The Strongest Magic

Chapter 13: The Weight of Leadership

Many thousands of Fantasians had ventured into the Forest of Thorns since it first appeared. Some had been lured by Volrac's promise of a new Fantasia no longer bound to Moon Child, others were poor souls who had lost their way in it, trapped in the waking nightmares it showed them. None who ventured in had ever left, at least not without the permission of those who ruled it whether Volrac himself or the three Witches who had crafted it for him. But that was no longer true, for on the back of a Luckdragon our heroes had escaped the Forest of Thorns and its wicked king, but only just.

"They totally schooled us." Jason said sourly with his arms folded. He'd grown used to riding on Falkor's back over the clouds, absentmindedly watching the lush forests and plains of Fantasia pass below him.

"Are the schools in the human world really that terrible?" Atreyu asked with some wonder.

"No you dope!"

Atreyu frowned. "Oh. Is this one of those expressions Adair's been trying to teach me?"

Jason sighed in frustration. "Just forget it. I mean they were way out of our league! How are we supposed to fight something like that? And don't say 'with luck' Falkor!"

Falkor chuckled. "Alright I won't."

Atreyu nodded. "I see your point Jason. But we shouldn't give up. I've fought Creatures of Darkness before. If we keep faith we'll find a way."

"You mean like you did in the forest?" the other boy muttered. In his mind, Atreyu was the last person to give advice on not giving up.

Atreyu wasn't entirely sure what Jason was referring to. "What do you mean?"

Jason decided the issue wasn't worth pressing. "Never mind."

Atreyu nodded and returned to watching the skies. He didn't know why Jason had shown such hostility toward him thus far. Because he was Adair's best friend, and an eager warrior he held Jason in high esteem. That aside, there was merit in his words. Their encounter with the Circle of the Night had left them shaken. The way the Witches had trapped them, toyed with them, and then unleashed dark magic so freely as though it were one long game. They took to battle and the pain it caused like children took to skipping stones across a river. He'd been powerless against Nag's primal magic of water, air, and stone, its unnatural speed and agility, and its ferocity was fiercer than any predator he had ever hunted. Thoth's machinations had nearly torn Jason limb from limb, and who knew how many other infernal devices he had up his sleeve that they had not yet seen. And Fay had proven the most difficult foe of all, turning their own anger, their fear, their sorrow, anything they felt on them. If caught off their guard, their very hearts could be used as weapons against them. But Volrac was by far the worst. It had been as though the entire nightmarish forest had been a part of him. His powers were growing and if they didn't put a stop to him soon, Atreyu feared that his darkness would cover all of Fantasia before the Childlike Empress had a chance to put things right. More than anything Atreyu feared that Gaya's warning would come true, that Volrac could indeed replace Moon Child as the heart of Fantasia. It was a vision he did not relish.

Adair had not spoken much since their escape. This was because not five minutes after they had left the Forest of Thorns behind them, she had fallen fast asleep. These new powers AURYN had granted were physically and mentally draining. They were after all powered by her heart, something she had kept locked away for such a long time. It would take practice to master it, much like rebuilding a muscle you have injured. And she was about to find that she still had much to learn about the magic that had grown inside her. As it's been said before, her powers came from her heart, and in sleep her feelings had no focus. They were free to wander as they pleased in her mind, but still they were guided by the wish that had spawned them; her wish to help Atreyu on his quest. As she slept she dreamed. In her dream she heard a voice, a sweet musical voice that spoke in rhyme.

"In glittering armor they rode into the fray,

their silver swords shone bright as day.

Strong in arm and fleet of foot, their skill and strength could withstand all,

But in their hearts was their downfall.

Without hearts of gold they were incomplete,

and by this weakness they met defeat.

And so these warriors three went separate ways

rode off into the light of day,

and searched for new strength to light their way."

She awoke slowly, trying to remember exactly what she'd heard. She'd never had dreams speak to her in that way before. If they weren't nightmares, her dreams were usually silly and made no sense. Assuming this was one of those she dismissed it and didn't think on it further until later.

"Good you're awake." It was Atreyu, keeping his steady dark eyes ahead of them on the landscape. "Are we still heading in the right direction?" He was referring to her earlier declaration that they should head west. She wasn't sure why she felt they should, but she was learning to trust her feelings more, and Atreyu heeded her as always.

"Are you alright?" Jason asked. "You've been asleep for a few hours now."

