Chapter 9: A Devil's Luck, a Dragon's Bite
Iole appeared to have taken her leave of Jason for the time being. The cat hadn't followed him to his car, and he hadn't seen her when he arrived at Rosemary's place. Not that he was really looking for her. His mind was far too set on the woman in front of him. He had looked so distressed when he arrived and thrown their door open that Rosemary had sent Bryan, Jamie, and Lizzie upstairs.
"Jason I'm glad you're here. Have you seen Adair? Jamie told me you went to the movies. Where have you been?"
Instead of answering her, Jason had a question of his own. "Why didn't you believe her?"
Rosemary was rightfully puzzled by this. "Believe her about what? She never told me where you were going. You two just kind of took off."
"This isn't about the movies!" Jason snapped. Rosemary jumped. He never raised his voice at her. Ever since he and Adair had become friends, Rosemary had gotten along with Jason, some would say even better than she did with Adair. She'd been glad to know Adair had a friend she could talk to, and she was glad he could be something of a role model for her boys. Even if he had his peculiarities, at least he didn't go around the neighborhood with his pants falling below his hips and a wife-beater like the other boys in their area. He was also polite. Rosemary had already been on edge with Adair being missing. Jason's behavior now had her even more anxious.
Jason sighed, feeling his anger start to soften. Having never known his own mother, he'd always been able to look to Rosemary for advice. He'd never grasped the reason for all the friction between her and Adair until now. Even with that knowledge he found it hard to be angry with her. But that didn't mean he wasn't.
"The wolf, her parents, why didn't you believe her?"
At once, Rosemary's brow came together. "She told you about that?"
Jason ground his teeth. "No she didn't. And thanks to you she never will."
"Jason what are you talking about? What's happened?"
For a moment he wondered if he should tell her about the book. He was very aware of its weight in the book bag strapped to his back. He decided against it. Not until he knew why she had denied Adair the support she had craved when she'd come to her those years ago. His voice trembled and his throat felt tight, but he looked her in the eye when he spoke.
"She told you. She came to you for help. She was a little girl who had just lost her parents and needed to talk about it. And you couldn't give her that."
"Jason she wanted me to go chase the boogeyman for her!" Rosemary was forced to look up at him, being a small woman. "She didn't know what she was saying when the police found her. She was nearly catatonic, but she insisted that a werewolf killed her parents. She wanted them to keep looking. When I had her analyzed, the Doctor—"
"You mean the shrink you sent her to." Jason interrupted.
She paused, but continued. "He said that she had witnessed something traumatic. She couldn't handle what had happened so she blocked it off and created a different version she could handle."
"What could be worse than what she said?" he demanded.
Rosemary shuddered. "It's anyone's guess, but it's not something I wanted to think about."
Jason stared down at her, feeling his anger rise back to the surface. He spoke with pure venom. "You made her think she was crazy. Because of you she's never been able to open up to anyone. You're her guardian. You were supposed to protect her. If she couldn't trust you then who could she turn to?"
"You think it was easy for me? I lost my sister that day! We all lost people we cared about! But the police couldn't find anything. It was better for everyone that the whole thing stayed buried. We couldn't move on otherwise."
"She hasn't moved on." He growled. "She's carried it with her for ten years because you were too scared to talk to her."
Rosemary sighed and he could see exhaustion settle over her as she dropped onto the living room couch. "What do you want me to do Jason? I can't make her let go if she doesn't want to, and I can't dig up the past."
"You mean you won't."
"That's right, I won't. This family can't handle any more of that. All we can do is try to move on." She sat up and leaned forward, folding her hands pleadingly. "I don't know what's brought all this up, but please if you know where she is, tell me. She needs to come home." Rosemary was a strong woman, but the tears welling in her eyes did not escape his notice.
"Would you really change things for her if you could?"
"Of course I would. She's my niece."
He took a deep breath. "If you mean that, then you'll believe what I'm about to show you." He slipped the backpack off and opened it. He reached in and pulled the book out. He opened it to the page he'd been reading and handed it to her. "Here, read this. It'll all make sense."
"Well it's a new day." Atreyu said, putting the fire out and starting to break down camp.
"Where do we go from here?" Adair asked. "Back to the Ivory Tower?"
"Won't do us any good." He replied. "Gaya said we need to keep what we learned a secret. We need to keep moving forward if we're going to save Moon Child."
"So you think the Way of Wishes will lead us to that Strongest Magic she was talking about?"
"Who knows? But it's probably our safest bet."
She ran her fingers absently over AURYN which still hung from her neck. "Then what should I wish for?"
Atreyu smiled. "Anything you want. You're the human here."
Adair thought for a moment. What could she wish for that could get them moving again? They needed to be fast wherever they were going because time was of the essence. Not only did each wish cost her a memory, but every moment the Childlike Empress remained asleep was another moment that Volrac grew in power. The thought of their need for speed made her realize what it was she wanted. She grasped AURYN tightly.
