Chapter 12: Warriors of Love
Leaning casually on his weapon, the Knight of the Burning Dawn grinned in anticipation. "So shall we wait for you to draw your weapons or would you prefer to simply hand over what we came for?"
The Lady of the Evening Star pointed to Adair. "The Glory if you please."
Instinctively Adair took the Gem in her grasp protectively. "If you wanted AURYN, why didn't you just take it from me when we were alone?"
"You foolish girl." the Knight chortled. "Do you know nothing of Fantasia?"
"AURYN cannot be taken." Star elaborated. "Only given. So if you would be so kind, we'll be on our way."
"So you're saying you can't kill me for it either?" Adair surmised.
"Clever aren't we. That's true." Star replied. "But there is no such magic protecting your friends."
Jason stepped in front of Adair. "Wait just a minute. If you'd planned to attack us from the start then why go through the trouble of helping us first?"
Star smiled with her rosy pink lips. "Because silly boy, we are not without honor."
"The Witches told us you were defenseless in these woods. And we were not about to prey on helpless children. So we took you to this clearing where we can do battle without interference from the forest, skill against skill."
Atreyu kept his arrow drawn. "Well now that we're here I think you'll find us far from helpless."
Jason couldn't spare a glower at Atreyu's sudden bravado.
You sure looked that way to me a second ago.
Star took hold of Dawn by the waist and he pulled her in. "We have nothing to fear from any of you, for as we said we are in love. As such we possess the strongest magic there is."
The two seemed to forget they weren't alone for a moment as Dawn stared deeply into his lover's eyes. "I would die for you my Lady."
"And I for you." she answered. And then completely heedless of the three children in the grove with them, they shared a deep passionate kiss.
Adair felt herself gag. "I think I just threw up a little."
The two broke from their embrace and locked venomous gazes on her. "Scoff all you want." Star spat. "You will never know the power of love as long as your heart remains closed."
"We need not explain to the likes of her or her two young suitors." Dawn growled.
Adair cast sideways looks at Atreyu and Jason. "Suitors?"
"Enough!" Dawn roared. "Give us the Gem, or do battle with us!" He gripped the hilt of his morningstar tightly and Star's fingers itched for the daggers at her waist. As Atreyu and Jason gripped their own weapons, Adair felt the familiar helplessness she'd felt that day when Chember had attacked the Snapdragon's clearing. Gripping AURYN in her hand again she thought furiously at what she should do.
"And what do we have here?" The sound of Iole's voice sent a wave of relief to her. The elf girl stepped into the grove with a hand on her hip and a wry smile. "More of the Seekers' agents?"
Dawn and Star both rounded their gaze on her and their stance made it plain they regarded Iole as a clear threat.
"Stand down White Dragon. This is not your affair."
Iole raised an eyebrow. "And if I choose to make it my affair? You know what I am and you know what I do. You have three seconds to change my mind before I send you to join your comrade."
Star laughed a high musical laugh. "Comrade? You mean Chember? We don't associate with vermin like him, nor do we hold contracts with the ones you are hunting. Our power is our own."
"You know this to be true." Dawn said with surety, though he maintained a protective stance in front of his lady. "Though our paths differ from these children, we are no Witches, and you cannot involve yourself in the affairs of this world."
Iole narrowed her eyes. "Don't play games with me. Do you side with them or not?"
"Our goals are the same." Dawn admitted. "But we follow this course of our own accord, and by our own power, not theirs. We hold no contract."
There was a long silence in the grove, during which Adair anticipated Iole to spring into action just as she had seen her do before. She knew what the dragon was capable of, and these two would not be able to stand against her if she attacked. So why was she simply standing there?
Iole folded her arms with a sour expression and leaned her back against the tree. "Fine then, carry on."
Adair's jaw dropped. "Iole!"
Jason was no less stunned. "Seriously? You're just going to stand there?"
"Traitor!" Atreyu snapped.
"She is traitor to no one!" Dawn roared. "She is a warrior of honor who stands by her code and you will show her the respect that is due!"
Star threw back her cloak, once again bringing attention to the glittering array of knives around her waist. "Besides, you'll want to keep your eyes on us and not her. It's clear to us that you won't hand over AURYN without some persuasion."
Dawn lifted his morningstar. "So now we do battle. Ready yourselves young swordsmen to face a power like you have never known." And then the clearing exploded with their clash. First Atreyu fired an arrow at Dawn. With a swift move that seemed impossible for so heavy a weapon, the knight blocked the arrow. It bounced like a twig off the blunt end of his weapon. In a step he closed the distance between himself and Atreyu. With no time to draw his sword, the plains boy was forced to leap back as Dawn brought his weapon down. A cloud of dust filled the grove and choked their sight.
Just as Atreyu had locked his blade against Dawn, Jason had a problem of his own. He could hear Star laughing somewhere in the smokescreen. Keeping his blade level in front of him, he spun back and forth trying to pinpoint where she was. A strange sensation struck him and he felt compelled to turn to his left and swing his sword just level with his shoulder. He couldn't have timed it better. The moment he moved he heard the clang as one of Star's knives bounced off his sword. Then in an instant he saw two flashes of light, prompting him to block two more.
Her voice sounded like it was coming from everywhere. "So your sword has luck magic. A handy little trinket." At the last moment he heard her rush him and only barely did he intercept her attack. She had leaped from the dust with two daggers drawn, her white cloak whirling behind her. "But it can't stand against me, for my magic is stronger. Sooner or later your luck will run out."
