Status: This is an ongoing story! I will be posting chapters as I finish them. I hope you like the story and have as much fun reading it as I did/do writing it.

Once Upon a Time

Chapter Four

The only thing the little girl with the red cape remembered was running. The first time she ran so far she ended up outside her story. She wandered through rows and rows of massive storybooks, much like her own, when she came across a wizened old worm sitting on a tree. At least, that’s what she called him. There was no telling exactly what creature he truly was. His fleshy body went on for miles, and his spindly legs were reminiscent of a spider or an ant. The top of his body was covered in what looked like spiky dragon scales as dark as night, and the bottom half had smooth scales as white as the moon.
The girl stopped dead in her tracks, frozen to the spot in fear of the worm. He slowly uncoiled himself from his perch on the lowest branch. The worm towered over her, his height so immense she found she had to step a few feet away so she could see him properly. Despite being terrifyingly huge, he wore a rather silly looking top hat, a pair of spectacles perched precariously on the tip of his button nose.
The worm drew himself closer to the little girl, looking her up and down. His deep voice echoed through the Library. “Seems you’ve run away from your story, my child.” She nodded, eyes brimming with tears. The worm thought for a moment, stroking his chin with one of his many legs.
He then came to a decision. Evidently, another story just like hers had just been written, and had yet to find its characters. He told her that this was now her story, and to fulfill the role to the best of her ability. “If ever you should find yourself in a similar bind as this, you need only ask.”
And so, that was her life. For a time. It was only after a season of readings when they found her. Again, they took her grandmother, and again, she ran. She began to lose track of how many times this had happened, until one day the attacks stopped. Eighteen moons of running, and suddenly she could rest. She never knew what they wanted or why, but she knew that whatever it was, she couldn’t afford to give it to them. Whatever the cost.
Red stumbled back to her cottage, knees weak from running. She collapsed onto her bed. She stared up at her ceiling. What did that man want? Why was he in her story? And who was he talking to? Her head swam with questions. Red crossed to the cupboard, but found she had no appetite. Then, something caught her eye.
Red turned to her closet, opening the door. The deep red cloak she had seen in her dreams-it was real. Her mouth turned sour. If that dream was real…She shook her head, knotting her hands in her hair in frustration. Red stretched out a hand and touched the fabric of her cloak. It seemed like it was-alive somehow.
As she traced her fingers down the deep red-and somehow warm-plains of her hood, Red could have sworn she felt a heartbeat. But that’s impossible, she thought. It’s just a cloak, it can’t be.. She pulled her hand away, and the warmth she had felt was replaced by a sudden chill, one that filled her heart and lungs with regret. “What are you?” She murmured. Her thoughts were interrupted as the early reading hours of her story began to peek through. She quickly changed into the proper attire for the day, and prepared herself for her story.
No matter what she did, the nightmares kept coming. She had suppressed her past successfully for so long now, but it seemed it would never truly go away. Red was able to go through her readings, sure, but as soon as the last word was read, the inky black tendrils of her history would find its way into her heart, never letting her forget again.
Red decided long ago that this was something that no one should ever find out about her. She didn’t fully know who she could trust, and so she kept quiet and dealt with it herself. She told Robin and Alice only half the story- enough for them to know that this story she lived was not exactly her own-but never the whole truth. Running from these mysterious masked men for most of her life had led her to believe that no one was to be trusted completely with herself. And yet, knowing this..she still wanted to talk. It wasn’t easy, keeping all that baggage to herself, but she convinced herself that that was the only way for her to be safe.
And so in light of these memories resurfacing, she kept her silence. This was how it went for many days and nights. Red would go to Writer’s Block, drink away her hidden sorrows, and awaken the next day for another reading. She lost count of how many drinks she’d had-perhaps too many for her slight frame-but it was a worthy distraction. She even began to enjoy listening to Robin Hood’s fanatical stories of the times he’d saved his dear Marion, no matter how many times he’d told the same story.
