The Strongest Magic

Chapter 14: Knights of Old

Now that they had a heading, the Eagle Riders were hard at work tearing down camp with renewed vigor. There were goodbyes being said all around. Jason was getting his first of General Heremoor's fabled bone-crushing hugs, and Adair and Atreyu were learning there was nothing they could do to get out of another one. Octavia placed a hand on Adair's face and whispered goodbye with small tears in her tiny chestnut eyes.

"Good Luck Adair. I'll see you again." And before Adair could object, the Fairy Queen gave her the lightest kiss on the cheek.

Unsure of what to say, Adair blushed. "Thank you Milady."

"Come Milady Octavia!" General Heremoor shouted as he mounted his giant golden eagle. "If we don't move out soon, these young ones will have all the glory!"

"I'll be right along General." She called in her sweet voice. But before she floated off to the General's side, her tiny eyebrows furrowed together in a frown. She zipped to Jason and Atreyu, and with her little fist gave them both a thump on the head. They both cried out in surprise and rubbed their heads in confusion, and to rub out the sting.

"What was that for?" Jason asked indignantly.

"You both listen to me. Watch out for Adair and none of that boyish bickering or I'll... I'll... I'll turn you both into little boys again! Do you understand?"

"Yes Ma'am." Jason replied.

Atreyu nodded. "I give you my word Milady."

She smiled and nodded her approval before flitting out of sight. When she was gone, Jason leaned toward Atreyu.

"She can't really do that can she?"

Atreyu only shrugged. "I don't know. But I wouldn't test her."

"Come on Atreyu!" Falkor called. "I'm getting tired of all this waiting around." Falkor had waited patiently as they had re-fitted him with their supplies and equipment, but Luckdragons can only stay patient for so long when it comes to holding still.

"Sorry Falkor. Adair are you ready?"

"Yeah, just a minute. There's one more thing I need to do."

"Well make it quick. I think Falkor might actually leave without you this time." He smiled to himself as he secured the straps on Falkor's back.

"What a rotten thing to say." Falkor objected. "I would never leave Adair behind."

"It was an expression Falkor."

Adair couldn't stifle a smile at that, but she had to steel herself for what she was about to do. There was one member of the camp who was not in any kind of hurry. Iole was stooped over a kettle in which she was stewing the leftovers of her kill from the night before. She brushed her long dark hair back over her shoulder as she stirred and grumbled about never having the right seasonings. She looked up when she saw Adair approach.


"I already ate." she replied. Then there was silence. Iole didn't seem to mind, looking very preoccupied by her breakfast. But for Adair it was very awkward. She was the one who had brought this on, but it wasn't a question she was sure she was ready for. "Do you know how to get to the caves?"

"Yeah I'll find it." After another length of silence, Iole placed the lid over her kettle and sat down. She looked her in the eye and smiled. Her sky blue eyes had that knowing glint in them. "You didn't come here to talk about directions did you." She wasn't sure if it was all the years of posing as her cat and living in her house that made Iole so intuitive or if she was just naturally able to read people. Either way, Iole knew what she really wanted to talk about.

"I've been thinking."

"Healthy exercise."

Adair moaned. "Could you stop that? This is hard enough without sarcasm."

"Sorry, I thought sarcasm was your whiskey."

Adair glowered at her. "Time and place."

Iole nodded. "Fair enough." She was silent then and waited patiently for Adair to say what she came to say.

"Volrac killed my parents in the woods that day, but he left me alive. I don't think he meant to. He's always wanted to kill me. Mom and Dad just... got in the way." She swallowed and cursed the tears that were welling in her eyes. She thought she'd gotten all of this crying out of the way with Atreyu. "After I found out what he was, what he wanted to do, I couldn't figure out why he just left me alive. Then you came and I found out who you really were. I tried to remember how I got you as a cat. I couldn't. The next real memory I have after the woods was of you and me in my room at Aunt Rosemary's house. But I know I had you before she came and got me. When did I find you?"

"You didn't" Iole explained. "I found you."

"In the woods?"

She nodded. "I tracked the Seeker's scent to your world. Their magic allowed Volrac a short window into your world. I followed it there."

"And what did you find?"

Iole raised an eyebrow at her. "What are you really asking?"

