Chapter 11: The Path of Regret
Kneeling in the dust of a long forgotten country, and far away from where Adair and the others were beginning the next step of their journey, something was happening that was going to change the course of Fantasia again. And this change was not for the better.
He dug and dug with his hands to find what he was after. With his claws he tore at the dirt digging deeper and deeper. It was here. It had to be here. The Witches had promised. They had told him where to look, and when he had it, no one, not even the Childlike Empress and her seven powers could stand against him. His plan had been laid, Fantasia was bending to his will, the Childlike Empress was locked in sleep, and with this last piece, this vast empire of dreams and wishes would be his. Such was the intention of Volrac's blackened heart.
He had been forced to travel here on foot, and he had no tools with which to dig. For this place he was searching in, and what he was searching for was something that had been buried deeply. For what the Nightmare King searched for was a regret. In Fantasia, just like in your mind, regrets can be buried by those who wish it so. They can be covered over and can lay unnoticed for a long time. But eventually, no matter how hard we try to hide them, they always come out in the end.
At last his claws struck something besides earth. His anticipation restored, Volrac dug deeper and deeper with renewed vigor until his long black claw tipped fingers caught hold of something. Lightning split the sky and thunder rolled in a long dark chorus as the Nightmare King lifted his prize high over his head. He had found it at last.
"Hunter Training" as Jason had called it had taken the better part of the morning (which Iole had started at the crack of dawn). Evidently Atreyu had consented to let Jason use the black sword that Chember had used before, though she hadn't heard them talk about it. Iole had begun with Jason first to allow Atreyu to hunt and gather their breakfast. When he had returned with four dead rabbits, Adair had offered to cook them so Atreyu could train. Her generosity lasted a total of five minutes before the other three heard her gagging. She hadn't realized that cooking them also meant skinning them, and Atreyu's prey was still staring at her even though they were dead. So Atreyu's training had been put off until he could spit them and get them over the fire. So it was with wounded pride that Adair was slowly turning the rabbits over the fire. When they were cooked, Iole and Jason joined them to eat. Unable to get the image of those lifeless eyes staring back at her, Adair hadn't eaten much and Iole "graciously" offered to eat the rest of her portion.
"I don't remember you eating this much meat when you lived at our house." she had said to Iole, referring to the time that the woman had spent as her cat.
"I never ate at your house. I'd wait until you were at school and then go hunt for meat. Or just buy myself a chili dog if I felt like it." the dragon-girl winked.
Adair looked affronted. "Why didn't you say something? I could have saved a fortune on your cat food!"
"Say what? 'Hey Adair, this dried food sucks, I'm going to hunt for something better'? I didn't want make it awkward."
"Yeah and this is totally normal." Jason remarked snidely which made the three of them laugh. Atreyu who had grown up in Fantasia and was accustomed to all sorts of happenings that would seem strange to you or any human, did not understand the humor.
Iole swallowed the rest of her breakfast and wiped her mouth. "Alright Jason, take five. Atreyu you're up."
Without a word Atreyu grabbed his sword and followed Iole to the clearing where she had trained with Jason earlier. Adair watched expectantly. Arian nudged her side in a bid for her attention. She stroked his nuzzle absentmindedly, not taking her eyes off the pair. She had been fascinated to watch Jason be trained, not only because the prospect of watching her friend learn how to use a sword was amusing. The way Iole fought was nothing like Adair would have imagined. She carried no weapon, but as she had explained earlier, dragons were master shapeshifters. As Atreyu readied his weapon, Iole merely took a relaxed posture and gestured for him to come at her. Atreyu did not hesitate as Jason had at attacking a seemingly unarmed girl. He had seen earlier that Iole was a warrior just as he was, and one that knew what she was doing. He quickly closed the distance between them and swung his sword for her. Iole raised her forearm to block, and Adair winced as the blade made its way to connect with her soft flesh. But in the blink of an eye the form of her arm changed. Where their had been flesh and bone, now there was white plated scales. Her fingers were curved now and ended in hooked razor sharp claws.
"Demons come in every shape and size you can imagine." she explained as she countered his strike. "The ones that look harmless often turn out to be the most dangerous." Atreyu came at her again and again with his weapon, but she blocked each of his strikes with her morphed arms. They were a good match in speed, but Adair wondered if Iole was holding back since this was only practice. She certainly hoped that was the case.