"I wish we could find Falkor again." She whispered.
Atreyu's grin broadened when he heard that. "Then let's get going."
Rosemary frowned. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"
Jason had been feeling hopeful when she'd begun reading. Now his face fell. "You're kidding." He pointed at the page. "What do you think I'm showing you?"
"So the girl in this book is named Adair. What's that supposed to mean?"
"But you just said—"
Rosemary sighed and cut him off. "Are you serious? You expect me to believe that Adair is inside this book?"
"You saw it with your own eyes!"
"I saw her name. That doesn't mean it's her. For one this Adair is trying to solve her problems by making a wish. Adair won't even blow out the candles on her birthday cake."
Jason snatched it away from her. All he could do was stare.
"Jason, whatever it is you two have gotten into, you can tell me."
"I just did!"
Rosemary fell back on the couch. "Please Jason, I don't know what kind of game you two are trying to play but I need to know where she is."
Jason glowered at her. "This was a mistake." He said as he stuffed the book back into his bag. "You can't help me."
"Jason. Jason!" She called after him, but he ignored her. He just slung his bag back over his shoulders and made for the door. Rosemary followed him. She opened the door after he closed it and shouted to him as he went for his car. "This is serious Jason! I'll call the police!"
"And tell them what?" he called over his shoulder, not even bothering to look at her. He never found out what she would tell the police because he slipped inside his car, slammed the door and drove off without another word. He couldn't waste any more time on her. Adair was in mortal peril and the person who should have cared more than anyone was refusing to see what was right in front of her.
"Well at least now I know where Adair got that from." He muttered.
Bastian Balthazar Bux received an unexpected visitor that day. It wasn't exactly that he hadn't expected to see Jason again, but he was surprised to find him at the front door of his home rather than at his shop.
"Jason? What are you doing here?"
The boy looked distraught and exhausted, and it was no wonder. It had been a day by now that he hadn't returned to his home or slept in a real bed.
"I don't have anywhere else to go." He breathed softly. Fatigue was plain on his features. "Can I please come in?"
"What about your house?"
Jason flinched. "I can't go back there. This is too important. He wouldn't understand."
Bastian shook his head sadly. "Yes of course my boy. Come in." he led Jason to his living room. He had a modest home, but he knew it was more than what Jason was used to. "Have a seat." He motioned toward the couch. When Jason sat down, Bastian moved one of the chairs to sit in front of him. "So what happened? You looked dreadful when you left my shop and you look even worse now."
"Rosemary didn't believe me."
"Adair's aunt." He explained.
"Oh I see. Well can you really expect her to?"
"She's her aunt! If she really cared about her she'd be helping me! Or she would have helped Adair sooner and none of this would have happened!"
"Take it easy Jason, just calm down. You're not going to help anyone unless you calm yourself. Now I don't know this woman… Rosemary did you say? But I wouldn't count her out just yet. If you remember, you had a tough time swallowing what you know now."
Jason only scowled.
Bastian shook his head. "You young people, always thinking you have all the answers. Have you paused to think perhaps that Rosemary has her own reasons for acting the way she does?"
"What reason could be good enough not to help her niece?" the boy snapped.
"I can't say." Bastian answered as calm and level as ever. "I'm not Rosemary. But you must focus on what is important right now. You gave it your best try and it looks like for now you'll have to soldier on alone. Don't worry. Like Adair and Atreyu, you're on a journey. Just focus on what your part is, and soon things will come together to where you can see the whole picture. It's hard to know how the whole story is going to turn out when we're so focused on our own part in it."
"I'm not a character in this book." Jason growled.
To this, Bastian simply replied cryptically in a distant voice. "Oh but you are. We all are." Then he was back to his genial self as though they hadn't been discussing anything out of the ordinary at all. "Well my wife is getting supper ready. I suppose I should go help her. You're welcome to stay."
Jason felt himself soften at the man's kind invitation. "Mr. Bux?" he asked sheepishly. "Would it be alright if I stayed in the guestroom again? I don't think I can go home until this is done."
Bastian winked. "Of course. Stay as long as you need. You know where it is. How about you go and put your things in the room."
Bastian went to the kitchen where Jason could hear his wife humming to herself while she cooked. He heard the old man address her and then the two spoke in hushed voices. He must have been explaining they'd have a guest for dinner. Jason made his way up the stairs and into the guestroom. It had once belonged to one of Bastian's sons. The man had five children all grown and gone. The youngest of his sons was away at college, and it was his room that Jason was allowed to stay in when he found he didn't want to go home. There were even some clothes left in the closet Jason was allowed to borrow on occasion. He usually didn't, but this time around he was grateful since he hadn't brought anything with him besides the book and his backpack, and he didn't know how long he'd be staying here. He was still in the same boot cut jeans and two-in-one long sleeve he'd been wearing the day Adair disappeared. It seemed like such a long time ago now that he'd given her the address to "Coreander's Old Books", but in reality it had only been two days. Jason set down his book bag and was just about to seat himself on the bed to read again. No sooner had he sat down however when he was startled by a shrill cry.
