the black claws at the end of each finger gleaming in the light. Twenty more scrolls had appeared on the desk since Blobblox first flowed into his office. Grend sighed, dreading the mounting workload. More and more humans were born every day. Once they hit two years old—the perfect age—a monster was assigned to them. Most human parents quit fully obsessing over the child by then; if they got much older, the child was more likely to be able to convince their parents there was a monster.
Grend missed the old days when his kind could roam rampant however they pleased. These days, monsters—well, all imaginary creatures—required human children to sustain them. Imagination empowered them, granted them life, and maintained them. Without humans in general believing in them, imaginary creatures would all cease to exist. In the past, the creatures could interact directly with humans of all ages. They weren’t even called “imaginary” at that time, but “mythical.” They were more than mythical; they were real.
Grend sighed, lost in the memories of long-gone days. He had been the dragon in many tales: battling other dragons, knights, and demigods, kidnapping princesses, and hoarding gold. He even faced off against the mighty Beowulf! Twice actually, being the inspiration for both Grendel and the dragon that faced off against him decades later. Though the humans didn’t quite get the story right . . .
Now, look at me.
Grend sighed again. He once towered dozens of feet in height; now, he was close to six and a half feet tall.
It took him quite some effort to shift into his far more intimidating and powerful form these days. Transformation tended to be short-lived and exhausting for him. Humans had grown more cynical over the centuries, more aware, and focused more on their precious technologies.
It was getting harder and harder for Imaginaries to interact with what humans called “the real world.” They could only stay in that realm for short periods of time, which was why most creatures like Blobblox and Grend had to resort to scaring children, kicking their imaginations into overdrive without exhausting the Imaginaries too much.
Now, Imaginaries could only be sustained by the wild, boundless energies of human children and the more eccentric adults like writers, artists, and the plain weirdos, like the ones who believed in Bigfoot living in the wilderness—the ape beasts that were thought of as “Bigfoot” hated being associated with the woods.
Grend looked back at his desk. Fifteen more children had come of age since he had stood to stop Blobblox from leaving.
At least there are plenty of children . . .
That thought brought him back to why he was even standing: the strange child that Blobblox abandoned. Grend stomped over to the desk, snatching up the slime-covered scroll. Flicking off the remaining Blobblox spittle, Grend opened the scroll. The boy, Liam, was four years old, a mess of red hair and freckles. Bright green eyes shone over his wide smile.
“This is the child that causes so many to quit? I could just cancel his profile . . . but, that’s quitter’s talk.”
Grend was slack-jawed. The kid looked harmless. Below the name of the child was a list of the various Imaginaries who had haunted him over his short life. Aside from the first— Tsonoqua—and the last—Blobblox—all of the names had been scratched out. Grend extended one of his black claws and drew a line over Blobblox’s name.
“Now, to figure out whom to charge with this boy.”
Grend looked up, catching his reflection in a mirror hanging on the wall. His eyes blazed.
“Why, I’ll do it!” he cried out. “I’m not so old! My antlers may be a little dull, but my fangs are still the sharpest swords! My scales are still the hardest armor! My elbow talons still bite! I still have great strength!”
He flexed his mighty, three-clawed hand, ignoring the popping of his old joints. Black smoke flowed out of flaring nostrils on either side of his snout.
Grend reopened the scroll and, using the tip of one claw now glowing with magical, imagination-fueled energies, signed his name below Blobblox’s. The scroll flashed, locking him into the contract. Closing the scroll, Grend tossed it into the air and swallowed it as it fell into his wide, open maw.
* * *
THE SHADOWS BENEATH THE BOY’S BED RIPPLED. Grend’s head popped out of them like an alligator surfacing for air, the tips of his antlers tapping against the box spring. The room was black when Grend arrived. Only the dim glow of a night-light plugged into the wall near the boy’s bed lit just a few feet around it. Not that it mattered to Grend, as he could see in pitch-black darkness as easily as he could see in the brightest daylight. He surveyed the room, looking for any clues of fears or weaknesses that could better help him in his quest.
The carpeted floor was clear of toys, or even clothing—a surprising revelation based on Grend’s experience with human children. The walls were a sky blue, broken up by a dresser and toy chest, and were cluttered with the boy’s artistic masterpieces: a spaceship, a dinosaur—or was it a chicken? Or a monster? Maybe the latter, since it was pink—a sailboat, and one drawing of his family in front of a blue sky. At least, Grend assumed it was his family. There was what looked to be an adult male in . . . a brown suit? Or was it skin? Beside him was a little boy with fire on the top of his head—the kid’s hair, obviously—and then there was the female.