"Stop going for my vital signs." Iole instructed as she blocked another strike. Atreyu had intended it for her throat. "Demons are not like any creatures you have faced. They are evil that's been given a physical form. They don't live and breathe like you and me. They can't be wounded normally. They don't have hearts so you can't aim for one. They don't have blood so they don't care if you cut them. Cut their head off and they can still walk. Their claws can still maul you. Their head can still bite you. It's better to cut their limbs off so they can't move."
Each time she gave a suggestion, Adair noticed Atreyu's stance shift a little, his swings coming with more purpose. Iole needed to adjust her defense with each improvement he made. This was far more in depth than she had gone with Jason. With him she had only taught basic instruction. It made sense since this morning was the first time Jason had even held a sword let alone used one. She found herself far more entranced by their battle than she'd been earlier. Both of them moved with more fluidity and grace than Jason had. The marks of their experience were clear.
"You know you can blink once in awhile. They'll still be there." she jumped to hear Jason's voice and turned to see him staring at her. He was smirking at her with that crooked grin she knew so well. He was comforting to look at. She could scarcely believe he was actually here with her, and yet she couldn't deny this was her friend. He looked back at the dueling pair of warriors. "So weird to think that's your cat squaring off over there."
"What about this isn't weird? We're trapped inside some magical world we were both reading about."
"You seem to be holding your own pretty well though." he remarked.
"That's because I don't really know how to feel. I mean, until I picked up that book I didn't know anything about Fantasia, or demons, or dragons. But now I'm not just in the middle of it, I find out I've been part of it for a really long time already."
"You mean Iole?" he asked. "Or Volrac?"
She cringed at the mention of that name and Jason caught the fear in her eyes when she searched his face for his meaning. She sighed. "I guess you know then, about how my mom and dad died."
Jason's features looked pained. There really was no easy way to talk about something like this. "You've been carrying that around by yourself for ten years. Why didn't you tell me?"
She thought of a way she could explain this gently. "In a word: Rosemary."
"When I went to live with her, she told me never to tell anyone. She was set on pretending like it never happened. Whenever anyone asked she always said they died in an accident. She said it was safer that way. At first I was okay with it. I didn't want to remember it either. But then one day I tried to talk to her about it." She bit her lip.
Adair felt her brow knitting together as her eyes narrowed with resentment. "She looked at me like I'd lost my mind. She acted like she didn't know what I was talking about. She talked like I was making the whole thing up and got mad at me because I was scaring Bryan and Jamie. She made it sound like I was crazy! And do you know what? For a long time I thought I was." She shook her head. "Who knows? Maybe I am."
"You're not crazy." Jason said matter-of-factly.
"I'm going on a quest through 'Dream Land' with a boy I was reading about and my cat who turned out to be a dragon."
"And your roguish and handsome best friend."
She laughed. “Yep. Definitely crazy." That made him laugh too, and it felt good to be able to laugh with her friend again. "I'm really sorry I got you dragged into this, but I'm glad you're here."
"Are you kidding? Adair I just got in a fight with a dragon! A dragon that's teaching me how to fight demons! I used to do this in video games! Now I'm here doing the real thing! Besides," he looked at the ground when he spoke and she heard his voice quiver with what he said next. "I couldn't keep going like I was, reading about how much trouble you were in and not being able to do anything. I'd take this over standing back any day."
She patted his hand. "Thanks Jason. You're not as annoying as I thought."
"You're not so bad yourself." he replied.
There was a thud in the clearing and the two of them jumped. Iole had struck Atreyu's wrist, sending his sword flying into the air. She swept her foot through his legs and kicked them out from under him. He landed on his back just as Iole caught his weapon and pointed the tip of his own blade at his throat. Atreyu closed his eyes and conceded. Iole grinned and their was a glimmer of respect in her eyes for his skill. She flipped the blade in her hand and presented the hilt to him.
"You're not bad." she remarked as he took his weapon back and got to his feet. "But you forgot the most important lesson. Jason, listen up because this concerns you too. Both of you fight with passion, and I like that. But there's more. There's rage, and there's regret."
Jason shrugged. "Hormones?"
"It's more than that." Iole snapped. "Slaying a demon is just as much spiritual as it is physical and mental. In some worlds they even call it healing. Demons are not living creatures, they're pure evil. So when you fight one, your heart must be in balance or they'll exploit it. Some can feed on your anger for strength. Others can turn your strongest desire or your greatest regret against you. Keeping your heart in balance is the hardest skill you'll have to master if you're going to fight them."
