It was a Wednesday. Alexis was procrastinating on her math homework, as usual. The sunflowers were bending upward and soaking in the sunshine. As it got warmer out, they seemed to be moving further and further from their wintertime weakness. Their petals glowed with raw magic and their hay green centers swirled like whirlpool water into the tall, thick stems.
Chapter 1 – Surprised
It was a Wednesday. Alexis was procrastinating on her math homework, as usual. The sunflowers were bending upward and soaking in the sunshine. As it got warmer out, they seemed to be moving further and further from their wintertime weakness. Their petals glowed with raw magic and their hay green centers swirled like whirlpool water into the tall, thick stems. Then, she heard a rumbling behind her. She whipped her head around. So maybe, although Alexis would kill me if she found out I said this, it was just her pet poodle, Daffodil, growling at this toy she had that looked just like her. Alexis was just so bored in this beautifully magical town that she was combing through her almost-but-not-quite perfect days, searching for something even remotely spooky or dangerous. But eventually, she’d have to get back to her math homework or Mrs. LaNeil would kill her. She flopped back down in her chair, and, while tapping her pencil repeatedly between problems, she struggled through the remaining six sheets. That’s right, six sheets. Oh, teachers back then…
I don’t know exactly why Alexis had to procrastinate so much, since, to my dismay, I could not get that out of her. But my theory, which is probably right, (I consider myself to be very well acquainted with her), is that her pride simply would not allow her to be a good little girl and finish it early like everyone else at her school.
Once she finished, she flopped down on her boring pink bed and wished and wondered. She wished she didn’t have such a dull life. She wondered why she stuck out, why no one was like her, why she had to be alone.
The next afternoon was Friday, thank the sunflowers. She relaxed and read. Her ridiculous school uniform was on the floor. It included a pink hair bow, a white dress, pink tights, white ruffly socks, and shiny pink Mary Janes.
After a few weeks of dull routines, Alexis received a pristine white envelope with her name and address stamped on it in shiny gold leaf. She was not impressed. Probably some letter from a stupid teacher complaining about stupid grades. When she opened it, she collapsed on her plush white rug. Every year for every eleven year old in the village, there was an official tournament. Not for sewing, or spelling, or math. This was a tournament of magic.
And you may not know, but Alexis was special when it came to magic. She was easily the most powerful in her grade. Alexis could fly, make her hair burn or turn into red-hot, dripping lava, and so many other amazing things. But her specialty was earth. She could pick up pebbles and spin them into gold. She could pick up gold and spin it into pebbles. She could crush you in a second with a grain of sand. No one else was completely aware of it, but she was probably more powerful than many of the masters.
So she jumped and flew off her balcony, down into the fields of emerald grass. The trees were perfect; scarlet, golden, and deep blue. Her high, silver combat boots dug into the fertile soil. Then she practiced. She spun rocks above her fingers. She mined diamonds out of the ground by using all the effort in her body, and turned them into a tall tower. Next, she spiraled around the tower, all the way up. Then she shattered it to pieces, and did backflips and frontflips in the air as she came down.
After hours and hours, she worked out a routine. She was proud of herself. She knew she could win the tournament, but there was a few months before this would happen. It was an agonizingly long amount of time to wait. She leapt back up onto her balcony and went back inside. Besides, the sun was beginning to set. She had one of her usual late dinners alone in the dining room before heading to bed. That night, she tossed and turned. She didn’t think she would be able to wait. Her parents had better be ready for another drop in her grades. She didn’t care about that, though. Her worry, besides the long wait for the tournament, was that competition for the Sapphire Crown (the prize of winning the tournament) coming up, with the long amount of time for practice and improvement. This might wreck Alexis’s chance and the Sapphire Crown, which was the key to the most exciting opportunities in Sunflower. It was a secret, but it was what Alexis craved the most. The crown also brought respect to its champions. This adventure might come with a friend. After all these years of loneliness, someone might finally just walk up and invite her over for mango smoothies one day. Well, banana shakes would be preferable; after all, the mangos in Sunflower were awfully sour. But really, Alexis wouldn’t mind if it was rotten sunflower stems. Which some adults liked. Not that she understood why.
Now there is really something I have to tell you. Alexis was not acknowledging the second part of the Sapphire Crown contest. Nobody knew what happened in the dark and shadowed second stage. Only one person made it past the first stage, which was the routine Alexis was making. Once the winner had completed the unknown second stage, they were forbidden to speak of it. That is, if they survived.