Something was odd about her. She seemed larger than the other two; her lines and angles seemed harsh, even for a child’s hand. The faces were the next aspect that grabbed Grend’s attention. The dad figure had a wide, oblivious smile and the boy had a frown, while the mother— was that truly a mother?—had a snarl. A vicious snarl, Grend decided.
Was the father oblivious to his child?
Grend growled, the noise muffled as his mouth remained submerged in the shadow pool. Imaginaries had an innate understanding of intentions within humans, especially children. Grend had always found that strange. They were a separate species, and yet, humans were the ones ignorant of their fellow man. Perhaps the father thought the child was practicing storytelling or human expressions. A reasonable justification, compared to the other drawings, but to Grend, that drawing begged for attention.
The house is dark. Blobblox’s words came back to Grend unbeckoned.
The clattering of tiny feet on wooden floorboards alerted Grend to the approaching child. He ducked into the shadows as the door swung open. It was a rare event when a child could see an Imaginary before it was ready, but Blobblox’s warnings had put the older monster on edge, and he wasn’t going to take a risk like that so early on his first night. Grend floated there, in the limbo-abyss, just inches from the open portal under the bed.
The sound of the kid closing the door was muffled as if he were hearing it underwater, but the humans were clear enough. The kid was singing some song to himself—a hero’s theme song? He ran around his room, singing the song in between breathless gasps until hitting the conclusion, and leaping onto his bed as the amazing finale. The bedspring bounced and groaned under the impact as the kid panted, exhausted from his performance.
Grend raised his head out of the shadow pool and looked around again. The door was closed; the light underneath it had gone out. The parents were asleep, or at the least not coming up anytime soon.
The child had also failed to turn on his room’s ceiling light. Grend’s smile became a grin.
Grend focused, sending a long shadow out from the side of the bed and stretching it across the floor and over the door. The kid rolled around on the bed, holding a toy in each hand, making crashing and fighting noises as the two figures clashed. The long, shapeless shadow contorted and shifted into an outline of the dragon-man.
Eyes opened on the figure as Grend sent out slow waves of shadow and scentless smoke.
The black shadow-smoke crept along the floor, spreading over it as the child continued to play. The small amount of light in the room grew even dimmer as Grend’s shadows devoured it.
“LIAM . . . ” The word boomed, echoing in the room, and Grend drew himself from the shadows. Using magic, the Imaginary distorted the room around him as he shifted into a far larger, more primal form. Grend wasn’t a fraction of his original size—that would have drained far too much energy at the moment—but the dragon figured fifteen feet tall would be enough of a start to the horror.
The boy rolled onto his back and stared up at the looming dragon. Grend’s clay-red scales looked all the brighter against the blacker-than-black smoke and shadows swirling about him. Fire flared to life with each breath the dragon took. His eyes, larger than basketballs, were burning yellow suns. The child looked up at Grend, mouth agape and eyes wide. This is too easy.
“I’VE COME TO DEVOUR YOU,” Grend growled, lowering his massive head, his long neck thicker than any tree trunk. It was, of course, a lie, but as Grend was out of practice from the past few centuries, he didn’t feel capable of something more subtle.
The child sat up but seemed too horrified to move any further.
Too scared, Grend thought, to even scream.
Lucky me; it’d be a waste if his parents ruined the moment.
The Imaginary flashed two of his shining onyx claws forward, the razor-sharp tips of both mere inches from the child’s green eyes.
“I THINK . . . I SHALL START WITH YOUR EYES.”
“Are you a dragon?”
The boy’s words were soft, the tone even and full of awe, throwing Grend off-balance for a moment.
“I—uh . . . yes . . . I . . . I AM A DRAGON.”
Grend kicked himself for losing his composure for a moment but felt he recovered quick enough that the small boy wouldn’t notice a difference.
“I, WHO HAVE DEVOURED ELEPHANTS AND WHALES, SHALL—”
“Neat!” the boy cried out, a smile growing wider on his face. He grabbed Grend’s claws with each tiny hand. “I’m Liam! What’s your name?”