Adair took a deep breath. "Was it you that saved me?" There was no answer spoken, but it was in her eyes. "You knew he'd try again, that the Circle would be there. That's why you stayed with me."

"Sure that's why I stayed, but that's not why I saved you. I'm sorry I can't be as much help as you want me to be, but I'm not rooting for you to lose."

"Then why? Why did you save me?"

"Are you sorry I did?"

Adair had to stop herself. The question brought on so many feelings at once, regret, anger, fear, and she was still getting used to feelings. "I think if you asked me that before, I would have said yes."

"Actually if I had asked you before you would have screamed 'talking cat!'"

Adair frowned. "What I mean is I was so angry at myself for such a long time, that I was still alive and they weren't. I felt like it was my fault and I remember hoping and praying for so long that I'd go with them one day. I guess I made a real mess of the life they gave me."

"No you didn't. Making a mess would have been something. You just sat like a bump on a log for ten years."

"You're not making this easy."

"Life's not supposed to be easy Adair. It's supposed to be a journey. That means bumps and bruises and worse. There's millions of reasons to give up. I've lived a very long time and I've heard them all: 'my parents were killed,' 'I'll never walk again,' 'my boyfriend left me,' 'my heart's broken,' 'my mother was a crazy demon witch who never loved me'. The list goes on and on. But there are so many more reasons to keep going. That's why I saved you that day. That's why your parents defended you that day. It was something they wanted you to have."

"I know." she admitted. "And I'm trying now. It's just, I need practice." She wiped her eyes, but in spite of her tears she laughed. "A lot of practice."

Iole put a hand on her shoulder. "You're not kidding. You have ten years to make up for."

It was an odd thing, be able to laugh even when she was crying. "I really am hopeless aren't I?"

"No your closet back at Rosemary's place is hopeless. You're not. You're finally starting to wake up. You still have a ways to go, but I can see your eyes opening."

She couldn't contain it anymore. She threw her arms around Iole and squeezed her tight. "Thank you for saving me." she whispered. "Thank you."

Iole went stiff. Strange, she was prepared for a heart to heart, but a hug left her unsure of what to do. She put an arm around the girl and gave her a short pat on the head. "Now get out of here. We both have things to do.

They said their final goodbyes and Adair went to rejoin Atreyu and Jason who helped her onto Falkor's back.

"I'll see you guys soon." Iole waved. "Try not to have too much fun without me."

"Just be sure to beat us to the Ivory Tower." Jason shot her a grin. "Or there won't be any demons left for you Old Lady."

Atreyu nodded to her, apparently doing his best to move on from any hostility he may have still held against her. "Safe travels. Let's go Falkor."

"I thought you'd never ask!" With a short sprint and a leap, Falkor was airborne and flying fast.

They heard a blast behind them from the ruins they had just left behind, like the bang of a cannon. They barely saw a streak of white as a great dragon almost twice as large as Falkor rocketed into the sky above the ruined watch tower and vanished into the clouds.

"By the Empress she's fast!" Falkor beamed. "Let's see if we can give her a run for her money!"

Adair instinctively locked her arms around Atreyu's waist. "Please don't. I know we're in a hurry, but I still get sick. Let's not push it."

"Adair, you need to learn to get more out of life." the Luckdragon turned his great head and winked, but he did not speed up.

"So where are we going anyway?" Jason asked. "I know we're supposed to look for those knights, but do you even know where to start looking?"

Atreyu kept his eyes ahead. "I know where one of them is. We're going back to the Grassy Ocean."

Falkor chuckled. "Terrific. I know someone will be very happy to see you again."

All three riders looked to each other, sharing the same expression and said it at the same time. "Deisha."

They had left at daybreak, but even with such an early start Adair was certain they would need to make camp before they reached the Grasslands. But once more she was astounded by Falkor's speed. They reached the Grassy Ocean in half a day.

Falkor chuckled heartily. "There it is. I knew that shortcut would pay off."

Jason looked over Adair's shoulder, eager to get his first look at the home of the Plains People. "Were all these brown patches here last time?"

