By Chris Colfer
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The Masked Man has captured all the royal families from the Land of Stories with the help of his army of literature’s greatest villains, including the Wicked Witch of the West, the Queen of Hearts, and Captain Hook. With his sinister plan finally in motion, he is eager to destroy the families and take his place as emperor.
Alex and Conner know they are no match against the Masked Man’s legion of villains, but they realize that they may be in possession of the greatest weapon of all: their own imaginations! So begins the twins’ journey into Conner’s very own stories to gather an army of pirates, cyborgs, superheroes, and mummies as they band together for the ultimate fight against the Masked Man.
Meanwhile, an even more dangerous plan is brewing–one that could change the fates of both the fairy-tale world and the Otherworld forever.
Conner’s tales come alive in the thrilling fifth adventure in the #1 New York Times bestselling Land of Stories series.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of The Land of Stories: A Treasury of Classic Fairy Tales
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"A WRITER IS A WORLD TRAPPED IN A PERSON."
THE FAVORITE STUDENT
Willow Crest Unified School District spared no expense celebrating the retirement of a beloved principal. The community banquet hall was decorated so elegantly, there wasn't a trace of Senior Bingo from the night before. The tables were dressed with lacy tablecloths, floral centerpieces, and battery-operated candles. Each place setting had golden plates and more silverware than the guests knew what to do with.
Teachers, counselors, janitors, lunch ladies, and former students showed up in droves to say good-bye and wish the principal well. The retirement party was one of the classiest gatherings any of them had ever been to. However, as the guest of honor looked around at all the long faces, the occasion seemed more like a funeral than a celebration.
The newly appointed district superintendent tapped his champagne glass with a spoon and the hall became quiet.
"May I have your attention please?" he said into a microphone. "Good evening, everyone, I'm Dr. Brian Mitchell. As you know, we're here to celebrate one of the finest educators Willow Crest Unified School District has ever had the privilege of employing, Mrs. Evelyn Peters."
Her name was followed by a warm round of applause. A bright spotlight hit Mrs. Peters, who was seated at the front of the room beside Dr. Mitchell. She smiled and waved at the guests, but secretly she wished she had never agreed to the gathering. Special attention and compliments from her colleagues always made her uncomfortable, and tonight it was just getting started.
"I've been asked to say a few words about Mrs. Peters, which is very intimidating," Dr. Mitchell said. "It doesn't matter what I say, because rather than taking any praise to heart, I know she'll only be listening to my speech for grammatical errors."
The guests laughed and Mrs. Peters hid a giggle behind her napkin. Anyone who knew her knew it was true.
"It's easy to say someone is good at their job, but I know for a fact that Evelyn Peters is an incredible educator," Dr. Mitchell said. "Nearly three decades ago, long before she became a principal, I was in her first sixth-grade class at Willow Crest Elementary School. Prior to meeting her, my childhood had been very difficult. By the time I turned ten, both my parents were in prison and I was bouncing in and out of foster care. When I stepped into Mrs. Peters's classroom I could barely read. Thanks to her, by the end of the year, I was reading Dickens and Melville."
Many of the guests clapped, making Mrs. Peters blush. Most of them had lived or witnessed similar stories.
"We did not get along at first," Dr. Mitchell said. "She pushed me harder than anyone ever had. She gave me extra homework and made me stay after school and read aloud to her. At one point, I was so tired of the special treatment, I threatened to graffiti her house if it didn't stop. The next day she handed me a can of spray paint and a card with her address and said, 'Whatever you write, just make sure it's spelled correctly.'"
The hall erupted with laughter. The guests looked to Mrs. Peters to confirm the story and she nodded coyly.
"Mrs. Peters taught me much more than just how to read," Dr. Mitchell said, and his voice began to break. "She taught me the importance of compassion and patience. She was the only teacher I felt cared about me as much as my grades. She got me excited to learn and inspired me to become an educator. We're very sad to see her go, but had she applied for superintendent instead of retiring, we all know I would never have been hired."
Mrs. Peters wiped her glasses to distract the guests from the tears forming in her eyes. Had it not been for this reception, she might never have acknowledged to herself all the differences she had made in so many lives.
"Now, please join me in a toast," Dr. Mitchell said, and raised his glass. "To Evelyn Peters, thank you for inspiring and teaching us all. Willow Crest Unified School District won't be the same without you."
Everyone in the hall raised their glasses to toast Mrs. Peters. When they finished, Mrs. Peters took the microphone and raised her glass back at them.