"I'm fine. I just needed a breather." She looked out over the land. They had reached a more mountainous region than the one they had left behind. And just over the first mountain line was a valley full of trees covered in purple blossoms. Just above this beautiful valley, on a ridge that overlooked it was a tall tower of stone. It looked like it had once been an outpost, but was now little more than a ruin. In fact it had once been the sight of a great battle where two feuding tribes of elves had nearly fought to the death until the princess of the first tribe and the prince of the second who had fallen in love threw themselves between the front lines. But that is another story and shall be told another time. At that moment Adair was following that first instinct she'd received to land in that ruined watch tower. As they neared they could see a plume of gray smoke coming from the outer balcony.

"What's that?" Jason asked, squinting to see where the smoke was coming from. When they drew closer they could see it was coming from a small campfire. And sitting next to the campfire was a familiar face.

"It's Iole!" Atreyu called.

"Iole?" Adair looked over his shoulder and saw for herself it was true. "How did she escape?"

Jason shrugged. "Dragon."

"Land there Falkor." Atreyu said in a low voice. "She owes us some answers." He was referring of course to the last time they had looked to their companion for aid against two dangerous enemies and had been shocked by her refusal to take part. Iole had stood and watched as the Seekers' allies, the Knight of the Burning Dawn and the Lady of the Evening Star had engaged them in battle. It was a betrayal he did not take lightly no matter her reasons. The Plains Warriors were a strong and loyal people.

Falkor hovered at the base of a stone staircase that wound around the outside of the tower. "You three go on." he said. "No offense to this friend of yours, but I haven't flown for weeks now. I'd just as soon never touch the ground again."

Adair hugged the crown of his head before letting Atreyu help her off. "I'm glad you're back."

"I'm glad to be back Adair." And with that he took off, letting them climb the stairs of the ruins.

As they passed through the first archway that led to the inside of the structure, Atreyu stopped. "Oh no."

"What is it?"

"This is where an elven prince and princess from enemy tribes used to meet in secret. They sang to each other here. It's how elves show their love." He paused. He sounded deeply troubled.

"And?" Jason prodded.

"The legend says that after they died, their love was so strong that their spirits continued to sing here. Listen." There was silence all threw the decaying stone hall. Nothing more.

"I don't hear anything." Adair admitted.

"Stories are fading from Fantasia. Volrac's evil is poisoning it. If we don't stop him soon, every tale in the Neverending Story will end. And when that happens, your kind will no longer dream."

"What about Fantasia? What happens to you?"

"If we don't fade like the rest of the stories, we live in a land that's not Fantasia anymore." His gaze hardened. "I'd rather fade away." He looked away from her then. His shoulders were set like his gaze, but she could feel something different in him, something she never thought she would see in him. He was trembling. He stood straight and tall enough, but his knees were shaking. She felt her fingers reaching for him. She wanted to put a hand on his shoulder. But she didn't. She didn't know why. The impulse was there, the feeling was there but she didn't act on it. For the first time in the longest time she could remember she wanted to offer comfort to someone else and she couldn't do it.

Jason cleared his throat awkwardly. "Well we're not going to get any closer to saving Fantasia down here. Iole's waiting."

"Well it took you three long enough." Iole didn't even look up from her fire where she had yet another animal spitted for roasting. It was impossible for Adair to think that this woman had once been her finicky cat. She seemed capable of eating her weight in meat. "Make it here in one piece?"

"No thanks to you." Atreyu spat, pulling his bow from his back and notching an arrow to its string.

"Atreyu don't!" Adair moved to stay his hand, but his arms may as well have been oak. His aim wouldn't waver even when she tried to pull it down.

Iole sighed and got to her feet, turning around slowly. But her stance was hardly one of surrender. "I don't want to fight you."

"Listen to her dude." Jason said but with no conviction. It almost sounded like he wanted Atreyu to try.

"Are we really going to ignore what she did?"

"Do you want to fight a Dragon?" Jason asked. "Feel free, but I'm not at that level yet."

Iole shook her head. "Put it away junior. I couldn't fight you if I wanted to, and as I said I don't."

The young hunter looked to Adair. "Well?"

Adair looked back to Iole. Whatever her claims, she still didn't completely trust her. "I don't want to fight you either. But he's right. You owe us some answers."

"Then make them quick because we have bigger problems to deal with."

"Will you be truthful?" Atreyu demanded.

"I have no reason to lie. I'll answer any questions you have, but I will only tell you what you need to hear. That's not something you get to decide."

Atreyu looked to Adair again, and only at her consent did he lower his bow.

Adair nodded. "Who are you really?"