Adair looked down and was disheartened by her friend's words. It was true, parts of the grasslands had been burned away. It was like a patchwork quilt; tall waving green and gold grass here, acres of ruined land there. It seemed the Plains people had been visited by more demon attacks. She looked to Atreyu, worried how the state of his homeland would affect him. "Do you see the village?"

"They've probably moved. We need to find the purple buffalo. They won't be far from good hunting ground."

It took some searching and flying in silence (the Grassy Ocean is quite vast), but Atreyu eventually spotted a herd of purple buffalo grazing in the pasture. There was a great plateau rising out of the grasslands, and on it they could see plumes of smoke from campfires.

"That must be them. This isn't good. My people move, but they've never fortified themselves like this, not even from stampedes. Something must have backed them into a corner. Hurry Falkor."

They reached the plateau in a short time and before they landed they could see the Plains People leaving their huts and gathering together with bows drawn and spears raised, fearing another demon raid. Thankfully the tribal elder recognized Falkor before they drew too close.

"Hold your fire! It's Atreyu! Atreyu has returned!" As quickly as they had become a formidable guard, they became warm and friendly, cheering the return of one of their own. Falkor landed and not a moment later they were surrounded by the tribe. They set themselves to helping Adair off, asking questions about the new human, and asking Atreyu of his journey. But before there was too much talk, they heard a familiar voice and saw the crowd of Plainsmen being pushed aside by some unstoppable force.

"Out of my way! Move!" With great sweeps of her elbows, Deisha shoved her way to the front and once she was clear she threw her arms around Atreyu's neck. Then she let go and punched him in the shoulder. "What took you so long?" She demanded. "You promised you would come back soon!"

"Owe! I did not. I never said when I'd be back."

Deisha ignored this detail and brushed past him to throw her arms over Falkor. "And you found Falkor? When were you going to tell me? I've been worried sick about him."

"I've missed you too Deisha."

"Shut up Falkor, you're as much to blame as he is." There was no pleasing her. As she turned around her eyes lingered on Adair. "Adair." she acknowledged the other girl.

"Deisha." Adair acknowledged her right back.

Deisha looked to Jason with a studious expression. "Who are you?"

"Jason. I'm Adair's best friend."

"You're human too?"

"Last I checked."

Deisha rolled her eyes. "And just as funny as the other one."

Jason glowered. "We're funny people." Deisha didn't know it, but Jason already knew her, or at least knew a lot about her, and he remembered well the way she had threatened Adair the last time they'd met. His thoughts of her were just as fond as hers for him.

The gathering parted briefly to allow passage for two more faces Adair recognized. It was the tribal Elder and Shaman Ze'hara.

"Atreyu you have returned to us." The Elder said proudly. "You bring great joy to your people child. And you have brought not one but two humans to honor us. I wish we had better tidings to greet you."

"What do you mean?"

"Since you've been gone, the demons have been coming more often." Deisha explained. "All the clans have gathered on this plateau now."

"They burn our land and ravage our brother the buffalo, not for food but for pleasure." Ze'hara said mournfully, ringing her hands in the air. "It is all we can do to protect the last of the herd before they too are taken from us."

"Calm yourself Ze'hara." the Elder crooned. "Atreyu and Adair have traveled far and wide by now. They know how grave the situation is. That is not why they've come." He turned his old wizened eyes on them. "Tell us child, why have you come?"

Atreyu's face was somber. "Elder we wish to speak to you in private. It's as you said, the situation is grave. But first we need to find Bahzha. Is he here?"

"He is out with the others protecting our herds. He should be back soon."

"I heard my name." the tall plainsmen came into view. He was still as tall and lean as ever and had looked at ease with his spear slung over his shoulder. Though the grime covering his face and arms told that this was the most at ease he'd been in a long while. "What's going on?"

"Bahzha?" Ze'hara turned her intense gaze on him. "When did you return? Who's protecting the herd?"

"They're fine for now. We found another grazing pasture for them. We came back when we saw Falkor circling overhead." He shot Atreyu a grin. "Didn't think I'd miss welcoming you home did you?" But when Atreyu didn't return his smile his face fell. "What's the matter with you? Did somebody die?"

"Bahzha," Atreyu began somberly. "We came back because we need your help. The kind of help you offered when you were called Hydorn the Enduring."

Bahzha rubbed the back of his dark hair. "Wow. That's a name I haven't heard in awhile."