Meanwhile Adair stumbled through the dust. She coughed as the taste of dirt filled her mouth and choked her. She couldn't see Jason or Atreyu. She could only see flashes of metal and hear the furious clang of steel. She felt herself bump into something solid.
"Some show huh?" Iole said in a tone of slight amusement. "Jason's not doing bad for only a morning of training."
Adair looked up at her half in horror and half in disgust. "You're really not doing anything?"
"That's not true." she replied defensively. "Standing is something, watching is something, I might even see if I can find something to eat. Did you want anything?"
"They could be killed!"
"It's possible. These two are powerful." Iole was so casual it was cold as she took a seat on the ground and rummaged through her satchel. She pulled out a small box of what looked like a strange candy Adair had never seen before. "Oh awesome, I knew I had another box in here somewhere. You want some?"
"Are you insane?!"
Iole shrugged. "Suit yourself."
The battle ringing in her ears was unbearable. Each clash of weapons that rang out was like a hammer to her chest. "How can you just sit there?"
Iole looked up from where she sat cross-legged as though Adair had posed a ridiculous question. "How can you? You're so gung-ho to get something done, you do it."
"You heard me. Why don't you get in there and help?"
"I..." she stumbled for a response as that same feeling of powerlessness overtook her. "I can't! What can I do?" But Iole offered no answers as she wracked her brain. She had no weapon or any special talents to speak of. Adair had so little faith in her own abilities she was rooted to the spot. She had even forgotten about the wish she had made just the night before to find a way to help Atreyu and Jason on their journey.
The dust the their battle kicked up made the whole event a blur. Adair would catch a flash of metal there, a glimpse of Atreyu or Jason there, but not enough to really see what was going on.
Dawn's attacks were so heavy on raw power that all Atreyu could do was use his sword to slough off his blows. But a life of adventuring in Fantasia had not left him dull witted. The plains warrior knew it would take more speed and brains to defeat this enemy. The boy was nothing if not agile. With each step he watched his opponent, studied the way he moved, kept himself clear of his assault, and then he saw it. He found his opening.
Star whirled with impossible speed and her white cloak swirled hypnotically as she leaped back from Jason, threw two more knives for him to deflect, and then leaped forward with her daggers before he even had time to catch his footing.
"A girl." Jason hissed under his breath. "It had to be a girl! I can't fight a girl!"
Star laughed as she swung her dagger for his neck, a blow he was only barely able to avoid. "Does my beauty distract you, Sir Knight? You're not the first." Then all at once, her smile faded. For a moment her eyes weren't on Jason. They were drawn elsewhere by the cry of her lover. Atreyu had landed a successful blow on Dawn. She couldn't see them, but she could feel him as though it were herself that had been struck. She could feel him drop his weapon, feel the searing pain in his arm as he grabbed it and felt the hot blood run down his fingers.
Jason lunged forward and thrust the blade for her. He thought for sure he had her. Then all his speed and force vanished at once. He hadn't seen star move from where she had stood. It was like he had blinked and then she was somewhere else, and try as he might he could not move forward. His weapon was caught. Star had caught it, not with her daggers, but by clapping her bare hands together. The blade was caught right in the middle of the flat of her palms, and it wouldn't budge.
"There's no way that just happened!" he cried.
"Oh but it did. As we told you before, we would die for one another. That is our power. We draw strength from each other. When I am wounded, my love gains the strength of ten men. But when he is struck, my speed becomes unmatched!" She pulled him forward with all her might, and he stumbled right into the path of her kick. The foot she sent into his stomach sent all the air rocketing out of him. He fell to the ground in a heap, wheezing and coughing without any breath of relief.
Star had her daggers out again. This time, the one in her right hand was glowing. Adair could see its gleam illuminate Star through the dust. The Lady closed her eyes and whispered a command to the blade.
"Heartseeker, with the light of my love, pierce the darkness. Find my enemy's heart and cut it out!" She spun her feet, throwing all her speed and force into her right arm, channeling it to her wrist, and then she loosed the enchanted dagger. Its light let Adair see its path as it flew. Atreyu stood against Dawn with his back turned to the incoming attack. She cried out a warning. Atreyu heard it and turned, but it was too late. The dagger knew its path and pierced through the dust with deadly aim for Atreyu's heart.
With Adair's cry, a new light filled the grove, one that outshone even Star's dagger. This one came from AURYN. It was here where Adair would remember her wish from the night before. As her wish to protect Atreyu from Star's deadly weapon filled her, she felt it become real. There was a real tangible power swelling in her now, and she could feel it coursing down her arms and into her hands, reaching out through her fingertips. Without knowing fully what she was doing, but finally finding the courage to try, she stretched her hand forward. From the light burst raw force that threw Star's dagger off course. Not only did it deflect the weapon, it blew back the dust and threw Star off her feet. The Lady flew through the air like a rag doll and slammed into the tree behind her with tremendous force. She landed face first in the dirt. Adair stared at her hands, overwhelmed by the feeling and confusion of what she'd just done. Atreyu and Jason also looked awestruck with their eyes locked on her.