Grend lost focus, deflating back to his normal form. All of the smoke vaporized as if it had been sucked out of the room, which crashed back into its original state. Grend staggered for a moment, coughing from the strain and on his own smoke.
“Are you all right?” Liam asked, waving away some of the last of the leering smoke.
“Yeah . . . I . . . ” Grend groaned, then did a double take. “What is wrong with you, boy? You were supposed to be scared!”
“Because!” Grend huffed, another loss for words. “That’s my job!”
“Because we monst—mythol . . . I mean, Imaginaries . . . thrive on the imaginations of children.”
“You eat kids?” Liam tilted his head, confused but still not scared.
Grend groaned. “Okay, look . . . we are magical beings, and no, we don’t eat kids. Well, some of us used to, but the rest of us try to keep those Imaginaries from returning here. We don’t even hurt you. At least, we try not to. We assign a monster to every kid in the world to scare them and make your imaginations run wild. That . . . sustains us and . . . well, here.”
He twirled his large claws, summoning a sparkling orange cube of energy.
“We only pull from the smallest portion of kids’ boundless imaginations, but this is what else we use your imagination energy for. It fuels our magic. It allows us to shape- and size-shift and do pretty much whatever we want to do. Wait. Why am I explaining this?” Grend slammed his palms together, crushing the cube into nothing. “Why don’t you get scared?”
Liam shrugged. “I don’t think monsters are . . . really monsters.”
“Do you know how many Imaginaries have quit being your monster?”
The boy shrugged again. “I dunno . . . five?”
Grend paused, claws raised, thinking. “Actually . . . good guess. Well, regardless, I’m your monster now, and I won’t stop—”
His webbed ears pricked up at the sound of something like footsteps coming down the hallway. He craned his long neck to confirm the direction of the sound and growled once he realized he had been interrupted. “Great. Okay, listen, kid—”
Grend turned back to Liam and paused. On Liam’s face was a look of complete and utter fear.
“Momma’s coming,” Liam answered Grend’s unspoken question.
The Imaginary snorted, out of time to explain, and raced to the gap between the bed and floor. Grend’s form flowed, shifting to a wisp of smoke to dive back to the safety of the shadows. From his hidden spot, Grend could hear the footsteps, but they were unlike any he had ever heard before . . . at least, from a human. Each step was slow, lumbering, uncertain, and the way the floorboards creaked, the weight on each was fluctuating.
The boy’s door squeaked open, a cold wind blowing in from the hallway, dropping the room’s temperature by ten degrees in a heartbeat.
“What are you doing, child?” a harsh hissing voice whispered. Grend could see the far-toodainty feet from his hiding spot beneath the bed.
“Nothin’, Momma,” came the pitiful reply.
“You awful, awful child.”
The voice hissed again, shocking Grend. This was no way a mother would talk to a child. The air smelled putrid in Grend’s nose. The smell went beyond the chemical; it was as if some aura were being emitted that activated some nonexistent animal instinct in Grend. Everything was telling him to run away. For the first time in his long, long life, Grend was feeling fear.
The house is dark, Grend thought again, and then shook his head, pushing the thought out. That’s wrong. It’s not this house. It’s her!
The mother hissed a third time, saying something harsh to the child. The boy, to his credit, was silent, though a salty taste had reached Grend’s sensitive nostrils. Liam was crying. There was a scuffling sound and the bed rocked; something was happening above. The boy was being attacked!
Grend manifested in a crack of thunder, black clouds spilling around him, fist raised. Both the bewildered boy and the furious mother—or what was pretending to be the mother—stared up at him. The thing that was not the mother seemed more enraged than surprised or horrified that a dragon-man had just appeared in a cloud of smoke; it howled in fury when Grend slammed his fist into the side of its face, throwing it into the wall.
“That’s not your mom,” Grend said, snatching Liam behind him as he took up a defensive position between the kid and the thing sprawled on the floor. “She doesn’t smell right. It ain’t human, neither. Who are you?”
“Huu! Hu! Hu!” the creature laughed, its voice like the wind billowing through trees.
It looked up to Grend, its ivory face cracked from where he had struck it, chips falling and fading away. Beneath the mask lay a face of absolute black with blood-red lips and brown rings encircling white glowing eyes.
“I am the great Tsonoqua! Bringer of wealth, and taker of children!”