What had surely been a happy time for the Plains people, welcoming a hero of their tribe back into their lands had not lasted. As soon as Atreyu and the others had vanished into the Elder's hut, whispers and murmurings were racing all through the village. While none could really agree on what was going on, of two things they were certain. One was that Atreyu had not come to stay. The other was that things in Fantasia had not gotten any better.

Within the hut, the Elder, Shaman Ze'hara, and Bahzha listened to their tale with growing concern. It took a very long time and they had many questions in between. When Atreyu finished, the three tribal leaders looked very weary.

"These are dark times for Fantasia indeed." The Elder sighed. "Moon Child sleeps, nightmares seek to overthrow her, and twisted beings from other worlds pulling the strings on it all. Well Ze'hara, I suppose their tale gives meaning to the visions of darkness and war you gazed in the fire."

"It was not all death and destruction." Ze'hara reminded him. "I saw champions as well. I saw a white dragon that was not Falkor, I saw Atreyu fighting side by side with a boy who carried a black sword, and I saw the girl in white, violet, and gold wearing the Glory leading them. And now the children have come here seeking to find the three golden men I told you of."

If Adair ever had any doubt of Ze'hara's ability to receive visions, they were all erased. From her words she learned that the Shaman woman had seen Jason, Iole, and already knew they had come here to find the first of the three knights.

Bahzha sighed. "Never thought I'd be going back to those days."

"Wait," Jason spoke for the first time since entering the hut. "You were one of the Knights that traveled with Atreyu and Bastian?"

Bahzha nodded. "It was a long time ago. Back then I was called Hydorn the Enduring. I ran with my comrades in arms; Hysbald the Swift and Hykrion the Strong. There was another named Hero Hynreck who traveled with us for a time, but he left us before we joined Lord Bastian."

"Then what happened?" Adair asked. "Where are the other two? How did you end up here?"

"Well you see a lot happened to us on our journey. In the end we lost Lord Bastian when he ran ahead of us. We never found him again. But we swore we would keep looking. We decided then to go our separate ways. Hykrion, always being the bold reckless sort went in the direction of the sunrise. Hysbald traveled away from the sun, and I went the only way that was left to me. I journeyed for years, far and wide through Fantasia but never found him. When I had all but run out of ideas I heard rumors that Atreyu had returned to the Plains. I thought if anyone knew where Bastian was, it would be him. So I came here to the Grassy Ocean. The Plains People captured me on sight. I tried to fight back, but I was gravely outnumbered and hadn't had food or drink in days. They'd never seen anyone quite like me. The Grassy Ocean is an isolated place, and there's not much adventuring to be done there so I must have been the first knight any of them had seen. They held me captive in the village, counseling over what they should do with me."

Ze'hara chuckled at the memory. "I thought the armor he wore was part of his body. I wanted to melt him down into new spearheads for our hunters."

Bahzha grinned. "And you would have too if not for Atreyu. I still have you to thank my friend for the new life I found." He returned to addressing the group, telling his story. "Atreyu recognized who I was, and in spite of the many wrongs I and my companions had done him in our travels, he persuaded the chieftains to let me go."

Adair noticed Atreyu stare at the ground at that part and wondered what Bahzha meant by "many wrongs". It was obviously something that brought Atreyu great discomfort to dwell on.

"It was Atreyu who told me that Bastian had left Fantasia and told me to return to my land. But I couldn't. I had nowhere to go with my quest at an end. But what was more, I had been entranced by this place, by the people of the Plains. As a Knight I had been called Hydorn the Enduring because I could endure and outlast any foe in combat through my stamina. But as I traveled with Atreyu I had been impressed at how he endured not only in combat, but in the harshest of conditions. Cold and rain did not bother him, extreme heat didn't seem to touch him. After meeting his people I understood how he had developed this endurance and I wanted it for my own. Atreyu convinced the Elder to allow me to train in the hunt and learn the ways of the Grasslands, but I was stubborn. I clung to the ways of a knight, the brash and stubborn quests for glory. After a year of instruction I was taken for my first hunt for the Purple Buffalo. In the tradition of the tribe, a successful hunt is how a boy reaches manhood. For me, it meant I would be accepted as one of their own. But once more I did not listen to what I had been taught. I charged the Buffalo head on, so sure I could overcome it as I had against many foes before it. But such a magnificent and proud beast at home in the grassy plains could not be felled by a simple man and his sword. It rammed straight into me and sent me flying, but it did not kill me. It just left me lying in the grass, broken and unable to move.