Chapter 2 – The Contest
A few months was far too long for Alexis to wait. She had her routine completed, including all the finishing touches, and even a stunning outfit. (In my opinion, there was no need for her routine, despite its glory, because I am positive that she could have won the tournament with just that outfit. But she didn’t ask me). However, a few months is not forever, and the day came. It was conveniently over a break so all the teachers and students were free, as well as the stay-at-home parents and the town leaders and every other person in the village. Even the animals were free that week. Even the sunflowers, naturally. Moving on.
Alexis walked a short distance to the field where the competition was held. There were chairs set up in neat rows in the grass. She sat next to her mother, since she had no friends to sit with. She watched the other children perform their talents. She clapped politely after each one, but really she was terrified. The talents were just getting better and better and it seemed that every one of them would be that tiny bit better than her. That meant everything in a competition like this. She performed her routine as #56. 20 remained. It was rather uneventful. Now, I don’t mean that the crowd wasn’t impressed. Just that they weren’t really surprised at what she’d done.
At the end of the competition, the leaders walked onto the stage. They took folded yellow papers and passed them out to students. Before Alexis could open hers, some black-haired girl who could fly opened her paper and petals came out. This signaled that she had won the competition. Alexis’s expression was completely blank at first, and she worked hard to keep it that way. Her emotions and mind still felt frozen, unable to process the information overload. Alexis had been a close second. Very good, but not what she’d been hoping for. You see, she had been hoping to win. She dipped her head to her parents and left, only allowing the tears to stream down her cheeks when she was out of sight.
. . .
She hid in her room and cried. She didn’t know what was going to happen to her now. Her life was surely over. Everything was over. She could never…
“Alexis,” her brother Lincoln said, the door slowly opening.
“Alexis, listen. The girl who won chose not to accept. That means you won.”
Alexis’s whole world brightened. Then she remembered the second task. She was nervous, but any place it sent her would be better than here. So she got up, wiped her eyes as best she could and walked to the field.
It was all a blur, really. Flashes of do you accept and I do and very well and things like that. But everything slowed down when they read out the second task.
“Your second task is to go into the Afterthen and save it. You must survive and come home to win the Sapphire Crown.”
“Wha-What is the Afterthen?” Alexis asked nervously.
“The Afterthen is a land very near here that is stuck in a time warp. It is under the rule of tyrannical people who use time all wrong.” This was interesting. She was supposed to save a whole land from evil rulers and time itself? Great. A portal appeared next to the stage. “Are you ready to go now? Simply step through the portal and then you will be in the Afterthen.”
Alexis stepped through the portal before she had time to think better of it.
Chapter 3 – The Beach of Shoes
The first thing she saw in the Afterthen was a beach covered in shoes. Something in the sand was pulling her shoes off, and she felt a strange urge to be barefoot. But she resisted. She liked her shoes. Besides, there was no point in going into a dangerous land without shoes on her feet. Once she pulled away, the sand moved in another direction. Since she had nowhere else to go, she followed the wave of wet sand. As she walked further and further down the beach, she saw a figure moving in place. Closer now. It was a girl. Her eyes were wide with fear and she was running or at least was trying to. Her body repeated the same motions again and again, but didn’t move forward or backward.
Alexis inspected her closely. The air around her was purplish and moved around slowly, like fog. Alexis stuck her hand in the fog. It suddenly moved very slowly, but she was able to grab the girl’s hand and pull her out so she collapsed, breathless, on the ground.
“Who are you?” Alexis asked.
“I’m Hailee. Sunflower sent me to the Afterthen on a quest to save it, but I got stuck in this time warp.”
“I didn’t know anyone from Sunflower who has been sent to the Afterthen.” Alexis said. But maybe…
“I heard a girl fifty years ago got sent to another place in her second stage and never came back. Maybe that’s what’ll happen to you once you get to your second stage,” her brother had once joked to her.
“Hailee. Listen, I think you are from fifty years ago.”
“That’s possible.” Hailee said.
“Do you know anything about the Afterthen?”
“Well, I don’t know a lot, but this is what I do know. A long time ago, Sunflower was part of the Afterthen. Sunflower, which hasn’t changed much since then, acted as a safe refuge to lost travelers and anyone who happened to be in the extension of the time warp, really. Now, the leaders of the Afterthen didn’t like this, because they want as much time as they need while the rest of the land gets nothing. So they stole the time from Sunflower. They threatened to fast forward everyone in the town to their deaths if Sunflower did not break away. Sunflower, of course, agreed, so a powerful magician turned the town into an island and sent it away, and, well, that’s how we ended up where we are.”
“Wow. I caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…” Alexis began, but then gasped as if the air was sucked out of her when really it was the time and felt herself slipping into a time warp.
“GO! RUN! QUICKLY!” Hailee screamed.