"Yes Sensei." Jason gave her a mock bow.
Iole glowered at him but said nothing else on the matter. "Alright let's break camp."
Adair was a little surprised that Atreyu who had been her guide thus far had surrendered command of the group so readily to Iole. Of course Iole had given them more insight to the danger they were up against now, but Adair wasn't sure just how safe they were with her.
"That's a lovely ring you have on there." Adair jumped at Iole's voice and looked up. With some relief she noticed that Atreyu and Jason were out of earshot. Hesitantly she met eyes with Iole. The look in those sky blue eyes was unmistakable. Her earlier suspicions were confirmed.
"What do you want?" Adair asked.
"Nothing really. I'm just curious. Why do you still have it?"
Adair considered her question, but she wasn't sure how to answer it. Not that it mattered much. She'd seen what Iole was capable of, and if she was intent on taking the ring from her there would be nothing she could do to stop her. "Were you planning on taking it? That's your job right, to stop things like this?"
"Not exactly. My job is to hunt Witches. The affairs of the world they travel to are not my department."
"So you're saying you're forbidden?"
"In a sense. That ring came from them, but it's yours now. Whatever you decide to do with it, that's your choice."
Adair did not miss the way she phrased that last part. "So let's say I decide to use it. Would you have to stop me then?"
Iole smiled and shook her head. "I can tell you this. A deal with a Witch always comes at a high price. Whatever it is, I promise it's more than anything I could take away from you."
"Iole, we're ready." It was Atreyu. He and Jason had taken down camp surprisingly fast while the two of them had talked.
"Good. Jason, give me that sword." Jason handed her the black blade and she ran her fingers along its length, gripping the long white fur in her hand. She closed her eyes. "I can see it. It's thick, and it's dark. Too dangerous to navigate by flight. I can carry the three of you as far as the edge of the woods, but we'll have to continue on foot."
"The three of us?" Adair asked, casting her glance between Iole and Arian. The stallion seemed to be pleading with her. He was a smart horse.
"Sorry Adair, but I'll barely be able to clear their spell with the three of you on my back. They're keeping some kind of barrier up so the wishes of travelers don't carry them there. It's enough to keep out large numbers so they can't be attacked, but they've left small windows open for their followers, and anyone that might wander in and become a new victim. At this rate we'll be lucky to get in at all. Or unlucky, take your pick."
Adair moved stubbornly to Arian's side and stroked his nuzzle. She had grown attached to him after all, and the way his enormous brown eyes were pleading with her not to leave him behind was unbearable.
"She's right." Atreyu said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "The Forest of Thorns is no place for a horse."
"We need to go Adair." Jason added. "Falkor's waiting for us."
Adair consented with a nod, but before she let go of Arian's reins she took AURYN in her hand and made a wish.
I wish he'll come find us again.
Arian bobbed his head up and down as if nodding in agreement. Then she watched him gallop off over the hill.
Iole made her way to the clearing to allow herself enough space. "Alright ladies, get ready for a show." In an instant the grassy clearing Iole had been standing in was swallowed in white. Adair almost fell backwards in surprise. Jason made a sound of awe and even Atreyu looked impressed. As a cat Iole had been half the size of Adair's pillow. Now in this form she was bigger than Aunt Rosemary's living room and kitchen put together. She was as long as Falkor, but larger with a sleek muscular build covered in white scales. Her great white spiked wings spread for twenty feet at least in either direction. Her head was adorned with short black horns and odd black markings from her crown to her snout. But her crystal blue eyes were the same even though they were the size of Adair's head now. To say that Adair was intimidated to fly on her would have been an understatement.
Atreyu wasted no time. He came up to her side and leaped onto her back with ease. Not wanting to seem timid compared, Jason was right behind him, though he managed to reach the dragon's back with far less grace.
"Come on." Atreyu held his hand out to her. Again Jason offered his hand right behind him. Adair closed her eyes and took both their hands, letting them pull her up. She barely had time to seat herself between them before Iole beat her mighty wings and shot into the sky. Adair had to agree with what she had said earlier. She was nowhere near as kind Falkor when it came to flying.
It was nothing short of a miracle that Adair had managed to keep her breakfast inside her by the end of the flight. Though she blamed this on keeping her eyes closed the entire way rather than any fortitude on her part. Iole was swift and it seemed only a short while since they left the clearing when she felt them beginning to descend. For the first time she dared to open her eyes. There it was, blanketed in a thick fog and an eerie shade as though the sun was purposely keeping its rays away from its edge, a winding twisted formation of dead vines branches. This was the Forest of Thorns. And at what looked like its center, she could see the very tip of something solid and black peering above the woods. It looked like a tower.