"I don't know how long I lay there. It had broken one of my legs and knocked all the breath out of me. But while I lay there in the grass waiting for the end to come, I began to see things. All around me there was life. I saw the insects eating the grass and working together to make their homes in the dirt. I saw the birds descending to eat them. I heard their song. I could hear the Buffalo grazing and the other hunters creeping through the grass to claim their kill. They respected the Buffalo, seeing them not as enemies but as equal parts of the world that they shared. It was then that I learned just how small I was in this world and how foolish it had been to attempt to conquer it alone. The Plains people had learned that they were but small parts of this universe, learned to respect it, listen to it, care for it, rely on it, and on each other. It was all so clear to me then. That is what it means to endure."

He seemed to be looking past them and Adair could see in his eyes the impact of that memory. A time when he had been so hopeless and alone, yet all at once it had become clear that he was not alone. Even if he had died in the grass that day, he would have remained part of the land, part of the earth, and in that way would remain connected to it forever. It was remarkable to her how he had found hope in the midst of despair.

"The hunters found me eventually and took my broken body back to camp. As the healers went to work, I found the woman who would become my bride."

"Ainslee." Ze'hara interrupted again. "My most skilled apprentice before she met you. And before you came to her broken and bruised she had never looked twice at you. Said you reminded her of a peacock the way you strutted about in that armor. Lost her focus after you began courting her. A real pity. She would have made a fine Shaman."

Bahzha was abashed by the humorous way Ze'hara remembered the meeting between he and his beloved. "Yes well, like I said it was a different time. Anyway after that I had to wait another year before I could hunt again according to tradition. It came and went and I hunted with the skills I had learned. I returned to the village with one of the Purple Buffalo and was welcomed as a man of the tribe. They gave me the name Bahzha, Little Warrior, so that I would always remember to honor my place as a part of the whole. I married Ainslee the following spring and I've remained here ever since."

Adair took the story in stride. Later she would try to recall every detail of it. It was strange, but she felt that story in part had been meant for her. Bahzha's, or rather Hydorn's story had something in it that Fantasia wanted her to learn. But for now she was trying to remain focused on the task at hand.

"What about the other two?"

"Honestly I don't know." Bahzha replied. "I haven't heard from them since we parted. I've heard rumors but beyond that I couldn't say where they are now."

"Bahzha," Atreyu said in a low voice. "Adair's been guided to you and your companions by AURYN. There is a battle coming to the Ivory Tower the likes of which we've never seen."

Bahzha's gaze hardened. "Even worse than-"

"Yes," Atreyu cut him off. "Even worse than that. We've been guided here because we need you and the bravery of your fellow knights. Will you put on the mantle of Hydorn the Enduring once more?"

Bahzha looked Atreyu in the eye long and hard, as if he were searching that dark eyed gaze for something. Then he shook his head. "No. I will aid you in the coming battle, but if AURYN has led you here it is not to Hydorn. That part of my story is over. If I am to help you it will be as Bahzha of the Plains. And I will use everything I have gained since I was given that name to do my part in saving our land." He took Atreyu's hand firmly and placed his other hand on the lad's shoulder. "By the Empress, only you, Atreyu could call me back into the hero's game."

"And I trust you haven't lost a step in the years since?"

Bahzha grinned. "You should no better than anyone, the Grassy Ocean doesn't make soft men."

"Look this is sweet and all," Jason interrupted, "but we still need to find the other two knights. Any ideas?"

"I believe I can help with that." Ze'hara interjected. "Adair, if you would stoke the fire? It appears to have gone out." It was true. Their meeting had lasted well into the night by now and the fire had long ceased burning with no one to tend it.

Adair stared at the pit and felt warmth returning to it, resonating from her will. Using her powers was becoming second nature. With a brush of her eyelashes the fire sparked back to life. Ze'hara nodded her approval.

"Impressive child. You may melt that wall of ice yet."

