It was dark. Calm. There were trees all around and lines of brush ringed the edge of the clearing. Pinpricks of light from faraway stars, planets, and galaxies dotted the sky. A full moon rose ever-so quiet over the wood, lighting for Allura a path to the berries.
Sunshine berries picked under moonlight tasted the sweetest. She didn’t have a basket, only her skirt to hold them as she picked more and more. She hummed a happy tune, an old childhood rhyme she knew by heart, even when in the distance she could hear the soft howls and the gentle song of forest life around her.
The sounds calmed her, even the far-off howling of an unknown beast. Picking berries at night was dangerous, especially alone. She knew. Allura was forbidden to leave the castle at night, even with a circle of castle Guard to protect her, but feeling extra brave this evening, Allura stole away to the clearing anyhow.
It was an easy thing to do, much to her surprise. The castle and its perimeter were quiet, save for the usual sounds of the night. Running through the castle gates, hiding in shadow and pressing flat against stone walls to better hide herself, Allura saw not hide or hair of any guard. It was her lucky night. She slipped away undetected.
However, as she stood in a clearing some miles away with a dress full of berries, Allura considered the fury of her father if he found she had left the castle in the middle of the night. He would no doubt be livid, grounding her to only her studies for weeks, and after she got an earful from him, Nanny would spank her for sure. Allura cringed with embarrassment. She was fifteen years old, but her nanny didn’t care.
“A child is never to old to spank,” Nanny told her one day after a swift paddling. Allura had been talking back again, telling her father no and how it wasn’t fair that she couldn’t take piloting lessons like some of the other noble children. The paddle Nanny used always stung, probably worse than anything else in all of Arus. “Do well to avoid upsetting your father in the future and you won’t have to worry about it, Princess.”
That big wooden paddle was waiting for her back at the castle.
“I’d better go” Allura told herself. One hand held up her skirt while the other reached inside. She grabbed one of many little red berries, set it on her tongue and chewed. It tasted like sunshine, just like the name suggested, even in the dead of night. The thought of it made her smile. Sunshine in the darkness. It tasted amazing.
Turning in the direction of the castle, Allura heard a sound just beyond the trees. A soft rustling of grass and brush, then a small whimper. Allura stopped. Something was hurt. She went to investigate.
The moon continued its journey across the sky and over the clearing, just bright enough cast shadow around a single, fur-covered creature no bigger than Allura’s hand. It reminded her of her mice friends back at the castle when it limped from between the trees. Its eyes were wide, darting back and forth, and it chittered nervously when it moved closer. Upon seeing Allura, it howled so loud Allura had to cover her ears. Blood dripped from its fur onto the grass.
“Oh no!” Allura cried. She dropped hold of her dress, the berries scattering around her feet, as she ran to it, scooping it up into her arms. Allura looked around, afraid. What had gotten to the little thing, was it still out there, and could she save it in time? “I’ll take you back to the castle. It will be all right,” she said to reassure both the little mouse-like creature trembling in her hands and herself, “Maybe Coran can help. You’ll be better in no time, poor little thing. We’ll be safe.”
The animal twisted in her hands, howling again. Night birds scattered overhead, calling back with annoyance.
“Please hold still,” Allura told it. She pet the matted fur. “I can’t carry you if you keep squirming.” She looked down at her dress. It was covered in blood. Lots of blood. The animal was dying, but if it wouldn’t hold still, she couldn’t help it. “Please, stop! We need to get back!”
The bite came quickly, between her thumb and forefinger, and Allura cried out. The blood stained creature fell to the ground and limped back to the brush, cowering under a mess of leaves and twigs, staring at Allura with wide blue eyes.
Allura sighed. She didn’t blame it. It was probably frightened, and to be held by one so much bigger than itself, it must have terrified the poor thing. Of course it would bite, even if all she wanted to do was save the little thing’s life. Allura sucked the wound on her hand, turning for the castle once more.
When she took a step the moon dimmed. A wind began to blow, stirring up her skirts, the berries at her feet, her fear. Allura kept her eyes on the path.
“Hello, my dear child.”
The voice came from all around, riding the wind like a crack of thunder, and Allura froze. “Father?” she asked. He had found out. Nanny was probably waiting with the paddle ready. “Father, is that you? I can explain.”
“Father?” the voice mused. The wind spun her around, lifted her hair in curtain of gold. Disoriented, she shook it away and stared deep into the woods. A tall shadow stood silhouetted against the trees. Leaves and grass and she moved in the wind, but the shadow was unwavering. It made Allura even more afraid. “Maybe, but come closer. I want to have a better look at you.”