They ran as fast as they could during the breaks in the time warp, but had to go slowly during the moments that it was in effect. Now, you will be noticing this more and more in the story, so let me explain what is actually happening to these girls. You see, the time was moving from the area where they were to some other poor place where everyone would find themselves with too much time. It would pile up all around the people, and when they hit the piles time would slow down or speed up. People would be constantly teleporting from time period to time period, but I’m getting off topic. I think I know this story too well.
Moving on. With no other place to go, Alexis and Hailee dove into the ocean. Then the surface disappeared, and suddenly Alexis was drowning, but what did she feel beneath her feet, that grainy substance. Sand.
“What just happened?” Alexis panted.
“Well, that was the Ocean of Time. It just tried to rob us. We’re out now though, but we better get out fast, because it’s sure to be furious at us.”
“But why would it try to rob us?” Alexis was forced to scream this because the tide was loud and angry.
“Because the Afterthen used time frivolously and wasted it all somehow. However, that was a long, long time ago. These days, they rob it from whoever is around.” The ocean started pulling at Alexis’ feet and she felt so relaxed like she had all the time in the world. Some part of her knew this was bad, but the ocean seemed so kind and welcoming. She snapped out of her trance soon enough, though, most likely because Hailee pulled her away, and the world around them morphed into a field of flowers and field mice.
“This is the Field of Mice,” Hailee observed from a small leather notebook she took out of her frilly skirt pocket.
Chapter 4 – Eye of the Hurricane
Alexis raised her eyebrows at the name. Hailee gave her a look.
“The people in the Afterthen are too busy wasting time to be creative about names. Besides, it’s not like it matters, as long as we will be relatively safe here, which we will be,” she reminded Alexis. Alexis had to agree. They kept walking.
After a few hours, they became hungry and tired so they stopped for a break. Alexis crafted bowls and cups out of earth. Hailee snapped her fingers, and suddenly rain came pouring down, filling the dishes with cold, clean water.
“Impressive,” Alexis remarked.
“Yeah, I can control the weather,” Hailee said with a proud look on her face that she was having a terrible time hiding. Alexis dumped the water out of the bowls and grabbed Hailee’s hand.
“Come on,” she said, grinning, “I know some edible flowers that make a delicious salad.” The girls hunted for daylilies for about half an hour. When they came back, their hands and pockets were stuffed with enough petals to give each girl several helpings of salad (not to mention what they had eaten while walking). They filled their bowls with pale pink and yellow blossoms and had a good meal, leaving them refreshed and ready to continue the journey ahead of them. Alexis buried the dishes, so no one would know the girls had been there.
The Field of Mice went on for what seemed like forever. When the sun began to set, the pair slept under the stars, the soft grass and daisies cushioning them, the traces of the daylilies still in their mouths.
They slept until 11:00 the next morning, and they were still so tired they would have slept for longer, but Alexis spotted the end of the Field of Mice a mile away. Normally, this would be hard to notice since it was so far, but as you know, this field is very colorful and very green, and what came after it looked black and burnt, so the contrast made it easy to see. She tapped Hailee’s shoulder to wake her up.
“I guess we’ve reached the end of the Field of Mice,” Hailee said.
“Do you know what that black place is?” Alexis asked.
“No, not yet.”
“What do you mean, not yet?”
“Here, I’ll show you,” Hailee responded, taking the rough leather notebook out of her pocket again. “This is how the notebook works. It is an enchanted item that Sunflower handed out to visitors before they left the Afterthen. They gave me one before my quest. I imagine they’re all gone now, after fifty years. Anyway. Basically, when I am in a certain place in the Afterthen, the notebook will show me the name of where I am, along with a short description and the appropriate warnings for wherever I am. So I can’t see what that place is until we are actually there.”
“Useful. But we should keep moving,” Alexis observed.
And that is what they did. Hailee put the notebook back into her skirt pocket, which was so frilly and poofy that no one would notice if you put an elephant into it. That mile was a boring mile, well, as boring as something could be when there was so much dread in the air. Because of this dread, Alexis was looking for something to distract her. Her wandering eyes stopped on Hailee’s bare feet.
“Was the reason you got stuck in the time warp the fact that you have no shoes?” Alexis asked. “After all, I didn’t get stuck in one, and I have shoes.”
“Well, it was probably just luck,” Hailee contradicted her. “Time in the Afterthen is random. You can’t expect it to have any kind of rhyme or reason. On the other hand, you might be partly right. People who fall for tricks are more likely to end up in dilemmas.”
“So?” Alexis said skeptically, not getting the point.
“So, it’s partly my bad luck and partly my idiocy.”
