Chapter 15: True Strength
Once she had found the Silver Mountains, it had taken Iole no time at all to find the cavern and the forge Adair had spoken of. She'd met with the Cyclops forge master under whom the other Cyclops' labored. After some of Iole's version of "gentle persuasion" they had agreed to craft the silver weapons for the coming battle. At the moment the forge master who went by "The Bright Argus" was lining up his laborers who were bringing the weapons for her inspection. It wasn't just Cyclops' who crafted in the Silver Forge. They had many apprentices who studied under them: Dwarves and Rockbiters, mountain spirits and hermits, swamp witches and gnomes came from far and wide to the fabled cavern for the honor of learning from the oldest smiths.
They brought before Iole racks, wagons, and armloads of swords, scimitars, silver tipped arrows, lances, maces, flails, all manner of weaponry that a Fantasian could handle. And it wasn't just silver they were crafting. Those who could, such as the swamp witches and the hermit wizards crafted with magic to enchant the weapons.
"Tell your apprentices to make sure the silver is as pure as you can get it." Iole urged Bright Argus as she hefted one of the blades in her hand. "When it's at its purest, it can burn right through the hide of a demon. Don't let them waste any of the ore either. Whatever they don't use for weapons, have them melt down into dust."
"Dust?" Bright Argus asked in his aged voice. He was a giant who nearly brushed the roof of the cavern with his head, but his hair was white and his back was hunched with age. He barely crafted himself anymore, so old was he. "Whatever for?"
"The soldiers can scatter it around the battlefield to blind them and confuse their other senses."
Bright Argus shook his head. "I'll admit I was wary of your proposal before, but I am glad you're making use of our forge. We had a scuffle with these monsters on some of our trade routes. We had to cease trade with the west. There was nothing salvageable in the caravans when they were done. They destroy everything they touch! They don't steal or use anything, they simply destroy! The sooner we're rid of these fiends the better. Now about the battle. How will we get all of these to the Ivory Tower?"
"Your caravans of course." she answered blithely.
Bright Argus did not care for that idea. He'd already lost goods and apprentices to these creatures.
"Can we count on your protection then?"
"Don't worry. You'll be perfectly safe with me."
"But how will we return if not with you?"
"I give you my word that I'll escort you and all your people safely back to the Silver Mountains after the battle."
"After the battle?!" Bright Argus cried, but then stifled his voice so as not to worry his followers. "Surely you do not mean for us to fight. We are forgers and creators here. Not warriors."
Iole set the blade back among the others carefully and looked Bright Argus in his one golden eye. He stood many times taller than she, but there was weight and power in her sky blue eyes that seemed to freeze him where he stood. "I could just eat you here. Trust me, that would be better than being here when the demons rule Fantasia."
Agrus trembled at the suggestion. However frightened he might be of the demons, he was terrified of the dragon. Iole would never eat him of course. She was forbidden from taking such action even if she'd wanted to. But the Cyclops was unable to see past her bluff. His one eye was keen to craftsmanship and critical to detail, but without depth perception he was incapable of seeing past the surface of anything. This was doubly true for people.
"As you say White Dragon." he relented.
Having made her point, she released him from her gaze. "Your people have many skills. There are other ways you can help besides fighting." She said nothing more and continued to oversee the work. That being said, let us return to Adair and the others.
As soon as the sun had risen, Falkor took off into the sky with Adair, Atreyu, Jason, and now Deisha on his back. Now more than ever it was important to only travel in daylight. Their enemies were strongest in the dark. Bahzha had set off on horseback with a small company of hunters in search of his old companion Hysbald while they went in search of Hykrion.
"Watch out for Hykrion." he had warned. "Especially you Atreyu. I doubt the years have curbed that temper of his."
As they began their journey, Adair couldn't help but pry. "What did Bahzha mean by 'especially you'?"
As always Atreyu had his eyes on the land below as he spoke. "Hykrion and I did not part on good terms."
"So we're going to see a guy that hates you." Jason quipped. "And here I thought you were perfect."
Deisha got close to Jason's ear and whispered. "You know, it's not too late to throw you off."
"I heard that!" Falkor called over the air. "You two don't knock that off I'll drop the both of you off in the Valley of Rain and we'll go on without you!"
"I was just curious." Jason shrugged innocently. "What did you do to make this Hykrion guy hate you so much?"
"He has his reasons." Atreyu replied sadly.
"Any of them good?"
"Jason!" Adair whispered desperately to shut him up. Whether Atreyu had heard him or not she didn't know. He said nothing more on the matter. In fact he didn't say anything at all for a long while.
When they'd set out they'd worried they would never find the mountain range Ze'hara had spoken of before night fell, but as it stood since the stakes of their journey were higher, Falkor's luck was greater. Because of this he could travel almost impossible distances in the space of a day. And so it was as the sun began to set that they saw the mountain range peppered with holes as the Shaman woman had predicted. Falkor landed within their boundaries and the four travelers leaped to the ground.
"I'll fly on ahead." he told them. "See if I can scout out any danger."
Atreyu nodded. "Right. We'll head into the mountains and find a secure site." Falkor flew ahead of them and Atreyu turned to the rest of his companions. "I'll take the lead. Jason, you stay close to Adair. The passage through may be narrow so Adair, it might be a bad idea to use more magic than you have to. Deisha, you use your bow and cover our backs." And with that they headed into the narrow mountain passage.