One night, however, things were different. Alice had begun to come to the bar looking for her, wanting to talk about the File Thirteen people. Red, in a drunken state every time, just shrugged her friend off, and continued to down her pint of beer.
“Red, please, I’m really worried about White Rabbit. He could be in grave danger!”
“Al, honestly, don’t you think I know that?” Red replied, the room beginning to tilt. Her brow creased, and she took another gulp of liquor to hopefully stop the spinning.
“But Red, File Thirteen-”
“-are probably long gone. Seriously Al, just sit down n’ have a drink. Everything will be fine!”
When she went to grab her glass, it took her a moment to realize that someone had taken it. It took her even less time to roll her eyes at the familiar face who snagged it. “Robiiiin.” she whined, contorting her face in what she thought was a convincing enough pout. Robin simply smiled. “Don’t you think you’ve had quite enough, Miss Hood?” Red’s response was to kick him as hard as she could (didn’t even leave a bruise, to be honest) in the shins. Robin sighed and placed her drink behind the bar. “Alright miss, time for you to go back home.”
What followed next was perhaps the longest five minute drunken shamble to Red’s home that Robin had ever experienced. He usually enjoyed spending evenings with Red drunk off their asses, but this night was different. For one, he was the sober one this time, and for another, he could tell in the way Red drank tonight with reckless abandon that something was amiss.
Once he had managed to get her home, he got her a glass of water and sat her by the hearth. Robin pulled up a chair in front of Red, and looked into her eyes. He studied her for so long, Red began to giggle. “What's matter Hood, never seen me drunk before?” He smiled. “At this point in our wonderful friendship I can safely say that is not the case, Hood,” he said. “However, I couldn’t help but notice a difference in your drinking tonight.”
Red sipped her water, looking over the top of the rim at him. When she finished, she spoke. “And what’s the difference, Hood?”
It was a moment’s pause before Robin replied. “Usually, when someone begins and ends their evening downing drinks like they are only water, it means that they’ve had a rough time of it recently.” He leaned forward a little closer, looking Red right in the eyes. “Did something happen, Red?”
She looked away, her eyes scouring the floor for an escape. Finding none, her gaze rested somewhere far away at something neither of them could see.
“Someone was in my story one night..” she muttered. It was so quiet Robin almost had to ask her to repeat herself.
She then told him about that night. Red told him that she hadn’t slept well that night and went to take a walk when she happened upon the man in the forest. She told him about the weapons he possessed and what he’d said to her just before she got away. When she finished, Robin had only one question. “What woke you?” Her brilliant blue eyes went dull, clouded over with an emotion Robin couldn’t place. “It was nothing,” she said, “Just a nightmare.”

“And so she went on her merry way to her grandmother’s house, gift basket in tow. Upon reaching the door, she knocked thrice.”
Red went to the door, following her story to the letter. She knocked three times, fully knowing the next scene by heart. She opened the door, and spoke her next lines. “Oh dear, I do hope Grandmother hasn’t been waiting too long for my arrival!” Red set her basket down on a nearby chair and drew back the curtains on the window. The light streamed down, illuminating the bed. Red turned towards it and was about to speak her next lines, when she noticed something was off. “There lay her grandmother with her cap pulled far over her face, and looking very strange.”
“What an astute observation, Watson.” Red muttered, looking at the bed before her. It wasn’t for the fact that something strange was in her grandmother’s bed. Rather, it was what she didn’t find in the bed that caused her some alarm. Her dear friend the wolf wasn’t there. A lump began to grow in her stomach, dread pinning her in place.
“And scarcely had the wolf said this than with one bound he was out of bed and had swallowed Red Riding Hood whole.” The story carried on without her, and Red could do nothing. She couldn’t do anything without her wolf.
She stayed glued to the spot, muscles tense with growing anxiety.