“Tsonoqua?” Grend’s jaw dropped. He knew the stories of the name Tsonoqua; she didn’t frighten children. She ate them. “Why’d they assign you to children?”
“Hu!” Tsonoqua laughed again, rising to her feet, her mask breaking away to show the rest of her true, hideous face. “That child is mine. I have been preparing him for quite a while to be the most splendid of meals.”
“You weird witch monsters and your . . . ‘preparing’ . . . children. That’s why no one likes any of you. We don’t hurt children, Tsono,” Grend growled, raising one clawed hand while pushing the boy farther behind him. “You’ve always been a wild one. Untrustworthy. I don’t know how you’ve stayed here so long, or why you returned your scroll, but it’s time for you to leave.”
“I returned it because I didn’t need to be bound by your ridiculous, antiquated laws,” Tsonoqua answered with a sneer. “I pulled it from my body and tossed it into the shadows like the trash it is.”
Grend decided not to mention the fact that she also seemed charged with energy, while his little show before she arrived had drained most of his reserves.
“I am ready to leave, with the boy,” Tsonoqua hissed, her own pitch-black fingers extending into long, sharp claws. Her elbows now reached down to her knees, and fingertips down to her feet. She was as tall as he was now, though with Grend’s long neck stooped over, she appeared taller. Her torso was thick on powerful legs.
Grend hesitated. He couldn’t spring at Tsonoqua without leaving the child vulnerable. He wasn’t sure how fast she was. Grend wasn’t even sure how fast he was. Tsonoqua’s stark white hair whipped around her like angry snakes.
Tsonoqua launched hair quills from the white threads whipping about on her skull. Grend raised one forearm to block the needles. Most of the weaponized hair strands were deflected off his iron-hard scales, but a few found weak points and embedded themselves into his arm. Grend barked up a fireball bigger than the ogress looming in front of him. Tsonoqua cackled as the flames engulfed her, but Grend didn’t wait around to see if that would stop her.
“C’mon!” Grend shouted at the boy, not that Liam had an option to comply or resist, as Grend still had a claw wrapped around one arm.
Grend leaped for the open door, the child in tow. The hallway was no longer a narrow passageway but a massive corridor, stretching hundreds of feet in every direction. The wooden flooring was now rolling and uneven, flowing as reality continued to shift to the ogress’s mad whims. Tsonoqua was far more powerful than Grend thought, far stronger than he was in his current state. The only light now was from the flames he had caused in the boy’s room, flames that were already going out. The walls and floor were now covered in a black, pulsating, inky shadow.
“My . . . mom . . . ” Liam whimpered.
Looking up, Grend could see that the second floor of the house still existed. It was just now two hundred feet above them. With no stairs in sight. Grend grunted a curse under his breath, tossing the child onto his back.
Grend focused for a moment, summoning two black wings from his back, with Liam snug in between. The boy wrapped his arms tight around Grend’s neck as the Imaginary leaped into the air. The black wings flapped hard, and Grend strained to focus.
Flight used to be so easy for him. Centuries ago, he could soar for hundreds of miles without tiring. Now, it was all he could do to reach the second-floor ledge a couple hundred feet above them. The boy cried out.
He must be terrified.
“That was amazing!” Liam shouted as Grend landed on all fours, breathing hard, his wings already disintegrating back into the nothing they came from. “You can fly!”
“Aren’t you worried about your mom?” Grend rasped, looking back at the boy. He straightened his back, feeling it angrily pop in protest. “Does nothing bother you?”
“Well . . . ” The kid shifted on Grend’s back as the dragon rose to his hind feet. “The Songa— ”
“ . . . that said she took kids.” Liam sniffed. “And my mommy is nice in the daytime and mean during the night . . . so I think she was just pretending to be her when no one is around.”
Grend had thought that same thing. “You’re a pretty smart kid. She’s probably hiding somewhere during the day, watching and waiting. But she’s been scaring you all this time and somehow preventing that energy from going into the pool from which all of us Imaginaries are fueled. Who knows how much energy she has in reserve? Far more than I, that much is clear. I’m going to have to talk with whoever was responsible for her. We’ve gotta put her on lockdown.”
As strained as he felt from that slight effort of sprouting his wings, Grend suspected that the ogress was preventing him from accessing his own reserves of power, or draining it. Witchmonsters were the worst.
“How do you know so much about her?”
“Kinda my job to know at least a little bit about all of us Imaginaries . . . especially ones like her.”