"So these rockbiters?" Jason asked. "Did they make these holes?"
Atreyu nodded. "They must not have been here that long. They've eaten so much of their home in the north over the years that the mountains look more like Swiss cheese. It's why they call them the Cheesiewheezies."
Jason chuckled. "Cheesiewheezies? Don't you think that name sounds a little-"
"Don't." Adair cut him off.
Jason frowned. "Cheesy." he muttered to himself. Behind him, Deisha giggled, but only slightly.
They heard a deafening crack that brought their sights to the sky. The thunderous crash was followed by another, and still another. In the sky they caught sight of Falkor, a streak of white fire as he zigzagged through the clouds to avoid the boulders that were being hurled at him from below.
"Falkor!" Atreyu and the others bolted straight ahead. Atreyu and Deisha were nimble enough to leap over rocks and other obstacles that blocked their path, and Adair and Jason exhausted their effort trying to keep up with them. Falkor was in their sight and another boulder was soaring through the sky straight at him. Adair raised her hand, and on her command a bolt of lightning split the sky. The boulder crumbled to dust. More rocks followed, and Adair became a force of nature. The sky darkened with clouds and lightning rained down, reducing them to dust.
Soon the rocks stopped, but the crashing did not. They could hear monstrous footsteps rushing towards them. The rockbiters were coming for them. The first one that came into view pointed his great stone finger at Adair and shouted.
"Witch! They've got a witch with them!" More of them were coming into view, and not just stampeding for them. Some were scaling down the cliffs above them, snatching rocks to throw as they went. All in all there seemed to be a dozen of them. They were built just like Pyornkrachzark as they seemed to be made of stone and eleven feet tall, but one look at their jagged teeth and swollen red eyes told her they were not as gentle. Adair raised both her hands to call a mighty wind above them which spun the rocks away from them. Atreyu and Deisha retaliated with their bows. Rockbiters appear to be made completely out of stone, and indeed their outer shell is made almost entirely out of rock. But there is living stuff inside of them that lets them move, and you can see it through the small chinks in their armor. These small openings are what the Plains warriors were exploiting. In spite of their efforts, the rockbiters were so enraged, that their arrows were having almost no effect. Two rushed through Atreyu and Adair, forcing them both to leap aside to avoid being trampled. Jason took a stand in front of Adair and readied his blade. He swung at their ankles, slashing deep inside their armor. It was enough to halt them, but another had come around and was now behind them. The giant reached for Adair and Jason heard her shout in alarm. Without thinking he turned and threw his sword. It spun through the air and buried itself deep in the joint of the rockbiter's foot. The giant howled and fell face first to the ground. But now Jason had no weapon. One of the two that had rushed them wrapped its giant hand around Jason's waist and hoisted him into the air.
Atreyu was coming to their aid, but when he turned his back, he too was taken from behind. The rockbiter shook him so fiercely that his bow was thrown from his grasp. Deisha was taken next.
Adair barely avoided the grasp of the rockbiter Jason had wounded. Acting quickly, she pulled AURYN from the inside of her tunic and held it up. It glimmered brightly.
"Stop! I have AURYN! I'm a messenger of the Empress! Does this mean anything to you?"
The rockbiters halted at once. An uneasy silence fell over them as they looked to one another.
"The witch has the gem?" one growled. "This changes everything."
"This changes nothing." bellowed another. "Kill anyone who comes near. Those are the orders."
"Baloc," one whispered to their leader. "What should we do?"
Baloc, who stood a little taller and broader than the rest of his fellows looked at Adair through narrow red eyes. He was fearsome with jagged teeth like the rest of them, and he had adorned his stony fists with cruel spikes. His head had horn-like protrusions at his crown, and he spoke in a voice lower and more threatening than the storm Adair had called before.
"We take them to the Boss."
Before she could move, Adair was seized by the waist. Baloc motioned for the others to follow him. With their captives in hand, the rockbiters scaled the mountain side. To anyone watching, they looked like an avalanche rolling up the mountain. They climbed to the peak of the mountain and at last set their prisoners roughly on the ground. Adair fell to her knees and had to catch herself on her hands. She looked up. In the glaring red light of the setting sun's rays she could see a figure with his back turned to them. He was tall. Not as tall as the rockbiters, but easily larger than any man she knew. His shoulders were broad and looked ready to burst from the fine leather jerkin he wore over his black silk shirt with wide cuffs. Resting across his shoulders was a claymore with a blade as wide as the man's hand. He turned to face them. He was a bald man with beady black eyes and sharp features, most prominent among them being his black mustache. His beady eyes zeroed in on Atreyu.
"You!" He growled.
"Hykrion." Atreyu acknowledged him.
"I should have known when I saw the Luckdragon." He stomped to where Atreyu was kneeling and spat on the ground in front of him. "How dare you show your face here. How I have dreamed of seeing you again so that I may put your head on a pike. The oath I pledged to Bastian would demand so."
"Bastian is gone." Atreyu replied. He was alarmingly calm in the face of this man's threat. From the looks of him, Hykrion could easily snap the boy's neck in just one of his mammoth hands.
In a swift motion, the tip of Hykrion's sword was under Atreyu's chin. "Do not speak my lord's name to me you traitorous cur!"
"Back off!" Adair shouted at the same time that Deisha cried out. "Leave him alone!"
Hykrion glanced from side to side at the both of them before returning his gaze to Atreyu. "Have you grown so cowardly that you would have women fight for you now? To think I respected you once." Then he turned his attention to Adair.