The wind guided her, moving her feet, and Allura found herself taking small steps across the clearing, crushing berries under her heel. The moon dimmed further. All she could see was shadow. All she could hear was the voice. Rumbling, abysmal, it was a voice even deeper than her father’s. Whoever it was, Allura realized, he was not her father. Her body went cold. Her muscles tensed to flee. “Who’s there?”
“Closer,” was all the voice said, and Allura found herself taking even bigger steps when the wind beckoned her further. At the edge of the clearing the shadow loomed over her, taller than the trees. Taller than the mountains. Bigger and wider than anything she had ever before seen. Allura feared it would steal the light of the moon completely.
“No,” she said, even though her feet continued to move. “Who are you?”
The shadow stepped forward, and what was left of the moonlight cascaded down a terrifying visage. She had seen it only once before, but once was all Allura needed to remember it forever.
“I am your king.”
She craned her neck slowly, eyes moving little by little as she forced herself to stare into a pair glittering, gold eyes. She trembled in the clearing, and they narrowed on her. Wuiet as a mouse, Allura sucked in a breath. It was Zarkon, king of the Drule demons everyone in the galaxy loathed. The demon who had tried to bribe her father with gifts of gold, gems and slaves. Gifts her father refused. The king of planet Doom didn’t take too kindly to her father’s refusal, even thousands of light-years away over the comm-link. He was supposed to be far away. Far, far away. Not on Arus.
But for some reason he was on Arus, here in the forest, standing over her with a smile full of fangs. The urge to run away fled into the night with Allura’s courage. Instead, she fell to her knees.
“That’s right,” the demon said. “You were taught well, Princess. Show submission to your king. That’s right.”
He moved with the wind, crouched beside her, and smiled. Allura jerked back, leaning on her hands, wishing she could melt away into the grass and tunnel back to the castle. “I’m sorry, father,” she thought, “Now I know why I shouldn’t ever go out at night alone.”
Zarkon cocked his head to one side, then the other, staring at her with his eyes half-lidded. To Allura’s horror, he looked ravenous. A pointed tongue ran over his lips. He leaned closer. Not able to stand the sight of him any longer, Allura averted her eyes, ams trembling. She feared they would give out under her any second.
“What are you doing all the way out here?” Zarkon asked. His voice was a rough sound scratching low in his throat. Allura swallowed in reflex. “You’re all alone, and in the middle of the night too. Poor thing. You must be terrified.” With a mock sense of concern, Zarkon raised a hand to Allura’s cheek, touching her skin gently with clawed fingers. She panicked, afraid to move, and closed her eyes. The sharpness of his claws dug cruelly into her skin.
Zarkon laughed when her arms finally gave way. She fell on her back, keening with fright.
“Please, let me go. I want to go home,” Allura said. Her voice was hardly a whisper. She wasn’t sure Zarkon even heard. He kept running his claws down her face, smearing the heat of her blood in their wake. “I want to go home,” she said again. “Please, let me go.”
“Do you know what I want to do to you?” Zarkon asked, running his fingers one last time down her cheek before digging them into her shoulder. Allura cried out, snapping her eyes open. All she saw in the dark was the glimmer of wet fangs and golden eyes. “Do you know what the Drule do to humans like you?”
Allura shook her head, but had a vague idea what the answer was. She heard it from the court gossips and in pieces of her father’s war stories. Even her history books glossed over it to a certain extent.
“When humans don’t play nice…”
Allura closed her eyes. She knew. Everyone knew and she was terrified. The Drule, they were all carnivores. Every last one of them.
“…we eat them alive.”
Allura screamed both in fear and in pain when Zarkon squeezed his claws deep into her shoulder. Each finger felt like a knife slicing through her skin. The wound throbbed under his hand. After a moment, the Drule king twisted his wrist with a grunt and pulled back, admiring the wetness glistening on his fingers. It looked almost black under the scant bit of moonlight through the trees.
Allura, too petrified with fear, watched Zarkon lick his fingers clean, his tongue working over each one individually. He stared at her, smiling slowly. “Well human, which part of you should I dine on first? Your fingers? Perhaps your toes?” Zarkon laughed, a hideous sound that made Allura retch in alarm. “Or maybe I should just break off your arm and start from there. I am rather… famished.”
He pulled her upright, one of his large hands around her small neck, and looked her in the eye, breathing over her skin. His nostrils flared with an exceptionally long breath. His eyes, they reminded her of a venomous snake, the ones Coran and Nanny and her father always told her to look out for. The slitted pupils of his eyes dilated when she choked. He squeezed her too hard.
“So, my little human,” Zarkon pulled her closer, inhaling sharply then opening his mouth wide to reveal rows of large fangs. Allura shivered at the sight of them. “Are you going to play nice, or will I have to eat you instead?”