But they had forgotten about Dawn whose eyes were now on his fallen lover. And as they watched her fall, those eyes filled with rage. With a deafening roar he snatched up his weapon again. The wound from Atreyu's sword was suddenly gone and his arm was stronger than ever. He swung his morningstar. It struck Atreyu hard in the back and felled him to the ground. Jason had gotten back to his feet and moved to stop him, but the Knight batted him away just as easily. A single strike while they were down could have been the end of them, but Dawn did not waver as he rushed to his beloved's side. Gently he scooped her into his arms. Her eyes fluttered open and she laughed.
"She's stronger than we thought."
"Shh." he quieted her in the softest tone Adair had ever heard. "Don't speak my love. I must get you to safety." Then his face hardened as he turned a furious gaze on Adair. "This is not over Standard-Bearer. We will meet again." Then without another word, Star used what strength she had left to swirl her white cloak over the both of them. Then like a wisp of smoke they were gone.
The sound of clapping reminded Adair that Iole was still with them. "Not bad."
"Well Fay, you've been proven wrong again." Thoth said smugly. "It seems your Strongest Magic didn't stack up against AURYN after all."
Fay closed her book and turned her ice cold eyes on Thoth. "Wrong. It was the Strongest Magic that was victorious."
Nag swiveled its head between the two, watching them from where it hung from the rafters of the castle chamber. "But Fay, we just finished watching it. Adair used AURYN and blew right through those two."
"I said the Strongest Magic won, I did not say it was theirs."
Thoth leaned back in his chair and placed his hands behind his head, lacing his fingers together. "Well go on Fay, fill your colleagues in. How is it your Strongest Magic prevailed?"
Fay rose from her seat and stepped to the corner of the chamber where they had a blackboard against the wall. She removed the chalk and flipped the board over, trading the side Thoth had covered with formulas and equations for the blank one. The chalk floated from her hand and followed her train of thought on its own, drawing out the diagram she wished them to see.
"AURYN holds the power of the Childlike Empress. As such it is capable of almost anything here in Fantasia. But while the possibilities are limitless, it can only be used when fueled by the wishes of a human. And the stronger the wish, the more powerful the outcome. Not even AURYN can create something out of nothing."
Thoth nodded with a polite smile. Oh how he enjoyed this battle of logic with his colleague. "So what you're saying is that Adair used your Strongest Magic to fuel that wish."
"That is correct. Anything less and Star's dagger would have pierced Atreyu's heart without a doubt."
"But Adair and Atreyu barely know each other." Thoth reasoned. "I haven't researched nearly as extensively as you have into the subject, but I do know a connection like the one you speak of takes time to form, and is molded by experience."
"My research has indicated that is not always the case. Even time's hold is weakened in its wake. It's true that the most powerful connections require time to form. That's why it wasn't able to protect them from the fear they felt in our forest. But the Strongest Magic takes on many forms, and even the weakest variation is capable of the impossible."
"It's all so frustrating." Nag pouted. "I understand desire and attraction. Even animals have that. But your version makes everything so complicated Fay."
"It becomes less complicated if you simply accept it. Just admit it to be the most powerful force and it will all become clear."
Thoth grinned and shook his head. "Never. Not until you can support it with provable testable data. This is a wager I will gladly expend all of my effort to win, even if it takes me another few centuries."
"Hopefully we won't have to wait that long." Nag sighed. "Come on! When is something exciting going to happen again?"
"I believe you're right Nag, we've lingered on this phase long enough." Thoth rose to his feet and held his hand out to Fay. "Shall we m'dear?" Fay placed her hand in his and they motioned for Nag to join them. The creature leaped off its perch and joined its hands with theirs. "If they have even a taste of the kind of magic you dream they do Fay, they may survive this yet."
Adair knelt down at Atreyu's side. His wounds from Dawn's attack were far more severe than Jason's. He managed to sit up, but he held a hand to his side. She was sure some of his ribs were cracked. She looked to Iole.
"Is there anything you can do?"
Jason folded his arms, ignoring the pain in his shoulder. "Yeah, because she's been so much help so far."
Iole shrugged, ignoring Jason. "I'm not much of a healer. The best I could do is bandage him up. Why don't you try something? Make your hands glow again.”
Adair looked down at her hand nervously. "What was that anyway?"
Atreyu looked up at her. "Maybe it was something you wished for."
At last the memory of what she had wished for last night returned to her. "Now I remember. I heard Iole tell Jason she was going to train him in the morning and I wished I could find some way to help. Is that what that weird light was?"
Iole smiled with that knowing glint in her eye. "Sounds like AURYN decided to bestow some magical abilities on you. It's very rough magic. It looks like it just takes your will and manifests it as raw energy. You could develop it with time."
"So you think I could use it to heal Atreyu?"
Iole nodded. "I don't see why not."
Adair hesitated, but Atreyu had far greater faith in her. "It will be fine. If it's your wish then I know it will work."
She swallowed, but she nodded. She clenched her fist, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She tried to remember what she had done before that had summoned that power to her. Now that she was searching for it, she could feel it. It was a small warmth like a flickering candle inside her. She remembered how she had felt its flame burst when Star had thrown her dagger at Atreyu. She could feel it stir again and felt the flames swirl up inside her.