"They tell me you're a sorceress of some kind. I should tell you now that I loathe sorceresses."
Adair steeled herself and calmly reached for the talisman around her neck, holding it up for him to see. Hykrion looked back to Atreyu.
"Is this some kind of trick, boy?"
Atreyu shook his head. "Adair is human. She wears the Glory around her neck. We have come in the name of the Childlike Empress."
Hykrion turned back to Adair. His expression appeared mildly impressed. "Really? Well always honored to have a messenger of the Empress in our presence. Isn't that right boys?" The rockbiters chuckled collectively. "So tell me, Adair was it? What brings such esteemed company as yourself to my mountains?"
Adair took this opportunity to rise to her feet. The others followed her example. "Hykrion the Strong, I am Adair Alicia Artemis, and we have come to ask for your aid."
Hykrion sneered. "It's been a long time since anyone's called me that. Perhaps you haven't heard, but these days 'Hykrion the Brigand', 'Hykrion the Red', or my personal favorite 'Hykrion the Slaughterer' seems more appropriate. So what would make the Empress so desperate as to call for an infamous marauder like myself?"
Adair gulped. The Hykrion before her was hardly the noble ex-knight she'd expected. But after remembering how Bahzha's travels had changed him, it only made sense that Hykrion had changed as well. Only it seemed that Hykrion had changed for the worse. Nevertheless she knew her wish had guided her here for a reason. They needed his help.
"There is a battle coming to the Ivory Tower. New evil has come to Fantasia and if we don't face it and win, your world and mine will fall forever."
Hykrion was as motionless as stone. "Well perhaps Atreyu hasn't told you, but I've already fought my share of battles for the Ivory Tower. The last time I saw that place, it was nothing but a pile of burning rubble collapsing into the ground and taking all my dreams of honor and glory with it. So you'll excuse me if I respectfully decline your invitation to another blazing failure." He turned his back on them again. "But I'm not so stupid as to go up against the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes. You should feel honored. You're about to become the first outsiders to leave these mountains alive. I'll have my boys escort you back. Don't show yourselves around here again."
Adair clenched her fists at her sides. "I was led here by the way of wishes! If you really are still loyal to Moon Child, that should mean something to you!"
Hykrion rounded on her. "Didn't you hear me?! I said scram! I'd be an idiot to attack someone wearing the Gem, but what's stopping me from hurting your little friends? I think I'd fancy making a new necklace out of Atreyu's teeth. But I'm feeling generous, so I'll give you to the count of three to head back the way you came. One."
She remained rooted to the spot.
"Adair, I think we've seen enough." Jason pleaded. "He's not going to help us."
But she was resolute. She held her ground and stared defiantly into his eyes. If there was one thing her travels had taught her, it was that if she trusted in her wishes and gave them everything she had, they'd find a way to come true. Well they'd come as far as they could on their own, and now she had to trust that this was where she needed to be.
"Boss!" Another rockbiter was stomping his way up the summit, shouting for Hykrion. "It's the Luckdragon! He's reached the village!"
The moment he heard, Hykrion's face changed. His sharp brow suddenly creased with lines of worry. Without any kind of explanation or any word at all he turned heel and took off down the other side of the mountain. The rockbiters chased after him, and Adair and the others followed. They raced down the mountainside into the valley below. Near the base Adair could see lights coming on in little houses. There was a small village hidden within the mountains. And when they came nearer she could see Falkor in the middle of it. She braced herself for what they might find when they reached the village square, but she wasn't prepared for what she saw. Falkor was lying on his back, surrounded by children. They were strange little boys and girls with wavy hair of many colors. Some had sky blue hair, others had hair of fiery red. Some had yellow, others had violet. Some even had pink. Falkor lay on his back, letting them climb on top of him while he threw each one in turn into the air. They returned to his waiting claws giggling and begging him to throw them again. Since coming to this mountain range Adair had been met with savagery and brute force. She never would have imagined anything like this here. On their arrival the children stopped playing. One little girl with long rosy pink hair ran straight to Hykrion and threw her arms around him.
"Uncle Hykrion!" She cried. "Where have you been? We've been having so much fun without you! Come meet our new friend!" She tugged his hand.
Hykrion sneered at the Luckdragon. "We've met, Daisy."
Falkor rolled onto his feet with a hearty laugh. "So this is what you were hiding down here Hykrion. Mighty sly of you to keep all these young ones to yourself."
Hykrion's gruff behavior earlier was starting to make sense, but that didn't make it any less surprising. Adair could scarcely believe the feared ex-knight turned marauder was actually the guardian of this secret village of children. And the village was most definitely theirs. The quaint little houses were much too small for any of the rockbiters, and they looked to be made and decorated completely with sweet things like candy, soft feathers, and wildflowers. There were so many flowers lining the streets, in the windows, and the town square was dedicated to a flower garden.
"This is what you were protecting?" Adair asked. "You and the rockbiters have been guarding this village?"
Hykrion scratched his head and sighed. "I suppose I have some explaining to do. I have a reputation to uphold after all."
Hykrion led them to his own house in the village: the only one made out of wood and stone with a traditional thatched roof. It wasn't colorful and sweet like the ones that belonged to the children, but it was simple and homely. It was hardly the den of some vicious bandit. He led them inside and they were followed by the little girl he had called Daisy, and another boy with shoulder length blue hair who they learned was named Falcon.