He licked her shoulder, lapping at the blood she spilled from the wound, before she could answer. He didn’t need an answer, Allura guessed. He was king of the demons. King of the Drule. He did whatever it was he wanted, and if what he wanted was to eat her alive, he would do it without any hesitation.
“St-stop,” Allura gasped, finding strength in her arms to attempt at weakly pushing Zarkon’s face away. She heard his laughter, felt the sting of his fangs, then screamed when he ripped her apart.
The sound was horrible. Wet. Sticky. It hurt more than Nanny’s paddling ever could.
“You taste good, Princess,” Zarkon said with a chuckle. “Perhaps too good. I may have to eat you all myself instead of sharing you with my court. A pity,” he pulled again with his teeth, and Allura screamed. The blood running down his chin was horrific, but when she caught sight of the gore hanging in messy strings between his fangs, Allura had the sick feeling she would never go home alive. “But they will never know. They never know.”
Panicked with the the thought of dying, Allura writhed in Zarkon’s grip. Escape. She had to escape or she wasn’t going to live. Allura looked down. The ground was far away, growing even more distant with each breath she took and each time Zarkon swallowed. She was going to die.
“Please, let… me…” A spasm of fear warped her body, and the darkness in the clearing wavered just a little. She never should have intruded on her father’s communication with the King of Doom. She never should have looked at the Drule. He was a nightmare come true.
“Let you, what? Have a taste? Do you wish to see how good you are, Princess? How much you would please any Drule?”
She was a good girl, but she had no desire to open her mouth and taste the blood Zarkon smeared over her lips. His fingers pushed, probed her skin. She just wanted to die, but all she could do was quake whenever he laughed.
“That’s right, child. Yield to your king.” He parted her lips with his fingers, jamming a blood-tipped claw inside, and scraped it down her tongue. “Your planet, your people, your father and you, Allura, everything belongs to me. Everything. Remember that.”
“Not true,” she thought, “We will never belong to you.” Eyes clouded with excruciating pain, Allura bit down on the finger in her mouth, attempting to force withdrawal. He didn’t even flinch. Zarkon smiled.
“You will make a fine Queen,” he said, pushing a lock of hair from her eyes. Allura stared, watching blood drip from his mouth, onto her face. His robes were splashed with black and crimson, sticking to his body and to hers. She was bound to him. Maybe he was right. “Either that or you’d make a fine supper. How about another-”
The darkness which blanketed the clearing shattered with a far-off howl, and the full light of the moon returned. Allura’s vision cleared. Zarkon and his shadow were gone, but all around her was his laughter. Out of the corner of her eye, Allura saw the wounded animal scamper off, no longer matted with blood. She was the one left to die. She was the wounded animal. The only thing Allura could think to do was crawl to the bushes.
“After her!” Zarkon shouted, his voice echoing like thunder in the sky. Allura heard the hum of ships in the distance. One by one they blocked the light of the moon once more. “Do not let her get away. I wasn’t finished!”
“Help me,” Allura choked as she crawled under the brush to hide. The ships drew closer, the engines louder until they were a constant hum in her ears. “Someone please… help me.”
Arms circled around her, and Allura screamed.
“Quiet,” a new voice said. “The demons will hear you.”
Allura nodded, catching sight of a man with dark hair cradling her body against his. He wore red. It matched the color of the berries she was picking. “I’ll protect you, Princess. We all will.”
“We will never let you down.”
“Thank you… everyone,” Allura said when fire arced through the forest. Everything came alive in a wash of orange and red, and one by one the strangers disappeared including the man holding her. She was alone. Cold, despite the flame. She was bleeding profusely. The sky was lit now, not with the moon and stars, but with laser shot. The Drule were attacking. Again. She had to warn her father.
“No,” a voice said. In front of her stood another man. Even in the fire he was a tall shadow leaning against a tree, and he had eyes that glittered gold like Zarkon’s.
“I hate you,” the man said. He took a step forward, and Allura cowered before him. He was a snake. They all were. “And I will eat you too.”
He reached out. His hand was on fire.
With a start, Allura sat bold upright in bed, panting, dripping sweat. The moon was in her window, shining bright as it moved over the castle, keeping a constant vigil. Immediately, Allura grabbed her shoulder, touched her cheeks, checked her dress. As far as she could tell, she was in one piece. She was never in the forest and Zarkon was never on Arus. It was all a dream. A horrible, terrifying dream.
However, when she tried to fall back asleep, she couldn’t shake the image of the man at the end, the one with yellow eyes. He had white hair and hated her. He was Drule.
On the verge of sleep, the taste of blood filled her mouth once more.