Too much! She thought. She pulled away from those earlier thoughts, but held onto the part about Atreyu, that desire to shield him from harm. She felt the warmth of her candle burn a little brighter and felt its warmth in her hands. She heard Jason and Atreyu gasp. She opened her eyes and found a soft warm glow coming from her clenched fist. She opened it, and it glowed brighter. She held her hand over Atreyu. He winced, but only slightly, and then closed his eyes and sighed like a great weight had been taken off of him. She released her hold on that power and her hand stopped glowing.
Jason was in awe. "Awesome! Adair you're like some kind of sorceress now!"
She didn't know if she liked the sound of that, but she was pleased with the results. Atreyu was getting back to his feet and poking his side with his fingers, amazed at the way his body had healed. Not a bruise or a scratch remained save for that scar he had carried on his chest all the time she'd known him.
He flexed his arm and rolled his shoulder. "Amazing!"
But they didn't have long to wonder at Adair's new ability. Once more, the ground began to rumble and the trees began to shift.
"Not again!" Jason moaned.
"Quick grab hands!" Iole shouted as the ground started rolling and shifting under their feet. They joined hands as quickly as they could, but just before Adair could take Iole's, a wall of thorned vines shot up from the ground, cutting the three off from their guide.
"It's fine!" they heard her call back, but only barely. "I'll find another way around! You go on without me!" They quickly lost sight of her, and the ground didn't stop moving. Adair held so fast to her friends she thought her arms were going to be torn off. The shifting ground threw them up off their feet where they rolled through the dirt together. When it stopped at last, all three of them were face down on the ground. Adair choked on the taste of dirt and spat it out. She crawled forward, but was surprised when she found not forest floor beneath her fingers, but hard cold stone. She raised her head, shaking the dust from her hair. She never stopped looking further upward as she got to her feet, for what she saw in front of her was towering over the three of them.
"The castle." she breathed.
"We found it." Jason whispered.
Atreyu shook his head. "No. We're here because they wanted us to come. And they wanted us here without Iole."
She really hated the sound of that. "So what do we do?"
"Do we have a choice?" Jason asked. "If they have Falkor we have to go in there. And it's not like they're just going to let us leave after bringing us here."
"So we play their game." Atreyu said darkly.
"Unless you have any better ideas." Jason glowered. "But we've got nothing to worry about! We've got magic on our side now!"
"I don't know." Adair fingered the chain that held AURYN around her neck. "I don't really know how to use it. They've been using magic for who knows how long."
She felt Atreyu take her hand and squeeze it. She looked back at him, and there they were, those same unmovable black eyes. The ones that had looked to her with unwavering faith so many times before. "Let's go."
And so the three heroes stepped into the Castle of Nightmares.
Following the torchlight through the stone entryway led them to an eerie chamber with high ceilings, lit by candlelight that hung from chandeliers. They had been led to a dining hall. A single long table stretched all the way from the entryway to the other side. Red silk curtains hung from the back of the chamber, hiding the rear of the room from their view. And seated at the head of the table was Thoth, the candlelight gleaming most wickedly off the lenses of his glasses. To his left sat Nag who leaned halfway over the table, leering at them with a crooked smile. And to Thoth's right was Fay sitting perfectly straight with a porcelain tea cup and platter in her hand. She didn't even look in their direction as she sipped her tea delicately. It was Thoth who greeted them.
"Welcome honored guests! We don't get many visitors in our forest. You will forgive our host, Lord Volrac for neglecting a proper welcome, but he is otherwise engaged. Waging a war is busy work it seems. So my colleagues and I shall be playing host. You may call me Thoth, and these are my associates Nag and Fay."
Atreyu had his bow drawn immediately. "Skip the small talk Witch. You know why we're here. Where is my friend."
Thoth wagged his finger at the boy. "Tsk-tsk dear boy. Do they teach no manners in the Grasslands? No weapons at the table." With a wave of his hand, Atreyu's bow was ripped from his grasp. Adair gasped, and before she knew what she was doing, that warmth enveloped her again. A glow surrounded Atreyu's bow which remained suspended in mid air. Nag applauded and squealed in delight, and even Fay had glanced at them now.
"Ooooo" Nag chided. "You've learned some new tricks!"
Thoth lowered his hand to the table and Atreyu's bow went with it, lying motionless now. "Let's not be too hasty Miss Artemis."
Fay lowered her cup. "Your magic is no match for ours."
"Too true m'dears, and I'm afraid your weapons will do you little good here in our domain."
Nag rose from its seat. "But you're welcome to try on me." In a sudden blur of blue and black, the creature stood an inch from Atreyu's face. "Go on little boy. Hurt me." It licked its lips. Atreyu drew his blade and swung, but Nag jumped back and was suddenly back in its seat, giggling most sickeningly.
Adair glowered at each of them in turn. "Alright, you took the time to bring us here and leave Iole out in the cold."
Thoth put on a look of exasperation. "Gracious I wouldn't dream of bringing the White Dragon here. Have you seen her eat? She makes for a deplorable dinner guest."
Fay rolled her eyes. "As though Nag were any better?"
"What do you freaks want?" Adair shouted, and her voice echoed along the stone chamber.
Thoth sighed. "You young people. No patience."
"I'm getting bored too Thoth." Fay snapped. "Get on with it."
Thoth rolled his eyes. "Very well." He snapped his fingers, and the red silk curtains began to stir. On their own they were drawn back to reveal what had remained hidden in the back of the room. An enormous swirling globe of water hovered in the air, blocking most of the ceiling from view. It was contained in nothing and was held by nothing, rippling and shifting freely. And yet it remained still in its perfect sphere. But its beauty was overcome by the horror of what they saw trapped inside.