"Have a seat." He motioned to the table in the middle of what served as the kitchen. There was a small wood-stove at the back and a pantry of food. Hykrion set his claymore down by the door and took a seat at the head of the table. "Daisy, Falcon, set some places on the table. It's not every day we have guests."
"Yes Uncle Hykrion." they said together. Daisy leaned to give him a kiss on the cheek. As the two of them set about their tasks, Adair noticed something about the house. Even though it was Hykrion's, everything in it was adjusted to accommodate the children. His chair was the only one of a normal size, and it had a high back to support his girth. The other chairs were smaller and their legs were higher so that someone small that sat in them would be able to reach the table without too much difficulty. She helped herself into one awkwardly. Jason straddled the one to her left while Atreyu squeezed into the one on her right. Deisha took one look at them and quickly declined in favor of sitting on the floor.
"So what's all this about Hykrion?" Atreyu asked.
Hykrion sighed. "Well as you can plainly see I am the guardian of this place. My boys and I guard this valley."
Adair stole a glance out the window. The rockbiters had begun playing with the children outside along with Falkor. It seemed they were gentle after all.
"How did you end up here?" she asked.
"Yeah." Jason interjected. "How does someone like you go from being a butt-kicking warrior to being Papa Smurf?"
Hykrion narrowed his beady black eyes. "Watch your tongue boy. I am no less a warrior now than I was then."
Daisy and Falcon set bowls and spoons in front of them.
"I hope you enjoy mutton stew because that's all we have right now. It may be tough, but it puts hair on your chest. Right Falcon?"
"Right Sir." Falcon smiled as he placed the pot he had taken from within the stove. He uncovered it and began serving the stew into their bowls.
Daisy stopped what she was doing and tugged lightly on Adair's hair to get her attention. When she turned to see what she wanted, the little girl spoke directly and bluntly.
"I think you're pretty. Will you play with me later?"
Unsure of what to say, Adair nodded tentatively. "If we have time." It was here that Adair noticed something else that was peculiar about the children. Both Daisy and Falcon had matching eyes. What she had first believed to be a light blue in their irises she could now see was unmistakably silver. She wondered if all the children shared these eyes. Daisy returned to Hykrion and forced her way onto his lap. She ate from the bowl she had placed in front of him and he didn't seem to mind. He didn't look in the mood for eating.
With a long slow breath, Hykrion began to tell his tale. "It was some years back after the Ivory Tower fell and we lost track of Bastian. My old companions Hydorn and Hysbald departed and I headed east. I had many adventures along the way, but nothing that could have prepared me for this. I traveled to the eastern coast along the Ocean of Mist. But I could find no boat to take me across. Not just anyone can sail across an ocean of pure mist you know. Many who try either sink to the bottom or are lost forever in the fog. But as it happened, one day while I began another search along the docks to take me across in search of Bastian, I was approached by a woman who told me she had a boat of her own. She claimed to know of Bastian and would gladly take me across if I aided her first. She said that she lived on an island in the middle of the Ocean of Mist called Tirnog. She said it was a beautiful island where disease and death did not exist. But there was a problem. She said that her people were plagued by a monster called the Ethahl. If I was able to slay the creature, she promised to aid me in my search for Lord Bastian.
"I went with her. Together we sailed across the mist to the isle of Tirnog. When we arrived, I met her people. Imagine my surprise to find the island inhabited entirely by women, and each one more beautiful than the last."
"So these were pretty women?" Jason asked with a wry smile.
"Oh my lad, I had run with the loveliest of Fantasian women in my day." Hykrion boasted as he twirled the end of his mustache. "elves, fairies, nymphs, I even met the Goddess of the Hunt herself once. But these were worldly women who could turn even my ears red. Why this one time-"
"Um," Adair cleared her throat. "There's kids here."
Hykrion looked flustered. "Right, of course. Anyway, they told me of the monster that ravaged their home. They said that it could sometimes be an eagle, other times a boar, or even a lion. And every night it would swoop down and take another of them to its lair and eat her. I took my sword and followed their instructions to its cave. The Ethahl charged me at once. Its eyes were like fire, and it changed shape many times as we fought. As a lion it tore at me with its claws. As a boar it charged me head on and nearly crushed me against the rocks. As an eagle it carried me into the sky in its talons to drop me to my death. Here is where I gained the upper hand. With my strength I broke free of its grasp and raised myself to the beast's back. With my weight I forced it back to the ground where I tore its head from its body with my bare hands. With the Ethahl dead, the women of the island rejoiced. They were good to their word. They knew some magic you see, and used it to learn of Bastian's whereabouts. But unfortunately all they had to tell me was that my lord Bastian had left Fantasia. With my quest at an end, I was unsure of what to do. They told me that they were in need of a strong and capable warrior to protect them, and I was happy to oblige.
"I don't know how long I stayed there, enjoying the island's many pleasures. Time didn't seem to exist on Tirnog. But one day I noticed that the island seemed to be losing its luster. The fruit rotted quickly. The game was dying off. Even the landscape was decaying. I ignored it at first, blinded by the beauty and sweet flattering words of my hosts. When I asked them about it, they told me not to worry, that their magic would soon find a solution. But one day I decided to investigate. I took my sword and returned to the cave where I had slain the Ethahl. When I got there, I found some of the women entering. They'd never told me about meeting here before. I hid and followed them. I watched from the mouth of the cave. What I saw there chilled me to the bone. Huddled there in the dark, and chained together by the ankles were dozens of children. They were small and pale and weak. I watched one of the women take a child from the lineup and place her hands around his neck. She forced him to scream, and with dark magic she used that scream to drain him of his youth. I watched her grow younger before my eyes, and when she was through the boy was a little paler, a little weaker. His hair was shabby and gray long before his time. That was where I learned the truth about Tirnog. The island did not belong to the women, it belonged to the children. My hosts were nothing more than a coven of witches who had stolen the island from these children and were draining them of their youth."