Grend looked over the side of the railing. Tsonoqua leaped out of the doorway, the last remnants of the dancing flames slapped out by her white hair. Grend watched as she sniffed around. Even the tendrils of her hair seemed to be feeling the ground and walls around her, trying to find them. The hallway continued to contort and shift in size, as well as—Grend noticed with some dread—Tsonoqua. Each step she took, the ogress grew larger, bulkier, more twisted.
“We can just sit here . . . she should just . . . ”
Grend glanced back at the kid, whose eyes were wide and filling with tears. He was afraid of her—terrified of her—and with his mind focused only on Tsonoqua, she could have a near infinite amount of energy. Grend looked down at his arm. The hairs still stuck there were twitching and pulling against him.
“Great,” Grend muttered, breathing on the hairs that were buried in his arm—not enough to cause flames but with enough power and heat to burn them away.
Tsonoqua was already heading to the wall where they were perched. If the hairs hadn’t given them away, the stench of burnt hairs would—especially considering her sensitive snout. She was now in the form of a bulbous toad. Her head was more mouth than anything, and her hair had become another four sets of snow-white limbs.
She ran face first into the wall, stretched out her limbs over its flat surface, dug in her claws, and began to climb. She moved slowly, but Grend knew they had only minutes left, if that. He scratched a magical rune into the wall below them, putting most of his last remaining power into it.
The rune crackled to life, sending a ripple through the wall, followed by dozens of small stone pillars raining down onto Tsonoqua. The beast cried out as she was struck over and over by the stone pillars. She was even forced down the wall a few feet, but despite everything, the toad-like ogress held fast.
She’s just too strong, Grend admitted to himself. If only I could . . . his yellow eyes flashed with the spark of an idea. The boy! Grend turned around. At some point, the kid had slid off his back and was now huddled in the corner.
“Kid, listen,” Grend started as he hopped over to Liam. The booming thunder of Tsonoqua’s approach was growing ever louder. “I need you to quit thinking about Tsonoqua. Quit being afraid of her, and be afraid of me.”
“But . . . I’m not scared of you!” Liam cried. “You’re helping me!”
“Then . . . ” Grend huffed, eyes darting around, searching for an answer. “Believe in me!” More thunder. The ground shook beneath their feet. She would be upon them soon. “Huh?” Liam looked at him. “But . . . I’m scared.” Now he’s scared.
“Listen, being scared is easy.” Grend placed one large hand on the boy’s shoulder and kneeled in front of him. “Believing in something? That’s hard. Maybe one of the hardest things to do. We’re fueled by imagination—I’m fueled by imagination—and we’ve thought forever that fear was the greatest power in the world. But, I’m willing to bet that hope—that belief—is even stronger. And I’ve already seen how strong you are in the face of monsters. I believe in you, kid, but you’ve got to believe in me.”
The boy sniffed and nodded. His green eyes seemed to glow. “Okay.” He wiped the snot from his nose with one sleeve. “But . . . I don’t know your name.”
Grend smiled and rose.
There was no time left, but he didn’t feel any stronger yet.
Tsonoqua was pulling her bulk over the collapsing rail and into the room. Grend stared up at her eyeless face. Green drool dripped from her maw.
He flexed his claws, roared in defiance, and leaped. Tsonoqua caught him in one oversized hand as he was just feet from her face. He struggled against her grip but was unable to break free. Tsonoqua roared in victory, ignoring the defiant fireball he spat in her face as she pulled her black bulk out of the room and threw Grend with every ounce of force she could muster into the ground below.
He crashed into the floor with a deafening boom. Both the boy and the ogress held their breaths. Silence grew between them, but nothing stirred within the crater.
“Hu! Hu! Hu!” Tsonoqua shifted her eyeless gaze back to Liam, who now stood, fists clenched, staring back up at the ogress. “Come, boy. I . . . hunger.”
“I’m not afraid of you! Not anymore!” Liam shouted, raising his fists. “I know another monster! He’s tougher, and scarier!” Tsonoqua dragged her mass toward him.
“His name is Grend!” the boy shouted.
Tsonoqua’s hand was outstretched and looming over him.
“He’s my monster! My hero! And I believe in him!”
An explosion behind Tsonoqua grabbed their attention. Tsonoqua made a guttural yelp of surprise as something dragged her from the opening and away from Liam. She grabbed and clawed at the walls and floor around her, but she was helpless against the pull.