Jason bolted back to his feet and spun around. There on the mattress looking very disgruntled was a blue-eyed white cat with black paws and ears.
"Iole?" He cried in as much irritation as surprise. "How did you get here?"
The cat simply stretched her claws in response and stared at him.
Jason narrowed his eyes and grabbed the cat by the scruff of her neck, hoisting her to look him in the eye.
"Alright I've had it with the games. Spill it, Cat. What do you know?"
Iole swiped her claws at his wrist and he promptly dropped her and cursed under his breath. She hadn't drawn blood, but she'd left four parallel claw marks. He glared at her, but Iole was already back on the bed, tapping her little paw against the cover of the Neverending Story. As weird as it was that the cat was commanding him to read, Jason knew she was right. Adair was still in the book and time was wasting. Who knew how long she'd been in there by Fantasian standards at this point.
"Fine." He relented. "But you'll tell me sooner or later." Little did Jason know that he was to get his answers sooner rather than later, and in a very unexpected circumstance. He opened the book and began reading where he believed he'd left off.
"So if we're going to find Falkor who would be good to ask?" Adair inquired. They had passed many Fantasian settlements since leaving the shores of Spook City. They'd encountered a rocky plateau inhabited by rabbit people who had long powerful back legs. They traversed a wild forest where a family of odd folk covered in brown and gold striped fur and bright golden saucer-eyes that hung from the trees had given them food (they had been afraid Atreyu had been there to hunt them and had used the food as a peace offering). They had even come across a meadow where three blossom nymphs had come to spread seeds for wildflowers. These nymphs were kinder and gentler than their sisters who inhabited the Ocean of Secrets. Still Atreyu had warned her that if they stayed too long they would soon forget why they had come. Since the spring nymphs were eternally young and existed outside of time they were generally care free, and without knowing it they could pull others into their revelry and they'd stay until they died.
They had traveled a great distance now and yet no one they had met had seen a Luckdragon in ages. None of them could point them to Falkor. At present they had decided to give Arian a break from carrying them as they crossed a densely wooded area. Atreyu was normally good with animals, but for some reason Arian would only let Adair lead him by the reins. Atreyu could pull all he wanted, but the horse would not budge. The young plains warrior had explained that since Adair had named him, the horse was loyal only to her. So it happened that she followed Atreyu as he cleared their path, leading Arian behind her.
"I'm not sure." Atreyu replied. "I hate to ask you, but I think this is where you'll need to create a story."
Adair furrowed her brow. "Huh?"
Atreyu stopped and turned to face her. It was almost jarring to her how serious his dark eyes could be in the middle of his young face. "You made a wish for us to find Falkor right?"
"Well it's like you said earlier. AURYN doesn't just grant wishes. It always has to attach a story to it, otherwise Fantasia doesn't grow."
"So you're saying I should make up a story that will help us find Falkor?"
"I know it sounds strange" he admitted. "But I saw Bastian do it once. It's an incredible power that only humans have here."
Adair thought it over. "I guess I can give it a try. But I'm not like Bastian. I can't just pull a story out of thin air like he could. You'll have to give me something to go on. Tell me a little more about Falkor."
Atreyu answered briefly like she had simply asked his own name. "He's a Luckdragon. They're creatures of fire and air who bring fortune to anyone they meet, especially those they are fond of."
"Well we haven't met anyone yet who seemed any luckier than the next guy." She reasoned. "You said he's made of fire and air right?"
"Sort of. It's what he's born from."
She tried to picture something in her mind that would make that bit of information about Falkor useful. "Are there any other creatures like that nearby? People made of fire? Maybe like distant cousins to Luckdragons?"
Atreyu's dark eyebrows knit themselves closer together. "Actually there are; the Snapdragons."
"Who are they?" she asked, though in her mind a picture was already beginning to form. She saw a short creature with a giant head the size of a large dog covered in orange and yellow fur. It stood on just two short legs and had a small barbed tail like an alligator's that it balanced on. On its back was a pair of wings, leathery like a bat's, but transparent like a beetle's. They looked too small for flying, but looked capable of gliding a short distance if the creature gained enough of a running start. Its maw was lined with short spaced out fangs that reminded her of a lizard. It may have looked frightening if not for the baby blue eyes that sat in the middle of its face. There was a strange mischief in its eyes that made her think of her cousin Jamie, how he would play harmless pranks on her in the hopes that she would chase him through the house like she used to.
"They're like Falkor, but they're a lot younger. They like getting into trouble." Atreyu explained. Then to Adair's surprise he went on to describe a creature that was true to the vision she had in her head in every detail; the fur, the tail, the short legs, the wings, he even described their eyes as clear blue and child-like with just a hint of impishness in them. "The Luckdragons gave them a job to keep them out of trouble. They create fire with their wings, so they're supposed to burn away parts of Fantasia that have died or that need to be deforested."