Iole swooped lower and lower until she reached the very edge of the woods. Atreyu leaped off with ease as though he did this kind of thing every day (which was actually the truth).
"That was awesome!" Jason cried as he slid off Iole's back, a little unsteady to be on his feet again. "We are totally doing that again."
Adair, still feeling queasy allowed herself to be helped down.
As quickly as she had grown, Iole shrank back down to her human form with her strange elven ears. She said nothing until she reached the beginnings of the wood and took one of its thorny branches in her hand. They gasped as they watched it respond to her touch like a snake and coil around her arm. The thorns dug into her flesh, but she ignored it and closed her eyes.
"This is their work alright. The signature of their magic is all over this. Thoth must have crafted some kind of artifact and then let Nag use his primal spells to turn it into something that could grow and think on its own. Then Fay worked her magic on it." She spat and wrenched her hand free of the branch's grasp, snapping it as she did. The piece that broke off crumbled into dust before their eyes. "Thanks to Fay, this forest feeds on sorrow and regret. It'll dig its thorns into your hearts if you let it. So stay close to me and trust nothing that you see. Understand?"
They all nodded. Without any further instruction, she motioned for them to follow her in. Jason was right behind her with Adair in tow. But for some reason, Atreyu who had never hesitated to jump into action before hung back now. He followed behind Adair quietly with a troubled look on his face she had never seen in him before. She waited a while as they followed Iole into the woods before she asked him. She wanted to make sure the others couldn't hear her.
"What's wrong? You've been really quiet since we got here."
He only sighed at first. She had been right. Something was bothering him or else he wouldn't have taken so long to answer. "I was just thinking of what Iole said about this place. How it feeds on your sorrow. I... I've been to a place like this before. It was a long time ago."
This didn't surprise her. He'd told her of many fantastic places he'd visited in his adventures. So why did this particular place seem to weigh on him so heavily?
"Did something happen?"
"I lost a very dear friend." he admitted.
"Oh." she cursed herself in her head. She'd dug too deep. It wouldn't be fair to make him elaborate further than that, so she stopped talking. It was a silent trek at first. Iole was keeping her eyes straight ahead, hacking underbrush away with her claws. Jason seemed to be trying to imitate her calm and stern mannerisms by clearing the path with his sword, only occasionally offering a lighthearted one liner to try and relieve the tension.
"I still think Mrs. Belmonte's garden next door is worse."
To which Iole replied none-too-kindly. "Shut up."
The first to hear a sound was Atreyu, and while it was a nice thought for the silence to be broken, he would soon regret ever having listened.
"Master. Little Master." It was a voice Atreyu knew well, one that still haunted his dreams. But it couldn't be.
He cast his eyes all around the wood. "Artax?"
There behind the winding thorny branches of the forest Atreyu saw a face that had haunted him for years. Trotting through the thicket was a pale gray horse. There was no mistaking those eyes, the very ones that he had watched sink into the swamps of sadness as he cried and pleaded with him not to give up.
"Artax!" he cried and made to follow the horse into the darkness. But he was stopped. Adair took hold of his arm.
"Atreyu what are you doing?"
"It's Artax! He's over there! Don't you see him?" The way he spoke was frantic and desperate. It was so unlike Atreyu that it frightened her.
"There's nothing there!" She tried to explain. But it was like he could no longer hear her. He wrenched his arm from her grasp and there was nothing she could do to stop him from racing into the dark forest. "Atreyu! Atreyu!" she called after him, but it was no use.
"Adair!" she heard Jason call for her, followed by a curse from Iole.
"Are you all dense?! What did I just tell you?! We can't get separated!"
It was too late. The moment they broke from their line, the forest itself rumbled. Adair could feel it trembling beneath her feet and it reminded her of laughter. But not kind gentle laughter, or the giddy giggling of a school girl. This was more like the cackling of a spiteful child as he burns ants with a magnifying glass. Then the world around them closed. The branches writhed and the roots of the trees erupted from all sides, creating new barriers and new pathways that cut them all off from one another.
Left by herself, Iole cursed under her breath. She morphed her hands into claws and tried to slash a path through the thorns to the others, but found that the branches only scratched her back. With a deep powerful breath she unleashed a wave of flames at the wall, but this too proved useless.