Liam rushed forward to see Grend—at least, he thought it was Grend, as he was now hundreds of feet tall, even in his sitting position—filling the hallway. Tsonoqua writhed in his left claw. The dragon’s head lowered down on its long neck, looking at Tsonoqua with some amusement, now that their roles had been reversed.
Grend squeezed his hand tight, keeping the squirming ogress from wriggling free before turning his attention to the child.
“LIAM. THANK YOU.” Grend flashed a smile, each fang twenty feet long. He extended his right claw, and Liam hopped into the open palm. “A LITTLE BELIEF GOES A LONG WAY.”
He brought Liam to his shoulder, beckoning the boy to hop off, but keeping a hand there, just in case.
“NOW.” Grend turned his attention to the wriggling toad-beast in his hand, his black wings flexing. The massive dragon raised the ogress far over his head. The ceiling seemed to stretch on for miles.
Grend dropped his arm, flinging Tsonoqua to the ground below. She crashed like a falling comet at impossible speeds. The crater she left was three times larger than the one Grend had made earlier.
“TSONOQUA? YOU’RE FIRED.”
Grend opened his mouth. Blue-white lava erupted, burying the ogress in gallons of the liquid heat. Grend continued the onslaught for several minutes before ending it with a cough of smoke.
“Is she dead?”
“I do not believe so,” Grend admitted after a moment of thought. “As long as one person believes in her, Tsonoqua should live . . . but she will be hurting for a long while, back where she belongs. I will ensure she’s never allowed in this world again.”
Grend stretched, enjoying the feeling of being back in his true form, even if it was just for a few precious moments.
“Your home should return to normal now as Tsonoqua’s magic dissipates. In fact, as powerful as she was, I bet we never left your room . . . ”
Grend sighed in relief and exhaustion. The energy Liam had provided was almost depleted, as Grend had guzzled the bulk of it in a hasty transformation, and the rest, he had poured into his attack on the ogress. He had never been the most efficient user of the power of the imaginary that he had been given. In a sudden puff of smoke, he returned to his normal size next to Liam.
In mid-air. Hundreds of feet above the ground.
Both Grend and Liam cried out in surprise, clutching at each other as they began to plummet to the ground.
“Hold on, kid!” Grend exclaimed, throwing one hand in front of them, his claws tracing a magical outline in the rushing air.
Without the power, Grend would have to pull on the energies that maintained him in the real world. That power was potent but wild and unpredictable; it was a risk casting a spell with it. Even worse, once it was cast, Liam would be all on his own as Grend would be snatched back to his realm to recharge.
“I don’t know if this’ll work!” Grend shouted over the rushing wind as he finished the final symbols. “But I’m not going to be able to stick around! Good luck, kid! I believe in you!”
Before Liam could respond, Grend slammed his fist into the floating magical rune symbol. With the ground rushing up to greet them, the orange-red circle flared to life, and Liam’s world turned white.
* * *
“WHAT’S ALL THAT RACKET?”
Liam looked up from where he lay on his stomach. His mom was standing at the door, finger just under the light switch. His dad was standing behind her. Liam looked between the two of them, and then around his room. Everything was back to normal.
“I . . . uh . . . ”
“Having a dream, sport?” his dad asked.
Liam wasn’t sure what else to say. His mom walked into the room. Liam flinched, just knowing her soft hands would turn into claws at any moment.
They didn’t. His mother was gentle as she lifted him from the floor, planted a kiss on his cheek, and put him back in the bed.
“Get back to sleep.” She smiled, pulling the covers over him again. “I love you, baby.”
“Love you, too, Mommy.”
With that, Liam was alone in his room again.
He looked around, still confused. Was it a dream? He pulled the covers away from him and crawled to the edge of his bed.
“Grend? You there?” Liam whispered, peeking over the edge and down at the floor. “A-are you okay?”
It was a dream, Liam started to admit, beginning to pull away from the edge, then stopped.
No . . . it wasn’t.
The shadow cast from beneath his bed stirred. The outline of a familiar set of antlers flowed from under the bed, then came webbed, wing-like ears. Two rectangular eyes appeared in the shadow, glowing a soft yellow.
“Grend?” the boy asked.
“ Liam,” the shadow responded, its smile growing as wide as the boy’s.
“I believe in you.”