"I'm Iole, and as I said before I'm a Dragon."

"Are you here to help us?"

"I'm here to take out the Seekers, and remove their influence from this world before it throws its growth off course. Beyond that I can't help you."

"Can't or won't?" Atreyu asked.

"Doesn't matter. All you need to know is that beyond Nag, Thoth, Fay, demons, and anyone connected to them by magic, you're on your own."

Atreyu was asking the questions now, and he was very direct. "You said this was your mission. Who gave it to you?"

Iole's smile was a mysterious wisp across her face. "You don't need to know."

"That's not good enough."

"Fine, how about this." Iole consented, but her next answer was even less satisfying than the first. "When I say you don't need to know, what I mean is that it's not something you're ready for."

"And who decides what we're ready for?"

"You don't need to know." she replied flatly. Atreyu looked ready to object, but now Jason had a question of his own.

"How did you escape the forest?"

"Same way you did. I flew. After I saw Falkor taking off I figured there was no point in staying. The Seekers won't stay in one place very long now that they know I'm here."

"That's not what I meant. We were all shown our worst fears. We only barely made it out because Dawn and Star found us. Did you see anything?"

Iole was silent for a while. "No I didn't." Despite her earlier promise to answer truthfully, this was the one and only time Iole would ever lie to them. She had indeed been confronted by a vision of her own in the Forest of Thorns. Within the spell of the forest she had been shown the person she both loved and feared more than any other. But that is another story and shall be told another time. She did not let the questions continue.

"Now if you're finished, we have a much bigger problem."

"And by 'we' you just mean us right?" Jason remarked sarcastically.

Iole grinned. "You are smart. I knew it."

Jason did a mock bow. "Well what did you need to tell us, oh Dungeon Master?"

She held out her hand. "Atreyu come here. There's something I want to show you."

The boy stepped forward slowly, setting his bow on the ground. He reached cautiously and placed his own hand in her outstretched palm. The second her fingers clasped around his, Adair saw a flash of white, and then she wasn't in the ruined tower anymore. What Iole had wanted to show, she had meant only for Atreyu. But her powers were growing, as was her connection to Atreyu and his quest. Now both of them could see everything. They were flying over the Forest of Thorns again, but with the speed and tenacity of Iole's wings. They flew past the Castle of Nightmares, past the boundaries of the forest itself. It was here that they learned the forest was much bigger than they had thought. It wasn't just one region, it was a barrier between the rest of Fantasia and a barren wasteland. Nothing was growing on that ground that the Forest of Thorns surrounded. It was covered in midnight black sand that stretched across the land as far as the eye could see. And littered across it in no set pattern were fires. Around each fire were roving bands of the Creatures of Darkness. Some were frightening like the Night Hobs, the Goblins, the Gargoyles, and the wolf men. Others were beautiful and alluring; dark haired sorceresses with long fingers, pale vampires, singing sirens with waves of gold hair, and knights clad in black armor. She could see other Fantasians standing apart from them. They weren't dark creatures at all, but nevertheless they were there. They looked about nervously as if they expected the others to become hostile at any moment. Still they had their own fires and camps. She even saw Dawn and Star standing apart from everyone else with their noses upturned at the gathering. They were not prisoners. They were allies.

But there was worse than the Creatures of Darkness, there were demons as well. For the first time Adair understood the difference between the two. Atreyu had said they felt different and wrong, and she could see now what he meant. She had seen strange things in Fantasia before, like the people whose heads were actually feet, and others like Chember who were true horrors. But they were unmistakably Fantasian. They were the dreams of mankind brought to life, and because of that each one had a spark of that human life in them. Somebody somewhere had a connection to them, even if that spark had become warped like Chember or Shadeseeker. These demons had no such spark. They looked as though they had been made from spare parts. Their eyes were either burning red with rage, hollow and gray with sadness, yellow with fear, or completely black with hate. But they did not feel this anger or hate themselves. They were hatred, envy, sorrow, and all the worst bits of the world covered in moving shells. They were twisted and corrupted and wrong. There was no other word for what they were. They were just wrong. Not alive, but not even dead. They were just wrong.

They were pouring out of this swirling darkness in the center of the black desert. At first she thought it was a lake, but it was not water. It was a hole that led into an abyss so black that it looked like water. Shadows were rolling out of it in waves and the demons rode on it. Suddenly there was a light in the hole, or at least something other than the darkness. The sight made Adair grow cold all over. It was a pair of eyes. They were slitted and the color of fire. And in those eyes was all the hate, all the sadness, all the things that were wrong in this world, in every world. It was all in those eyes.

