Chapter 1 - Mary
Aortan ran, the rusty armour heavy, chafing with every move against his bare skin. But he would not take it off, he could not take it off. To remove it would be certain death. It was the only thing protecting him from the dragon fire.
With a great belching roar, the beast breathed again, the heat like a thousand furnaces racing towards him. Just in time, Aortan saw a boulder and hurled himself behind it as a wave of fire shot around it. The rock burned him to touch but it kept him safe. Slowly, the great worm approached, smelling the acrid stink of his scorched hair, closing in on the boulder, on him.
Aortan weighted the sword in his hand, feeling the leather grip, worn and cracked against his palm. His breathing became shallow as the dragon's shadow stretched around him. Any second now, he thought, all it will take is an upward thrust. Just wait. He held his breath as the almighty head of the beast reared over him, it's eyes as full of fire as it's belly.
Now! With a fierce cry, Aortan lunged forward, rolling out of the way of snapping teeth like razors. Spinning on his heels he jabbed forward with all his strength. The dragon gave a mighty roar and....
"Mary!" Mary Thomas jumped at the sound of her name, her mind snapping back to the present. "It's time to go my dear, it's closing time." With a sigh, she closed the book she was reading and forced herself to smile at the librarian. "What are you reading?" she asked kindly, although Mary sensed she didn't really care.
"It's called The Barbarian Chronicles, about a young boy called Aortan whose family is murdered by an evil dragon and he has to go on an adventure with a stuck up princess and an idiotic wizard to slay the dragon and become the chosen one that will unite the Imaginelands."
"That sounds interesting." The librarian's voice was pleasant but distracted as she wheeled her cart of books towards the front desk. "Will you be checking that out?"
"Yes please," Mary nodded, following her to the front desk and handing over her library card. She placed that book, along with a few others on the desk and waited patiently whilst the librarian scanned them on. Once everything had been done, she thanked the librarian and, putting the other books in her back-pack, shouldered the bag before walking out.
The sun was low in the sky, but it wasn't quite sunset and the air was filled with the scents of British summer time. Clouds moved sluggishly across the sky, threatening rain. Taking a deep breath, Mary breathed in the air of her home town. She had lived in King's Lynn, Norfolk for eight years and in that time the place had barely changed.
Traffic moved slowly along the London Road as she turned and headed for home. It would be a long walk but she didn't mind, it would give her time to finish her story. Once she was safely over the crossing, she flicked through the pages to find her place.
It was a fine art, walking and reading, but Mary had perfected it, developing an almost uncanny sense for objects and people coming towards her. Behind her, however, was a different matter. She was so lost in her book, her heart soaring as Aortan finally slew the dragon with his magic sword, that she didn't hear the boys coming up behind her.
One of them bumped hard into her, knocking her over, sending the book flying from her hands into the dirt. Mary cried out as her hands and knees scraped along the cold concrete of the pavement, stinging instantly from the wounds.
"Aww look," the boy that bumped into her taunted, "the book worm's on the floor. Maybe we should step on her." Mary scrambled desperately for the book but he reached it first, scooping it up and staring stupidly at the pages.
"What is this rubbish?" he asked, flicking half-heartedly through it.
"It's not rubbish!" Mary protested, scrambling slowly to her feet, her hands and knees screaming out in pain. "Give it back!" she lunged forward but the boy held it out of reach and stuck his foot out, tripping her up. She hit the floor hard, her chin bouncing off the concrete, not having had enough time to stick her arms out to break her fall. The boy and his friends guffawed as she fell. Blood started to seep from the wound and tears stung at her eyes. Why were they doing this?
"Seen you around school," the boy said, bolstered by his cronies' laughter. "You're that nerd, the teacher's pet. You make the rest of us look bad, geek." His friends chuckled again and he grabbed the book in both hands, his fingers white with the pressure. "If you're so smart, you don't need shit like this." He pulled and several pages came out in his hand. Mary gave a cry of despair and lunged for him again but he side-stepped her easily.
"Stop it, please," she begged, but he didn't listen. Instead he kept tearing out the pages, letting the wind take them from his hand until only the empty covers remained. He threw these hard at her, laughing as they hit her in the head.
"Nerd," he spat at her as he and his friends walked away, laughing amongst themselves.
Tears stung Mary's cheeks as she scrabbled to pick up the tattered pages, ignoring the blood that blotted onto them from her chin.
"Here, let me help," a kindly voice said and through her blurred vision Mary saw two hands with long, slender fingers reaching down and picking up some of the pages. "I saw what happened, are you okay?"
Mary looked up into the face of a young man, bright grey eyes smiling from beneath a mop of unruly red hair.
"You've cut your face," he said, his voice full of concern.
"It's nothing," Mary said, looking away, suddenly ashamed of her tears.
"Here," the stranger said, helping her to her feet and handing back the torn pages. "I can't believe anybody would do this to a book."
"They're idiots," she said venomously. "They pick on me all the time at school. It's just because I'm smarter than them."
"I suspect you're smarter than a lot of people." He smiled gently at her and she felt herself smiling painfully back. "You should go home and get yourself cleaned up, that looks nasty."
"I will, thank you. And thank you for your help." He gave a funny little bow that made her laugh and grinned at her, freckles shining on the tip of his button nose.
"You are most welcome, Mary." She looked down and smiled as he walked away, then something twigged.
"Hey, wait! How do you know my name?" She called out to him but he was already halfway across the road and didn't seem to hear her. Without thinking, Mary stepped out after him, not seeing the car coming up fast. Brakes screeched and a horn sounded as Mary's world exploded in white pain and then went black.
Mary's head pounded painfully as she came round and every bone in her body seemed to ache. Slowly, she tried to sit up, groaning with the pain.
"Woah now!" a voice called as hands tried to gently push her back down, "not so fast. You've had quite a knock." Mary opened her eyes slowly, blinking in the direct sunlight, staring at the shadow above her.
"Where am I? What time is it?" She vaguely remembered it getting on for early evening when last she looked around, but the sun seemed too high in the sky now.
"It's just before mid-day and you're in a bed in the healing house, resting," the voice informed her.
"Healing house?" Mary asked, confused, before realisation dawned. "Oh, you mean the hospital?" Her eyes widened in shock and she shot upright. "Oh my god, I'm in hospital!"
But, as she looked around her, she realised that this wasn't any hospital Mary had ever seen before. The beds were all made of wood, for a start, and no nurses she had ever seen were dressed like the ones milling around the other beds now. This was a ward, no doubt about that, but it looked like something from the history books more than an actual hospital.
She turned to look at her companion and saw the red haired youth from before who had helped her with her book. Sure enough, he was holding a bunch of tattered pages and looking at her excitedly.
"I can't believe you're finally here," he said, almost bouncing on the bed as he spoke. "I mean, I did dream our meeting would go a bit differently, but it's happened and you're here."
"What? Where's here?" she asked, clutching her head as though it threatened to split.
"The Imaginelands!" the young man said, "and you've finally come to save us!"