“Red Riding Hood, safely out of the wolf’s stomach, joyously went on her way back home, and no one ever harmed her again.”
As soon as the last line was read, she sprung into action. She turned every piece of furniture in the cottage, looked under every surface for any clues the wolf left behind. Not finding anything, she flung open the backdoor to the cottage, and what she saw outside chilled her bones.

The wolf had been taken. Right at that very moment, a black van was parked some meters away, and several men in black soldier’s garb had wrestled a muzzle and cuffs to her wolf. He let out a vicious growl before being thrust into the back of the van with a resounding thud. Before he could lung at the men, they slammed the doors shut.
Red hadn’t moved this whole time, frozen with fear. They came for my story. she thought. The fear gave way to a sudden and palpable wave of red, and she raced after the van. She followed them through the forest, back down the trail to the very edge of her story. She shouted at them to try and get their attention, and getting no reply decided to throw her hunting knife at one of the back tires. One of the men opened the back door. Red had scarcely seen his weapon before he’d fired. Suddenly, her vision went blurry, and she looked down to see an inky black arrow jutting out of her side.
She stumbled through the trees to the end of her story, and had just made it out before her knees began to wobble. She collapsed to her hands and knees, her heart beginning to beat sluggishly. She crawled, to where she couldn’t tell, before her vision had given way to a shadowy veil.
“What the hell happened to her? She wasn’t supposed to get hurt!”
“You had explicit instructions to deliver her.”
“Yeah, and I was working on it.”
“You’ve been 'working on it' for too long. Boss wants her now.”
“Alright, fine. Tell him-”
“That you’re working on it?”
“Yeah-look I’ll get him the girl, I swear. I have a plan.”
“Your plan clearly needs to be worked on.”
“I’m never going to hear the end of this am I.”
“Get the girl. Don’t want the boss angry. Again.”
“Yeah yeah I got it.”

Red’s eyes slowly opened, and quickly slammed shut to the morning sun shining right at her. She tried to prop herself up, only to lay back as a blinding pain flashed through her.
“Whoa there, Miss Hood. Just take it easy.” A familiar voice came floating to her. She tried to look through the shadows that still covered most of her vision, but to no avail. “Where-am I?” she said, her voice sounding like that of a lion’s roar. “What happened?” she whispered.
Robin reached over to the bedside table and handed her a glass of water. Red sat up to take it when she was overcome with a pain that flashed through her side. She grunted, taking a long sip from the glass. She looked at Robin, still waiting for a response to her questions. He looked back blankly.
“I’ll be honest, I haven't the foggiest idea how to answer the first question..” He trailed off, stroking his short well kept goatee absently. “As for the where, you’re at my house.”
Red’s ears began to burn. Though she and Robin had been friends for many years, this was perhaps the first time she had ever been in his story, much less his home. Her eyes scanned the floorboards as she thought of what to say next. “Thank you,” she stammered. He looked at her, surprise filling his features. Red rolled her eyes at his expression. “I know I don’t ever say stuff like that, I just-no one’s ever helped me before.”
Robin took the glass from Red, placing it back on the table beside her. “Perhaps that’s because you’ve never asked for it.”
Silence filled the room for a moment. After a while, Red found she couldn’t shake her curiosity. “Robin, what’s going on?” His only response was to slouch in his chair, toying with the hem of his tunic. She sat up, fighting a wave of nausea that threatened to swallow her. “What’s happened?”
Robin then sighed, and ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair. “I found you outside my story one day in tears, blabbering on about something that had gone down in your story. I tried to get you to slow down, but you just kept repeating the same thing. ‘They’re here, they came for my story and they took him.’”
The room went still. Red’s memories from last night began to surface, and as they did her eyes stung with unshed tears. She remembered being chased by a mysterious man, what he said and did to her story, and leading him to her wolf before escaping. She remembered the last thing he’d said to her before she got away, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” she muttered.