"Fine. If that's the way you freaks want to play," she hissed to herself as she imagined the sadistic glee of the puppeteers she knew were behind this. "Just know that the longer I take to find you, the more time I have to think about what I'm going to do to you."
Atreyu winced against the sting of branches as their thorns struck his face. Tears were welling at the corner of his eyes as he tried to blink through the pain. Scratches lined his face and covered his arms. But the voice in the darkness spurred him on, leaping over the roots and branches in his path, and bounding through the winding paths.
"This way little master. This way."
A small patch of gray light showed Atreyu that he had come to a clearing in the woods. Artax had to be waiting for him there. He burst through the growth and found the clearing he had sought, swirling with an eerie gray mist.
"Artax? Where are you?"
"I'm here Little Master."
He whirled around, but found nothing. The voice had grown louder than before. He was sure his long lost friend was here.
"Here, Little Master."
Again Atreyu turned but found nothing. Now the voice sounded like it was coming from everywhere. Then it was right behind him.
"HERE LITTLE MASTER!"
His head reeled as he fell to the ground, struck in the back by a powerful hoof. He coughed and rolled onto his back. "Artax... why?" Then his dark eyes widened as he met the eyes of the beast. The creature looked just like Artax as he'd seen, but his eyes were blank and white. And from its mouth, the same gray mist poured out.
"Because you failed him." came another voice whose familiarity made Atreyu's stomach turn. "Just as you failed me." A figure stepped out of the mist, almost exactly as Atreyu remembered him. A slender youth dressed in fine silk with a long silver mantle and boots stepped to Artax's side and stared down at him with pitiless blue eyes. "Just as you will fail all of Fantasia."
"Bastian." he breathed. "You and Artax? How are you here?"
"We are trapped here by your failure." Bastian growled.
"No." Atreyu whispered. "I didn't! I got you back to your world!"
"But not before you let me become this! You saw what I was becoming and you let it happen!"
"I tried to save you!"
"You tried, but you failed." Bastian said as his rage twisted his mouth into the cruelest sneer Atreyu had ever seen. "And now you will face justice."
"Atreyu!" Adair called again, turning aimlessly into the winding paths that were presenting themselves. Here a path would open up and there another would close behind her. She couldn't help but feel like she was going in circles. "Jason! Iole!" The only voice that came back to her was her own.
She wrapped her fingers around AURYN in an attempt to calm herself. She knew she couldn't go on like this without a plan, but planning was not something she did. She didn't realize it, but Adair was more the type of person to allow herself to be pulled like a leaf in a river. And until she grasped AURYN and allowed its calming presence to wash over her, that is exactly what she had allowed the Forest of Thorns to do to her so far. Taking hold of the talisman gave her the first sense of clarity she'd had since they had all been separated. Now her steps seemed to have more purpose. She was taking strides in directions that had looked too difficult to travel before. She felt more confident in where she was heading now. But the Forest of Thorns had other plans for her.
A new voice reached her ears now. It was a young voice, but it sounded sad and desperate. She began to follow it. It sounded like crying. She rounded the bend where she was sure she would find the owner of the new mysterious voice. There at the base of a dead tree she found a small girl with her knees drawn up to her chest. Her little hands were held up to her face in an attempt to stem the tide of tears that were pouring down. She wore a simple white sundress that was tattered and filthy. The girl herself was covered in dirt from head to toe. In that moment Adair let go of the Gem, and at the same time forgot everything that Iole had warned her about when they'd entered the woods.
"Trust nothing you see" Iole had said, but the warning was whisked away at the pitiful sight of the crying girl.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"I'm lost." the girl wailed pitifully.
"Where are your parents?" It seemed the most natural thing for Adair to ask the girl.
"Gone. I'm alone. I'm all alone. I'm always alone." the small child choked back more of her sobs.
Sympathy for the girl tugged at Adair and before she knew what she was doing she reached and placed a hand on her head. "It's alright. You're not lost now. We'll find them."
Then a voice came from the girl that was not the pitiful sobbing of a child, but bitter and filled with hate. "You cannot find what is dead."
The moment she said that, Adair recoiled her hand, but not because of what the girl had said. It was because she had just recognized the white daisy pins tied in the girl's sandy blond hair. For the first time the girl lifted her head and met eyes with her. Adair felt a stab of fear in her chest as she met her own hazel-green eyes. She wanted to run but she couldn't rise to her feet quick enough. Instead she fell back and scooted desperately backwards. In that moment, the girl's eyes turned gray and were as still and dead as a frozen lake.