She ignored the shaman's reminder of their first meeting. Now was not the time for self scrutiny. "Now what?"

Ze'hara stared intently into the fire. She said nothing for the space of five minutes. Ze'hara was a talented seer indeed. Most other shamans would have taken an hour or more to receive a vision of something they had never seen. But even a shaman as powerful as Ze'hara would not have been able to gather any vision at all had Adair not been there. It was the girl's wish that had guided them this far and it was continuing to guide them now. Ze'hara knew this and was acting as the channel through which Adair's will would travel.

"I see two men." she declared. "One tall and broad shouldered, and stubborn as a buffalo."

Bahzha nodded. "Hykrion."

"The other is wiry and thin with fiery red hair."

"We know this part already." Jason sighed. This earned him a swift flick to the forehead from Ze'hara's bony fingers. The shaman woman didn't even look up from the fire.

"The large one heads east, the other west. The first is surrounded by mountains..." She strained her eyes at the flames as though something about her vision was confusing her. "Or perhaps not mountains. They look like mountains, but not like any I've ever seen. They're full of holes."

"I know that land." Atreyu assured her what she was seeing was accurate. "It's the home of the Rockbiters."

"It is not in their land." Ze'hara said firmly. "It is a mountain range much like the one they call home, but it is far beyond their borders. If there are Rock Giants in these mountains, they are wanderers, or outcasts, or worse."

"Worse?" Jason asked. "You mean like criminals or something?"

"Could be." Bahzha agreed. "Hykrion never was choosy about the company he kept. What of Hysbald?"

"I see the Red Headed one in a canyon deep. He is surrounded by small people with shriveled faces."

"Gnommics?" Bahzha asked. "Never thought to find Hysbald in the company of the gnomes. Oh well. That's a region I know how to reach. Shall we head there first?"

It was Adair who spoke. She'd been taking the lead more often. "I think we'll cover more ground if we split up. You should go find Hysbald. We'll find Hykrion."

"You should take a small company of our warriors with you." The Elder stated.

"No. We'll fly faster on our own."

The Elder shook his head. "As chief of this tribe I would be dishonored for not offering what assistance we could lend."

Adair didn't like the idea of enlisting the Plains People. "The warriors should stay here to protect your home."

The Elder's eyes shone as he puffed out his chest and straightened his old back. "Adair, Fantasia is our home. My clan will fight with you at the Ivory Tower and the rest of the clans will join us."

"We're not a force to be taken lightly Adair." Bahzha added. "Not only have I lived here for years, I fought the Plains People in force and they are fierce warriors. They'll fight whether you want them to or not."

Adair relented to their request seeing no other way out. Besides, who was she to turn down eager volunteers? "Fine, but we'll still travel alone."

"Adair's right." Atreyu nodded. "We need a small team if we are to reach the Ivory Tower in time."

"Then plus one shouldn't be a problem." Every head in the hut snapped to the entrance. Deisha had slipped inside without their noticing.

"Deisha!" Ze'hara snapped. "This is a private council!"

"One that involves my clan and my home! They're not taking any of our warriors with them then I'll have to do. I'm the best shot with a bow in the village. Elder you said so yourself." the Plains girl snapped.

Atreyu stood up. "Deisha we can't take you with us."

"I'm not asking." It was true, Deisha was already dressed to leave. She had a satchel of supplies strapped to her side, and her weapons strapped to her back. Atreyu was going to object again, but she held up her hand. "No I'm talking right now. Last time you sent me away and I went because I agreed that my people, our people needed me here. I heard you talking about what's going on and the way I see it this could be Fantasia's last chapter, and I'm not going to spend it somewhere wondering where you are and if you're coming back. I'm going."

"Deisha please." Atreyu pleaded.

"Child listen to yourself." Ze'hara lectured.

"She's coming." All eyes were on Adair now, even Deisha's. The plains girl's dark green eyes were wide and questioning. There was a silence before Adair realized they wanted her to explain her decision. "She's right. This could be the end, and I'd want to spend it with the people I care about, especially if I felt like there was something I could do."

Deisha was silent. She hadn't expected Adair to be sympathetic to her plight, not after how well they'd gotten along the last time they'd traveled together. She looked like she wanted to say something. Thank you perhaps? But whatever it was, her pride wouldn't let her. It seemed this would change nothing between them.