"Now, please allow me to say a few words," she said. "My late husband was also a teacher, and he gave me the best advice one educator could give to another. So, I would like to pass it along to you in case this is my last chance."
Everyone in the hall sat on the edge of their seats, especially the teachers.
"As teachers, we must not guide our students to become the people we wish them to be, but elevate them to become the people they were meant to be. Remember, the encouragement we give our students may be the only encouragement they ever receive, so don't use it sparingly. After twenty-five years of teaching grammar school and my brief administration experience, I can assure you my husband was absolutely right. And since that is the best lesson I can teach you, I'll say for the last time, class dismissed."
The conclusion of her speech was met with a standing ovation. After a few moments of applause Mrs. Peters urged the guests to sit, but it only made them cheer louder for her.
The lights were dimmed and a screen was lowered. Dr. Mitchell and Mrs. Peters took their seats and watched as group photos of Mrs. Peters's classes were projected, starting with her very first sixth-grade class from almost thirty years before. As the slide show commenced, the former students laughed at their eleven-and twelve-year-old selves and the ridiculous hairstyles and clothes they had sported in earlier decades. Especially noted was how little Mrs. Peters had changed over the years. In every picture the educator's hair, glasses, and floral dresses were exactly the same. It was as if Mrs. Peters were frozen in time while the world changed around her.
The slide show made Mrs. Peters more emotional than anything else that night. It was like watching a family album flash before her eyes. She remembered the name of each face she saw. Most of the students she still knew personally or she knew what they had gone on to become, but there were a few she had lost contact with completely. It was a painful feeling to have been so close to a child at one point, then later to feel as if they had disappeared into thin air.
Mrs. Peters's students were the closest thing to children she had ever had. She hoped they were all happy and healthy, wherever they were. If she was no longer a staple of compassion and guidance in their lives, she hoped they had found someone who was.
"Evelyn?" Dr. Mitchell whispered.
Mrs. Peters still found it strange for a former student to address her by her first name—even if he was the superintendent.
"Yes, Dr. Mitchell?" she whispered back.
"Did you ever have a favorite student?" he asked with a grin. "I know we're not supposed to have favorites, but is there one child who stands out to you? Besides me, of course."
Mrs. Peters had never thought about such a thing. She had taught over five hundred students in her career and remembered each for different reasons, but selecting a favorite had never been a priority.
"I definitely enjoyed some more than others, but I could never choose a favorite," she said. "That would require judgment, and I always thought judging a child is like judging an unfinished piece of art. Every child enters a classroom with his or her own set of obstacles to face, whether behavioral or academic. It's a teacher's job to identify those issues and help students overcome them, but never to belittle a student for them."
Dr. Mitchell had never thought of it that way. Even in adulthood, he was still learning a thing or two from Mrs. Peters.
"I may be a superintendent, but I'll always be your student," he said.
"Oh, Dr. Mitchell." Mrs. Peters laughed. "No one ever stops being a student in the classroom of life."
Even though she'd thought not answering was the best answer, Mrs. Peters quickly realized she was mistaken. A picture appeared on the screen of her final sixth-grade class, three years earlier. She scanned the faces of her former students and stopped at a pair of twelve-year-old twins named Alex and Conner Bailey.
Alex's hair was neatly tucked behind a pink headband, and she held a stack of books close to her heart. A large grin filled her face because school was her favorite place in the world. Her brother, on the other hand, was puffy eyed and his mouth hung open. He appeared to have just woken up from a nap and to have had no clue the photo was being taken.
Mrs. Peters laughed because they looked exactly as she remembered them, and the picture reminded her of how much she missed them.
Both of the Bailey twins had unexpectedly transferred schools before Mrs. Peters had a chance to say good-bye. Alex went to live with her grandmother in Vermont halfway through the seventh grade, and then Conner joined her the following year. Even though their mother still lived in town, Mrs. Peters had been assured they were better off with their grandmother.
As far as Mrs. Peters knew, Alex moved away to attend a school for advanced learners. But it was still a mystery as to why Conner had gone to join her.
The year before he moved, Conner had run off during a school trip in Europe with another student, Bree Campbell. The stunt seemed entirely out of character for both students, who had clean records up to that point. Had Conner stayed in Mrs. Peters's school, he would have been punished appropriately, as Bree had been, but Mrs. Peters never thought it warranted a transfer to another school district.