"Witches are obsessed with keeping their youth. And who can blame them? They age far worse than any being in Fantasia I've ever seen. And these weren't ordinary children. They were the Tuah, cousins of the fairies, the legendary silver eyed children who never grow old. The Ethahl had been their guardian for centuries. After I had killed it there had been nothing protecting them from these witches.
"I waited there, wondering what to do. I waited a moment too long, for I was found by the others. They brought me into the cave. 'So now you know the truth' they said. They begged me not to be angry with them, said they would be gentle with the children from now on. They promised me all sorts of things that were pleasing to the ear. I had grown close with these women after all, had trusted them, even thought I loved them. I had succumbed to their temptations. I realized then I had a choice to make. I thank the Empress every day I had the strength to make the right one."
"You saved them?" Adair asked, hanging with anticipation on every word of Hykrion's story.
"Aye." Hykrion nodded. "I cut their chains and cleaved a path threw the witches, killing many of them. They pursued me to the coast where I feared we were lost. But the Tuah knew the way through the mist and how to use the witches' boats. We climbed aboard. In time they came after us. We fled Tirnog and returned to mainland. I took the children with me and together we remained a step ahead of them. Sometimes they would overtake us and I was forced to slay a few more. There were no towns that would offer us shelter for fear that the coven would destroy them, and there were none in the cities who would even spare a glance for us. I decided to take them deep into the mountains instead. Here we could hide. Here I could defend them."
"And what about the rockbiters?" Atreyu asked.
"The rockbiters that follow me are exiles from the north. They came here looking for a place to settle. I decided I could use them to help me protect the mountains. I challenged Baloc to a wrestling match and won. After that I forced them into my service. They resented it at first, but in time the Tuah won them over too. And we've protected this village ever since, not just from the witches but from any who would take advantage of them. We made a name for ourselves and spread the legend of Hykrion the Slaughterer and his band of rockbiter bandits to make sure no one would ever come near this place. That is until you three showed up." His gaze hardened again. "Alright, you've heard my tail. Now I want to hear yours. Why have you come to our mountains. Be sure not to leave anything out."
Adair swallowed and looked to Atreyu. He nodded in agreement. She told their story so far, about the threat Volrac and the Circle of the Night posed to Fantasia, the plot to overthrow Moon Child, the battle coming to the Ivory Tower, and finished with their quest to find him and his old companions. Hykrion stroked his mustache and didn't say anything at all. His face was as impassive as the flesh of his stony companions. After they finished it was a while yet before he had anything to say. After a long while he set Daisy back on her feet.
"Falcon, take your sister to bed, and then see that the others turn in as well. It's long past your bed time."
"Yes Sir." Falcon replied respectfully and led Daisy out by the hand."
Hykrion returned his attention to them. "I see. So my old comrade Hydorn threw his lot in with your people eh? Interesting. He always seemed like such a city type. Now this... Volrac you said his name was? About his plan. Do you think he can do it? Replace the Empress I mean. I've seen some of the darkest magic there is, but this sounds a little out of the realm of possibility."
"These Witches who follow him, the Circle of the Night," Atreyu explained. "Their magic is not of Fantasia, and it is more evil than anything we know. Whether or not they can isn't the issue. They're still going to try, and they'll probably destroy Fantasia beyond repair in the process."
"I see. And just what do you expect me to do?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Deisha interjected. "We want you to fight with us?"
"Is that right." Hykrion spat. "Well as I've said before, I'm not a knight any longer. The days of questing and glory are over. I gave all that up and I'm not about to go back to it for the sake of a load of petty cowards who cast these little ones out when they needed them."
Atreyu rose from his seat and leaned over the table earnestly. "Hykrion, we were led to you by AURYN! That's tantamount to a summons from the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes herself! It's your duty to respond!"
"I will not be lectured about duty by the likes of you! I gave up my honor as a knight to protect them and I will not turn my back on them now!"
"You'd be doing it protect them! This concerns them too!"
"Says who? This new human of yours following the will of a sleeping empress? As far as I'm concerned this is your problem. I will stay here where I'm needed."
Adair got to her feet and glared with a new ferocity in her eyes. She held AURYN up for him to see. "And what if I demand it?"
Hykrion glared. "You would use the Glory to compel me? Are you truly that desperate that you would commit the ultimate taboo of Fantasia. Not even the Childlike Empress forces her will on others, certainly not in order to leave a village of children defenseless."
They stared defiantly at one another. It was like he was daring her to try it. Atreyu put his hand on Adair's and shook his head. She sighed and let AURYN fall back around her neck. She knew he was right. Using AURYN to force Hykrion against his will would make her no better than Volrac.
"I admire your passion Adair Alicia Artemis. You remind me of Bastian. It was a different Fantasia then, back when we cared about courage and went out of our way to save each other. But that Fantasia I remember is no more. These children are all I have left. They helped me to find true strength to put those I protect above everything else. I will not leave them. I'll provide you with lodging tonight, and send you on your way tomorrow. This negotiation is over."