Adair screamed and found herself back in the ruins. Jason was shaking her by the shoulder.

"What's wrong? What did you see?"

She couldn't speak at first. Though Iole had stopped showing them the horrible vision, she could still see those eyes.

Atreyu staggered backwards and rubbed his forehead as though he were trying to soothe a raging headache. "What was that?"

"What Volrac's been up to for the last ten years."

Adair wanted to be sick. "That was Volrac's army?"

"I've never seen so many Creatures of Darkness in one place before."

"What was it?" Jason asked, taking Adair by both shoulders now. She didn't realize it, but she was grasping his arms tightly.

"Demons. Thousands of demons. They were all coming out of this hole in the ground... but it wasn't really a hole. It was like some kind of gateway."

"A gate to the darkness between worlds." Iole explained.

"And there were these eyes, these horrible eyes."

"I saw them too." Atreyu nodded. "What was that?" Iole didn't answer. "Iole, I think I've met a demon before. It was long before any of this happened when the Nothing was consuming our world. It was a wolf named Gmork. He claimed he was a creature with no world. Can demons speak?"

"Some can."

"He said he was ordered to help the Nothing destroy Fantasia by something he called the Manipulators. He said they wanted to control the human world. Is that what we saw in that gate?"

Iole considered it for a moment. "Sure. That should work for now. But it wants more than this world and the human world. It wants every world. And every world it takes becomes as dark as what you just saw. That's what The Circle of the Night really serves. Volrac may think he's in control, but if he wins then Fantasia won't belong to him even if he sits on the throne. He's nothing more than that Manipulator's puppet."

"So we're up against an army of demons being led by a trio of Witches, the King of Nightmares, and some kind of evil god?" Jason asked. "No pressure."

"It gets worse." Iole explained nonchalantly.

Adair shook her head. "How does it get worse?"

"I captured one of their commanders, one of the sorceresses from the Dead Mountains. I learned what they're planning. They're mounting an assault on the Ivory Tower."

The silence that hung in the air was heavy and full of dread as the three of them absorbed it. The dark force they had just learned of was preparing an attack on the heart of Fantasia itself.

"When?" Adair asked.

"Atreyu?" Iole redirected her question. "Based on what you saw, how long do you think we have?"

"If they started moving against the tower now, it would take them a few weeks to reach it. The wishes of those who would protect the tower would make a barrier for them, lengthen the distance of the journey, but with a force that large it would only be a matter of time before their own dark wishes let them break through." There was desperation in his voice as he counted down the time until Volrac would make his move, and even a bit of hopelessness. Iole had not offered an encouraging sight.

Iole lifted her gaze skyward and sniffed the air. She made a disgusted face and covered her nose.

"What is it?"

"Something on the wind." she replied. "And it wreaks of demons."

"ATREYU!" It was Falkor. With the last of the sun's light they could see him flying towards them over the horizon. He'd gone farther than they'd thought, but he was coming in fast now. And behind him there were dozens of black shapes with beating wings. At first Adair feared they had been found by more demons, but then she saw the way the light glimmered off the armor of those who rode behind Falkor. The winged shapes were giant eagles, and their riders were the knights of General Heremoor. The guard of the Ivory Tower had come to meet them.

After the Knights landed and set up camp in the ruins of the tower, along with their fairy companions, there had been quite a commotion, starting of course with Jason's arrival. A human in Fantasia had never failed to create a stir, but two humans was something that had never happened before as far as any of them could recall. But the good news of such a rare happening could not lift their spirits when Adair and the others gave the news of what Iole had learned in the Forest of Thorns.

Now Heremoor's knights were no cowards and had fought scores of these demons already. It was why Iole had caught the foul demonic scent from them when they arrived. That these brave warriors were disheartened by the news was a testament of how grave the situation was. The only comfort any of them seemed to find was in seeing each other again, particularly Heremoor and Octavia. Heremoor had been overjoyed to find them safe and sound, and Octavia had greeted Adair as sweetly as an old friend. The two of them had taken seats around Iole's fire while the others of their entourage had set up camp.

"Adair, it's good to see you again." the fairy took her hand in both of hers which were barely the size of her palm. "And you look simply elegant! These new clothes suit you." She eyed Adair's tunic up and down. "Meleah?"

"Yeah, she made it." Adair had become very grateful of the nature spirit's kindness and skill in fashioning her tunic. She had been through harsh conditions by now and been weathered and beaten down in her travels, but there had not been so much as a tear in the fabric.