Adair wondered if she had imagined that last part as well, or if Fantasia had done that for her.
"Where can we find them?"
"You made up the story." Atreyu pointed out. "You tell me."
Adair gave him a skeptical look. "You're the hero of the story right?"
"I'm the hero of a story, yes."
"And a master tracker and hunter?" she added.
"Then you wouldn't be much of a hero if I had to tell you everything would you."
Atreyu's mouth dropped open for only an instant. Then he nodded. "Good point." He cast his eyes about their surroundings. "They don't really like to stay in one place for very long. They're always on the move. But if you wished for them, they must be close. We'll probably find them at the edge of the forest where the trees thin out. They like wide open spaces. This way." He motioned for her to follow him again.
"So let me ask you something." She said, leading Arian behind her. "I just imagined the Snapdragons, but you're talking about them like they've always existed. So which is it? Did I imagine them, or have they always been here?"
To this Atreyu simply said "Both."
"Of course." she sighed. She wondered if he really understood just how incomprehensible Fantasia's rules and natural laws were to her. It was so bizarre to her that a creature that had existed just in her head a few short moments ago could suddenly become part of Fantasia as if it had always been. Try as she might to wrap her head around the idea she just couldn't. She decided she'd be better off overall if she just accepted Atreyu's explanation and went with the flow. They continued on their way through the woods mostly in silence. Neither of them had the faintest idea that as they began to track down the Snapdragons, they too were being tracked.
Jason didn't like the sound of that. "Tracked?" he thought aloud. "By who?"
At length they came out of the forest and found themselves staring down a hillside into a wide prairie. They'd come to a valley of grass that was almost as tall as a man. And in the center of the valley was a great black circle. The grass there had been scorched to allow for a sort of playground for the creatures that Adair could barely make out in the distance. From where they stood she could only see bright orange dots frolicking back and forth.
Atreyu moved to stand by Arian. "It might be better to ride in so they can see us. If we surprise them, they might burn down this entire valley." With deft precision he swung himself into the stirrups and offered Adair his hand. With little effort he hoisted her into the saddle. She was surprised that he let her ride in front of him this time.
"You're letting me take the reins?" she asked.
"He is your horse after all."
Adair could only guess at what she was supposed to do from her days of watching Atreyu. But she soon found it wasn't nearly as difficult as she believed because Arian seemed to know what she was thinking and went where she wanted him to.
The grass nearly came up to Arian's eye, but Adair and Atreyu were clearly visible over the top and the bright white, purple, and gold of Adair's tunic drew the spapdragons' attention to her at once. As they drew nearer she could begin to make out the little creatures kicking each other playfully like puppies on the floor. But when they caught sight of her they lined up eagerly and she could see their tails wag back and forth.
"They think we're here to play." Atreyu grinned.
Adair wanted to laugh. Arian trotted to the edge of the grass and brought them into the burnt out clearing. The air smelled of that bitter tang of sulfur. The two of them leaped off the horse and were soon crowded by the snapdragons, anxious to be the first ones to get the attention of the visitors. Adair indulged them by petting the fur on the top of their head. It wasn't exactly soft but tangled and matted like a shag carpet. As she went to each one she wondered how they were supposed to help them find Falkor. Did Snapdragons even talk?
"Hello." She began, testing the waters.
Each one perked their ears up and started bouncing up and down on their two short legs. "Hello." They answered back. But they didn't all speak at once so it came out more like "Hello! Hello! Hello!" Their voices were shrill and gurgled and reminded her of some kind of puppet she had seen on TV a long time ago.
Okay, she thought. They were heading in a positive direction. "We're looking for a friend."
"Here we are!" One shouted, pushing itself against her.
"No, we're looking for someone else." She tried to explain.
"A Luckdragon named Falkor. We were wondering if you could help us find him."
The snapdragon nearest her flopped its ears down and shot her a bored expression. It rolled onto its back and kicked its two stubby legs idly. "What's your name?"
She sighed. She felt like she was talking to Jamie and Bryan again. When she had something important to tell them, they just tried to change the subject because they didn't want to be serious. "Adair." She answered.
"You're pretty Adair."
She didn't know how to respond to that. No one had ever really told her that before (well besides Atreyu, and that was something she was a little bashful to remember). "Thanks I guess. So will you help us or not."
"Only if you play with us!"
Adair gaped at the furry delinquent, but when she looked at Atreyu he was smiling at her.
"Looks like we're their prisoner if we want to get any further." He laughed.
"We don't have time to stay here and play. Wasn't there something urgent about what we were doing?"
"You made the wish." He reminded her. "If you want to move forward you have to make sure you get everything out of the ones you make."
She glowered at him. The way he was looking at her with that smile like he was expecting something really annoyed her.