He rose from the table and turned his back on them. Adair believed that would be the end of it. She underestimated the brashness of her friends, one in particular.
"If you won't listen to negotiations then how about a duel?" All eyes were on Jason now.
Hykrion turned to face him. "Do you even know what you're saying boy? You're honestly challenging me?"
Adair shook her head vigorously. Hykrion was easily the size of three Jason's. Deisha's spoon had stopped midway from her bowl to her mouth which was hanging wide open.
"Dang right I'm challenging you. You and me, blade on blade at dawn."
Hykrion glanced from Jason to the sword still strapped to his back. He seemed almost amused. "I don't doubt you know how to use that. I heard you brought down Greahl. He's still moaning about his ankle. Testing your skill would be interesting. But are you certain about this?"
"What's the matter?" Jason asked. "Afraid you've gotten soft? Think you can't take a skinny human like me anymore?"
Hykrion grinned. "Now you I like. So tell me, what are the stakes of this duel? Obviously if you win you expect me to accompany you and the others back to the Ivory Tower. But what if I win?"
Jason had been about to say that they would leave and never come back, but that sounded boring in his head. He thought for a moment and then made a devilish smirk that frightened Adair.
"If you beat me, not only do we leave you alone, Atreyu has to play tea-party with the girls in the village."
"What?" Atreyu, Adair, and Deisha all said at once.
Jason nodded. "In a dress."
"WHAT?!" They repeated louder.
Hykrion's great shoulders shook with laughter as he grabbed Jason's hand and shook it. "It's a deal. You and I shall face one another like true warriors at dawn."
In spite of Hykrion's promise of lodgings, there was no house in the village that could afford room for the four of them. So the rockbiters had conceded one of the surrounding caves. Falkor remained outside and listened to what had happened from them.
"A duel?" Falkor inquired. "And if you lose, Atreyu has to do what?"
"I can't believe you agreed to this Jason!" Adair shouted as though he couldn't hear her through his practicing.
“What's hard to believe?” He asked. “Picking a hopeless fight with a bigger guy? Sounds just like me.”
“I'm being serious Jason! Hykrion's a monster!”
"Oh come on, do you have any faith in me?" He asked as he swung his sword in practiced motion.
"But Jason," Falkor said again. "Do you even know anything about dueling?"
"Iole's been teaching me and you know I've been getting better. Besides," he tossed the blade over his head and caught it by the hilt behind his back. "I've got luck on my side."
"You're being reckless! You're going to get yourself killed!"
"Adair you are such a drama queen. This wouldn't be the first time I've gotten the snot beat out of me. And if I win, Hykrion will have to come with us."
"And if you lose?"
"Then Atreyu has to wear a dress. I'm not seeing a downside."
"It's a bold plan." Deisha agreed. "But I still say you went too far."
"I don't think so. I knew Hykrion wouldn't turn down an offer like that. You weren't kidding Atreyu, he hates your guts."
Adair thought back on the harsh words the knight had spat at Atreyu, particularly the tale involving Bastian and a supposed betrayal. She wondered what had happened. Atreyu had always spoken highly of Bastian as his truest friend. She couldn't guess at what would prompt someone as pure as Atreyu to betray someone and wondered if Hykrion had gotten the tale wrong. That seemed more likely. She wanted to ask him about it, but she hadn't worked up the courage. Besides, she couldn't do it in front of Jason and Deisha.
"Jason's right." Atreyu agreed. "AURYN led us to Hykrion. We need to do everything in our power to gain his support. We have to trust that everything will work out."
"We have nothing to worry about." Jason said with a surge of confidence. "I'm almost an expert swordsman. Hykrion's strong, but Iole's taught me it's not about strength. It's about precision, agility, and above all brains." He tossed the blade high again as he spoke, but his luck wasn't as strong this time and the pommel struck him in the head on the way down. "Owe!"
Atreyu groaned and buried his head in his hands. "I'm doomed." Deisha patted his back sympathetically.
"Adair, where are you going?" Falkor asked as she stomped from the cave.
"All the hot air in this cave is suffocating me." She stalked away from the cavern and found herself wandering closer to the village. The lights were out and the Tuah were all cozy in their little houses. All except one. Adair almost collided with the little girl who stood in her path, and only her bright pink hair allowed her to catch a glimpse of her before running into her. She held up her hand and created a small light to see. She found the girl staring up at her curiously with her large silver eyes.
"Oh it's you. What are you doing out of bed Daisy?"
"What are you doing out of bed?" The little girl shot back.
Adair nodded. "Fair enough."
"Are you a witch?" Daisy asked.
"No." she replied automatically, wondering if she should be insulted by the question.
"But you can do magic."
"I do the good kind. I'm not a witch."
Daisy's face lit up. "You mean the kind of magic Moon Child can use?"
She thought about that for a moment. "Yeah, sort of like that."
"But if you're good, then why are you trying to take Uncle Hykrion away from us?"
She frowned. "Who told you that?"
"I heard you talking. You said you wanted Uncle Hykrion to go with you and fight a big battle. But if you do that, he could get hurt. I don't want Uncle Hykrion to get hurt. He takes care of us and we love him." Her silver eyes began to stream with tears.