"Her skill is unmatched." Octavia admitted. "And I can see other changes as well. You seem a little more... well more than you were when I saw you last."

Adair chuckled nervously. "I hope by that you mean I've gotten taller." In spite of everything she'd gone through today, Adair was happy to see Octavia again.

"Some fine new comrades in arms you've found Atreyu." Heremoor said proudly of Jason and Iole. "There's no hiding that look in your eye Miss. I know a veteran of battle when I see one. And you human, I can see it in your eyes, such fire, such passion, the passion of youth! Surely the creatures of darkness tremble before such a hero."

To this Jason had blushed and rubbed the back of his head nervously. "I don't know about that. I'm still a rookie in the hero business."

"Nonsense! The marks of swordsmanship are plain on your body my boy! I would be honored to have such a swordsman at my side in the coming battle!" In spite of the frightful news of Volrac's army, and the substantial lowering in morale it brought on his men, the General seemed as animated and zealous as ever.

"General," Octavia scolded. "Perhaps we shouldn't speak of the battle so lightly. We've been given much to consider. After all, our recent battles have not gone so well."

"What do you mean?" Atreyu asked.

Heremoor frowned. "I'm afraid we're no closer to discovering the secrets of destroying these demons. They are all so varied in their evil that it's difficult to decide on a strategy against them. I've even seen one grow back its head after I lopped it off. Fire can harm them as you said, and we've also discovered that when we eliminate the one who controls them, they scatter. But I'm afraid scattering them is all we've been able to do."

"But they must have some weakness." Octavia surmised.

"Iole's been teaching us how to deal with them."

Heremoor's emerald green eyes lit up. "You, Miss? A demon slayer? How is it done?"

Iole hadn't stopped eating the entire conversation and only now took the time to speak with a mouth full of juicy meat. It was a little disturbing watching her eat. "Fire, magic, and silver. Silver weapons are the easiest way to slay a demon."

"Why didn't you tell us this before?" Atreyu demanded.

"You never asked."

Heremoor laughed and gave her a hearty slap on the back. "Now you I like, so direct, so to the point."

Jason sighed. "Only when she's eating."

The talk seemed to die down after that. Adair kept her eyes on the floor. She hadn't spoken much since the arrival of the knights and the fairies. She still couldn't shake that horrid image of the black desert and the hoard of demons. She wasn't the only one. She could feel it all around the camp. The Knights were worried. Even Heremoor she felt was only putting on an act for the sake of his men. Or perhaps he really enjoyed battle as much as he claimed. Another thing she couldn't seem to shake was the feeling that everyone in the camp was watching her. It was like they were waiting for her to do something. Perhaps she was imagining it.

"So what are your plans now Adair?" It was Octavia.

The question caught her off guard. She didn't know what she was doing next anymore than they did. She looked to Atreyu.

He sensed her unvoiced request. "Adair is still traveling the way of wishes. She came to Fantasia to find something. We intend to keep looking until she does."

"Yes of course." Heremoor nodded. "But I think Milady Octavia meant as far as the upcoming battle. How do you intend to lead us?"

"What?" Both Adair and Jason cried in unison.

Now she knew she wasn't imagining it. Everyone in the camp had fallen silent, and all eyes were on her.

"But of course!" Heremoor said in his booming jovial voice like nothing had changed. "When Fantasia has been threatened, a human always comes to save us. You appeared to us in our hour of greatest need. AURYN hangs from your neck, proving that you have been chosen by our Childlike Empress! Who better to lead us? I'm sure Atreyu's told you as much!"

Atreyu looked embarrassed and unsure of what to say. "General I never said..."

"Nonsense! Adair's a natural leader! Knew it the moment I met her!"

"General!" Octavia fluttered directly in front of his face. "Chosen by Moon Child or not, it is still Adair's choice, not yours!"

Heremoor sputtered a little and spoke in a chastened voice. "You're right Milady, how foolish of me. Well Adair? What do you choose?"

She didn't know what to say. She felt sweat pooling in her clenched fists and felt a dizziness wash over her. Everywhere she turned she saw eyes on her. She could feel them watching her, expecting her to say something. But what could she say? She was sure if she stayed here much longer she was going to be sick. She got up and without a word she left the camp and climbed the stone steps to the upper floor of the tower.

"Well done General." Octavia spat.

"I assumed she knew."

"Is that true?" Jason asked with narrowed eyes centered on Atreyu. "About you expecting her to lead them in some epic battle?"