The girls kept walking, forgetting the strange conversation in their dread. As they drew closer to the black place, the flowers became less common and the grass thinned out, until they were on a near-scorched field.
You may have guessed by now. They had reached the black place.
Chapter 5 – STAY AWAY
Hailee opened her notebook, but it was empty. She gasped. However, in a few seconds, words slowly appeared across the page. They were large and hastily written, as if scrawled by someone in a hurry. It wasn’t difficult to read though. Alexis could clearly see the message:
“This isn’t a good sign,” Hailee whispered in her shock. A shady figure stepped out from behind a cliff. He wore old timey detective clothes and was evidently from a time portal somewhere nearby. He took a small dagger from his pocket. And threw it directly at Alexis.
. . .
Luckily, Alexis blocked it with a wall of sparkling emeralds.
“You’ve got taste,” Hailee observed.
Alexis viewed her work with satisfaction. She peeked out. She noticed that the man was gone. She also noticed that instead of one dagger stuck in the wall of emeralds, there were at least a dozen. Whoever that man was, he was someone to watch out for. Despite the safety of expensive and glittery shields.
They stayed cautious as they walked through the almost never ending black place. They didn’t encounter many dangers, which was suspicious. It didn’t last forever, though. Within a few hours, they spotted an army of redcoats marching towards them, wielding muskets and bayonets. Eventually the tense march turned into an all-out battle, with Alexis tossing men into the air and Hailee striking down entire regiments with lightning bolts. More kept appearing. It was an impossible fight.
The girls ducked into an alley. They had a minute or so before there was the sound of footsteps behind them. But not thousands of footsteps. Just one person. It was a medieval knight. Then suddenly it transformed into a boy. His eyes constantly changed color and his clothes seemed to change styles every second.
“My name is Jack. I can get you out of here.” The boy promptly transformed into a redcoat.
“How did you do that?” Alexis asked suspiciously.
“There isn’t time to explain. Now, come on. You’ll have no trouble at all getting through them now.” With that, Jack tapped both of the girls and transformed them into soldiers. They would have protested, but an officer’s fancy shoes were heading toward the alley.
They blended in easily with the redcoats. Eventually, the army turned and started heading back in the direction of the Field of Mice. Alexis assumed that they were continuing the patrol. The trio broke off from patrol and transformed back into themselves again.
“I’ve been traveling around the Afterthen since I was little. I’ve never gotten this far. How did you do it?” Jack said.
“I guess we just got lucky,” Hailee said, shrugging.
“What’s that in the distance?” Alexis asked.
There was a field similar to the Field of Mice. It had no time portals and looked safe. Except for one thing. There was a golden palace, guarded by tiny camo dots.
“The palace of the rulers. Once you get inside, they’re quite vulnerable. And we can deal with the guards.”
Alexis simply could not believe it. She was nearing the end of her quest. All they needed to do was get past the guards and lock the rulers in some remote dungeon. Everything suddenly came together. The rulers used time wrong. If they were stripped of their power the armies from history would disappear. Perhaps one of the Sunflower rulers could take the throne.
Despite the excitement, the journey took weeks of hard traveling. They ate dried petals that were leftover from before the black place. Eventually though, they reached the golden palace – and its army.
Chapter 6 – The False Victory
Jack had been right, the camo troops were easy to fight. They weren’t endless, like the redcoats. They easily broke into the palace. The halls were lined with paintings of the various “attractions” of the nearby areas. Gold suits of armor made loud noises as they walked past.
The palace seemed endless. Alexis’s feet ached terribly from the long journey they were so close to finishing. Hailee, who was barefoot, had to walk on the fancy red carpet to keep her feet from unbearable pain. After half an hour, a set of double doors labeled “THRONE ROOM” came into sight. They were so close!!!
. . .
Ten minutes later they opened the door. The rulers were eating lunch at a table to the left of the three intricately carved thrones. They didn’t notice the trio.
Alexis readied chains of hard earth. Hailee had a lightning bolt in each hand. They were about to throw them when suddenly they were blasted into the air.
Alexis couldn’t move. Couldn’t move at all. An endless void opened up beneath her. Couldn’t hear much either, except for a laugh. She searched desperately for the source of the laugh. She knew whoever laughed had thwarted their plans somehow, and stopped two powerful enchanters. Then she found the face. Jack’s.
“You really thought you could stop us?” Jack asked in that same tone he had used before the redcoats. “The rulers were notified by that detective that you were trying to stop us. He never misses anything. They sent me to stop you two from ruining our time warp here. Since I have proven satisfactory, I will become the new ruler of the Afterthen. And you? Well, you had better enjoy living in the void.”