Atreyu gasped. "Falkor!" The Luckdragon's long serpentine body hung motionless in a spiral, held by an invisible force in his watery cage. But in spite of that, they saw him turn his great ruby eyes on them and smile. It was Falkor, and he was alright for the most part.
"Don't Luckdragons hate water?" Nag gloated. "How clumsy of us to forget."
Thoth held his hand up again. "Have a seat." They felt a forceful shove to the backs of their legs and the chamber became a blur around them. When they came to a halt, all three of them were seated at the table. Jason and Atreyu had been seated next to each other, and Adair sat across from them. They were roughly three seats away from the head of the table where the Seekers sat. Thoth continued his casual tone as though he had not just compelled them into becoming a captive audience. "Now you three have put on a splendid show for us up until now, hurtling over every obstacle we've thrown at you. I believe congratulations are in order. So the finale of tonight's festivities, we are going to play a game, in which you shall be given a sporting chance to get what you came for."
Adair narrowed her eyes. "A game?"
"Oh yes." Nag grinned. "Didn't Iole tell you? We love games. Especially riddles."
"Quite right. A battle of wits between you three, and your hosts. Fay, care to explain how the game works?"
Fay sighed. "Each of us will present you with a riddle in turn. You will be given as much time as you like to answer. With each correct answer you shall be moved one seat closer to us. If you reach the seat next to us, we will undo our spell and release the Luckdragon. Then you can all leave together."
"But be careful." Nag warned. "With each wrong answer," it held up its claw tipped fingers and drew them tighter together. They watched in horror as Falkor's watery prison closed in ever so slightly. "Well, you get the idea."
Atreyu leaned forward to whisper to Adair. "I don't like this. It's an obvious trap. We should take them head on and get Falkor out of here."
Jason leaned in next to him. "Weren't you listening? They're not giving us a choice. They planned this whole thing, and if we don't play by their rules, Falkor gets it."
Atreyu glared at him. "I'm not going to sit here and play their games while they hold my friend's life in their hands."
"I don't like it either." Adair admitted. "But we don't have much choice right now. We'll just go along with their game for now, but keep thinking of a way out. I don't think they're going to let this end as easily as they say."
"We can hear you, you know." Fay interjected from across the room.
Thoth indicated the ceiling. "Sound travels in here after all. And I for one am utterly offended at your lack of trust Miss Artemis, after all we've done for you."
Atreyu snarled at them. "What do you mean 'all you've done for her'?"
Adair inwardly cringed, and slid her hand under the table, the one that bore the Circle's ring. The motion did not go amiss by Thoth who shot her a wolfish smile before returning to Atreyu.
"Why bringing her to Fantasia of course."
"Just shut up." she snapped. "We'll play your game."
Thoth rubbed his hands together. "Excellent. So who would like to go first."
Nag shot its hand up eagerly. "Oh, oh, me! I'll go first."
"M'dear Nag, the floor is yours."
Nag chuckled. "Lucky me! Let's see. Oh I know, I'll start you off with an easy one:
"When young, I am sweet in the sun.
When middle-aged, I make you gay.
When old, I am valued more than ever.
What am I?"
The three of them exchanged glances. It was apparent none of them had an immediate answer. Jason's eyebrows knit together in a frown. "Uh... is it an antique?"
"Oooo not even close." Nag wagged its claw at Jason. The three of them cringed as the watery cage around Falkor closed tighter again. One more wrong answer and the water would reach him and scald his skin. "The answer was wine."
"I'll take all three of you!" Atreyu shouted and attempted to rise from his seat, but Jason took hold of his wrist.
"Keep it together!"
"Get your hands off me!" Atreyu cursed, throwing Jason's grip. The boy was much stronger than Jason. "How could you answer so rashly?!"
"I'm sorry! I panicked!"
"Guys!" They both looked to Adair. The Circle of the Night remained quiet, apparently entertained by their suffering. She beckoned them closer. "Atreyu relax. I think I know how to play their game now. But we need to be more careful answering these riddles Jason."
"I have no gift for riddles Adair." Atreyu admitted.
"No but we do have one thing going for us. Nag's answer was wine. Do you remember what Iole told us about Nag?"
Atreyu nodded, trying to follow her train of thought. "That it has a lust for life, enjoys fine food and... drink."
"I see what you're saying." Jason grinned.
"Right. Their answers probably have something to do with them, about the way they think. Nag's would be something to do with life or being primal."
Thoth applauded lightly. "Good work Miss Artemis. You've learned how to play the game. What a clever little flower. I knew I liked you. So since you're so keen on our rules now, why don't you answer the next one. I'll give it this time.
I am an iron horse with a flaxen tail.
The faster I run,
the shorter my tail becomes.
What am I?"
She looked to her companions who had nothing to offer. Then she looked inward. Her first thought was a train, but she wouldn't call a train's tail flaxen, nor did it get shorter the faster it ran. She thought about what Iole had said about Thoth. He was someone who was driven to understand things logically. He needed to find an explanation for everything. He wouldn't even use his magic unless he could channel it through some kind of artifact, something physical that he could control and hold in his hands. He was the near opposite of Fay in that regard. From that information, she guessed his answer would likely be a machine or a tool... Then it struck her.