"Don't leave me." she hissed. And then her cries became screams. "Don't leave me alone!" She lifted her arms and they changed. Thick twisted vines covered in thorns like that of the forest shot from the sleeves of her dress. Like a horde of snakes they slithered towards Adair. Before she could get back to her feet, they wound their way around her arms and legs. They pulled themselves taut and their thorns cut into her flesh. She could feel her blood starting to seep through her tunic. Little by little the vines were pulling her back towards the creature that wore her face. She struggled and writhed in its grasp but they only grew tighter.
"I don't want to be alone anymore!" it sobbed even as it dragged Adair against her will towards it. "I'm always alone! No one loves me! I'm ugly! I'm boring! I'm strange! Why does everyone I love leave me?! What did I do? Will you leave me too! No, stay with me! STAY!"
With the last of the give the vines afforded her, Adair once more took hold of AURYN and wished for someone, something, anything to save her from this predicament.
Now before we go on to describe the gallant knight that appeared from nowhere in answer to Adair's wish, and saved her from the monster's grasp, it bears repeating that the wishes the Gem grants are not all they appear to be. And of course there is always a price attached, one that is not immediately apparent but becomes very clear at the moment when the one who made the wish least expects it. After all, you can't just throw something new into the story for the moment and dismiss it the next, especially in Fantasia. And Adair would soon find out what her wish had brought to her.
But as we said, Adair made the wish. Just as she was dragged the last little distance to the feet of the phantom of her child self, a silvery gleam shot from the darkness, carrying with it a heavy morning-star. It was a man clad in a silver breastplate. She could not see his face for it was helmeted. But burnished on his breastplate was the image of a golden sunrise climbing over a hillside. He shot from the trees with such speed that the creature didn't even have time to look in his direction as he raised his weapon and brought it down hard. Adair tore her eyes away and shut them tight just in time. She heard an echoing crack like wood splintering to pieces, accompanied by a crash as the man's morning-star came to rest in the ground. Instantly she felt the vines slacken their grip. She wasted no time shrugging them off. She made an attempt to dust herself off as she stood.
She looked to her rescuer and could only manage a weak "Thank you." to him.
The knight paid her no mind at first as he propped his morning-star against his leg so he could lift his gauntleted hands to his helmet. Adair was embarrassed to hear herself gasp as he removed it. The man had a beautiful youthful face with blue-gray eyes, and his hair was golden brown. It reminded her of a lion's mane. And when he spoke, though his voice was firm and masculine, it had a softness to it, like a poem.
"A beautiful maiden like you has no business in a place like this."
She couldn't say anything at first. The near death experience coupled with the man's striking appearance made it difficult for her to collect her thoughts.
"What are you doing here?"
The question prompted her to remember herself. "Sorry I was just looking for my friends. We came in together, but we were separated."
"Yes, this forest tends to do that. Perhaps you could benefit from an escort."
With this, Adair could not argue. "I... I guess so."
"Please." he smiled and his teeth were dazzling white. "It would shame me as a knight and a gentleman to leave you here unescorted. Especially after I took the time to rescue you." Without waiting for an answer he gathered up his weapon and slung it over his shoulder. He motioned for her to follow him.
Adair cast one last look at the pile of white rags and dead vines that had been the nightmarish creature and quickly fell in stride behind the knight.
"Don't worry, it won't be long before we find your friends, Lady Adair. I swear it."
Adair felt a jolt. "You know who I am?"
"Of course." he replied cordially but without looking over his shoulder at her. "You're quite famous in Fantasia already."
"And you?" She asked. "I mean, what's your name."
The knight chuckled. "For now you may call me Dawn."
Every little movement in the trees was bothering Jason now. He felt like the whole forest had eyes and they were all raking him up and down. He kept a firm grip on the hilt of the sword Iole had given him. He hadn't given it a name yet. He knew names were important in Fantasia, but he hadn't yet settled on a good one. He'd tried "Lady Luck", "Lucky Day", or even just plain "Lucky". They all felt like they came up short. Even so, he didn't doubt what it could do. He'd seen its magic, Falkor's luck magic in action. That's why he tried to keep his cool even as he stood there alone in the woods with no plan. He hadn't moved since he'd been separated from them. Every time he thought about it, the pathways around him seemed to shift.