"Fine." She relented. "So how do you guys play?"
The Snapdragon's ears perked up and it leaped to its feet. "Like this." It was all the warning she got before it bounced behind her, placed its snout right underneath her and then bucked her into the air. She screamed as she was vaulted off the ground and wrenched her eyes shut, flailing her arms in a futile attempt to stay airborne. She braced for the painful return to the ground. Instead she felt a light thrust and she was back in the air. She dared to open her eyes. As she spun in the air, she could see all of the snapdragons bouncing on the ground below her. They had formed a mosh pit and were keeping her in the air with their noses. Whenever she came back down, they'd simply bounce her back up with their nose like a dog with a beach ball. It was only a light tap on her back and a sudden fling back toward the sky. It wasn't their plan to harm her at all. They just wanted to have fun. She flew into the air a third time, her silk tunic and sand colored hair flailing around her, and started to smile. She heard another cry of surprise and looked to her left. Atreyu had not escaped the Snapdragons and now he was being thrown high in the air with her. Now she was laughing, actually laughing. She lost track of how many times they threw the two of them into the air. Atreyu reached for her and they grasped hands. Now they were landing on their feet and propelling themselves off the snapdragon's snouts like two children on a trampoline. They circled each other, laughing all the while. Atreyu let go of her and somersaulted into the air, flipping three times before he landed again.
"Now you're just showing off!" she called to him.
"Did it work?" he called back.
Adair felt her chest heaving as she went higher and higher. The snapdragons were playful and harmless, but they did tend to be careless. They were only young dragons after all. Well they misjudged the distance the last time they tossed the pair up and accidentally flung them both over the edge of the pack. Landing on her back knocked the wind out of her, but she was grateful the impact hadn't smacked her head. Atreyu was rolling onto his knees to help her up.
"Are you alright?" He offered her his hand and she took it, still trying to get her breath back. The Snapdragons mulled around them looking worried. They looked like a group of naughty children that had just upset their mother and knew they were in for it.
"Did we hurt you?" one asked full of concern and looking guilty.
When she could finally breathe again she giggled. "Who said you could stop? Let's go again."
The little snapdragons perked up again and bounced excitedly and surrounded them to pick them up again.
"Are you sure you're alright?" Atreyu asked looking half concerned and half amused.
"I haven't had that much fun in a long time." She honestly couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed so hard. Her lungs were pumping and she felt her blood flowing with adrenaline and euphoria. She needed more. She couldn't stop now. Who knew how long this would last? She took Atreyu's hand and tugged it eagerly, feeling like a little girl. "Come on, one more go!"
The snapdragons were more than happy to oblige, but just as the first one stooped to buck them back into the air, the whole pack froze. Their baby blue eyes narrowed and they pointed their noses up to sniff the air. Their little heads swiveled back and forth. Adair felt a sinking feeling as she tried to follow what they were looking for. Atreyu had grown still and was stretching his keen gaze across the prairie.
"What's wrong?" she whispered, though she didn't know why she felt like she had to be quiet.
"Someone's coming." He pointed across the prairie at the very path through the trees they had left the forest through.
At first Adair could see nothing. Then all at once he burst through the trees. She gasped and her grip on Atreyu's hand tightened as the Plains warrior unstrapped his bow from his back. There he was dressed all in black like the last time she had seen him. And worse, his legs straddled one of those awful black demon dogs from before with its pale scaled face and claws. Even from across the clearing she could tell the villain was smiling with those hideous rows of black needle sharp teeth. Poking over his shoulder she could see what looked like the hilt of a sword that he hadn't had with him the last time.
"It's Chember." Atreyu hissed. "Volrac must have ordered him to track us."
"What do we do?" she whispered urgently. The snapdragons were a formidable sized pack, but she could almost feel them trembling. Chember and his steed frightened them as much as they did her.
Before Atreyu could answer, Chember dug the spiked heels of his boots into the sides of his ferocious mount and the gorgon-hound rushed forward. Its powerful legs sprung the Butcher toward them. That was the only signal the snapdragons needed to spring into action. The entire pack shrieked in terror and took off. They ran toward him at first, but then the pack split off every which way. Adair watched in terror and amazement as they bounded off of their two short legs and opened their transparent wings. They beat them wildly to allow them to glide, and when they were at their highest they opened their gaping maws and let loose a stream of fire. The entire expanse of tall grass between Chember and the two of them was now ablaze and the snapdragons flitted about the scene unharmed. But the Butcher only smiled and reached for the sword on his back. He drew it and swung it in front of him. Adair nearly screamed as a path opened through the flames, like the blade itself had cleared it for him. One of the snapdragons vaulted for Chember in an attempt to block his path, but the murderer merely swung the sword once more. The snapdragon somehow lost his balance and tripped beneath the feet of the demon dog. Chember's steed leaped over it with grace, actually using the poor creature as a platform to launch itself high into the air. Then Chember himself jumped from his place, raising the sword high. He was diving straight at them with a smug look of ease.