"I didn't know it would come to this. Everyone's journey in Fantasia is different. But it may be what she's meant to do."

"Are you insane?!"

Atreyu's gaze hardened. "You don't believe she can? She's your friend. Don't you have faith in her?"

"Whether she can or not isn't the issue! I believe she can do a lot of things. I believe she'd be a great dancer if she wanted to learn, but she doesn't! She hates dancing! What if she doesn't want to be your savior?"

"Then we're lost." Atreyu replied.

"And you don't think that's a lot of pressure to put on her?"

"Whether it is or not, if she doesn't then it won't matter. Both our worlds will die."

Perhaps more than anything else, it was Atreyu's calm as he spoke that irked Jason the most. "You're a jerk."

At this, Atreyu had the nerve to look confused. "What about you? Why are you here Jason?"

Jason wasn't sure what this had to do with anything. "I'm here because Adair wished for me remember?"

"But she couldn't have pulled you through unless you wanted to come. Why did you want to come here if you don't care about our fight?"

"I never said that!" he shot defensively. "I know how important dreams are. I just don't see why Adair has to be stuck right in the middle of it!"

"You care about her a lot. Then you need to have faith in her. She can do this, and she will make the right choice."

The other boy's self righteousness was infuriating. Jason didn't want to argue anymore. He just sat back down and folded his arms defiantly. "That doesn't mean I have to like it."

Meanwhile, on the top floor of the tower away from the camp and the talk and the speculation about her, Adair sat on the edge of a ruined window. She could see the balcony and the camp from here and even though she was far away she still imagined all those eyes on her. So much had happened to her since she'd come here; meeting Atreyu, learning that Volrac was her parents' killer, Iole showing who she truly was, discovering herself to be the mirror of the Childlike Empress, and learning that everything that had happened to her up until now had been engineered by those freaks that called themselves The Circle of the Night. She didn't even want to think what kind of implications that held for her personal life. She wasn't the same fragile girl she'd been when she first landed in Fantasia, she knew that. But just as much as she felt herself growing, she felt the journey was taking from her as well. She knew she was losing her memories one by one with each wish she made. She didn't know what they were, but why would she if she'd forgotten?

And now this. Scores of Fantasians down there, and thousands more who were scared out of their minds were looking to her to save them. It seemed like everything in her life had been pushing her towards a destiny she didn't want. Or at least she didn't think she did. Did she? She held her hand in front of her. Magical light burst from her palm and pulsated there. She had wished for this power. Not specifically, but it was her wish to help Atreyu with his quest that had given it to her.

"I want to help, but I never asked to lead." she muttered.

"Few ever do." she jumped at the sound. His voice was so low and serious she didn't recognize it at first. General Heremoor stared at her contemplatively, still clad from head to toe in his bright silver plate-mail. His emerald green eyes lingered over the glow in her hand. "Might I join you Miss Artemis?"

"If you stop calling me that. Adair is just fine." She indicated the other side of the ledge she was seated on.

He made an attempt to seat himself beside her, but found he was too large for the two of them to sit in the windowsill together. He opted to sit on the floor instead. He folded his arms and closed his eyes. "Miss Art... Adair," He corrected himself. "I wish to apologize. It wasn't fair of me to assume you knew of the responsibility you faced. It was thoughtless."

"It's fine."

"No it's not. The power you humans hold in Fantasia is so great that I forget how young you are when you come. Being in the business as long as I have, I've forgotten that heroes are not born, they are made. I must learn to respect your growth."

She wasn't sure what to say to that. It sounded plain to her that no matter what he said, he still had expectations of her that she didn't know how to meet, or was even sure she wanted to.

"You've traveled a great deal in our land by now haven't you?" he asked. She only nodded. "What do you think of Fantasia?"

It was a question she hadn't expected, but one that she could answer in a breath. "It's beautiful. It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen." Of course not all of it had been beautiful. Spook City and the Forest of Thorns were both places she would sooner forget if she could, but Fantasia as a whole had taken her breath away over and over again since the day she landed in the grasslands. No, it was even before that; the first time she had read the Neverending Story in Mr. Bux's shop and seen Atreyu flying on Falkor's back. "I think I know why it's called 'The Neverending Story' now. I could write book after book about what I've seen and it still wouldn't be enough." She smiled wryly to herself. To think she had only picked up the book to help her write a single class assignment. Her dreams had been so small then.