"A needle and thread. The needle is the horse, the thread is the tail. And when you use the needle, you use up the thread. The tail grows shorter."
Thoth chuckled. "Very good. Very good." He motioned with his fingers. They felt their chairs moving again. They were pulled away from the table, and the ones next to them slid into their places. They rotated and were seated once more, this time a seat closer to the Seekers. "You are one step closer to your goal. But the game isn't over yet. Fay, I believe it's your turn. Why don't we give young Master Sayers a chance to redeem himself."
Adair looked nervously to Jason. He may have botched the first riddle, but now they knew the trick to the game. From what they knew of Fay, the answer would be an emotional one. And Jason had one of the biggest hearts she knew of.
Fay didn't waste time. "This one is for Jason:
You need one when you are young,
you fear it when you are older,
but you will keep one when you are grown.
Of what do I speak?"
Jason answered quickly, and at first they worried he had been too reckless. But he was far more confident this time. "A woman."
Atreyu's eyes were wide. "How did you come up with that?"
"Experience." he answered bitterly. "That's why they asked me. It wouldn't have worked if they asked Adair. A boy needs his mother when he's young. When he gets older he starts to get nervous around girls. But when he's grown up he'll keep one as his wife."
"Congratulations." Fay muttered the most insincere encouragements they had ever heard. Once more their chairs were rotated one seat closer to victory.
"Is it my turn again?" Nag smiled. "Goodie. How about a harder one this time. Atreyu, you've been awfully quiet. This one's for you.
At the sound of me, men may dream
Or stamp their feet
At the sound of me, women may laugh
Or sometimes weep."
Atreyu glowered at first, but then grinned smugly. "You should have given me another one. Any one of my people could answer this. The answer is music. Hardly any time goes by before my village sings the songs of our people and dances around our fires in celebration."
"That one was easy Nag." Fay admitted. "Are you even trying?"
But Nag was unperturbed. "You know Atreyu, I think I'd rather like to meet your tribe. They sound like my kind of people."
The riddle was answered, and their seats were rotated forward once more. Now Adair found herself seated right next to Fay. Being this close, she couldn't ignore the sudden chill that seemed to stem from the girl. She also caught notice of that black cat-like tail swishing back and forth under her skirt. She wasn't sure if it was the cold or the unnatural tail that made her shudder. Atreyu and Jason were now seated right next to Nag who appeared to take far greater pleasure in their proximity than they did. It even reached over and tugged at Atreyu's dark hair, rubbing it between its claws before the boy swatted its hand away.
"Well my guests, it seems you've nearly made it." Thoth gloated.
"Nearly made it?" Atreyu asked indignantly. "You gave us your word that when we reached you, you would let Falkor go!"
"That I did. And you have reached us. So now you are faced with one final riddle, one that none have been able to answer. But answer it you must. And if you do, then freedom is yours." He reached his hand out toward the end of the dining hall through the door where they had come in. On their own, the great double doors swung open to the entry hall. And just beyond them, the heavy iron doors to the castle were opening. The Forest of Thorns lay beyond them, but even that was a welcome sight if it meant leaving this castle with their friend. "Fay m'dear, if you would do the honors?"
Fay set her cup down. "The final riddle is simple, and any of you are free to answer." She turned her glass-like blue eyes on all three of them in turn, coming to rest at last on Adair. She could feel that chill again. "What is the Strongest Magic?"
Adair was confused. She had to know what Iole had told them. They'd already been given the answer. The riddle had come from Fay who Iole had explained was obsessed with matters of the heart. Despite her dark and twisted nature, she believed adamantly that love was the most powerful magic there is. Whether Adair believed this herself she wasn't sure. She knew little about love and even less about magic. It seemed too simple. Her fingers slid casually over AURYN. She didn't even notice at first. But the moment she touched it, an image flashed into her mind. It was of Mr. Huffman, her chemistry teacher. At first she wondered why the Gem had shown her such a thing. Then she remembered something Mr. Huffman had taught her on the first day of the school year. That was when she realized why the riddle seemed so simple. It was a trap.
"Before I answer, let me ask you a question. You three like to experiment right? Like mad scientists?"
"Some may say mad." Thoth admitted. "We say bold."
Adair glowered. "I was just thinking about something I learned in my science class about the scientific method. When a scientist forms a hypothesis, they plan an experiment to prove it. But until it's proven, a theory can't be accepted as fact. Isn't that right?"
"You've been taught well." His smugness made her want to punch that arrogant grin off his face.
"Iole told us what Fay believes is the Strongest Magic. But she also said you're experimenting on it. That means you two don't agree, and that means you're still testing it. You haven't found the Strongest Magic yet. There is no answer to your riddle. You just made it up so we would lose."
Atreyu and Jason were already reaching for their swords. Thoth looked to Fay who simply shrugged.
"The cat's out of the bag." she said as she reached toward the entrance. With a flick of her wrist, the doors slammed shut once more.
Atreyu was out of his chair first. He leaped like a cat onto the table, kicking over the platters. With sword in hand he leaped for Fay, ready to bring his blade down on her. Fay didn't move, didn't even blink. But before Atreyu could strike, a searing red heat filled the room. A scarlet wave of light burst from where Fay was seated and threw Atreyu back. He flew through the air as limp as a doll and landed hard on the stone floor.