What could she say to that? Adair had never really been good with kids. Her only experience had been with Bryan and Jamie and little Lizzie, and she had struggled with them. But Daisy reminded her so much of little Lizzie whose big brown eyes pleading for attention she'd begun to sorely miss. She wanted to say something that would console Daisy, but she didn't know how to talk to children. She took hold of AURYN and wished to know what to say. And then she did.
"Come here." she motioned for Daisy to follow her and they found a place to sit on an abandoned log. Daisy sat beside her and she put her arm around the girl and held her close. Her wish told her this was right.
"Do you remember when the witches kept you in that cave where your Uncle Hykrion found you?"
Daisy nodded meekly. It wasn't a memory she liked to dwell on, but one that Adair regrettably had to dredge up if she was going to make her understand.
"How did you feel?"
"Scared. I was tired and sick all the time, but mostly I remember it was always dark and cold. They were so mean to us." She was shivering now and Adair was pulling her even tighter.
"Daisy, there are a lot of bad people that are going to the Ivory Tower to do some very bad things. They want to hurt Moon Child."
"And if they win, then everyone in Fantasia is going to feel like you did in that cave."
"No!" Daisy cried. "I don't want it to be dark and cold forever!"
"I know." Adair stroked her hair and rubbed her back to calm her. "That's why we're going to stop them. That's why we need your Uncle Hykrion's help. If he goes with us, he'll save a lot of people."
Daisy was quiet for a moment. It was a lot for her childlike mind to take in. Idly Adair wondered how old she actually was. Time didn't seem to mean anything to the Tuah. According to Hykrion, they would remain children forever.
Daisy stood up. "Then I hope he loses tomorrow." She gave Adair a soft kiss on the cheek that reminded her even more of Lizzie. "Good night Adair. I'll see you in the morning."
Adair watched her go and returned to her cave. The warmth of that little girl made it impossible to regret the wish she had made. She didn't even think on what memory she may have lost to it, or what else may have changed within her. She could now see in Daisy what Hykrion had seen in the rest of the children. She understood why he had called them his strength.
Dawn came and all the children were lined up in the square, seating themselves on the ground for the show that was about to take place. The rockbiters had also gathered to spectate. Hykrion hefted his blade and looked Jason in the eye.
"Last chance to back down boy."
Jason held his own sword in a fighting stance. "Not a chance."
Hykrion shrugged. "I'll give you full marks for bravery. Shall we?"
They circled each other as the others watched. Adair wanted to shut her eyes but couldn't look away. This was Kevin Thomas all over again. Jason made the first strike, but Hykrion blocked it easily. He was quicker than his size let on.
"You call that a swing?" the knight sneered. "Here let me show you how it's done." Their blades were still locked, but that soon changed. With a powerful puff of his chest, Hykrion threw Jason off of him. Jason skidded a good three feet on the ground, but before he had even regained his footing Hykrion had swung his blade downward. Jason leaped out of its path and the claymore came to rest in the ground. An explosion of dust erupted from it that had the whole crowd of onlookers coughing and sputtering to get the dirt out of their mouths, except the rockbiters of course who licked it up and swallowed with delight. Jason was more nimble on his feet than Hykrion, but the knight was experienced and could block all of Jason's attacks. His own attacks were powerful. He struck with the strength of an ox. All Jason's luck could do was keep him a step ahead of his swings and allow him to dodge since he had no hope of blocking them. Every time he tried they sent him tumbling away like a rag doll. A few minutes into the fight, Jason was breathing heavily. His shoulders were heaving. He needed to think of something fast because his luck wasn't going to hold out forever. Clearing his head, he rested the tip of his blade in the ground. Hykrion took this as a sign of him lowering his defenses.
"Don't tell me you're giving up already. I was just starting to work up a sweat."
Jason sighed and it looked for all the world that he was giving up, but at the last moment he swung the tip of his blade upward, scraping the dirt as he did. His luck held. The dirt he kicked up flew straight into Hykrion's eyes. The knight staggered and flailed his sword blindly. Jason side-stepped him and swung his pommel at Hykrion's hand to disarm him. It worked. Hykrion dropped the sword, but in a blind flail sent a fist into Jason's jaw. The boy rolled backwards and fell so hard his glasses were thrown off his face where Hykrion smashed them to pieces underfoot while he tried to clear his vision.
"My glasses!" Jason cried.
"There you are!" Hykrion shouted. He closed in on Jason and wrapped his powerful arms around him, squeezing him so tight he let go of his sword. Instead of struggling however, Jason went limp like a dead fish and used his weight to slip out of Hykrion's grasp. "You're a slippery one." the knight complimented.
Jason bent to retrieve his sword, but before he could, Hykrion kicked it away. Jason ran for it as his opponent gathered his own fallen weapon. Jason reached his weapon, grasped the hilt and turned around to face his foe. But he'd been too slow. Hykrion had retrieved his claymore first. Jason turned right into him and was struck in the gut, not by his blade but by the end of his hilt. He struck with such force that Jason was thrown off his feet and slammed into the rockbiter behind him. Adair and the others winced at the sight. Jason fell to the ground face first. Adair rushed to his side and rolled him onto his back, patting her hand against his face.
"Are you alright? Say something you idiot!"
He coughed and heaved to get his breath back. "Wow you're pretty." he moaned.
She slugged him in the shoulder. "You moron! You could have been killed."
Hykrion laughed and all the children cheered. "Well Miss Adair Alicia Artemis, my apologies but it looks like I won't be going with you after all."