Finally, she remembered her reading being interrupted by the wolf’s capture. She remembered she was shot, and then darkness. Upon remembering the shot, she looked down at her side to survey the damage. She pulled back the bandages, and gasped. Under the gauze her skin had become grey, the hole where the bullet pierced her skin an inky abyss. The veins surrounding the wound had blackened like tar, like someone had set fire to a forest and what remained was just ash. The grey--stuff--had spread so far that her chest had begun to change.
Red looked at Robin, her own fearful look reflected in him. Something didn’t seem right to Red. Granted, being shot by a weird weapon was already pretty ‘not right’, but the spread of the infection was huge.
“How long have I been out?” Red asked, her voice a mere whisper.
“Red, I-”
“How. Long.” Red repeated, her voice close to a shout.
Robin sat back, passing a hand over his face. “Two weeks, three days, twelve hours, and..” he glanced at his pocket watch. “..about forty minutes.”
Red gave him a tired glare. “You could have just said two weeks, mate, that would’ve been fine.” Robin muttered an apology, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
The amount of time spent unconscious shocked Red. A lot can happen in two weeks, she realized, a lot of bad things. She tossed the covers aside, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. Almost as soon as she did this, the room began to swing. She waited until the world righted itself before cautiously rising, despite any protests from Robin.
She left the story, Robin trailing behind, and crossed over to Alice’s book. Upon entering, she went through the forest of whispering willows, past the pond of pompous prawns, and right up to Alice’s home. She knocked politely, and the door opened on its own. Red crept forward suspiciously. It took her a moment to realize that Alice’s home was no longer upside down as it had been their last visit. On the contrary, it was quite upright--and library-ish. Looking around, Red saw floor to ceiling shelves of books of quite literally all sizes. Some books were as tiny as a teacup, needing a magnifying glass to read the pages. Others were as massive as a mountain, requiring quite a bit of mountaineering skill in order to peruse the pages. The longer she looked, the more she found that some of the books were flying around. The gentle hum of pages flapping rapidly to random locations filled the air.
“Well hello friends!” a cheery voice mumbled through the ebony foliage. The source was of course, Alice, who had migrated over to someplace nearby the fireplace. She was holding a book about the size of her entire body, scanning the pages. Red had just noticed there was something odd about the book, when it hit her that it was upside down.
Alice huffed, closing the book only to open another a few paces away. As she read, more books flew over to her, hovering within reach. “Not quite what I wanted ...Ooh, close but no Cheshire...well I don’t see how that’s overly helpful.”
Red coughed, startling Alice. “Oh my, I’m terribly sorry! I’ve just been doing a bit of light reading..”
Red cleared a space on a nearby ottoman and sat. “Y’know, when most people say ‘light’ reading, they usually have, like, three books. Somehow--and I don’t mean to insult--this doesn’t seem to qualify.”
Alice gave no response other than to mutter something and continue reading. Red cleared her throat again, speaking over the humming of the books. “What have you been up to lately, Al?”

Alice attempted to respond but, finding herself knee deep in books and, finally hearing just how loud more than four dozen books granted the gift of flight were, lifted a finger to her lips to silence them. The books then went back to their places on the massive shelves, and all was blissfully quiet. It was then that Alice responded. “You remember what we found at the White Rabbit’s home that one day? Well, I’ve been attempting to do some research of my own, looking for anything on this ‘File Thirteen’ business.” She crossed to her desk, snatching up the small stack of books. “I found nothing on the name, and then I looked for their...slogan, I guess you could say? Anyway, I found something.” She grabbed a small, thick book about the size of her hand. Made of a dark, worn leather, it looked insignificant amongst all the rest on the shelves. Alice opened it, flipping to a specific page. Once she found it, she brandished it at Red, who took it gingerly. The book looked so old that Red was afraid to so much as sneeze around it for fear of it disintegrating.
The page Alice had flipped to was the beginning of a story. Robin read over Red’s shoulder.