Acting quickly, Atreyu pushed Adair aside and stepped up to meet Chember, pulling an arrow from his quiver. In a swift practiced movement he knocked the arrow to the string, pulled it back to his ear and released it. The arrow was sure to meet its mark if not for Chember's sword. With a flick of his wrist the arrow bounced off the steel and was lost in the grass. Atreyu was forced to jump back to avoid the villain's attack as he reached the ground. Chember merely chuckled as he rose back to his feet. In the outer field, the dog demon was contending with the entire pack of snapdragons and the fire was growing.
"Good shot, as always. A perfect shot." He said in his shrill hissing voice. "It almost got me, right here in my heart." The murderer pointed to his pale segmented chest.
"You don't have a heart." Atreyu growled.
"Sure I do. Just because I never listen to it, doesn't mean I don't have one. Oh, you hear that? It's getting louder. The blood is pumping through my veins. It's pounding in my ears. You know what that means. It means I need to kill. My heart is crying out for blood. Want to know whose blood I'm craving?"
Atreyu loosed another arrow. At point blank range there was no way he could miss. But again Chember deflected it with the new sword. He laughed high and cold. "You're still not listening! That's not going to work. Not as long as I've got this." He held the weapon up so both of them could see. The blade was black with menacing red markings etched into it, but what he was really trying to show them was the white tassel that was tied to the pommel. Atreyu's eyes widened with recognition at the sight of the long white fur. "That's right. Now I get a taste of your dragon's luck."
Adair felt a lump form in her throat. "That's Falkor's!"
"Where did you get that?" Atreyu demanded.
"It was given to me by someone you should hope you never meet. Where they got it… well I suppose it's anyone's guess." Chember replied, licking his angular teeth.
Chember shook his head. "You Plains people. You can only see what's right in front of you. These matters are beyond a savage like you."
Atreyu ignored Chember's insults, his concern centered on the sword. "Where are you keeping him?"
"Do you not hear what I'm saying?" Chember shrieked. "This is bigger than you can grasp! I don't know where your mangy pet is because even I, Chember the Butcher who spread panic and fear all across Fantasia am nothing more than a piece on the board. You and I, we're nothing but a couple of pawns in a game of chess between them and the Childlike Empress." He narrowed his red and yellow eyes and his mouth stretched in the slimiest of smiles Adair had ever seen. "And I'll tell you something, your Empress is losing."
At that, Atreyu threw down his bow and drew his sword. With his teeth bared he rushed Chember, but the villain simply moved to the side and held out his foot. Atreyu's legs were hooked by Chember's boot and he fell face first onto the ground. Adair gasped. Atreyu was a practiced fighter and as graceful on his feet as a professional athlete. She would never have been able to picture him being tripped.
Chember laughed as he turned to kick Atreyu in the ribs. "This thing really is amazing. How do you like the taste of dirt Atreyu?" Cruelly, the blackguard grabbed Atreyu by his hair and forced his face down. "Get a good fill. This is what you forced me to after you disgraced me the last time we met. And let's not forget all those years you wiped your grubby little nose all over my reputation." Grabbing Atreyu by the waist and keeping a firm hold on his hair, Chember lifted him up, driving a knee into his stomach and then throwing him back on the ground. "You wouldn't believe how hard it is to be taken seriously when you're thwarted by a child every time you try to burn a city down. Your luck saved you in the past, but as you can see," he held up the black and red sword. "My luck is changing."
Then Adair rushed him, not fully knowing what she was going to do. She threw herself headlong into him, throwing her arms around him to tackle him. Colliding with him was like slamming head first into a solid oak. Her head spun. She could not muster enough force in her little body to tackle the man, and found herself thrown to the ground as well. Chember lifted the sword in front of his face.
"Oh dear me, where are my manners? Were you feeling left out?"
She couldn't move, couldn't get to her feet, couldn't even think as he swung the sword downward. She could hear Atreyu cry out from what sounded like far away. She saw the glint of the sword as he brought it down, sure to end her life. Then there was a flash of orange and Chember was knocked off balance as a snapdragon clamped its jaws onto his arm. He cried out in pain and sent a fist into its face. Then with his arm free, he swung the blade.
"NO!" Adair cried, but it was too late. She felt as though her heart would sink into her stomach as her eyes met the baby blue ones of the creature that had saved her. It made a pitiful sound as it fell. This was the snapdragon that had invited her to play only minutes ago. She fell to her knees and inched her way forward to rest her hand on its bright orange fur. Its giant head heaved with short ragged breaths.
In a low whining voice it opened its mouth and said, "This was fun. Let's play again sometime." Then the light went out of its baby blue eyes forever.