The entire situation was very suspicious and personally upsetting for Mrs. Peters. Conner had just discovered a natural talent for writing and was excelling in school for the first time. Wherever he was now, Mrs. Peters hoped Conner had found someone else to encourage him. To her, there was nothing worse in the world than a student's wasted potential.
The slide show ended and dessert was served in the banquet hall. After a dozen more complimentary speeches from former colleagues and students, the evening finally came to an end.
Mrs. Peters loaded her car with a stack of farewell cards and an armful of bouquets. She was looking forward to a quiet night at home so she could decompress from the long and emotional evening. On her way home, she unintentionally drove past Willow Crest Elementary School. Mrs. Peters slammed on her brakes and parked her car. The school reminded her of one more good-bye she had to make before officially retiring.
Mrs. Peters dug through her large purse to find the key to her old sixth-grade classroom. Luckily the locks hadn't been changed, and she entered room 6B without any trouble. But instead of feeling a wave of nostalgia like she expected, she hardly recognized the dark room.
The current teacher decorated very differently than Mrs. Peters had. The desks were arranged in groups instead of rows. The walls that used to hold shelves of dictionaries and encyclopedias were now lined with computers and tablets. The posters of world-renowned authors and scientists had been replaced with posters of celebrities holding their favorite books—books Mrs. Peters wasn't convinced they had read.
Mrs. Peters felt like an actor stepping onto someone else's stage. She couldn't believe how much a classroom could change in such little time. It was as if she had never taught there at all. The only similarity was the teacher's desk, which was kept in the exact place Mrs. Peters had kept her desk for twenty-five years. The retiree sat in the chair behind it and looked around the classroom bittersweetly.
She hoped the decor wasn't an indication of anything other than the new teacher's taste. She hoped the same morals and values she had taught were still being shared in her absence. She hoped the new technology was enhancing those lessons, and not replacing them with lesser ideology. Most of all, Mrs. Peters hoped the new teacher cared about teaching as much as she did.
Before getting depressed about it, Mrs. Peters reminded herself she would have felt worse if there hadn't been any change. After all, it was thanks to teachers like her that the current generation was progressing so effortlessly into the future.
And just like all the teachers who had come before her, it was time for Mrs. Peters to pass the torch to her successors. She hadn't expected letting go would be so difficult.
"Good-bye, classroom," Mrs. Peters said. "I'll miss the lessons we taught together, but even more, I'll miss the lessons we learned."
Just as she stood from the desk to leave, a sudden gust of wind circled the classroom. Papers blew off the walls and a vortex formed in the center of the room. A bright flash illuminated the dark classroom like a bolt of lightning and Mrs. Peters dived under the desk for safety.
Peeking out from underneath the desk, Mrs. Peters could see two pairs of feet appear out of thin air. One wore tennis shoes and the other a pair of sparkling slippers.
"Well, this looks a lot different from when we were sixth-graders," said the familiar voice of a young man. "Aw man, how come they get computers and we didn't? I would have stayed awake more if we had those."
"Sign of the times," said another familiar voice, that of a young woman. "I'm sure it won't be long before they stop building schools altogether. Every kid will be plugged into a device and taught at home. Can you imagine anything worse?"
"Let's focus on one crisis at a time," the young man said. "You look around the computer desks and I'll look through the file cabinet. My stories have got to be in here somewhere."
The feet split up into different corners of the room. Mrs. Peters knew she had heard those voices many times before, but she couldn't picture the faces they belonged to.
"If they weren't in her old office, what makes you think they'll be in here?" the young woman asked.
"It's the only place we haven't looked," he said. "Teachers are sentimental—maybe she put them in a time capsule or something? I just want to look everywhere before we break into her house."
Mrs. Peters couldn't take the suspense any longer. She slowly got to her feet and peered over the desk. As soon as she identified the newcomers she let out a loud gasp, causing them both to jump.
"Mr. Bailey! Miss Bailey!" she said. The twins had grown so much since the last time Mrs. Peters had seen them, especially Alex. Mrs. Peters couldn't help gawking at the long, beautiful gown she wore. It was the color of the sky and sparkled as she moved, like something out of a fairy tale.
Alex and Conner Bailey were just as stunned to see their former teacher as she was to see them.
"Um… hi, Mrs. Peters!" Alex said with a nervous laugh. "Long time no see!"
"Mrs. Peters?" Conner asked. "What are you doing here so late?"
Mrs. Peters crossed her arms and glared at them over her glasses.
"I was about to ask you the same question," she said. "How did you get inside without a key? Where did all that light and wind come from? Are you in the middle of some sort of prank?"