“Long ago, there were only stories. These stories were written by a people gifted with the power of creation. Anything they wrote was as real as you or I, and so long as these creations were fully invented and had their own person, they could live their own lives outside their stories. Of course, each story had to be read by someone, and so humanity was created for this purpose. Each day, all the stories had something called a reading, in which the characters had to be the specific person they were written as. A little girl who was mischievous outside her story had to become the well behaved daughter of a king in her own story for as long as the person read their story.
“Time passed, and Writers never ceased creating. Thousands of stories, millions of characters, and many plots were developed. Humanity loved the stories, sometimes reading them many times over. One day, a young man came along who had just been given Writer status. He was a son of many generations of Writers, everyone in his family had been famous Writers, having Written the best worlds known to man at the time.
“Having been given his first pen, he was told to begin writing. Any story would do, his family said, just make it a good one. And so, he put his pen to the page and began his first story. He too, had great success from his first story, and rode the high that such success gave him. Several stories later, and something went wrong. Halfway through his story, he found he couldn’t come up with anything. You see, he committed a grave error when creating this story, a great lapse in his judgement. He didn’t have a plan. Somehow, for this story he had believed he could come up with a story as he went, which was fine so long as he went back and tuned things. For whatever reason, the ideas no longer flowed from his brain. He had become afflicted with a terrible curse, one that every Writer feared.
“He grew frantic, trying to come up with a solution. He wanted to talk to another Writer, but he couldn’t trust that they wouldn’t tell his family and ultimately ruin his own chances as a Writer. Days went by and he could not create. Weeks then passed, then a whole month had gone by and still no end in sight for his curse.
“It was then he devised a plan. If he couldn’t come up with his own story, then he thought perhaps he could take a couple of unrealized ideas from others and change them. He went to work, stealing other’s half baked ideas and making them his own, making sure no one would notice. A couple of plot points here, two or three protagonists there. His story finally began to make sense. It wasn’t long before the other Writer’s noticed, however. He had failed to realize that he needed to give the other Writers credit for their creations, and that not doing so was forbidden. You see, he had taken ideas from a place not many know of, an abyss of sorts where Writers would stow their half-creations for perhaps a later use.
“Almost as soon as the others found out his deeds, his story had begun to change. It is common knowledge that, if left alone and untampered for too long, ideas will begin to corrupt. If a character hasn’t been fully realized, the flaws they already have will worsen, twisting them into a terrible monstrosity. The young Writer had done just this, left his first original ideas to rot and fester. When the other Writers had confronted him in his home, he denied all their accusations. He showed them his story, tried proving to them that he wasn’t stealing. The other Writers would have none of it. Filled with anger, the young man turned to finish his story.
“However his story was so corrupted he found that all the pages had been filled with nonsense. Dialogue didn’t make sense, his characters no longer resembled their previous forms. Horrified, he began to destroy his piece. He spent hours trying to come up with a new idea, but found that his curse had an iron grip on his mind. The other Writers turned on him, blaspheming his abilities and cursing his family. This made the young man so angry he went dead quiet. It was then he devised a plan. If he couldn’t make his own story, he would simply corrupt others.
“And so he stole a few vials of the ink that make being a Writer possible, and he wrote himself into his own story. As he did so, his body began to fade. When he had fully described himself, he vanished completely from the Writer’s guild. He went to each story and kidnapped characters, changing them for his purposes with the ink he possessed. He did this to every story, until chaos began to reign upon all that had been created. He promised a story where each character could create their own narrative. There was no script, no single choice to be made.
“It remains unclear whether or not the promises he made were ever fulfilled, as none of the characters that went with him have ever been seen since.”
Robin, Red, and Alice each exchanged a look. Alice nodded as they reached the last page. “It seems that whoever this Writer was is still out there.” she said, stroking a strand of her blonde hair absently.
Red sighed, deep in thought. “And whatever he has planned for us...I’m not so sure we can stop it.”