"I know what you mean." Heremoor smiled, looking distantly out the window. But there was a sad look in those hard green eyes of his. "There is nothing I wouldn't do to protect this great land of dreams and stories, and there is much I have given up already." She heard a click as he unfastened the buckles of the gauntlet on his right hand. It occurred to her then that she had never seen him without his gauntlets. Even at the tower when he had been bereft of his armor he had worn them. And now she knew why. When he removed his gauntlet, there was nothing within it. His arm simply ended. The plating over his arm was hollow. He handed the empty gauntlet to her. "A combination of magic and machinery allows it to move to my will. It's a gnomish invention."

Adair's eyes were wide, flickering back and forth from the gauntlet in her hand to the maimed arm of the general. "How did that happen?"

"I lost this hand defending Fantasia from a hideous monster, and beneath this armor you would find many more scars of battle, honored testaments of my love for Fantasia. You see Adair, I too have known loss and sacrifice, and I know the tremendous weight that is carried in the mantle of leadership. There have been days where I feared the strain would be too much. The day I lost this hand I fell face down into the dirt and thought on how easy it would be to simply lay on the ground and die of my wounds. But then I remembered the beauty of Fantasia, and what it meant to be a part of this Neverending Story. I had a calling, a destiny, and Fantasia deserved better than for me to simply give it up. I know the fear that you carry, but the same is true for you. You are here for a reason Adair Alicia Artemis."

She thought on the General's words. She knew he was right, but still. "I know what I have to do. I just have know idea how."

"Who says you have to? Many great stories begin with a hero starting a journey with nothing to go on but a heart full of courage."

"They still have something on me." she replied, not feeling at all courageous at the moment.

"Courage is not the absence of fear Adair. It's doing what has to be done in spite of it."

Just at that moment, the gauntlet in her hand snapped shut like a trap. Its fingers curled tightly around her wrist. She jumped and shrieked and Heremoor laughed. He took the gauntlet back from her and its grip on her relaxed. He chuckled as he reattached it.

"That one never gets old."

Adair breathed in and out trying to recompose herself. "You're a jerk." But she said this with a smile. Ever since she'd met back up with Iole and learned what they were facing she'd felt so hopeless, so defeated before they had even tried anything. The General had succeeded in lifting her spirits and given her a lot to think about.

The sound of rapid footsteps called their attention to the stairs that led into the balcony. Atreyu and Jason bounded to the top with their swords at the ready. Iole was right behind them, albeit without the look of worry and battle ready stance that the two young men shared. Octavia fluttered just behind her.

"We heard you scream." Atreyu explained as though he needed to. Both he and Jason seemed to relax when they saw her unharmed.

"What's going on up here?" Jason asked. "You nearly gave me a heart attack."

Heremoor puffed his chest out proudly. "I was just teaching Adair a little something about courage. She won't get very far in her journey if she jumps at a little thing like that." He laughed heartily, but seemed to shrink into his armor when Octavia swooped in front of him with a look that would cow a rabid dog into submission.

"Did you show her your glove trick?! I've told you not to do that anymore! We thought something dreadful had happened!"

"It was merely a jest Milady. No harm done."

Adair laughed, still finding it comical how someone as small as Octavia could pack enough authority and aggression to keep someone as large and boisterous as Heremoor under her thumb.

"I'm fine Octavia, honest." She looked past the fairy and smiled at Jason and Atreyu who both looked embarrassed by their show of unwarranted heroism. She smiled, but something caught her eye. Just over Jason's shoulder was an odd glimmer on the wall. They watched her as she left her seat on the windowsill and crossed the room to the far wall. The glimmer she had noticed was a portrait. It was an old mural depicting three knights, each one clad in gold armor. They each held a silver sword aloft over their heads. One was tall and lean with a head of dark hair. The second was built like an ox with broad shoulders and a black mustache. The third was small and wiry compared to the other two with a mane of fiery red curls. "Who are they?"

They all looked over her shoulder at the portrait. Atreyu was the first to speak.

"I know them. They traveled with Bastian. They were our bravest companions. The one with the mustache is Hykrion the Strong. The one with red hair is Hysbald the Swift. And the third one is Hydorn the Enduring."

Adair studied it hard. There was something familiar about this portrait, of these three knights in golden armor.

"Adair, what is it?" Jason asked.

"I had a dream earlier. I heard a voice. It said something about three warriors in glittering armor with silver swords. Do you think it was talking about them?"

"There are many knights in Fantasia." Atreyu admitted. "But if you had this dream today, and we're finding this portrait here of all places, then Fantasia must be speaking to you."

Jason squinted at the portrait just as they all were, as though there were some kind of hidden message in it. "But what does it mean?"