The twins stared at each other for a moment in silence, but neither knew what to tell her. Without any other ideas, Conner began prancing around the room waving his arms through the air like seaweed.
"Mrs. Peters, this is a dreeeeam!" he sang. "You ate some bad sushi and now you're having a nightmare about your former students! Leave the classroom before we manifest into large school supplies!"
Mrs. Peters scowled at his terrible attempt to fool her, and he quickly dropped his arms to his sides.
"I have a perfectly good grasp over my consciousness, Mr. Bailey," she said. "Now, will one of you explain how you appeared in this classroom or do I need to call the police?"
Explaining the situation to someone in the Otherworld should have been an easy task by now, but as the twins stood across from their former teacher in their former classroom, they felt like they were twelve years old again. Mrs. Peters was impossible to lie to, but she would never believe the truth.
"We would, but it's a really long story," Alex said.
"I have a master's degree in English—I love long stories," Mrs. Peters said.
The retiree's stern expression suddenly faded from her face. She looked back and forth between the twins, almost in disbelief. It was as if she had figured out the truth all on her own and was having difficulty accepting it.
"Wait a second," Mrs. Peters said. "Does this have anything to do with the fairy-tale world?"
The twins' jaws dropped in perfect unison. This was the last thing they expected to come out of her mouth. It was like they were in a film that had suddenly skipped a scene.
"Um… correct," Conner said. "Well, that was easy."
Alex gave Conner a dirty look—certain there was some information he had forgotten to share with her.
"Conner, you told Mrs. Peters about the fairy-tale world?" Alex asked.
"Of course not!" Conner said. "It was probably Mom! She had to explain our transfers somehow!"
When the twins looked back at Mrs. Peters, she was making a face they had never seen her make before. Her eyes were large and glistening and she covered a huge smile with both hands. The retiree looked like an excited little girl.
"Oh my word," Mrs. Peters said. "After all these years, I finally know it was real.… I can't tell you how much time I've spent wondering if it was just a dream or a hallucination, but you've appeared just like she did… and in a dress just like hers.…"
The twins couldn't have been more confused.
"What was real?" Conner asked.
"Who are you talking about?" Alex pressed.
"When I was a very little girl, I was sick in the hospital with pneumonia," she said. "Late one night, while the nurses were busy with the other patients, a kind woman wearing a dress just like yours appeared in my room. She brushed my hair and read me stories through the night to make me feel better. I figured she must have been some sort of angel. When she left, I begged her to tell me who she was. The woman told me she was a Fairy Godmother and lived in the fairy-tale world."
The twins couldn't believe their ears. They had known Mrs. Peters for years but never knew she had any knowledge of the fairy-tale world.
"Whoa, small worlds," Conner said.
"That woman was our grandmother," Alex said. "She and other fairies used to travel to this world and read fairy tales to children in need. Grandma said the stories always gave children hope."
Mrs. Peters had a seat on the desk and held a hand over her heart.
"Well, she was right," she said. "Once I was healthy, I devoured fairy tales for the rest of my childhood. I even became a teacher so I could share the same stories with others."
"No way!" Conner said. "That's why you made us do those reports on fairy tales when we were your students! This is meta!"
"Conner, I hate when you use that word," Alex said.
"I agree with Mr. Bailey—this is meta!" Mrs. Peters laughed. "Words can't describe how grateful I am to finally know the truth. All this time, you weren't living in another state; you were living with your grandmother in the fairy-tale dimension! That explains your abrupt transfers, why your mother was so vague about the details—and I'm assuming it has something to do with Mr. Bailey's abandonment of the school's European trip."
"Guilty," Conner said sheepishly. "I'm not a delinquent after all!"
"And your grandmother, is she still around?" Mrs. Peters asked.
She seemed so happy, the twins didn't want to break the news to her.
"Actually, Grandma passed away a little more than a year ago," Alex said.
"Yeah, just after she slayed a dragon!" Conner bragged. "But that's another long story that will only lead to longer stories—trust me, our future biographer is going to have his hands full—and right now we don't have time to explain! We're actually here for something really important."
"Oh?" Mrs. Peters said.
"Remember when you saved my short stories in a portfolio—for when I started applying to colleges? Do you know where those are?" he asked.
"You don't have your own copies?" Mrs. Peters asked.
"No, they were handwritten," Conner said. "It was painful enough writing the originals—my hand couldn't take making copies."