"You really should watch your temper dear boy, especially around Fay." Thoth wagged his finger. "Magic of the heart, or rather emotion is her specialty. Any anger directed at her becomes a dangerous spell."
Before Atreyu could get to his feet, Nag was on top of him, taking a firm grip on his wrist and twisting it behind his back. Adair bolted out of her seat so quickly she knocked her chair over.
"Let him go!" The same light that had burst from her earlier blasted from her hands now. Nag shrieked as it was thrown into the air and slammed against the wall.
Thoth sighed, barely affected by the heightened situation. "Children. Have you so soon forgotten your Luckdragon friend?" He waved his hand behind him, and they could hear the watery cage start to close in again.
Now it was Jason's turn to act. "Not so fast!" With his black sword he swung for Thoth who took a leisurely step back.
"Oh my I was wondering when that little beauty of mine would turn up." he said as he dodged another of Jason's swings. "Crafted it myself you know. Marvelous thing Luck Magic isn't it? With a little luck, even a clumsy oaf like you can learn to wield a sword. But as you can see there are limits." Every swing Jason made was missing, and he was swinging wildly. Thoth was dodging effortlessly. He didn't lose any breath as he spoke. He was even keeping his hands folded behind his back. "It relies on probability you see. The lower the probability the higher your luck. But you see, the greater the probability of success, the less effective your efforts become. Much like a showman, Luck Magic is at its finest when there are miracles to preform. Quite counter-productive wouldn't you agree? Now if I were to use my magic against you, you'd be well out of your league, but that would only make you all the luckier. As it stands however, you're attacking an unarmed man who has no intention of fighting back." Another swing for his midriff saw Thoth spinning into the air. Jason's jaw dropped as he landed perfectly balanced on the tip of his sword. The Witch stood there gloating over the rims of his glasses. "At least not until your luck runs out."
Now Atreyu and Adair would have gladly come to Jason's aid if they hadn't problems of their own. Before Atreyu could come to the rescue, Nag was back on its feet. With nimble grace it flipped over him and landed directly in front of him. Atreyu swung his sword for the creature, but Nag was very light on its feet. It jumped back with a shrill laugh. It knelt down on all fours, and before Atreyu's eyes, the stone floor beneath them began to ripple like water. It crept up Nag's tattooed arms all the way to its elbows. Then it slithered up its ankles. Nag stood upright again, and the stone continued to swirl until it formed long spikes on both of Nag's hands, and even the ends of its feet. It spun like a top on the end of its now pointed foot, its blades whirling dangerously. Atreyu needed all of his speed just to avoid being sliced to ribbons, because Nag could now attack from four directions at once.
Adair had no shortage of troubles herself. She had attempted to call on her power again, but just as soon as that gold light left her hand, it bounced back as though it had struck a wall. Then it returned and knocked her several feet backwards. Fay was on her feet and her cold eyes were on her.
"You direct your attacks with your anger. No matter how powerful you become, so long as your magic comes from your emotions I can control it."
Adair glowered. She was the one she had most wanted some payback against. And now she had the means to get it. She let her power fill every fiber of her being again and focused all her will on one thing: how badly she wanted to see Fay slam into that table. A ball of light shot from her hands, hissing and sparking electrically. It flew towards Fay, but was just as quickly tossed aside with a wave of the Witch's hand. But it didn't come back on her this time. Fay's control over her anger wasn't as absolute as she had claimed. Adair was hurling more balls of light, each one faster than the last, and each one Fay redirected.
Meanwhile Jason continued his fruitless struggle against Thoth. He was quickly running out of breath. Another thrust, another miss, and this time he nearly toppled over. Thoth grinned. This was the chance he had waited for. Jason tried to pull back, but a glimmering something had seized his sword by the blade. He followed it with his eyes and found that it was a steel cable with metal pincers on the end. The cable was emerging from the under the cuff of Thoth's sleeve, and it was not alone. Three more were coming out. Like a nest of serpents they latched themselves onto the blade. Jason tugged, but suddenly felt his feet go out from under him. More cables had come out from Thoth's other sleeve, and these ones had seized his limbs, hoisting him by his jeans and his shirt. They pulled furiously at him, and with little effort they pried the sword from his grasp. Jason instantly felt something leave him.
"You poor boy." Thoth sneered as he used his mechanical appendages to hoist Jason higher. "Looks like your luck has run out."
Adair could see her friend being hoisted high and for a moment her eyes went wide in panic. She took one step towards him, but her other foot wouldn't move. She looked back down at her feet and gasped. Her left foot was encased in ice. Worse yet, the ice was spreading. The cold shot through her as it took hold of her other foot. Now it was crawling up her legs. In a few more seconds she would be completely frozen. That one moment where she ceased her attack, forgot her anger, and gave into fear was all Fay needed to claim the advantage.
"What you know about magic could fit into a thimble." Fay almost sounded disappointed. "I don't need your anger. I can use your fear too."
Adair could feel herself starting to shut down. She knew this feeling, this feeling of helplessness and panic. Her breathing was growing rapid and shallow. She used all her will to steel herself. She needed to calm down. She needed to think. But her thoughts were consumed not only by her danger, but her friends'. Jason was being swung back and forth, poked and prodded by Thoth's machinations. She could hear Atreyu calling her name, but any attempt to move for her was blocked by Nag who was gaining in speed, almost as if its earlier efforts had been mere play. And Falkor watched her with pleading eyes from behind that wall of water.