Atreyu relented. He had enough difficulty arguing with one stubborn girl. He wasn't about to try his luck against two. "Then rest up. We leave in the morning."

"I'll go break the news to Ainslee." Bahzha sighed. "She won't be happy being left with the little ones."

"We'll make our preparations on the morrow." The Elder declared. "When you arrive at the Ivory Tower for battle, we'll be waiting."

They retired soon after the Elder had made the announcement to the village. As he had expected, the Plains People were quick to agree to go to battle to defend Fantasia. Those who didn't have the watch were sound asleep in their huts. Jason had taken the first watch in a small camp on the outskirts of the village. When Adair had learned this, she decided to go keep him company.

Jason keeping watch. She thought, remembering a time when she could scarcely rouse Jason from sleep for anything. What had this world done to them that he was rising early and taking late night watches and she was giving orders to armies?

She found him in the lonely camp. Not only was he awake, he was practicing the various forms and techniques with his sword that Iole had taught him.

"You're getting pretty good with that." she remarked.

He whirled around to face her and she couldn't tell if the sudden flush of red in his cheeks was from training or embarrassment. She smiled and sat next to the unused fire pit. On her command it lit. He smiled.

"You're not too bad either you know." He took a break and sat beside her, resting the black and red sword across his lap. It was a cold night. He was sitting so close that their shoulders touched to keep warm. Or at least that's what she told herself. "So are you sure about letting Deisha come along?"

It occurred to her then that Jason must have also read about Deisha after she had come to Fantasia.

"She's really not so bad."

"Didn't she threaten to kill you?"

"So she has a temper. I thought you liked that in a woman." she teased.

He laughed. "Not when she has weapons. That's a little too intense for me."

This was why she was glad Jason had come. She'd always been able to speak freely around him. Jason had always been that kind of friend who knew her inside and out, and when they talked she almost felt normal. Even now as they sat and talked they may as well have been back home in Aunt Rosemary's living room watching anime or reading manga. They talked for a long time about what had changed for them since they'd come to Fantasia; the parts that they liked, the parts that had scared them, how weird it was that Iole had been pretending to be her cat but had been some magical black-ops agent the entire time. Adair admitted she wouldn't have gotten dressed in front of her as often had she known.

"So be honest." she said. "Do you like her better now or as a cat?"

"Cat." he replied quickly. "No question. All she could do as a cat was scratch. Now she thumps me on the head."

"It was a love-tap."

"That love-tap is still throbbing."

"Don't be a baby."

Jason held a fist up. "Okay let's see how you like it. It was just like this."

He tried to thump her on the head and she shrieked playfully, trying to hold him back. He still managed to rap his knuckles lightly on her head in spite of her resistance. She squirmed and struggled so much that she actually fell backwards and thanks to her hold on his wrist Jason fell over with her.

"I'm so sorry! are you alright?" He looked her over, his blue eyes full of concern behind his glasses.

To this she only laughed. This moment felt separate, apart from all else that was happening to them right now. She could forget Fantasia's troubles and her part in them for now and just have time to be a girl with her friend. Then she met his eyes and stopped laughing.

"What?" he asked.

She didn't know why she was staring. "I was just thinking." she lied. "Remember that time you and Kevin Thomas got into a fight last year?"

"You mean the time he stole your notebook and I broke his nose?"

"No I mean the time he stole my notebook and then he tied you to the doorknob by your underwear for punching him." she replied, apparently having a clearer recollection of the event than he did.

"Oh you mean the time we both agreed we'd never talk about again."

"Well I was just thinking about how you could totally take him now."

He grinned. "You're just saying that."

"No I mean it. You're a total beast now."

"You know Kevin still has a good eighty pounds on me."

"Kevin's never fought Witches."

He smiled and helped her back up. "So you still remember that huh?"

"It's a little hard to forget helping you untie your underwear from the classroom door."

"That's not what I meant." he said in a hurry to move on from the rather painful memory. "I mean you haven't forgotten about home, about Rosemary, or anything else yet."

"I don't think so. I'm sure something's missing though. It must not be important."