Adair helped Jason to his feet and he leaned on her for support. He tried to speak, but had a drunken slur to his speech thanks to the beating he'd endured. "Right, right. You won fair and square, and you know what Hickory? You're alright. Let's do this again some time."
"Indeed." Hykrion agreed. "Best fight I've had in awhile. Whenever you feel in need of a good thrashing, you know where to find me."
Before anything more could be said, a small voice was heard above the clamor.
"Daisy, where are you going?" It was Falcon, and he was chasing after Daisy who was skipping to Adair's side. The girl dashed to Adair and gripped the skirt of her tunic.
"Uncle Hykrion's staying here, so I'm going with Adair. Someone has to go and help her save everyone."
"What?" Hykrion cried. "Daisy, what are you saying?"
"Adair said that the bad people are going to put everyone in the dark again if we don't help her at the Ivory Tower. So I'm going to fight."
Hykrion's face turned a furious shade of red. He pointed his sword at Adair. "Is this your doing?"
Adair looked quickly from Daisy to Hykrion, too flustered at first to find words. "No, I just told her why we came here to find you." Perhaps she hadn't explained things to Daisy as well as she'd thought.
"No Uncle Hykrion. Fantasia's my home too and I want it to be nice."
Falcon rushed to stand by his sister. "Well if you're going then I'm going."
"Me too." Said another boy, this one with forest green hair.
"I'm going too." Said a girl with hair the color of violets. She was followed by a chorus of "Me too" and "I want to go" and "Don't leave me behind" until every child in the village was standing next to Adair.
"Hey you can't go!" one of the rockbiters shouted. "Hykrion, they're not really going are they?"
"No, they're not going." Hykrion said firmly.
"If they're going, then we're going." declared another rockbiter.
"Oh shut up you bumbling blockheads, no one is going anywhere! Now all of you get back here this instant!"
"No Hykrion." said another Rockbiter. It was Baloc, the lead rockbiter with horns. "They're right. All of them. The human spoke the truth yesterday when she said that this involved all of us. The children wish to defend Fantasia just as these travelers do." He strode to stand by the others and stared Hykrion in the face. "I intend to go with them. These children are all that we hold dear in Fantasia. We'd have no home without them. I'll use all my strength to protect them, and if that means fighting at the Ivory Tower, then so be it."
Baloc's declaration inspired the rest of the rockbiters to join them. Now Hykrion stood alone in the square while they watched him, waiting, hoping for a decision. Daisy stepped forward, hand in hand with her brother Falcon.
"Please Uncle Hykrion? I don't want it to be dark and cold anymore."
Hykrion stared into her pure silver eyes, then with a cry of frustration he flung his sword to the ground. "How can I say no to that face? All of you pack your things! We leave first thing in the morning!" The children erupted into cheers before scurrying back into their little houses to pack.
Hykrion was beside himself. He looked down at Adair when she stepped in front of him.
"I promise I'll keep them out of the fighting."
"You'd better." He growled. "A hair on their heads gets harmed, and it won't be this Volrac or his Witches you need to fear." He looked into her eyes sternly, but then his eyes softened. "By the Empress! I don't even know if my old armor will fit!"
Adair smiled. "Thank you Hykrion."
"Thank me when this is over." He retorted.
Atreyu moved to Adair's side. "We should start getting ready as well." They were about to return to the cave when Hykrion seized Atreyu by the back of his tunic.
"And where do you think you're going?"
Atreyu looked up at him questioningly. "We're going to get ready to leave."
"Not yet you're not. I may be going with you, but I believe I still won the duel. A deal's a deal Atreyu."
"Yeah." Jason said in agreement. He seemed to have regained his senses. "A deal's a deal."
"You are horrible." Adair hissed to Jason, though she couldn't suppress a smile. "I mean it. Truly despicable."
Jason grinned. "Go on."
"This is awful." Deisha said mournfully, but she was also smiling. "I know I should look away, but for some reason I can't."
"That's it Deisha." Jason whispered. "Give into your dark side."
"By the Empress, this is just too cruel." Deisha covered her mouth, whether to keep from crying or bursting into laughter they couldn't tell.
Adair nudged him. "How do you sleep at night?"
"Like a baby."
The three of them stayed in their hiding place as they watched the truly awful proceedings that would surely earn Jason a place as one of the cruelest souls in Fantasia. What they were watching was a gathering of Tuah girls seated on a large blanket with a tea set in front of them. All in all there were around twenty girls, a jovial knight, and one very embarrassed boy warrior from the plains.
"This is for Fantasia." Atreyu whispered to himself over and over. "This is for Fantasia." But that offered little comfort for the predicament he was in. His face was now the same shade of pink as the laced dress the girls had picked out for him to wear, and he didn't even want to think of the ribbons they had tied in his hair. "This is for Fantasia."
"More tea Atreyu?" Daisy asked, offering to pour from the porcelain teapot in her hand.
"Yes drink up Atreyu." Hykrion said smugly. "Daisy brews the most savory tea. By the way, those pigtails really suit you."
"I tied them!" Daisy proclaimed proudly.
"Lovely." Hykrion said, taking another of the cakes in front of him. "Simply lovely."
Now Atreyu's face had turned bright red from indignation, and the only thing that got him through this ordeal were the thoughts of revenge he planned to enact on Jason when it was over.
He will pay. He thought bitterly. I swear by Moon Child's name, he will pay!