Another movement caught his eye and this time he tracked it. It was gray and shapeless, like mist. It weaved in and out of the branches like it was taunting him, studying him. As he watched it he could begin to hear faint whisperings. He didn't like what he was hearing.
"Worthless. No place for you."
"Don't stare too closely."
Jason whirled around. He made an attempt to draw his sword from his shoulder, but stopped when he met eyes with the one who'd spoken (not that he was skilled enough to draw his blade quickly). Standing at the edge of the clearing was a slender figure shrouded in a white cloak. She didn't seem to belong in the forest at all. Even hooded as she was, she seemed to have a light about her that certainly didn't agree with their surroundings. The gray mist that rolled along the forest floor seemed to roll away from her. She lowered her hood and drew back her cloak. She was dressed in a long silk gown of silver. When she pulled her hood down, long raven tresses fell around her shoulders and almost reached her waist. Her sleeves had silver stars embroidered all down her arms. Her skirt had a split in the middle that must have been for horse riding. Her eyes were dark blue, but they seemed to sparkle like her gown.
"The forest is feeding on your regret." she explained and Jason finally became aware that his mouth was open. It sounded corny to him, but when she spoke her voice reminded him of a songbird. She smiled kindly. "If you stare at it for too long it will take a form you recognize. One that can hurt you the most. That's how it lures you. Are you looking for someone?"
Jason stammered. "Uh, yeah. My friends and I got separated."
"Oh I see. Well you're lucky I came along. I happen to know a safe route."
Still unable to speak, Jason gripped the hilt of his sword tighter, not out of fear but as if to thank it. A gorgeous stranger had just appeared out of nowhere and offered to show him the way through the forest. How much more luck did one guy need? With a new lightness in his step he followed her without hesitating. Unfortunately for Jason, he was about to discover that just like Adair's wishes, luck has two sides.
"Hey what's your name?"
"My friends call me Star." she answered. "And yours?"
"Jason. So how did you end up out here?"
She stopped short. They both did, because before she could answer a cry filled their ears. It was a howl of pain that Jason thought he recognized.
"That sounded like Atreyu!"
"Friend of yours?" Star asked.
Jason didn't answer the question. "He sounds like he's hurt. Do you know which way to go?"
"It sounds as though the forest has snared him. It came from that direction." Star pointed and then took off at a run. She was swift and graceful even in her gown. "Quickly, this way!"
Jason bounded after her, struggling to keep up. He was amazed at how fast she moved, as though she were some woodland elf. Her dark hair and white cloak whirled behind her dramatically. After what seemed like a short time she stopped at the edge of the clearing. Moments later, Jason burst through the trees to see what she had discovered. He felt his chest constrict with fear. What he saw was horrifying. Atreyu stood in the center of the clearing, and as they had guessed, he was in pain. Gripping his arm was a length of twisted vines covered in thorns. They stretched to the other side of the clearing. But what had scared Jason was what was attached to them. There was a boy dressed in fine silk in a silver mantle who would have been handsome if it were not for his dead gray eyes.
"Draw your sword Atreyu." the creature hissed. "Draw it!"
"I won't fight you Bastian!" the plains boy cried, and the agony in his voice was from more than just the thorns tearing into his flesh.
"You mean you can't. You're the same as you were then. You're a weak miserable failure. You failed me, you failed all of Fantasia and you'll fail again." The vines that were the monster's arm snaked their way across Atreyu's chest and peeled his tunic open to reveal the old scar on his chest. Atreyu screwed his eyes shut as they writhed across him.
"There it is, still as ugly as the day I gave it to you. This is the mark of your shame, and you wear it openly for all of Fantasia to see. Why?"
"Bastian please stop this! I don't want to fight you!" Atreyu pleaded. Jason hadn't known Atreyu for long, but he knew him well enough to know that pleading for mercy was not like him. The thought sickened him. He didn't know the full story behind this encounter, but it was clear to him that it's meaning had shaken Atreyu to his core. His sword and his bow were strapped to his back, his knife was at his waist, but the boy made no move for any of his weapons.
"We have to do something." Star whispered.
"Bastian," Atreyu fell to his knees. "I won't fight you. If it's revenge you want, then take it."
At that moment, something snapped inside Jason. "You." he had meant it for Atreyu, but he muttered it to himself. "You're the one she's counting on, and you would give up right now when she's out here somewhere lost and alone? You..." he was trembling now. "You make me sick!"