"Well let's keep the wishing to a minimum okay? I don't want to have to take you to a mental hospital when we get home. Your aunt would love me for that."

"Don't worry, I'll be careful." She promised. They were quiet for a moment.

"You know," he spoke again. "You could always use that to get home." He pointed to the ring on her finger.

Instinctively she pulled her hand away to cover it. "You know about that?"

"Relax, I'm not going to tell anyone. I'm just saying if the fighting gets too bad you could always take them up on their offer."

"You think they'll still do it? I mean, we did just try to kill them."

He nodded coolly. "Totally. They're scared of you. I think that's why they gave it to you in the first place."

"Wouldn't they hand me over to Volrac?"

"I don't think so. It's like Iole said. They're playing a different game than he is."

She shuddered at the thought of just what the Circle of the Night could be plotting that would be worse than Volrac's plan.

"So let's say I use it. What happens to Fantasia?"

"I'm not saying abandon everything. I care about Fantasia too. I'm just saying you should think about it before you lose all your memories. If it came to that, I could take your place and then find my own way back. I'm human too. Maybe that's why the Childlike Empress let two humans come here."

"You don't know what you're asking." she said firmly. "I couldn't leave you here to fight anymore than you could leave me. You're my only friend out there Jason."

He frowned when she said that and she didn't know why. She had no idea it was the word "friend" that had quieted him again. Once more they didn't speak for a moment.

He started again. "When you were in the hut earlier talking about the end... you said you wanted to spend it with people you care about..." He paused. He was tripping over his words. This wasn't like him. "What did you mean?"

"I meant you, and Atreyu, and Iole, and Falkor. Wow I have more friends than I thought."

"Yeah." he nodded. "You care about Atreyu a lot then?"

She smiled, and though she didn't catch it herself, Jason could see the slight reddening of her cheeks. "Yeah. If it weren't for him I wouldn't know how beautiful this place is, or about me. I had no idea I could do any of this, feel any of this."

"Just be careful." he said. This surprised her.

"What do you mean?"

"Just... I don't think he's telling us everything." He was referring of course to what he had seen with Atreyu in the Forest of Thorns, but he didn't want to tell her so. He wasn't sure himself what it meant. Just that Atreyu had done something in his past that haunted him to this day.

"I trust him." she replied. "And if I'm wrong you can kick his butt for me just like back home."

"I'm serious Adair. Just be careful." He was staring intently at her now. Not only that, he was getting closer to her. Was she imagining it? She had to be. This was Jason, her best friend. Why would he try to...

"Your watch is up." Bahzha startled them as he tore through the brush that surrounded the camp. He had his spear in hand. "Get some sleep kids. You'll need it tomorrow."

"Right." Jason nodded. The two of them went back to the village together. They did not speak again except to say good night when they returned to their tents.

"You were right on the money with that observation Fay." Thoth commented. "This Jason lad is absolutely head over heels for her."

Fay nodded, not looking up from the book she had been reading aloud up until that moment. "And she has no idea."

"Such a dense creature. But what can we expect? Our experiment did seal off her heart ten years ago. What I don't understand is why the poor fellow hasn't just told her yet."

"Fear. He is afraid that she will reject him. He feels that the companionship he has built with her is preferable to nothing. I've seen this before. It's a common halt of growth in the Strongest Magic."

"How boring." Nag moaned from where it was lounging, upside down on its personal sofa. "He clearly wants her, he should just take her."

"It doesn't work that way Nag." she explained quite hopelessly. Least of all, Nag would never understand what she had learned in her studies.

"Whether or not it is the Strongest Magic we shall see." Thoth droned. "But this I will give you, it seems to create the most incomprehensible messes." He turned his back on her and returned to his desk. "Imagine remaining silent about your thoughts your entire life over a fear as silly as rejection." He looked up from his work briefly. "But I may as well tell you now, if you are harboring any secret feelings for me m'dear Fay, do keep them to yourself. As I've said many times before, I am married to my work."

She ignored his jibe completely. "Rest assured Thoth, if I ever join in the Strongest Magic with another, it will be with a far more masculine specimen."

Nag grinned with its angular teeth. "Don't worry Thoth. I'll always have a soft spot for you." It cackled fiendishly.

Thoth shivered in disgust and went back to his work.

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