Adair felt something stir in her as the life left the snapdragon, her snapdragon. She felt as if a piece of herself had been cut away. These snapdragons were a special part of Fantasia for her, a part that she had wished for. And now Chember had killed one. She didn't know just then if it had always been there, or if she had wished for something to strike him with, but suddenly there was a stick in her hand and she was swinging it at him. Her slight body was filled with so much rage that Chember could scarcely avoid her wild swings. She was unpracticed and uncoordinated in her attacks, but she was throwing all of her force into each swing.
Chember laughed as he backed away from her. He dodged the first couple of Adair's swings, but the worst part was that each time she managed to connect the stick with his face he only laughed harder. Finally he lifted his sword. Adair's wooden weapon was cleaved neatly in half.
"You've got plenty of fight in you yet. This is going to be fun." Chember crooned with a disgusting smile as he advanced on her. With nothing left to fight with, Adair was easily pushed over and all she could do was glare up at him, scooting back as he came closer and closer. "Come on dearie, how about a scream for me. Please?"
Atreyu was just coming too when Adair had been pushed. Chember's luck had allowed him to knock the young plains warrior out for a moment, but he opened his eyes in time to see Chember advancing on Adair. He pushed himself up onto his arms, but before he could call on his leg he felt something slam into the small of his back and force him back to the ground. His nostrils filled with the sickly sweet stench of charred flesh and hair. He looked up to see Chember's demonic mount leering down at him with its cold unfeeling eyes. It bared its fangs at him, lowering its head closer to him. The snapdragons had injured it with their fire, but now it just seemed more feral than ever. Atreyu flailed his arms desperately to reach his sword where it had been thrown from his grasp, but found it just out of reach. Chember's devilish luck seemed to be holding out even though he wasn't focused on Atreyu.
Meanwhile, Adair stared defiantly back at Chember, knowing there was nothing more she could do. In the back of her mind she remembered the first time she had read about Atreyu in a situation like this; outnumbered, unarmed, and with no hope of escape. She decided she would face the end the same way he had. She would not give her killer the satisfaction of seeing her scream or beg. She would curse him with her eyes until the end.
"Really?" Chember frowned in disappointment. "Not even a plea for mercy, Missy? That's a real shame." Once more, Chember lifted the sword above his head. "Ah well, I guess my lucky streak couldn't hold out forever."
"No, no, no!" Jason shook his head fiercely. Adair was giving up and there was no one around that could save her this time. His best friend was about to die and there was nothing he could do about it. Wait a minute, he thought. There had to be something she could do. She had AURYN. That should have made her nearly invincible. But what could she wish for that would save her? He had to think quickly. Time was running out. Then an idea struck him. He lifted the book and shouted.
"Adair! ADAIR! Wish for me!"
A voice suddenly rang out through the meadow that everyone heard.
"Adair! ADAIR! Wish for me!"
Chember looked all around him, trying to find where the voice was coming from. "What the devil is that?"
But Adair recognized that voice. "Jason?" she said to herself. "Are you reading the book?"
Again the voice called out to her. "Adair! Use AURYN and wish for me!"
"Jason I can't!" she called back. "You'll be killed!"
Chember looked at her as if she'd gone mad. "What are you playing at Missy?"
But still the voice only grew louder. "Adair Alicia Artemis, you wish for me to come to your rescue right now!"
Chember only shook his head. "Alright, enough games." He lifted the sword again.
Adair closed her eyes, and without thinking she felt her hand grasp AURYN.
The book began to glow in Jason's hands, but he didn't see it. All he could focus on was reaching Adair. But someone did notice the book beginning to glow because she had seen it before. And this time she did not jump back in surprise as she had before. This time, she fastened her little claws as tightly as she could onto Jason's sleeve. The light grew brighter and brighter until it filled the whole room. And when it cleared the room was empty and the book lay open on the bed where Jason had been reading.
A blinding light filled the clearing and Chember cried out in alarm as he staggered back. The cries of the snapdragons filled the whole meadow and soon they were scurrying this way and that, setting fire to the grass at random. Atreyu felt the wolf suddenly fall to its side and heard it whimpering. Arian was standing over him, rearing back on his hind legs to throw his hoofs into the gorgon hound. Wasting no time, Atreyu rolled to his sword, snatched it up and leaped to his feet. He looked to the demon and found that Arian had managed to push it back and that the snapdragons had regrouped. As one pack they latched their jaws onto it. He heard it howl in pain as they dragged it down, but didn't stay to watch as they tore it limb from limb. He had to get to Adair But the light prevented him from seeing where she was and now they were all lost in a haze of fire and smoke.
Adair felt a hand take firm hold on her arm. "Are you alright?" she heard him say. It was Jason. She had wished for him to come.
She let him pull her to her feet. "I'm fine." Her eyes met his and she felt a rush of comfort and familiarity that pushed out any doubt that her friend had come to Fantasia. Her eyes widened as she looked past him over his shoulder. "Look out!" She pulled him away just as Chember swung his blade for the two of them. It missed Jason by less than an inch.