The creature at last became aware of the new presence in the grove, but Jason was already halfway across. His sword was already out, and he was gripping it with both hands. With a cry of rage he swung the blade. The apparition shrieked as he cut the bonds that held Atreyu. The vines that had held the young warrior fell slack and turned to dust.
"Get up!" Jason barked. But Atreyu made no move.
"This doesn't concern you." the monster howled. Even now it was growing new vines to replace the ones that had been cut. They writhed from both arms like sinister tentacles. "The traitor is mine!" The thorny vines lurched forward, tearing up the ground as they went.
As Jason tightened his grip on his weapon, he could feel its power tingling in his fingers. He felt light and carefree. With ease he stepped to the side, dodging the incoming strike and returning with a swing of his own. With a confidence he had never felt before he took off towards the enemy at a full sprint, dodging each attack. Each lash of the vine seemed to miss by only a hair, like some unknown force was saving him at the last second. Iole's training from this morning was playing through his head as he closed the distance between himself and the demon. And when he reached it, he only hesitated long enough to close his eyes as he swung his blade with all the force he could muster through its midriff. He heard an unearthly shriek as his sword cleaved the monster in half. When he opened his eyes he saw that his weapon had not cut through flesh and bone, but through dried dead wood. The upper half of its body fell to the ground while the legs remained standing, vines spouting from its top. The vines twitched and convulsed like nerve endings. Then all at once the hideous phantom crumbled to ash.
Jason's shoulders heaved. He could scarcely believe what he'd just done. His whole body was trembling, but he felt strong.
"Jason! Atreyu!" he turned and saw Adair entering the clearing from the other side. There was a man with her that he didn't recognize. He was wearing a silver breastplate and carrying a heavy morning-star. "I've been looking everywhere for you guys. We heard a scream. What just happened?"
Still feeling the rush of adrenaline, Jason could scarcely contain a smile. "What happened? I'm a freaking demon slayer, that's what happened!" He proclaimed proudly as he put his arms around her. "Are you alright? You look awful."
Adair grimaced. "Thanks. I had a little trouble, but I'm fine. Atreyu, what happened to you?"
Atreyu had gotten to his feet and joined them. The blood on his arm had not escaped her notice. "Had a little trouble myself." he said meekly. "I'll be fine."
Jason glowered at him out of the corner of his eye. He had not forgotten the cowardice the plains boy had displayed only seconds ago. Atreyu must have noticed his look because he seemed to shy away from his gaze.
"There you are." Jason jumped in surprise. In all the commotion he had completely forgotten about Star. She was crossing the clearing and speaking to the man that had come with Adair. "I see you enjoyed yourself." She pouted with a short glance in Adair's direction.
"I only did as we planned. How was I to know I'd find the girl first?" the man replied. His voice was like hers, soft and musical. As they came close to each other, he reached and brushed her dark hair behind her ear. "Fear not my love. No one can compare to your beauty."
Atreyu's eyes narrowed with suspicion. In a blink he had his bow drawn and an arrow knocked to the string. "Who are you?"
"Oh now you decide to use that?" Jason growled. "Chill out, she helped me get here!"
"He found me too." Adair assured him, indicating the man in the silver breastplate.
"And you followed them? Did you even ask them any questions?"
Jason took a firm hold on Atreyu's wrist, trying to force him to lower the bow. "You know I have yet to hear a thank you for saving your leather chapped hide."
"They're dangerous." the other boy insisted, but Jason felt like he was trying to avoid the issue. But the two strangers laughing in harmony proved him wrong.
"No by all means keep your weapons out." the knight laughed.
"You're going to need them." Star agreed.
"Once more." Atreyu readied his arrow again. "Tell us who you are."
"Gladly." the knight answered. He pointed with the end of his weapon, first to Star, then to himself. "She is the Lady of the Evening Star, and I am the Knight of the Burning Dawn."
Star threw off her long white cloak, and grasped the hem of her skirt, tearing it from her waist. What Jason had mistaken as a divide for riding was actually meant to detach it. Beneath it she wore black leggings with three belts secured around her waist, each one armed along its entire length with knives. "Together we are Fantasia's ultimate warriors."
The knight took her hand and he kissed it. Then they spoke in unison. "The Warriors of Love!"
The Knight of the Burning Dawn smiled as he lowered his gaze to the three of them. "And we've been sent to eliminate you."