Adair looked a moment longer, then she smiled with realization. She felt something swell within her chest like when she called on her power. It was a mix of excitement and anxiety rolled into one, but she liked it.

"Come on, we need to tell the others. I know what we need to do."

They watched her descend the stairs without waiting for them to follow, simply expecting them to do so. General Heremoor grinned from ear to ear.

"Spoken like a true General.

Adair stood above the rest of the camp, positioned on a fallen pillar of stone that lay at the edge of the ruined balcony. The Knights looked to her as if waiting to receive orders as they would have done for their general. The autumn fairies ceased their flitting about and floated motionless in the air, paying her every attention that they would their queen. Their eyes held a different look than they had earlier. When their eyes had last rested on her there had been uncertainty in them. Now there was none. This was the answer to their uncertainty.

"Iole's shown us what we're up against and it isn't good. I won't lie to you, I'm scared. I was so scared earlier by everything that's happening that I forgot where I was. But the General reminded me. Fantasia may hold a lot of nightmares and monsters, but there's heroes too. Heroes like Atreyu and General Heremoor. If this is the world of dreams and stories, then there are heroes in every corner of this land, heroes that don't back down from danger, who are willing to fight. Time is not on our side, but our chances are better than we think. Because if there's one thing I know about stories and heroes, it's that good always wins."

The Knights cheered with the zeal of soldiers, their morale restored. The fairies giggled with delight. General Heremoor stepped to the front.

"I am with you Adair Alicia Artemis! This shall be a battle that Fantasia will sing about for ages! And the glory of the heroes who fought at its head shall be told forever! What is your plan?"

"We have a lot of ground to cover. With Octavia's court, you and your knights are the swiftest force in all of Fantasia. We need you to spread the word. Call every hero from every land you can reach and tell them to get to the Ivory Tower as fast as they can."

Heremoor clapped his iron clad fist over his chest in salute. "We'll carry them there ourselves if we must."

"Count on us Adair." Octavia smiled.

"Iole, can you do me a favor?"

Iole folded her arms. "That depends."

"You told us before that the quickest way to slay demons is with silver weapons right?"

She nodded.

"You know more about this than anyone else here. If you could find a way to get some for our troops so we could defend ourselves, would that go against any of your rules?"

Iole scrunched her eyebrows and scratched her head in thought. She let out a long slow sigh. "It's a bit of a stretch, but if it's to kill demons I guess it's fair-game. But I'd need silver first. Atreyu, do you know a place where I can get some?"

"The Silver Mountains would be the best place, just on the borders of the Grassy Ocean."

Iole shot him a skeptical look. "The Silver Mountains."

"Yes. There are caves all throughout the mountain range full of silver."

"Really? Just sitting there?" She rolled her head back and laughed.

Jason looked at her as though she'd just lost her mind. "Why is that funny?"

"Kid, I've been to more worlds then I can say, and in nearly every one, silver is not easy to come by. It's either super rare, or they charge outlandish prices for it. And you mean to tell me we're sitting on an entire mountain range of it?" She laughed again.

"Will that work?" Adair called her back to the matter at hand.

"If it's as much silver as Atreyu says, then it should. But I hope you don't think I can make enough weapons for an entire army. I'm good, but I'm not that good. I'll need some help."

Adair grasped AURYN. She'd expected this. With an undertaking as large as this, she knew it would take at least one wish. It was time for her to make a new story. "When you go to the Silver Mountains and enter the caves, you'll find a labyrinth. In the middle of the labyrinth you'll find a forge as big as a whole city."

"And who runs this forge?"

"The Cyclops'. They're the oldest smiths in Fantasia. Legends say they once crafted for the Gods themselves."

Thank you sixth grade Greek Mythology course. She thought to herself.

Iole looked back to Atreyu. "This legit?" He nodded with every confidence. "Fair enough. So what are you three going to do without me around to keep you out of trouble?"

"AURYN's shown me three heroes that are going to help us in the battle. They're old friends of Atreyu's. We're going to start by finding them. We'll meet the rest of you at the Ivory Tower when we're done. We're heading out in the morning."

"You heard her men!" Heremoor called. "We camp for the night, and tomorrow we ride! For Fantasia!"

This ruin had long been the site of great battles and beginnings of heroic stories, and tonight it would witness the start of yet another. Every soldier, and fairy raised their fist high in the air, along with Atreyu, Jason, and Adair. Falkor lifted his head high and called in his deep bronze tone. They all cried with one voice.


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