Chember grinned with eyes full of blood-lust, not at all concerned by the new arrival, or by the meadow now completely ablaze around them. In fact he seemed more gleeful than ever at the chaos. The flames that danced around them cast the most nightmarish shadows over his pale face. "Now it's a party! Two humans in one day? What were the odds?" he laughed maniacally and raised his blade to kiss it with his blistered lips. "My lovely companion, is there anything you can't do?"
Jason pushed Adair behind him as the monster resumed his attack. He wanted to take Adair and run, but with their backs against the fire there was nowhere for them to go. Chember thrust the sword to run its blade through both of them at the same time. The smoke in the air and the heat of the flames made Jason and Adair too dizzy to see what happened next. But Chember saw it; a huge black shape leaped from the flames behind his prey. It came between the path of his victims and his sword. Chember staggered back. Where he had expected his blade to meet soft flesh, it instead bounced off and he heard a metallic clang. The smoke was choking his vision. Whatever was in front of him was smaller than him, but he could see razor claws on its fingertips. The flames danced over its powerful arms and he could see that they were covered in gleaming white scales. Its eyes penetrated the haze. They were crystal blue.
A new sensation gripped Chember's chest as his red and yellow eyes met the sky blue ones of his new enemy. Those eyes carried so much weight in them, like the force of gravity they were immovable, and like the fires around them they were fierce. Chember knew what this feeling was, but had never felt it himself, and that made it all the worse. It was fear. His hand trembled around the hilt of his sword. He pointed it at the mysterious adversary, but they made no move.
"What are you?" he rasped. But they said nothing. His breathing grew rapid as panic set in. He cried out in terror and swung the sword at it. It raised its scaled arm to block and once more Chember felt it connect as solid as steel. Then his opponent lunged forward and with its other arm rammed its palm into Chember's wrist. He heard a sickening crack and knew his wrist was broken. His sword flew from his grasp and he shrieked in pain and horror. But the creature did not miss a stride. Before he could even think of running, it rammed its palm into his shoulder and forced him to spin his back to it. He went cold all over as he felt those razor claws fasten around his head. With a fierce twist it was all over. Chember fell to the ground, his neck snapped. His red and yellow eyes would be the nightmare of Fantasian children no longer.
Jason watched Chember fall and his mouth fell open in alarm. His feet were rooted to the spot. But this was all missed by Adair. The smoke choked her lungs and her heart was beating too fast. The world began to spin and then it went black. She didn't see the black shape turn towards them. She didn't notice as she was lifted up and whisked away from the burning clearing.
The first thing she became aware of was a steady clip-clop. Her head was still spinning so she didn't realize that it was Arian's impatient hoof beats. Her eyes fluttered open slowly. She could see two blurred shapes above her. As they grew clearer she recognized them as faces. Then when her vision finally came back she could see Atreyu's dark eyes, and Jason's blue ones behind his glasses staring down at her. Both gazes looked filled with a mix of concern and relief. Atreyu sighed gratefully and she felt herself embraced tightly by Jason.
"You're alright." Jason whispered as if to reassure himself rather than her. "You're alright."
She struggled weakly out of his grip and he released her. She took in their new surroundings. They weren't in the clearing anymore. They looked like they were at the edge of a forest. She could smell smoke, but the smell of meat that accompanied it told her it wasn't from the inferno they had left behind. It smelled more like a campfire.
She fired off each question that buzzed into her head. "Where are we? How long have I been out? Where's Chember? What happened to the snapdragons?"
"We're safe." Atreyu answered. "You've been asleep for a few hours. The meadow burned down and the snapdragons fled. They'll be alright. Chember's…" the boy seemed to struggle to find the right words. "He's not going to be a problem anymore."
The meaning behind that statement sank in slowly for her. "You mean he's dead? How?" The last she remembered, the Butcher had nearly skewered both her and Jason, and Atreyu had been cut off by the fire. How had they escaped?
"Finally awake I see." Came a voice Adair didn't recognize. She bolted upright in surprise and saw the campfire she had guessed at earlier. Sitting next to it was a strange looking woman whose age she couldn't guess at. She wore a cropped navy blue T-Shirt with white rimming the sleeves, and black skinny jeans tucked into a pair blue hi-tops with white laces that reached the middle of her calves. Her long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail that reached the middle of her back and was held in place by a distinctive hair clip with a silver moon and sun set into it. She would have looked human if it hadn't been for the pointed leaf shaped ears that stuck out from either side of her head. She looked about eighteen in her face and in part because of the way she was dressed, but the way she held herself and the knowing look in her eye made her seem much older. In a way she reminded Adair of Mr. Bux, the old man from the bookshop.
"Who are you?" Adair asked warily.
The stranger sighed. "Oh come on Adair. Don't you recognize me?" Then she turned her head and met Adair's eyes for the first time. Adair felt her heart hammer in her chest. The woman's eyes were an unmistakable shade of sky blue.