A new feeling was spreading through her now. It wasn't fear or anger. What she felt now was excitement. She'd just been given an idea, and with pure thought she could put it to action. The ice that had now reached the middle of her waist slid down. Fay watched curiously as she freed herself. With her feet freed, Adair focused her thoughts on the remaining ice and transformed it. A wave of cold carried the ice further away from her. It washed across the floor and began to slide up over the watery prison that held Falkor. With a chorus of cracking the water around him froze completely. Then she flung another ball of light from her hand. With a resounding crack that shook the whole chamber, the ice shattered. Falkor was free, and he was livid.
In a streak of white he shot past Thoth, snapping those awful cables in his jaws and freeing Jason who quickly retrieved his sword. Then the Luckdragon collided heavily into Nag who rolled along the ground with such force that its stone weapons crumbled away. The creature shrieked and sped away on all fours, scaling the wall like a squirrel and even scurrying along the ceiling in a mad attempt to escape the Luckdragon's jaws. Then Falkor turned his mighty head and opened his great maw. A jet of blue flames shot from his mouth at Fay. The Witch held up her porcelain white hand, and the fire curved around her, but she squinted against the heat. The fire was not letting up.
"ENOUGH!" The new voice called the attention of every head in the room. One look at his burning yellow-green eyes sent a new wave of terror all over Adair.
"Volrac!" Atreyu growled.
The tall wolf-man clad in black armor stood as tall and menacing as any child's nightmare would. He looked even more disheveled than the last time they had seen him. His long black hair was caked with dust, as was his long blood red cloak and black plate armor. His boots were plated over with mud. He snarled and bared his fangs savagely. His blazing eyes swept the scene and came to rest on Jason.
"Another human in Fantasia? How desperate has Moon Child become?" His eyes came to rest again on Adair. "Was this your doing, Mirror of the Empress?"
She could say nothing, think nothing, feel nothing with this monster standing in front of her with that face that had haunted her nightmares for so many years.
"I warned you when you stood before me in the Ivory Tower what lay ahead for Fantasia. You may have defied me there, but you have sealed your fates by entering my domain. This castle, this forest, it is all tied to my will. Now you will all perish here, and any vain hope Moon Child has of stopping me will die with you!" Volrac did not move an inch, but suddenly everything shook.
Adair screamed as the floor cracked open and long thorny vines shot through the openings. They writhed and swung, reaching for her, reaching for Jason, Atreyu, and Falkor. They knocked over the chairs, tore through the walls, and sundered the long table in half. But Volrac and the Seekers remained untouched. Falkor acted quickly, and moved with incredible swiftness for one his size. Adair didn't feel herself being gathered up, but suddenly she found herself on his soft furred back, Atreyu and Jason behind her.
"Hang tight!" he called in that bellowing musical voice that she had so missed. They rocketed upward towards the great stone ceiling. Adair screamed again and shielded herself, burying her face in his fur. With a mighty crash they burst through the roof of the castle. But the entire forest was moving. The vines were shooting into the air all around them, trying to close a cage over them. The vines reached high above them. The opening between them was getting smaller and smaller.
"Hold on!" Falkor called again. They weren't going to make it. Adair was sure of that. She closed her eyes and braced for the scraping of thorns against her flesh. But when she was met instead with the rush of free air she opened her eyes. She laughed in surprise and Jason cheered. They had cleared it, and now they were leaving the Forest of Thorns far below them. "That will show them."
Atreyu hugged his old friend tightly. "I've missed you Falkor!"
"And I you old friend." As he flew he turned his great lion head to look at them with those glittering ruby eyes they had feared they'd never see again. "And who's this? Another human has come to Fantasia?"
Jason appeared at a loss for words. "Uh... 'sup Falkor."
Falkor's eyes lit up. "I know that voice! So it was you who saved us that last time. Seems we've found a handy new ally. And how have you been Adair?"
Adair breathed her first sigh of relief in days. "Better now that you're here." She looked back down at the forest, which even now seemed to be roiling like boiling water below them, trying to snatch what was now beyond its reach. "That was close Falkor."
"Not at all." he laughed. "I knew we'd make it. With friends like you three, I'm the luckiest dragon in all of Fantasia."
Bastian sighed with no small amount of relief. "My word, how this book still gets to me." he said to no one in particular. It was a wonder any of his fingernails remained with how furiously he'd bitten them reading this last chapter. He certainly didn't recall any of his adventures in Fantasia being quite so violent. Of course there had been that battle at the Ivory Tower, but that was a time he preferred not to remember; the time he had used his own sword against his friend. And it seemed Atreyu still carried the scar he had left, both on his body and on his heart.
"Oh my dear friend Atreyu. Have you carried that guilt around all this time? If you only knew." The old man felt a tear escape from his eye. He brushed it away and went on reading.
Nag's blue furred ears twitched as it stretched its hearing as far as it could go. "They're out of range my lord."
Volrac sneered. "It no longer matters. I finally have what I need. Now not even Moon Child can stand in my way."
"I take it you found it then?" Thoth asked.
Volrac reached into the folds of his red cloak and pulled out a bundle of cloth tightly wrapped with cord. "It was right where you said it would be. We now have the final piece."