"Mr. Bailey, if you're going to be a writer, you need to learn to secure your work—"
"Yeah, I'm learning that the hard way," Conner said. "Look, something terrible has happened in the fairy-tale world, and we need my short stories to save it."
"I'm sure you have a million questions, but like Conner said, we're really crunched for time," Alex added. "If you know where they are, please point us in the right direction. A lot of people are depending on us."
From the tone of their voices and the urgency in their eyes, Mrs. Peters could tell they were very serious, so she didn't question them further.
"You're in luck," she said. "I have them with me."
Mrs. Peters retrieved her purse from under the desk and pulled a large binder out of it. She flipped through the binder, and the twins saw it was filled with hundreds of student essays, math tests, book reports, history exams, and artwork.
"Today was my last day before retirement," Mrs. Peters said. "I cleaned out my desk and I found this. It's a collection I've kept over the years of the student work that made me the most proud to be an educator. Whenever I had a particularly rough day, I would take a look through this and be inspired all over again."
When she reached the end of the binder, Mrs. Peters unclipped it and handed Conner a stack of papers with messy handwriting.
"Here are your short stories, Mr. Bailey," she said.
The twins sighed with relief. After a long search, they had finally found them! Conner tried taking them out of Mrs. Peters's hand, but she tightened her grip.
"I'll only give you these if you make me a promise," she said.
"He'll do whatever you want!" Alex said desperately.
Conner nodded. "Yeah, what she said!"
Mrs. Peters looked straight into his eyes. "When this troubling chapter of your lives comes to an end, promise me you'll go back to school and continue writing," she said.
Conner was expecting something much worse than that. "Okay, I promise," he said.
"Good," she said. "The world needs writers like you to inspire them, Mr. Bailey. Don't take your talent for granted, and don't let it go to waste."
Mrs. Peters released her grip on the papers, and Conner's short stories were finally in his possession. Alex was thankful it had been an easy exchange—she had been prepared to hex Mrs. Peters with a paralyzing spell if she needed to.
"I'm happy I made your binder," Conner said.
"I never thought I'd say this, Mr. Bailey, but you are the closest thing to a favorite student I'll ever have," she confessed.
"Me?" Conner said. "But… but… why?"
"Yeah, why?" Alex said before she could stop herself.
"With all due respect, Miss Bailey, when I'm old and my memory fades I won't remember the students who got the best grades or had the best attendance," Mrs. Peters said. "I'll remember the ones who progressed the most, and your brother has come a long way from taking naps in my class."
"I don't think I progressed any more than anyone else did," Conner said with a shrug.
"That's because no one has the privilege of looking at themselves through someone else's eyes," Mrs. Peters said. "I watched you struggle after your father died—but you didn't let yourself struggle for long. Rather than wallowing in grief, you developed a strong sense of humor. Soon I was constantly condemning your clown antics in class. The following year, when I became principal, I had a feeling there was a remarkable imagination behind that wit. I had your teacher send me samples of your creative writing and my suspicion was right. You chose to grow from tragedy—and it takes a very strong person to do that."
Alex smiled proudly at her brother. Conner's whole face turned bright red—he was as good at taking compliments as Mrs. Peters was.
"Aw shucks," he said. "I guess I'm more sophisticated than I thought."
"You'd be surprised," Mrs. Peters said. "I learned a lot about you from your writing, possibly more than you intended to share. Perhaps as you look through your stories again, you'll learn a thing or two about yourself."
This made Conner a little nervous—how much of himself had he exposed? When he wrote, Conner only worried about telling a good story; he never thought about the fingerprints he left between the lines. He suddenly felt like he was in the shower and had forgotten to lock the bathroom door.
"Thank you, Mrs. Peters," Conner said. "For what it's worth, you've always been my favorite, too. I never would have liked writing if it weren't for you."
Mrs. Peters was so happy she had stumbled upon the Bailey twins tonight. Knowing she helped shape the twins into the wonderful and responsible young adults they'd become was the greatest retirement gift she could have received. She put the binder back into her purse and then glanced up at the clock. It was disheartening to see that the new teacher had obnoxiously decorated the clock to look like the sun.
"I can't believe it's past midnight," Mrs. Peters said. "I'm absolutely exhausted. If you'll both excuse me, I think I'll head—"
With another gust of wind and a flash of light, the Bailey twins disappeared into thin air. It made Mrs. Peters laugh because their quick exit confirmed something she believed with her whole heart.
"Students," she said. "They come and go so quickly."
THE MASKED EMPIRE
- On Sale
- Jul 12, 2016
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers